The $3.4 billion Visa Ridge water deal was unanimously approved by the SAWS Board of Trustees Monday morning and now goes before City Council for consideration and a vote that could come by late October.
SAWS officials will have to convince Council members and ratepayers that the long-term investment to purchase 20% of the city’s future water supply from a private consortium pumping the water out of aquifers in other Texas counties is the best way to diversify and secure San Antonio’s water future.
Such diversification comes at considerable cost and some unknowns, including an estimated 16% rate increase for SWAS ratepayers that Berto Guerra, the SAWS board chair, has said is a good deal. There is no certainty the water supply in Lee and Burleson Counties will be adequate to meet the contract terms over the next three decades, or that the water can be pumped via a 142-mile pipeline without legal challenges.
Voices for and against the project were heard Monday morning before the vote, and the Vista Ridge contract will be the subject of panel at the UTSA Downtown Campus Monday at 5:30 p.m. hosted by the College of Public Policy that is free and open to the public.
The panel will be moderated by Robert Rivard, and includes Robert Puentes, President and CEO of SAWS; District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg; UTSA’s College of Engineering Dean Dr. JoAnn Browning, and Amy Hardberger, a water law expert and law professor at St. Mary’s University.
It was standing room only in the SAWS boardroom, as various members of the public spoke for and against the deal.
Opponents, led in part by the League of Independent Voters of Texas and the local Sierra Club chapter, raised a range of concerns: environmental sustainability, the inclusion of a private, for-profit partnership, the Vista Ridge consortium, and whether San Antonio will need the additional 50,000 acre-feet of water it would provide is even needed. Opponents also speculated that Vista Ridge might not be able to deliver the water in the promised quantities.
“I was disappointed to see that we were one of the details that (the Citizens Advisory Panel) believe should be overlooked at this point,” said Lee County resident and land owner Michele Gangnes, director of the Voters League (pictured above). “No consideration has been given to how that water withdraw will impact our Central Texas counties. Our aquifers are under siege … we have already permitted more than we can withdraw, this (project) will break the camel’s back.”
The Vista Ridge consortium has acquired the water rights from private landowners and the required pumping permits from the local groundwater district, the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District.
“The impacts are thoroughly vetted by the local groundwater district,” said Greg Flores, SAWS vice president of public affairs. “This proposal was the only one (out of nine) that (the sellers) could actually prove they could get the water.”
The water purchase could provide San Antonio with enough water for 162,000 households annually.
“We need water for our future, we need balance, and we need to balance our growth,” said Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who spoke in favor of the contract. “The Vista Ridge pipeline project will ensure water needs (are met) for the next 30 years and beyond with growth included.”
The water will come mainly from western Burleson County where it will be drawn from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. Gangnes pointed to concerns that nearby hydraulic fracturing of oil shale deposits in Burleson County could contaminate the aquifer, adding water treatment costs to the pipeline project.
“(These concerns) are leading the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District to institute a water quality monitoring system for the aquifer,” she said.
SAWS Board members assured those gathered in opposition of the project that a more concentrated public education campaign will proceed throughout October to explain the 581-page contract (available to download here) and address stakeholder concerns.
“We are on the front end of developing a comprehensive master plan for the City of San Antonio and we need all the partners and institutions that have an impact on growth participate in that process,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor who sits on the SAWS board. ” I think this is a great opportunity for us as a community to get together and talk about how, when and where we want to grow. I hope folks won’t see this as the main determinate of what happens because there’s plenty of opportunities for us as a community to articulate what our mission is.”
SAWS Board Trustee Reed Williams clarified that the contract is not a “take-or-pay” contract.
“It is a ‘pay-if-we-take’ water (contract),” he said. The “take” depends on “If there is water available and if the groundwater district says that the desired future conditions are acceptable for them … then they’ll allow it to be (sent to San Antonio).”
SAWS officials believe they have negotiated a contract that shifts much of the risk to the sellers from the water utility and its ratepayers.
“This is a long contract and it does take a long time to read, and it is complicated,” Williams added. “But as we’ve said in the resolution, we might, as we go along, find (fixes to it) … It does not put us at odds in anyway that I can see with the folks that own the water in Burleson County and the folks that control the water.”
Michelle A. McFaddin, an environmental resources attorney hired by the Voters League, said that she and the Voters League will likely be following through with their concerns to City Council.
SAWS Trustee Louis Rowe could not attend the meeting, but sent a letter of support for the project.
*Featured/top image: Michele G. Gangnes, director of the League of Independent Voters, addresses media about her concerns with the Vista Ridge pipeline project. Photo by Iris Dimmick.