City Council chambers filled Wednesday evening with more than 100 people who signed up to speak for or against the proposed SAWS-Vista Ridge Consortium water agreement. Individuals were given two minutes to express their views, while group representatives were allotted five minutes.
It was a long evening of democracy in action. Every speaker, or so it seemed, drew applause from those within the audience who shared their views. City Council is expected to spend the rest of the month studying the deal with a possible vote coming Oct. 30.
By 8 p.m., two hours after public hearing began, many of those who signed up to speak had changed their minds and left, perhaps impatient with the long wait or perhaps because someone before them had expressed the very points they intended to make.
Public hearings and Citizens to be Heard segments at City Council often attract unconventional speakers, but tonight’s list of no-shows included Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Chavez, Emmanuel Lewis, and Gary Coleman. Funny. Kinda.
The $3.4 billion, 30-year San Antonio Water System (SAWS) contract with Vista Ridge, if approved, will bring 50,000 acre-feet to San Antonio from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer via a 142-mile pipeline from Burleson County.
Over the course of the hearing, the proposed deal was both condemned as a jump off an economic and environmental cliff, and praised as the path to an era of water security for generations to come. If approved, the deal would be the largest water supply diversification project in SAWS history, expanding San Antonio’s water supply by 20% by the end of the decade.
Many individuals and organizations that oppose the project are even more opposed to City Council voting on the contract on Oct. 30, one month after the contract was finalized, made public and then approved by the SAWS Board. The board unanimously approved the project on Sept. 29.
“As of now, it’s still scheduled for Oct. 30.,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor after two and a half hours of passionate debate. The council has been briefed several times on the matter, and Mayor Taylor also holds a seat on the SAWS board.
“I would have to give (the decision to delay the vote) some careful consideration, because to be honest, some of the people who are naysayers – they’re not going to change their mind no matter how much time we take on this. But I do want to give fair opportunity for questions to be asked, answered and addressed through the process,” Mayor Taylor said.
Citizens will have another chance to be heard next Wednesday, Oct. 15, during B Session when Council members also will weigh in with their views and questions.
SAWS cites 74 public meetings, tours, events, and individual briefings, as well as seven public negotiation sessions with Vista Ridge. According to SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente, about 64 more events are planned during the month of October.
“If you have to fight this hard to convince this many people that the process was public, maybe it wasn’t public enough,” said water policy attorney Amy Hardberger. “You spent months discussing and debating the city budget because you wanted to make sure that this city was fiscally sound. The same level of discourse is required here … I think this warrants more than just one month of review.
“Drought is temporary, but this project will mean the delivery of far more water than we need under normal conditions and a bill we will always need to pay,” Hardberger continued. “If you’re going to build something for high demands of a (unpredictable and) limited period of time, it should be something that can be turned on and off … not provide excess water for years.”
The opposition also cited environmental concerns.
“Vista Ridge unjustly condemns property rights of the Carrizo-Wilcox landowners who have not sold their rights to water marketers,” said Sierra Club representative Margaret Day. Trading one fragile aquifer ecology for another is not change – “The painful and necessary change is committing to truly sustainable solutions, following San Antonio’s adopted Mission Verde policy,” she stressed.
These concerns, said Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance Executive Director Annalisa Peace, can only be addressed by independent experts – hydrologists, financial analysts, and legal counsel to take a look at how groundwater and surface waters might be affected by a 50,000 acre-foot-per-year drain.
“Not only do we want financial expertise to look at the contract itself, but we want to have the City really explore the options with this project,” Peace said. “If we structured this a different way, would it be a better deal for SAWS ratepayers?
“We’re not naive enough to think we’re not going to need additional supply in the future. We really think that SAWS is smart for looking at other deals – we just question whether this is the right deal for our city,” she added.
Opponents to the deal are also wary of bringing in a foreign company, Abengoa, a private Spanish company with a B credit rating, to execute the contract.
“There is no such thing as a foreign company – we’re all global,” he said, citing the company’s history of successful water projects worldwide.
Those in favor of the project cited San Antonio’s need for economic expansion – nothing kills new business like the uncertainty of available water, they said.
“(The Vista Ridge pipeline) gives us more water for a long-term,” said Bradley Carson. “It gives a diverse supply and predictable costs (for business).”
These sentiments were echoed by representatives from several banking institutions.
“(San Antonio has) so much to offer: low-cost of living, great universities, a growing economy. Everyday, more and more families are moving to San Antonio. … However, one issue that has come up for decades – our problem is water supply,” said Richard “Dick” Evans, chairman of Frost Bank, who was joined by representatives from Broadway Bank, Wells Fargo, Texas Capital Bank, and more. “(We need to) get rid of the stigma that we don’t have enough water … and raise San Antonio’s reputation around the nation and the world as a good place to invest, build, and to live.”
*Featured/top image: Citizens line up to speak at the public meeting in City Council chambers about the Vista Ridge pipeline contract. Photo by Iris Dimmick.