Conversation: SAWS Abandons Pipes, Redirects Focus to Desalination Plant

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According to SAWS, "Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility."

According to SAWS, "Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility."

Editor’s Note: The San Antonio Water System  (SAWS) is abandoning proposals, pending board review, to pipe billions of gallons of water from surrounding counties.  After consideration of three RCSPs (Request for Competitive Sealed Proposals) beginning 2011, none of the projects were found to be viable options for the public utility. Instead,  SAWS has plans to expand the brackish water desalination plant slated to come on line in 2016. Below is a Q&A with SAWS Vice President of Communications Greg Flores, further explaining the decision process.

Why is SAWS rejecting three large water project proposals?

SAWS Vice President of Communications Greg Flores.

SAWS Vice President of Communications Greg Flores

Greg Flores: The request for new water supplies issued by SAWS was meant to shift all risk to a private developer, calling for them to build the project and deliver water to a local SAWS pump station.  The highest ranked proposal, however, was unwilling to guarantee that water would be available throughout the life of the project while still requiring payments from SAWS.

The other two proposals were already mired in local opposition that would have likely prevented water from being delivered without a drawn-out political and legal battle.

Given that these projects would have required a 9-12 percent rate increase, not including integration costs, and 30-years of payments, SAWS is also unwilling to ask its ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with potentially no water.

Additionally, these projects would not qualify for Proposition 6 funding from the State.

The Abengoa Project has 30-year permits for water to be delivered to Bexar County.  Why is this not good enough for SAWS?

Even the highest ranked proposal, from Abengoa, was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply.  That would mean that SAWS ratepayers would be responsible for making payments even if the water was unavailable.

Groundwater conservation districts have the authority to regulate withdrawals of water from aquifers, often with little notice or process for appeal.  Abengoa was unwilling to guarantee that supplies would not be cut off by the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District that regulates its source aquifer.

What will SAWS do to make up for the 50,000 acre feet that was needed in 2018?

Because of successful water management, proactive planning, and additional water supplies being added, SAWS now has enough water supplies and management tools to last until 2027.  This provides SAWS the benefit of short-term flexibility.

Outdoor water conservation efforts, for example, helped San Antonio achieve an estimated 2013 per capita water use of 127 gallons per day, far surpassing the planning number of 135, allowing current water resources to stretch further and avoiding Stage 3 watering restrictions to date.

Additionally, expanded production from the Carrizo Aquifer in southern Bexar County can be accelerated. The Regional Carrizo Aquifer project is now on line and the Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility is exceeding expectations during drought.

A pipeline map presented to City Council by SAWS.

Carrizo pipeline map presented to City Council by SAWS.

SAWS is also able to expand its groundwater desalination project in a possible partnership with CPS Energy to take advantage of the vast brackish water supplies that lie in adjacent counties.

Why did the RFCSP process take so long?

Reviewing proposals for projects of this size requires methodical and deliberate evaluation which is in the best interest of our ratepayers.

In the midst of the process, SAWS re-examined its Water Management Plan when several significant planning assumptions changed, including:

  • SAWS was asked by the state legislature to assume service of BexarMet, a utility the size of Corpus Christi.
  • 2010 Census data became available, replacing outdated data from 2000.
  • Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan commitments were finalized for ASR and water conservation.

Additional time allowed for further understanding of the proposed projects and our customer’s demands in times of deep drought, resulting in a conclusion that we have adequate supplies through 2027.  This thoughtful review helped avoid the risk of paying for a project that didn’t materialize.

Isn’t this another example of San Antonio passing on another long-term water project?

Developing water projects are inherently challenging because of complex regulatory environments. Unlike the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)/SAWS project, which was fully studied and unilaterally terminated by LCRA, these projects did not provide the necessary assurances that San Antonio would receive water.

According to SAWS, "Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility."

According to SAWS, “Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility.”

While SAWS is not choosing one of these three projects, a long-term brackish groundwater project is being proposed in a partnership with CPS Energy.

None of the proposals was able to guarantee that supplies would always be there for San Antonio and not be cut off by regulation or local opposition. Again, SAWS is not willing to ask its ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with the potential of no water.

Additionally, SAWS has made significant progress on alternative water supply options.  We are bringing on line many new water sources over the next several years

  • Regional Carrizo Aquifer in Gonzales County – up to 17,000 acre feet per year
  • Desalination plant set to start construction this year – up to 30,000 acre feet per year after three phases
  • Expanded Local Carrizo Aquifer – 21,000 acre feet per year
  • Wells Ranch groundwater from Canyon Regional
  • Increase in ASR storage

What makes the Brackish Groundwater project better than the other proposals?

The Texas Water Development Board has noted the vast quantities of brackish groundwater in our region, citing the Wilcox Aquifer as one of the best possible sources.  SAWS is already building a desalination plant that can be expanded, capitalizing on existing infrastructure and land.

As a novel energy-water nexus partnership with CPS Energy, this project will meet SAWS water needs into the 2040’s.  Unlike other proposals, this partnership would benefit the City of San Antonio as well, allowing for more revenues to fund city needs.

The proposed brackish desalination project can be phased as the water is needed, allowing the costs to be spread out over time.  The project is also able to be ramped down in years or periods of heavy rainfall, reducing operating costs.  The private proposals required steady payments regardless of immediate needs for the water or rainfall.

Statewide leaders such as Gov. Rick Perry, Comptroller Susan Combs, House Speaker Joe Straus, senators and representatives, have all expressed the desire to promote expansion of brackish groundwater projects.  Unlike the private project proposals, this project would be eligible for Proposition 6 funds from the State.

Pursuit of untapped brackish groundwater sources in the region removes pressures on freshwater sources such as the other private proposals and will bring revenue sources to local landowners for an asset that would otherwise go unused.

Will local opposition in Wilson and Atascosa Counties impact expanded desalination with CPS Energy? 

We have committed to allow our currently planned desalination plant to operate for five years in order to prove the science of desalination and allay concerns that fresh water supplies will be compromised by the operation of a desalination plant.

The project will be carefully designed to avoid any detrimental impacts to local freshwater sources, and we are optimistic that these communities will understand that development of brackish water will protect demand on local fresh water supplies.

Our continued presence in those communities is a sign of our commitment to work as a region.

Does this mean SAWS will have to implement Stage 3 water restrictions for its customers?

While SAWS has already been subject to Stage 3 pumping restrictions, we have successfully utilized alternative supplies such as ASR to avoid imposing Stage 3 for our customers.

SAWS has never imposed Stage 3 on its customers, and while it may be required in a prolonged drought, it would be very rare.

 

Related Stories:

SAWS and CPS Energy Explore New Energy/Water Collaborative

Always Be Prepared: Lessons Learned From 2011 Blackout Help CPS Energy Customers, State Grid

City Council Approves CPS Energy Rate Increase

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