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.