It was unwelcome news but certainly no surprise when Smart Growth America released its Measuring Sprawl 2014 study Wednesday and listed San Antonio among the nation's worst, ranking it 179th on a list of 196 large, medium and small metro areas.
The study follows Smart Growth's original 2002 study, Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact when San Antonio finished much better, ranked 36 among 83 metro areas studied. In that report, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth all were ranked worse. Now, only Houston.
In the new study, some of the smaller and medium Texas cities fared well. Laredo was ranked 19th, Corpus Christi was ranked 47th, Waco 48th,Lubbock was 65th, Beaumont-Port Arthur was 73rd., Tyler was 77th, Amarillo was 89th, and El Paso ranked 100th.
None of the state's major metros except El Paso finished in the top 100. Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos finished 114th, Dallas-Plano-Irving was 152nd, McAllen-Mission-Edinburg was 159, Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood was 160, Fort Worth-Arlington 172nd, and San Antonio-New Braunfels was 179th. Only Houston-Sugarland-Baytown finished lower at 182nd.
Publication of the report follows a five-part series on economic segregation in U.S. cities by Richard Florida that is currently appearing on Atlantic Cities. San Antonio is ranked as the most economically segregated large city in America, and the fourth worst in the country for wealthy enclaves set off from the general population.
The surveys are both timely and relevant given Tuesday's board meeting of the San Antonio Water System and the assertion by Karen Guz, the respected conservation director at SAWS that the city could redouble current conservation efforts and avoid Stage III restrictions.
SAWS CEO Robert Puente said as much at the City Council B Session on Wednesday.
I'm an optimist by nature, but a hard rain's gonna have to fall.
After more than one year, San Antonio remains under Stage II water restrictions, which limit lawn watering to one designated day a week. The loophole there exploited by some is to hire a gardener to hand water for hours at a time, which is allowed without limits. Stage III would limit the use of lawn watering systems to one designated day every two weeks, but the hand watering loophole would still be in play. Stage IV would impose a $.48 surcharge on every 100 gallons used over 12,717 gallons of water per month per residential household and commercial users whose irrigation exceeds 5,200 gallons a month. Guess what? Unlimited hand watering would still be allowed.
Will people really curb their excess water consumption? Someone using an extra 50,000 gallons a month would face a $240 surcharge. That's simply not going to affect the city's wealthiest demographic. Moreover, the surcharge doesn't kick in until Stage IV, and SAWs has never even reached Stage III. To be fair to SAWS, City Council effectively sets the fees for excess usage.
Puente's presentation touched on all of SAWS's major water projects aimed at continuing diversification of the city's water supply, a proposed increase in impact fees for developers who add to the city's outward sprawl, and the 2014 drought management outlook as the most challenging months approach.
"Our 2014 demand needs to mirror our 2013 demand...and we will be able to not go into Stage III," Puente told council, saying "frugal behavior" by residential and commercial users can prevent further restrictions.
"Stage III, if it does happen, does not mean commercial customers will be cut back...the only cutback is for irrigation purposes," Puente said.
SAWS and San Antonio are nationally recognized as the top city in the nation for water conservation and management, and indeed, the breadth of alternative water supply projects under way or on the drawing boards is impressive and far-sighted. But the political will to face the city's lawn irrigation problem has not yet emerged at City Hall, at SAWS and certainly not within the business community.
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier railed against the prospect of additional lawn watering restrictions and said dying landscapes would force Bexar County tax assessors to reduce property values, setting off a chain reaction that would lead to budget shortfalls at City Hall and SAWS.
"If I wanted to live in Phoenix, I'd live in Phoenix," Krier said. Council members spoke in turn on the subject, but Krier returned to the topic of "landscaping and shrubs" a second time before Puente finished.
"It has to be about more than shrubs and landscaping," said Mayor Julián Castro.
Puente said negotiations between SAWS and Vista Ridge are moving more quickly than expected, and a deal could be reached by June or July.
"This is a decision the community is going to have to make, accepting higher rates in return for a more abundant water supply," Castro said.
When District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg asked Puente if the costs of water diversification were born fairly across the ratepayer base, Puente answered yes.
"Everyone benefits from growth and economic development," said Puente. "Our philosophy, however, on impact fees is that growth should pay for growth."
In response to a question from District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, Puente acknowledged that "water losses" in the system account for 15% of all the water SAWS pumps.
"It's an embarrassing number, worse than the national average of about 10%," Puente said." We have to get it down."
The Edwards Aquifer, the source of 73% of San Antonio's potable water, is managed by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which tracks aquifer levels at wells in San Antonio and Uvalde. The crucial J-17 well, located at Fort Sam Houston, fell to 640.5 Tuesday and fell below 640 to 639.9 early Wednesday. If the readings -- which are taken every 15 minutes and averaged daily --remain at or below 640 feet for 10 days, the EAA will trigger its own Stage III restrictions, which impose limits on aquifer pumping by SAWS and other users. That's happened three times in the past, and will surely happen again in the coming weeks. It will then be up to SAWS to consult with City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who has the discretionary authority to impose Stage III or IV restrictions. Click here to read an informative FAQ.
The fact is the city's sprawling suburbs, gated communities and ex-urban neighborhoods are addicted to lawn and landscape watering. SAWS officials say about one-third of all the water we use in the hot summer months is pumped to keep grass alive. Not humans, but grass.
All of us pay for this lawn-watering addiction, even those of us who conserve and live without turf lawns or automatic irrigation systems. Call it the effects of second-hand watering. We pay it via rate increases and we pay it in the use of scarce capital used to pursue alternative water supplies. It would be instructive for SAWS to map lawn irrigation by zip code. We would see the same divide that Smart Growth America and Atlantic Cities describe in broader socio-economic terms.
An Express-News editorial today compared the purchase of water SAWs is negotiating now from Vista Ridge, a private partnership with water rights 100 miles northeast of the city, to our annual lawn watering habit. Give or take, we are talking about 50,000 acre-feet of water per year in each instance.
What will that pending deal cost? Factor in debt payment for capital costs and purchase of that water at $1,800 an acre-foot and you have an annual $100 million in new water costs on the horizon. That's the cost of keeping non-native grass and plant species green during the South Texas summer. Can we afford such non-essential spending?
Ratepayers face a second major increase for the desalination plant now being designed and built that will purify brackish water drawn from aquifers south of the city.
Are citizens prepared to pay the costs in return for the water security Mayor Castro mentioned? Comments by District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, seconded by District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, focused on the expected public backlash among poor and working-class residents who they fear will feel blind-sided by any new rate increases.
I'm a realist and believe SAWS should secure those water rights while they are available. Building a desal plant and tapping brackish reserves also is smart. Long term, I'd like to see SAWS expand its Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility that allows storage of unused Edwards Aquifer water in underground wells in southern Bexar County. But I hate to see SAWS dipping into those wells -- the equivalent of San Antonio's water savings account -- to accommodate lawn watering during drought cycles.
More and more urban core gardens and lots are sporting the colors of native landscape. Yes, there are seasonal die-offs, as anyone who ventured on to the Mission Reach for Sunday's Síclovía could see, but those die-offs are part of nature's cycle. The dead plant matter is mulching itself into new nutrient-rich soil, new native grasses and, soon enough, flowering plants will emerge. To fully appreciate San Antonio is to embrace its ecology and not super-impose a pretend landscape.
Guz oversees a number of progressive initiatives at SAWS, including one that rewards ratepayers $200 in landscaping credits when turf is eliminated. Could the water utility accelerate the elimination of turf by doubling or tripling that figure and still save money? Those are numbers worth running.
Sooner or later, Texas will be forced to come to terms with the reality of supply and demand of water. It will be a pity if it happens only when we reach a point of true crisis. It would be easier and prudent to do it now while we can.
*Featured/top image: From Smart Growth America's Measuring Sprawl 2014 report.