San Antonio’s Water Future: Who is Running SAWS?

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Courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority

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

Who is in charge at the San Antonio Water System as major water supply policies are about to be set for the next decade and beyond? The answer, for the moment, is evident only to a handful of senior SAWS executives, board trustees, city officials and business leaders.

For the public, the experience has been akin to watching a film with the sound turned on and off, leaving ratepayers struggling to track and understand the process. Yet the future availability and price of water for San Antonio is one of the most important looming issues for the city’s leadership and its citizens.

It’s actually a multi-billion dollar question as SAWS, the city’s water utility, considers an on-then-off-and-now-on-again, long-term water purchase from a private water supplier. That’s one reason why Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting of the SAWS board of trustees is so important.

Another is because the decision comes at the same time the SAWS board is set to approve the initial capital expenditures for a $297 million, three-phase brackish water desalination project in southern Bexar County that will deliver 12,210 acre-feet of water in 2016, and by completion of Phase II in 2021, and Phase III in 2026, 28,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply about 85,000 households a year.

According to SAWS, "Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility."

According to SAWS, “Feasibility studies confirm that there is sufficient quantity and quality of brackish groundwater available in the Wilcox Aquifer to support the SAWS desalination program. Brackish water, which contains dissolved solids, will be treated to drinking standards using a reverse osmosis treatment facility.”

SAWS projects the cost of that water to be slightly more than $1,000 an acre-feet, based on the $109.4 million contract it is expected to approve at Tuesday’s board meeting for the Zachry Parsons construction consortium to build Phase I of the desal plant. Some observers believe the $1,000 an acre-foot estimate is unrealistically low, with Wilcox Aquifer extraction well drilling and pipeline construction costs bound to drive that price higher.

The acre-foot cost of new water supplies matters, of course, because it will determine how steeply rates to residential and commercial users climb in the coming years. Ratepayers and elected officials are accustomed to low water rates in San Antonio where 90% of the city’s drinking water is pumped from the Edwards Aquifer at a cost of $350-400 an acre foot.

The cost of privately supplied water pipelined to SAWS also will come at a much higher cost.

From the 2012 Water Management Plan. Click here to download full plan.

From the 2012 Water Management Plan. Click here to download full plan.

In the space of one short month, SAWS has abandoned and then resurrected its four-year-old plan to contract with a private sector regional water supplier capable of delivering 50,000 acre-feet of water annually, enough to satisfy the water needs of 150,000 households. The cost of that water would be $85 million a year if priced at an average of $1,700 an acre-foot, a figure supplied to me by one source close to the project. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply three average households for a year. If SAWS and the private supplier enter into a long-term, 30-year contract, the total cost could be more than $2.5 billion.

A four-year bid process came down to three finalists selected last year, and then came down to one: the Vista Ridge Consortium, a partnership of the Spanish conglomerate Abengoa Water and Blue Water Systems, an Austin and San Antonio-based investor group, that promises to pipe in water from the Carrizo and Queen City aquifers in Lee and Burleson counties east of Austin.

BlueWater 130 Project owns permits to produce and transport 20,000 acre-feet of water through a 53 mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline from Burleson County to a delivery point in Manor, Texas. Courtesy graphic.

BlueWater 130 Project owns permits to produce and transport 20,000 acre-feet of water through a 53 mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline from Burleson County to a delivery point in Manor, Texas. Courtesy graphic.

20,000 acre-feet of BlueWater’s permitted capacity is dedicated to the BlueWater 130 Project service area. The remaining 50,993 acre-feet is earmarked for the BlueWater Regional Supply Project which is designed to serve the rapidly growing population in the Central Texas region, including the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

20,000 acre-feet of BlueWater’s permitted capacity is dedicated to the BlueWater 130 Project service area. The remaining 50,993 acre-feet is earmarked for the BlueWater Regional Supply Project which is designed to serve the rapidly growing population in the Central Texas region, including the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

Vista Ridge already is pumping and piping water from the aquifers to a number of suburban communities northeast of Austin.

Three weeks ago, SAWS CEO Robert Puente used an appearance at a UTSA-sponsored water forum to suddenly announce he wanted to shelf the pipeline project and instead expand plans for the desalination plant in South Bexar County in conjunction with a a new joint initiative with CPS Energy to construct a natural gas-powered plant that would benefit both SAWS and CPS ratepayers.

At the time, Puente said uncertainty surrounding state laws governing underground water districts water and other regulatory issues made the project a bad risk. The flip-flop left onlookers a bit stunned. Various business leaders protested the decision to Mayor Julián Castro, who sits on the SAWS board, and who appeared to support continuation of the project.

Now, as the SAWS board prepares to meet, the deal is back on with Puente quoted as telling the Express-News his public suggestion to kill the project was merely a negotiating tactic.

Given his original reasoning and the sudden turnabout, not many are likely to believe him. Some say Puente’s original public statement was driven by a determination inside his SAWS or among board trustees that an expanded desalination project would yield water at a lower cost than the pipeline project, an assumption that now seems less certain.

Business and civic leaders are definitely making themselves heard in favor of the pipeline project, lobbying hard to diversify the city’s water sources, fearing a replay of the city’s decision decades ago not to buy available Canyon Lake water at a low cost to augment Edwards Aquifer water

The current deliberations have unfolded in a way that has left the public in the dark, wondering who is in charge and what facts and projections are driving the decision-making process.

For six years, Puente has served as CEO and president of SAWS, an executive with a unique mix of political and public policy skills. Puente is a former state legislator who specialized in water policy and has served effectively through a continuing historic drought, and now, an unprecedented effort to diversity the city’s water supply from San Antonio’s traditional reliance on the Edwards Aquifer.

Developments in recent weeks, however, have led many to ask who is driving the city’s strategic, longterm water planning.

Is Puente leading, or is it Mayor Julián Castro and City Council? Or is it the SAWS board of trustees, led by its chair, Berto Guerra, a Toyota supplier and Castro confidant, and former City  Councilman Reed Williams, a retired energy executive and recently appointed SAWS trustee?

Item 23 of the board’s Tuesday agenda only adds to the intrigue:

A Resolution rejecting the proposals of Dimmit Utility Water Supply Corporation and V. V. Water Company, LLC, for alternative water supplies in response to Solicitation No. P-11-003-DS (Request for Competitive Sealed Proposals regarding the provision and delivery of alternative water supplies, or Solicitation); directing the President/Chief Executive Officer together with the System’s Board Chairman and Trustee W. Reed Williams to meet with the Vista Ridge Consortium regarding its proposal in response to the Solicitation and in accordance with this Resolution; directing the President/Chief Executive Officer to make a recommendation and propose action to the Board regarding final disposition of the Vista Ridge Consortium proposal and the Solicitation at a future Board Meeting.

A negotiating team that includes board chair Guerra and board trustee Williams in addition to Puente seems to indicate the SAWS board rather than staff will drive the process. Citizens deserve to know.

San Antonio’s efforts to diversify and secure its water supply in recent years have been focused on water conservation and wastewater recycling, underground storage of excess Edwards supply in recharge wells, plans for brackish water desalination and the private pipeline contract.

Water Conservation and Management

SAWS is a national leader on the conservation and recycling front. Sustained incentive programs and education initiatives over the years have yielded significant reductions in per capita water consumption. One major source of water usage – lawn irrigation – has escaped the strictest available conservation measures. Water restrictions in time of drought limit lawn irrigation to specific days and hours. Heavy water users are charged a premium for excess usage, but most customers find it a price worth paying rather than a financial disincentive to limit usage.

SAWS officials have used the utility’s Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility in southern Bexar County at the same site where the desal plant will be constructed to store unneeded water pumped from the Edwards Aquifer in wet months, and then withdrawing it from the underground wells to supplant aquifer water when drought conditions lead the Edwards Aquifer Authority to mandate pumping restrictions. That strategy enabled SAWS and the City to limit water use restrictions to Phase II last year rather than impose Phase III. Still, SAWS officials expect Phase III restriction to take effect by late spring if the current drought conditions persist.

San Antonio drought conditions by 2030. Graphic courtesy of SAWS.

San Antonio drought conditions by 2030. Graphic courtesy of SAWS.

San Antonio remains a city where only true crisis could change landscaping irrigation allowances. Some business and civic leaders defend the water costs of protecting non-native, St. Augustine grass lawns, arguing that job creation and economic growth are linked to the city’s green look. Suburban council members, in particular, represent this viewpoint while inner city council members focus more on managing rate increases for the city’s large working class population.

If San Antonio were to adopt more stringent landscaping and watering policies, such as those found in other cities in the Southwest, some but not all of the city’s projected future water needs could be met though conservation.  An interim step that Castro and City Council could take now would be to pass an ordinance prohibiting neighborhood associations from requiring turf lawns and automatic sprinkler systems. That move, coupled with enhanced incentives by SAWS to promote replacement of non-native turf with native wildscapes, could reduce usage in the hottest summer months when falling water levels in the Edwards Aquifer lead to lawn irrigation restrictions.

Still, even such conservation measures would not meet all the water needs of one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. That’s why SAWS action in expanding its sources of available water are so critical.

The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce released a report on Friday that states the obvious: an uncertain water future will damage the economy and cost jobs. You can access the report here.

*Featured/top photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

Related Stories:

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

Conference Tackles Climate Change in San Antonio: No Longer ‘If,’ Now ‘When’

Documentary Showcases San Antonio’s ‘Green Solutions’ to ‘Water Blues’

 Conversation: SAWS Abandons Pipes, Redirects Focus to Desalination Plant

 

2 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Water Future: Who is Running SAWS?

  1. Great detailed report! I hope more people read it and become educated on the subject as it is such a critical and timely one. Thank you so much for gathering the information and presenting it in a comprehensive manner.

  2. Mr Huddleston

    Aware this is a long shot, but someone needs to call SAWS out on this debacle of overcharging, creative accounting, and multiple versions of what is causing the ridiculous overcharging on September- October Water Bills (see below)
    _____________________________________________
    From: Herring, Chandra
    Sent: Tuesday, December 01, 2015 5:29 PM
    To: ‘contactus@ksat.com’
    Subject: SAWS potential Defenders update Story The Saga Continues

    I thought we did when my Husband went in person over a month ago (Encino Branch Library to talk to representatives of the utility face-to-face) to their A “rapid response team” he was told by Employee that would send someone to read the meter in person same day ( I was skeptical at best) and that to just pay what our average water was for that month**!!***. She admitted 1) that it was not humanly possible for us to use the amount of water that they said we did 2) She could tell by looking at computer that we DID NOT have a leak. Rep told my husband that reading accurate – read in person, his response was do you really think that is possible? She conceded No, which why sending someone out to house. In addition I sent an email as instructed when this all started, instructions say you will receive a response in 1-2 days maximum. NEVER received response, no call, no email, no letter other than 1) EMAIL stating they were raising rates city wide (obviously they have the staffing and time to send out THAT communication 2) the recent one threatening to turn off my water! So imagine my surprise when I got a notice threatening to turn off my water: mind you I have 2 small children and we are a 2 parent full time working household. The letter threatened that if we did not pay by today our water would be turned off ( I have been a customer of SAWS for over 22 years never once had I not paid a bill, and except for a few occasions due to lack of attention did I ever even pay late!) and that we would then be charged over $300.00 -$400.00to turn it back on (recapping etc etc). My husband went today in person (2nd time) as once again we could not get through via phone, and my subsequent emails went unanswered, and let the representative convince him 1) that we are still in the wrong while admitting the 2K was incorrect & unreasonable, and as the prior representative stated, read in person? She told him had to pay $650.00 or our water would be turned off, explanation that when they were “estimating” our water usage we were getting a much lower rate than we were using so this is a “catch up” for all those months? My husband felt he had no other option, as our family could not do without running water with small children. I wonder if this has happened to some elderly person without the resources that I and my family have. So excuse me how this problem is our fault that you are not is staffed correctly or even if you cannot prove or support this supposed meter reading error for an entire year? I would even understand a hundred dollars or less (still would be unhappy), but to so grossly “underestimate”, if this is even the truth as we have been told 3 versions of what happened. This reeks of creative accounting, and they know we cannot prove otherwise as we have no documentation of what the meter readings were!

    I am beyond upset, but feel we as San Antonio Residents have no avenue for complaints, it’s not like we can take our business elsewhere, which their abhorrent customer service. Yet this is in the headlines recently: City staff backs plan for SAWS rate increases

    Chandra Herring
    Ted Herring 210 415 6963

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