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.

      Best,
      Ron

  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?

    eg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_Desalination_Plant

    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.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reclaimed_water

    • 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!

    https://www.twdb.texas.gov/publications/brochures/conservation/doc/RainwaterHarvestingManual_3rdedition.pdf

    • 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.

      Best,
      Ron

      • 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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