Part Two: ‘Old Man Water’ Speaks Out

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Only once every two week when/if Stage 3 restrictions go into effect in April.

Only once every two week when/if Stage 3 restrictions go into effect in April.

Weir Labatt

Weir Labatt has been engaged in water management and water use public policy issues for three decades, beginning with his years on City Council and continuing right through to the present and his recently completed year as chairman of the 18-state Western States Water Council. That service once led me to call him “Old Man Water,” a nickname that he’s adopted in this, the second article in a two-part series following last week’s “Water Forum III: Our Water, Our Future” presented by the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum at the Pearl Stable. Others engaged in water management and conservation issues have agreed to contribute their own articles to promote community interest as SAWS finalizes its 2012 Water Management Plan and explores options for greater conservation while also acquiring new sources of the water from private Texas purveyors.

Some call me ‘Old Man Water.” It’s true I have been working on water issues for a very long time, and nothing heartens me more than to see a community focused on the challenges and opportunities we now face.

WMPdraftcover click for document

Click to download the full 47-page draft.

In my first article I noted the excellent remarks by Mayor Julián Castro and expressed my great concern if his words are not quickly put into action.  I feel a great sense of urgency that SAWS must secure additional non-Edwards Aquifer water supplies to cover the potential shortfall in a future drought of record that is reflected in their recently released  2012 Water Management Plan.

The majority of the seven expert panelists who followed the mayor agreed that San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer region must do two things: One, continue to emphasize and enhance water conservation efforts. Two, purchase additional non-Edwards Aquifer water to meet future needs.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Representative Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, both expressed a desire for the Texas Legislature in its coming 2013 session to find ways to help finance the State Water Plan. These financing tools, primarily in the form of low-interest loans, would facilitate the above mentioned water purchases and transfers.  Rep. Larson suggested using $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose.  Another source of funding mentioned was a “user tap fee.”

Andrew Sansom, executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, cautioned that San Antonio will not be able to develop its way into meeting future water needs.  Future water projects, he said, need to take into consideration environmental flows necessary to maintain the health of our rivers, bays, and estuaries.  A balance between these competing interests must be achieved.

water forum III panel

(From left) Robert Rivard, moderator; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; Clean Technology Forum Chairman Michael Burke; Andrew Sansom, executive director, The Meadows Center for Water and The Environment at TSU; City Councilman Reed Williams; SARA GM Suzanne Scott; Calvin Finch, director Texas A&M’s Water Conservation and Technology Institute; and Rep. Lyle Larson.

Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, agreed, saying that a holistic approach must be used, one that reflects a balance between social, environmental, and economic considerations on one hand and property rights on the other hand.

Calvin Finch, the newly appointed director of the recently established Texas A&M Water Conservation & Technology Center in San Antonio, put a greater emphasis on water conservation.  SAWS, he asserted, was not fully funding its conservation program.  Finch, a former conservation director at SAWS, chided Robert Puente, President and CEO of SAWS, saying that SAWS’ proposed changes to their drought management rules, including lawn-irrigation restrictions, actually relaxes conservation efforts.

Puente did not agree with Finch. SAWS’ water conservation program, he said, is recognized as one of the best in the United States.  SAWS now serves more than 1.6 million people, yet despite a 67% increase in population, the city has witnessed little or no increase in water use in recent decades.  And the gallons of water used per capita per day is the second lowest of all the major cities in Texas. Puente credits these facts to the large arsenal of water conservation programs offered by SAWS.

SAWS population projections

Population projections from the SAWS 2012 Water Management Plan Draft.

I agree that SAWS has been a strong steward of water resources for the city during Puente’s tenure, but it also is true that I grown impatient with the slow pace maintained by SAWS in pursuing alternative water supplies. One impediment to educating the public about the critical need to pay the costs of acquiring that water is obscuring the current reality by suggesting a greater reduction on the Edwards than is really true. As I noted in my article yesterday, I believe SAWS misrepresents the facts when it asserts that the Edwards Aquifer now accounts for only 46% of the water we use.

In their calculation, SAWS does not include the Edwards water (93,000 acre feet) that is stored in their Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility, water that is pumped directly from the Edwards in times when our permitted rights exceed our immediate needs. Here are the numbers:

Edwards Aquifer Water–Acre Feet Firm in Drought of Record……..119,887
Edwards Aquifer Water Stored in ASR…………………………………………93,000
Total………………………………………………………………………………………212,887

Total Supply…………………….254,287

Edwards as % of total…………83.72%

My suggested changes to the year-round water conservation rules are :

1. Restrict lawn watering by sprinkler systems to once a week.

2. When daylight savings time is not in effect (November through March) change the prohibition on lawn watering to 6 p.m. (currently 8 p.m.).

Finch also advocated completion of all three phases of the SAWS brackish desalination project (Phase 3 will not be completed until 2026), and expansion of the SAWS Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) system before investing in new,  non-Edwards supply projects.  In other words, he has no sense of urgency about acquiring new water supplies.  I think that approach is very risky, particularly in light of SAWS’ own projected 70,000 acre foot shortfall in a repeat of the drought of record.  It is a risk that we cannot afford to take.

District Eight San Antonio City Councilman Reed Williams told the audience that the proposed water rate increases must be paid by those willing to pay to keep their trees, plants, and lawns green. The more water a rate payer uses, Williams said, the more he or she should pay.  Only a very small portion of the cost of new supplies should be shared by low water users. Water allocation should be based on an economic model where rate payers have a choice. It should not be based on a regulatory scheme in which severe water use reductions are forced on our citizens throughout the year.   (Critical Period cutbacks cost SAWS $20 million in annual revenues and result in only a 4,000-10,000 reduction in water use.)  It is very important that this debate on proposed water rate increases not become a battle of “brown lawns” versus “green lawns.”  Decisions must be based on San Antonio’s quality of life and future economic growth.

Let me repeat what I wrote recently in an op-ed column in the San Antonio Express-News. San Antonio’s past history is illustrative.  If history is any guide, then we all should be very concerned. In the 1960s, the City did not pursue an opportunity to build two reservoirs, Cuero and Cibolo, with a combined capacity of 210,000 acre feet, using low-interest loans from the federal government.  In 1977, the San Antonio City Council turned down the acquisition of 50,000 acre feet from Canyon Lake at a price that is a fraction of the cost of water today (a take-or-pay contract for $1,000,000).  Then, twice in the 1990s, the community voted against developing a reservoir to store excess water.  These poor decisions must not happen again.

The City of San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer region need to continue the discussion on the many issues and questions raised at Water Forum III.  The Forum was a great educational tool and very beneficial in helping the region plan its water future. It was a beginning. The community conversation must continue.

Weir Labatt, a former member of the City of San Antonio City Council,  the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the Texas Water Development Board, and Chairman of the Western States Water Council has been involved in the water debate for the past 25 years.  He recently served on the Steering Committee of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP).

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