Commentary: The Case for the SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

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142 Miles of pipeline will transport water from Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.

142-mile pipeline will transport water from Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.

For all its charm and allure, San Antonio has always been a city both blessed and cursed by its water. The blessing is the Edwards Aquifer, a vast underground honeycomb of pure water that has endured decades of development over its recharge zone, a geological wonder that is the envy of cities throughout the Southwest. The curse is our reputation as a fast-growing city that has never had enough water and has always been too dependent on a single source.

For the 25 years and more that my family has lived here, we have listened to people describe San Antonio as a city with a water problem. Now some people would have us believe we could become a city with too much water.

A small but vocal chorus of critics is asking Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council to stop the $3.4 billion, SAWS-Vista Ridge water agreement that would deliver enough water to San Antonio to supply 170,000 homes for 30 years or more starting in 2019 or 2020.

The agreement comes up for a vote at this Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The Mayor and Council should ignore the critics, govern for the long term, and demonstrate faith in the process that has brought us to the cusp of the most ambitious water diversification project in San Antonio’s history.

All great deals carry risk. Had the leadership of SAWS negotiated with less skill or patience, the agreement with Vista Ridge could have placed too much of the risk on ratepayers and too little on Abengoa, the Spanish energy giant, and Blue Water, the U.S. investor group. Instead, a balance was struck in open negotiations that were remarkable to observe, though few members of the public took an interest. Now, both sides bear some risk and the likelihood of great gain. That’s a fair bargain.

Vista Ridge Consortium has to finance and build a $864 million pipeline that will reach 142 miles from Burleson County to Bexar County. SAWS has at least five years to seek potential partners, strengthen its nationally-recognized conservation initiatives, and soften the impact on ratepayers.

Surely SAWS can sell some water, given time, the continuation of explosive urban growth in Central Texas, and the inevitable course of nature. Cycles of drought in the Southwest are as predicable as the rising and setting of the sun, and there is evidence they are growing more severe.

The easy course for Council is to play it safe, to call time out, to stall. Order more study and review. Why give in to claims the process has move too quickly when, in fact, its unfolded over many months?

Everyone knows San Antonio needs more water. Everyone knows the future costs of water and energy will rise, here and everywhere. Everyone knows that Texas is a state with leadership that has never shown the interest or ability to move water from parts of the state where there is an abundance to parts of the state where there is scarcity.

If San Antonio’s collective leadership doesn’t address its own challenges, no one else will. Years from now, decades from now, the leadership and residents of a very different city will look back and praise their predecessors or their vision and the courage to govern for the long term.

I await the day where San Antonio is deservedly seen as the model city in the Southwest for its water management, diversification and conservation. Other cities will follow our lead.  It all begins with Thursday’s vote.

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3 thoughts on “Commentary: The Case for the SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

  1. I am for diversifying our water supply to ensure an adequate (versus “abundant”) supply for our needs. This adequate supply allows for continued population growth and business growth.

    I am a physician who is board-certified in Public Health and General Preventive Medicine. We need to promote using potable water only where it is needed. Non-potable water (recycled or grey water) should be supported and expanded through policy and incentives so that as much as possible of the 48,000 acre-feet that was used in 2012 for lawn watering (according to SAWS).

    I just believe there are better ways to develop adequate supply than spending billions of ratepayer $ on this proposed pipeline. These costs can be minimized by choosing alternatives that are scalable over time as our needs grow, compared to this pipeline which develops the capacity all at once…no increase at all in supply until the pipeline is completed.

    Here is some text from the SAWS website for diversifying SA’s water supply:

    “San Antonio’s cheapest source of water is conservation – water we don’t use. For planning purposes, SAWS now includes water savings from conservation as a significant and separate “supply”…”

    And here is an excellent example; SAWS recycled water system since 2001:

    More than 60 recycled water customers have been contracted.
    A total of 18,214 acre-feet per year have been contracted.
    Approximately 13,300 acre-feet is available for consumptive industrial use.
    Summertime irrigation capacity has been reached; new requests for irrigation use are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
    CPS Energy is contracted to use up to 50,000 acre-feet per year at their power plants.
    Let’s take our time to fully evaluate, compare, and contrast scalable conservation, re-use, desalination with the non-scalable pipeline to get to 50,000 acre-feet, scaled over time as needed.

    We already have been very successful in the recycled water system since 2001 with 18,214 acre-feet contracted and have more large customers who want to participate. What is the cost of expanding this supply another 2,500 acre-feet or 5,000 or 10,000?

    What are the costs/benefits of decreasing the 48,000 acre-feet of potable water used on lawns (through conservation and grey water) and freeing up 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 acre-feet of potable water in the next 5 years? And then doing it again in another 5 years?

    We also need to consider the impact on the folks from where we’d be taking the water. And the impact on ratepayers at the lower end of income (SA’s 20.1% who live at or below the poverty level). 20% of 1.4 M is a lot of folks.

  2. Bob, You write “Everyone knows San Antonio needs more water. ” When 50% of our water use is currently consumed by landscaping? I think that we become a great city by rejecting boondoggles like Vista Ridge and by pursuing options that are achievable using our local talent and resources.

    • Jack

      I do not believe that 50% of our water or anything close to that percentage is used to irrigate landscaping, but we will check that. It could be that 50% of the water used by consumers in dry months is used for residential irrigation, which would be appalling if true, but far less than 50% of the total supply. We will report back. –RR

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