Editor’s note: The University of Texas at San Antonio‘s College of Public Policy and SAWS will present a free public forum, “San Antonio’s Water Future: Managing Supply and Growth” on Wednesday, April 1 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The event will be held in the Buena Vista Theater located on UTSA’s Downtown Campus. The author of this article, City Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), will be one of four panelists participating, along with SAWS CEO and President Robert Puente, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Richard Perez, and UTSA’s College of Public Policy Associate Dean Dr. Francine Romero. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard will serve as moderator. Free parking will be available in Lot D-3 under the I-35 expressway across from the Downtown Campus.
In a growing field of international diplomacy that views water as a key to building strategic alliances, the adage holds that “a thirsty neighbor is a dangerous neighbor.”
That much is true even in the United States, where perennial conflicts in drought-stricken Western states are roaring back, pitting cities against cities, agriculture against business, urban against rural. Despite near constant efforts to fuel water demand in Southern California, loss of natural flows caused Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in 2013. Conditions for all users have only worsened since then, and with no contingency plan, many observers have declared a countdown on California’s water supply.
Here in Texas, water wars have been the story of regional relations since the early 20th century. From battles over flows of the Rio Grande between New Mexico and Texas and between Texas and Mexico to urban pumping of the Edwards Aquifer, control of adequate water supply has been viewed as a prerequisite for long-term security. Population has increased and drought conditions have worsened, and by 2013, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas had underscored what we Texans all understood as abiding truth: that water scarcity is the primary threat to our economic health.
POPULATION GROWTH, URBANIZATION OF TEXAS
Texas’ population growth is staggering, with almost half a million people added from 2013 to 2014, the most of any state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly 90% of that growth is occurring in six largest urban areas, including San Antonio. This is following the trend of job creation and state economic output, which are increasingly concentrated in the Texas Triangle (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin-San Antonio). Since 1950, relative balance between rural ad urban population has disappeared.
The corresponding strain on our most important resource – water – is as predictable as it is challenging. In Texas, where much of the potable water used is from groundwater sources, communities are scrambling to secure the supply and quality of their water. But the need for water – and thus, the presence of scarcity – is growing irrespective of where the water is actually available. The urbanization of Texas strains our capacity to provide water for all uses largely because groundwater is considered private property of the land owner (surface water is owned by the state); there is an ever-increasing demand for “other people’s water,” in order to fuel economic activity and provide for the basic needs of people living in cities.
That is the case worldwide, when in this final year of the United Nations’ International Decade for Action “Water for Life,” nearly half of the world’s population lives in a state of water scarcity because there is no water available physically, or they lack the economic resources to retrieve it. The World Economic Forum has named water crises as the top global risk.
SAN ANTONIO’S “WATER PROBLEM”
That’s why San Antonio, settled centuries ago over the Edwards Aquifer and along the San Antonio River, has had its future viability tied so intimately with the availability of water. As a mid-size city, pumping from the single source aquifer was sufficient during times of plenty and even during times of drought. But as urban centers have developed, so have isolated incidents of excess commercial pumping. San Antonio’s own growing population has forced us to confront the reality that a single groundwater source would no longer be adequate, particularly after the Edwards Aquifer, designated a sole source aquifer, fell under protection of the federal government through the Clean Water Act. The Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) was formed to manage permits to pump the water, in order to ensure it is available for all users, a clear break from Texas’ “rule of capture” in which individuals can pump as much water as long as they like.
To be in balance with the needs of our downstream neighbors who share the six-county-wide Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio must limit its pumping from the aquifer, particularly during drought. Forced – but necessary – diplomacy.
SAN ANTONIO’S ANSWER: BE A BETTER NEIGHBOR
Though it has navigated political impasse on water over the succeeding years, San Antonio has responded to the challenge of ensuring local water security and being a responsible neighbor in dramatic ways:
- San Antonio residents have approved an innovative, efficient, and cost-effective aquifer protection initiative three times since 2000 and will have the opportunity to do so again in May. The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program has conserved almost 140,000 acres of sensitive aquifer land, preventing additional development that would threaten recharge for all users.
- San Antonio water use has decreased by 15% over the past decade through a combination of mandates and incentives, while population has increased by roughly the same number. Per capita water demand has declined from more than 200 gallons per day to about 140 gallons per day in the last 30 years.
- The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has invested in other sources of water to supplement the Edwards, including Canyon Lake, and collaboration with the cities of Seguin and Schertz to utilize Carrizo Aquifer water from Gonzales County.
- Aquifer Storage and Recovery technology has allowed us to save excess water to supply the population during times of scarcity.
- SAWS has developed a nationally renowned recycled water system – the purple pipes – for use and for supplementing stream outflows. In 2014, it broke ground on the largest inland desalination plant in the country.
THE VISTA RIDGE OPPORTUNITY
Most significantly and controversially, however, SAWS established a public-private partnership to build a 142-mile pipeline from the Carrizo Aquifer in rural Burleson County, to supply roughly 20% of the city’s water (watch an October 2014 UTSA panel discussion on the topic here). This will fill a projected gap in the long-term water supply; nevertheless, the Edwards Aquifer will continue to supply two-thirds of San Antonio’s water in 2060.
As part of the ratification by City Council, I asked SAWS to meet several criteria in the Vista Ridge contract: fiscal responsibility to the San Antonio ratepayers, full public and transparent deliberations, an increased commitment to conservation, and a regional approach to management of new supplies. I was satisfied that the SAWS negotiating team was able to meet those criteria and supported the Vista Ridge pipeline construction contract.
Water security is not about keeping lawns green. Rather, it is about ensuring that we continue to have a strategic, economic, and quality of life advantage for future generations. We should be exploring incentives for rainwater harvesting and xeriscaping, and we should be ensuring that water wasters within our jurisdiction pay a steep price for every drop they waste, not just the last ones.
A PATH FORWARD
A regional effort also requires us to protect outside supplies just as we do our own use of the Edwards Aquifer. It will be the job of City Council through our comprehensive planning efforts to make that vision a reality with policies that impact demand management and growth. In February 2014, I initiated the city’s first comprehensive water plan to address a central question: How do we manage growth to discourage unsustainable sprawl while encouraging growth where it is beneficial?
The answers to that question are important for our own long-term water security, and I believe they are critical to stability of water within the South Texas region. For example, It is widely known that the water we will likely receive through the Vista Ridge pipeline – all 50,000 acre-feet – will not be needed by San Antonio immediately. However, it is also widely known that communities throughout South and Central Texas are struggling for long-term water security just as San Antonio has for years. We can advance a needed regional value for conservation by partnering with those communities to supply water while building commitment to bolster regional conservation efforts. These regional actions should not be designed not to create customers, rather to help neighboring communities shore up their own long-term water security measures.
San Antonio is in unique position to lead on the values of conservation and diversification. To do so, we must not treat water security as a box to be checked off or a journey we take alone, but as a policy priority to be continuously, and cooperatively, pursued.
*Featured/top image: Floodwaters pour from the outlet of the San Antonio River Tunnel during a storm in May 2014. Decades ago, these waters would have flooded the city and left a wake of death and destruction. The 2012-2017 bond program will put over $128 million toward flood control and drainage projects. Photo by Robert Rivard.