Guarding San Antonio’s Eternal Water Future

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Water feature at Hemisfair park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Water feature at Hemisfair park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“I hope San Antonio is eternal. For it to be eternal, we have to be nature’s guardian.”

That was the substance of former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s message to me last year when I asked him how civic leaders should communicate the importance of our city’s water supply to our city’s economic vitality: the link between water security and job creation. Since then, I’ve been working with city staff and leaders from across the region to take the water issue from being simply a utility matter to what it needs to be: a primary strategic concern in our comprehensive growth plan. For San Antonio, water planning is an issue that, if managed well, can continue to deliver a significant economic and quality of life advantage for our city.

Our Strategic Advantage, Our Regional Challenge

The San Antonio area is the crossroads of the Americas. For more than a century, from iron rails to asphalt highways, our nation’s transportation infrastructure has converged on this very spot in South Texas. The confluence of commerce and culture that defines a 21st Century American City is also exemplified in San Antonio’s ethnic, economic, and political diversity. Yet San Antonio is at its own crossroads in history. Nearly 400 years ago, Canary Islanders settled in this basin because of its proximity to the fresh water provided by the San Antonio River and the Edwards Aquifer: an efficient, unfiltered, underground source of water that continues to supply the vast majority of this region’s water today.

Courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority

Photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

However, with this region’s reliance on the Edwards, inevitable population growth of area counties (an additional doubling of the population in the next three decades), and Texas law that treats ground water as the private property of the landowner (see “Rule of Capture”), the clock began ticking on San Antonio’s water security long ago.

A Comprehensive Plan for Water

I’m pleased that we are making progress. In February, I asked the City of San Antonio to conduct a study analyzing all of the policies and procedures, standards and regulations that impact water supply planning. Last month, City staff provided a briefing on the scope of work and timeline.  The City will be partnering with the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University, the statewide authority on water research and water policy analysis, to examine the following concerns:

  • Historic and projected population growth and water demand.
  • Historic and projected costs for supplying and delivering water in the service area.
  • Summary of the governing bodies vested in San Antonio’s water supply and the authority delegated by each of those bodies.
  • City Code provisions and city planning strategies that impact projections for water demand, availability, and costs.
  • Summary risk assessment of existing and proposed water sources, including natural, developmental, and potential conflicting interest factors in the region, along with current mitigating activities.
  • Overview of next-step policy questions that City Council must consider in order to articulate a Comprehensive Growth Plan that includes available and affordable water through 2060.

Despite some initial criticism about the breadth of the request, I am confident that this is the only approach by which our city can firmly assert that water – as it was in centuries past – is a strategic advantage for this region, rather than a liability.

This is especially germane as we conclude a debate about SAWS Impact Fees, which are levied on new developments to finance additional capacity in our water system. It is clear that ensuring adequate and affordable water in the future is as much about how we grow – and manage growth – as it is about our water utility. The city’s economic vitality requires us to plan our city comprehensively and in accordance with our need and ability to pay for water in the future. This plan includes policy considerations about land use, development, infrastructure, irrigation, and cost-effective water supply management, all aligned in a properly executed plan for water.

San Antonio City Council members (from left) Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña, Rebecca Viagran, Ivy Taylor, Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, and Mike Gallagher discuss SAWS' Impact Fee increase in Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

San Antonio City Council members (from left) Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña, Rebecca Viagran, Ivy Taylor, Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, and Mike Gallagher discuss SAWS’ Impact Fee increase in Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Everyone’s Problem

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in December 2013 cited a report that water scarcity is the number one economic concern for the state of Texas.  In short, our ability to supply water in the future is the foundation upon which we will create jobs, attract business, and maintain a strong financial position that drives every service in the city.  In a world where half of the globe’s population is living in a state of real or economic water shortage, water security has also risen to the level of highest homeland security concerns.

The City has long recognized the strategic economic advantage provided by the Edwards Aquifer and has adopted a series of policies designed to protect it. The San Antonio City Council first adopted the concept of Recharge Zone protection in 1975, instituting by ordinance a zoning overlay for that portion of the aquifer. In 1987, the city council produced a document entitled “The Edwards Aquifer: Perspectives for Local and Regional Action,” endorsing a plan for non-degradation of the aquifer to protect ground water supplies within the city’s jurisdiction.

Bexar County watersheds. Image courtesy of SAWS.

Bexar County watersheds. Image courtesy of SAWS.

In 1994, the council adopted a more comprehensive approach, “The Edwards Aquifer: San Antonio Mandates for Water Quality Protection (33 Mandates),” which called for various actions in a regional watershed plan that considered federal, state, and local rules.

Growth Projections, Climate Realities

The region’s growth projections underscore the need to treat area water sources, particularly the Edwards, as an economic asset worth investing in and protecting. More than one million additional people are expected to be living in the metropolitan area by 2040. The growth we have experienced in the past decade, when more than 35 percent of all housing in Bexar County was built over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, is expected to continue, a rate that was more than double the rest of the county.

Furthermore, nearly every climate model and every scientist suggest that the prolonged drought is the “new normal” in South Texas. Strong but intermittent rain events are simply not enough to provide for ample recharge upon which we have relied in this region for decades.

Utility Strategy: “All of the Above”

For these reasons, SAWS has undertaken an effort to diversify its supplies of water.  What was a high-risk, drought sensitive – but inexpensive – supply portfolio based solely on the Edwards Aquifer, now includes water from Canyon Lake, the Trinity and Carrizo Aquifers, and expanded recycled water use. In addition, water pumped from the Edwards, which is regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority in accordance with the Clean Water Act, is stored in the utility’s underground Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility during periods of heavy recharge. SAWS also is constructing the first three phases of the Brackish Water Desalinization Plant at the same site in southern Bexar County, and utility officials  are in discussions to pipe in additional water from outside the region.

A diverse supply of water for the long-term is critical to mitigating the risk of shortage due to drought, population growth, or contamination of the Edwards. However, diversification is also expensive.  For example, according to SAWS, an acre-foot of water – enough to supply water to three households for a year – costs roughly $300 from the Edwards, $600 from the Carrizo, and an estimated $1500 to $2000 from basin transfer and desalinization. That cost falls onto residents on their SAWS utility bills, so it is critical that we are as efficient as possible using the water we have and making investments in the water we need for the future.

Costs of diversification and the fact that Texas’ population is expected to grow at a pace that exceeds the state’s collective ability to supply water, means that conservation will continue to be a central and vital strategy in our pursuit of long-term water security.

Regional Responsibility

Legal constraints add an additional challenge. At a recent panel discussion at the San Antonio Book Festival, respected author Char Miller put it succinctly, “Water does not respect political boundaries.”  That is, with diminishing supplies of groundwater that many communities share throughout the region, we must all do our part to act responsibly: continue to conserve where possible and build future reserves that do not compromise others’ ability to do the same.

Edwards Aquifer Flowpath. Map courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

Edwards Aquifer Flowpath. Map courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

In fact, as the largest consumer of Edwards Aquifer water (SAWS controls more than half of all pumping rights currently), our city has made remarkable advances in the conservation of water through drought management and recycled/reuse water. As water demand has dropped from an estimated 160 gallons per capita per day (GCPD) in 1993 to 124 GCPD in 2013, we have been able to stretch the life of our supplies amid the prolonged drought while keeping water rates affordable (SAWS officials are fond of saying that “the cheapest water is the water we don’t use,” and they are right). That makes good sense for ratepayers, and it makes good sense in the South Texas climate.

The Preeminence of the Edwards Aquifer

Finally, despite our efforts to diversify, build reserves, and conserve, one fact remains: we will always be dependent on the Edwards Aquifer for the majority of our water. According to a recent study, the Edwards will still account for 67 percent of our water supply in 2060 even if we move aggressively with diversification and conservation. Today, it accounts for roughly 90 percent of our water. The Edwards will continue to be backbone of our water supply and the reason why it is imperative that long-term solutions for water supply be considered in conjunction with our comprehensive growth strategies as a city.

This is why I also believe that the most responsible and cost-effective strategy to secure our future water supply is to continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.  Since 2000, San Antonio residents have voted three times to purchase conservation easements over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The 1/8 cent sales tax initiative, which was renewed last in 2010, has since protected 123,000 acres of critical land. According to a sustainability study commissioned by the City, that is the equivalent of 36 billion gallons of water annually or 51 percent of our annual water supply needs from the Edwards in the year 2060. If we continue our efforts, we will protect 100 percent of our 2060 water needs from the Edwards by 2030.  The program’s revenue runs out in 2015, so in order to continue the success, City Council must put it back on the ballot for voters to approve.

The path to a secure water future – and thus, our economic prosperity – was largely written when this area was first settled over the Edwards Aquifer centuries ago. Sound planning will be necessary to ensure clean and abundant water for generations to come and to maintain the aquifer as a primary strategic economic and environmental asset.

The City must lead the effort to ensure long-term water security through its comprehensive plan for growth. SAWS must continue its leadership in conserving water, building reserves, and managing risk by diversifying the water supply. And we should renew the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program in 2015.

We can’t afford not to.

*Featured/top image: Photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

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City Council Backs SAWS, Boosts Water Impact Fees

SAWS Impact Fees Represent More than Meets the Eye

SAWS: Yes to Desal Plant, Maybe to Pipeline

CPS Energy Confident in Compliance with New Carbon Emission Rule

11 thoughts on “Guarding San Antonio’s Eternal Water Future

  1. Ron,

    Thank you for this. Politically speaking, as a city and community I think for far too long we have been whistling through the graveyard on the issues you raise here…all of which are critical to ensuring a sustainable water future. Your efforts to kick off a serious policy dialogue on the nexus of water, land use, economic development and social equity are a breath of fresh air.

    I have two comments:
    (i) I hope that the work being carried out by the City and the Texas Water Resources Institute will consider the opportunity cost of our recycled (purple pipe) water. I believe it may currently be greatly under-priced and wastefully used. Example: proud signs on the grounds of City playing fields, of local Universities, others proclaiming “Recycled Water In Use” as they irrigate at midday in July….not uncommonly with water gun-style sprinklers. That water is just as precious a resource post-recycling as it was pre-recycled. It should be treated accordingly.
    (ii) Re: the estimate that we are currently protecting 36 billion gallons by protecting 123,000 acres. San Antonio’s rainfall regime is incorrectly characterized when looked at in terms of “averages” instead of “variability”. By ignoring variability, they develop a scenario around an average from a period of record with historically anomalous high rainfall (and thus runoff events). Note that in the 32 years between 1980 and 2012 there are about 6 years with about 500 billion gallons or more of estimated recharge vs only 2 in the prior 44 years. And, 4 of those 6 years have about 30% – 50% greater estimated recharge than in the single largest recharge year in the prior 44. You can see in the graphic that inter-annual variability is increasing, making the 10 year moving average bounce up-and-down more pronouncedly. This would be consistent with the IPCC’s scenarios for climate change impacts on rainfall in our part of the world, which predict overall less rainfall with fewer, but more intense rainfall events. In more intense events one might expect that in the higher flows more runoff will cross the recharge zone instead of going into the aquifer. All this is just to say I am not as sanguine as that study that we are that far along in protecting our water supply as the report’s basic scenario is overly-optimistic. When choosing scenarios for policy-making, given the downside risks associated with over-estimating supply and efficiency, conservative scenarios might better serve.

    • Jim,
      Thank you for your comments. Yes, recycled water use will be considered the overall strategy. As has been demonstrated already, there is tremendous upside in water and cost savings by identifying and implementing non-potable supplies for water-intensive activities.

      Regarding the rain event issues, I absolutely agree, and the incongruity between average rainfall in South Texas (particularly the Hill Country) and actual groundwater recharge has, for decades, lulled the public and public officials to sleep about our water security concern. Sustained rains (not cloud bursts) have been increasingly rare during the prolonged drought and the “arid line” (west of which the rainfall has not come in the volumes necessary to make it into the ground) has been tracked eastward by local scientists). That’s why we can’t divert our policy focus on addressing water shortage even when there is flooding in the San Antonio.


  2. “COMPREHENSIVE PLAN” a pile of generic, weasel wordy gobbledygook bureaucratic CYA pablum

    US pipes Bs tons of oil and gas 1000s of miles and builds $Ts in oil/gas refineries.

    Why can’t SAWS build a desal plant on the Gulf Coast and pump water to SA area, powered by wind and solar?


    SAWS already has/is planning major desal for S. TX brackish groundwater.

    Why can’t SAWS build a water treatment/reclaim plant to recycle waste water back into the aquifer rather than dumping it into the Gulf? SoCal reclaims (brown, grey) water back into ground that is cleaner than when it comes out from the ground.

    • Big, thanks for the self-indulgent snark so common to anonymous online fora. Otherwise, you ask valid questions, answers to which might include:
      You would need a “comprehensive” planning to do any of the things you suggest. Yes, perhaps all those options are feasible but cost is an issue. What would that water cost? Water at any cost is not an option. Another non-starter option is consuming every drop through recycling back into the aquifer. One, there are downstream users with water rights, including the environmental flows to San Antonio Bay. Two, if you want to dump treated sewage effluent back into the aquifer without degrading the aquifer’s water quality, you would have to treat and polish it to a very high standard to get out all the nasties, including pharmaceutical residues. That ain’t cheap either. Sorry mate, but however you slice it, comprehensive planning is unavoidable to work out the trade offs, who pays and how much.

  3. Thank you for this well written article. This information is very useful as are the comments from concerned citizens. This is a great starting point for discussions leading up to some tough decisions that must be made and implemented.

  4. This article addresses a serious issue facing San Antonio, yet in its comprehensiveness, it fails to come up with any solutions.

    Instead, it just exposes the inefficiencies of bureaucratic responses to existing problems. The article admits that water conservation has been a concern in Texas since its founding. Why has it taken so long to formulate a plan for such a long-standing concern? Why wait for a comprehensive study that will only create more questions? Why haven’t those questions already been asked and answered? The article says that the partnership’s study will provide an “Overview of next-step policy questions that City Council must consider in order to articulate a Comprehensive Growth Plan that includes available and affordable water through 2060.” It’s great that city leaders want to address this problem and are aware of the need to have a plan that is cognizant of the future, but there are reports already out there and there are already efforts that city leaders can implement to not only address the problem, but more importantly to begin solving it.

    Since 1993 the Texas Legislature has passed laws that allow Bexar County and San Antonio (or any taxing unit in the state) to emphasize the importance of water through tax incentives.

    1) The Texas Constitution and Tax Code were amended in 1993 to exempt rain-water harvesting equipment at commercial locations from property taxes.
    2) A Senate Bill amended the Texas Tax Code in 2001 to allow taxing units of government the option to exempt from taxation all or part of the assessed value of the property on which water conservation modifications have been made. The taxing entity designates by ordinance or law the list of eligible water conservation initiatives, which may include rainwater harvesting systems.
    3) The same Senate Bill amended another section of the Tax Code to exempt rainwater harvesting equipment and supplies from sales tax.

    These laws, specifically number 2, have not been leveraged to encourage local water conservation efforts even though they have been around for 10 – 20 years! Why not? Why don’t city leaders use existing laws and existing research to begin solving what Dallas Federal Reserve called the number one economic concern facing the state of Texas? If city leaders are serious about solving the top economic concern facing San Antonio why don’t they pass an ordinance that requires commercial buildings to implement rain-water harvesting and condensate recovery systems? SAWS gives a rebate of up to 50% to commercial property owners for its Large Scale Retrofit Rebate program. Why don’t city leaders pass an ordinance that allows residential homeowners (who use a majority of the water) to participate in the same subsidies and rebates?

    Before the city uses resources to ask more questions, it should use its resources to answer the questions that have been overlooked since 1993. Here’s a report that provides a great starting-point and the city won’t have to spend any money for this research!

    • BP,
      Thank you for your comments. Conservation is one part of the solution, and rainwater harvesting is one process that fits well in the conservation model. However, rainwater harvesting is not the sole answer to Texas’ long term water needs, especially when we also rely on water supply to keep industry moving, manufacturing strong, AND environmental concerns satisfied. Further, to suggest that comprehensive planning is not needed with regard to our region’s water future is short-sighted, and in my opinion, why we are in the position we are with water security in Texas. Your examples of existing law and research not being incorporated into our own plans and processes as a city are a case-in-point. It is time for all of these efforts, policies, and research to be coordinated. My direction of city staff was to that end.

      Regarding existing research and “starting points”, of course! That is exactly why we are engaging TWRI. All knowledge sources, including TWDB are being tapped.


      • Thanks for your response councilman. My comment was not about rejecting the need for comprehensive strategic planning, nor was it meant to suggest that rainwater harvesting is the only solution.

        I agree with all your points and I applaud your efforts to raise both public and private awareness and coordinate a plan to address our water problems. I just don’t think the city should wait to implement existing solutions while it puts a plan together. By using existing laws to implement proven solutions (rainwater harvesting and condensate recovery, which are more than simply conservation efforts) the city can raise awareness about the benefits (financial, social, and ecological) of being “water conscious” and show city residents that it is serious about this issue right now…not 1 or 3 or 10 or 24 years after the issues have been researched.

  5. It would be nice if Bexar County, too, extended the ability for residents to be able to claim property tax exemption for installing rainwater harvesting systems like they do for businesses. Texas law says they can. That’s a lot of water coming off of people’s rooftops that could help that’s now just being wasted.

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