Commentary: Is the Vista Ridge Groundwater Reliable?

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Andy Hovorak walks through the metal detector with a basket of petitions at City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.

Andy Hovorak walks through the metal detector with a basket of petitions at City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.

The controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline, if completed, will pump 50,000 acre-feet/year of Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer groundwater from a well field located in Burleson County. The groundwater will have to be treated and then transported 142 miles through a five-foot wide pipeline to reach San Antonio.

“Ultimately, it’s the reliability of this water that becomes the tipping point,” San Antonio City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said about the Vista Ridge project in a recent San Antonio Express-News report.

If Nirenberg considers the groundwater’s reliability as the “tipping point,” the Vista Ridge project’s greatest weakness will be exposed since the groundwater supply is not reliable for the following reasons:

  1. The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater District that made the Vista Ridge project possible now has new directors. There is evidence that the new directors will not be as water-marketer friendly as their predecessors. For example, the new directors have already denied the Vista Ridge consortium’s request to extend the permit needed to transport the groundwater out of Burleson County; the existing transport permit will expire 16 years before the end of the Vista Ridge project’s contract with no assurance that it will be extended.
  2. The only hydrogeological study of the effects of the Vista Ridge project to be made public concluded that the excessive groundwater pumping will cause water well levels to drop up to 466 feet over 60 years. A collateral effect of this precipitous drop in water levels will be that shallow parts of the aquifers will dry up according to the study authored by George Rice.

The reason for the Vista Ridge project’s profound effects on the aquifers is that the primary source aquifers, the Carrizo and Simsboro, have extremely slow recharge rates. The total recharge rate for both aquifers is only 15,000 acre-feet per year while the Groundwater District has already granted permits to pump 122,000 acre-feet per year from the two aquifers – and adjacent districts have also approved large-scale pumping of the same aquifers.

In short, the excessive over-pumping will deplete the aquifers just as your bank account is depleted if you withdraw more than you deposit.

  1. When supporters of the venture continually state that the Vista Ridge project is “sustainable,” they are referring to the pumping being able to continue until the last drop of groundwater is removed from the aquifers – not the aquifers’ preservation.

In contrast, the “sustainable development” of aquifers means that the groundwater will be pumped in such a manner that it will not cause adverse environmental, social, or economic effects – and that the aquifers will be preserved for future generations.

The Vista Ridge project does not meet the standards of “sustainable development” of an aquifer. Instead, the Vista Ridge project’s pumping exceeds recharge by 330% and consequently will contribute to making groundwater inaccessible to people living above the aquifers. When the groundwater is no longer available to the local communities and the Groundwater District is either unwilling or unable to act to address the problem, I predict that the State of Texas will respond to the humanitarian and economic emergency by ordering the pumping of the aquifers to be reduced immediately and substantially; that order would encompass the Vista Ridge project.

  1. The Groundwater District’s management problems add another question mark about the reliability of Vista Ridge project’s groundwater. My recent studies discovered that the District apparently does not know which aquifers are being monitored by at least 25% of their monitoring wells. For example, its records indicate that Monitoring Well 25 is drilled into the Simsboro Aquifer. However, the Texas Water Development Board’s records state that Monitoring Well 25 is drilled into the Hooper Aquifer. Similar problems were identified for 19 of the District’s monitoring wells.

This problem with the monitoring wells is a critical one since instead of limiting the amount of pumping to sustain the aquifers, the Groundwater District relies totally on the monitoring wells to determine when the aquifers reach red-flag conditions at which time the District will cutback the amount of groundwater permitted for the Vista Ridge project and other permit holders. It is questionable if this action will prevent the depletion of the aquifers because the Vista Ridge project consortium fully expects to be granted new pumping permits to replace the cutback amount.

Together, the four reasons presented above support the conclusion that the Vista Ridge project groundwater is not reliable due to the unsustainable use of the aquifers and regulatory risks associated with the District.

There is no scenario that will result in the Vista Ridge project being able to reliably provide 50,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater to San Antonio for an extended period of time. The over-pumping of the aquifers will eventually lead to rules requiring that pumping be limited to the amount of recharge – an action that California took this year in response to the severe depletion of their aquifers. Other Texas groundwater districts already have management plans that require total pumping to be less than recharge because that is the only way aquifers can provide a reliable source of groundwater.

To request more information about the monitoring well studies and the hydrogeological report, please email Dr. Chubb at


*Top image: Andy Hovorak walks through the metal detector with a basket of signatures in opposition to the Vista Ridge project at City Hall.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Commentary: Draft Water Report Was Bad, Final is Worse

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Final Water Report Author: Errors of Draft ‘Fixed’

Water Forum VI: Vista Ridge, Conservation, Rate Increase

17 thoughts on “Commentary: Is the Vista Ridge Groundwater Reliable?

  1. Great information. Unfortunately, the ratepayers do not have much say in the matter. It would be nice to put the project to a vote instead of relying on city council, SAWS, and the mayor to make the decision.

  2. I’m a little confused by your arguments. Are you suggesting that the city only initiate these sorts of projects when they can get assurances on the terms in perpetuity? In other words are you suggesting the city shouldn’t ever assume any risks? And are you suggesting that the pumping permits on the aquifer should be scaled back more than 120,000 acre feet per year?

    And if what your saying is true then it begs the question: “why in the world would a water district (whose mission is to protect and conserve the aquifer) AND the mayor AND most if not all city councilmembers agree (at least in concept) to a project that appears to be doomed from the start?

      • Not perpetuity Joey, but at least within the payback period or the planning horizon of the projects.

        If the problem is a predicted shortfall of 50,000 AFY, then the Council (in theory, at least) needs to build a water portfolio to meet that shortfall.

        If the POSGCD predicts a surplus capacity of 50,000 AFY, they can sell it. Win-Win.

        For the ratepayers, the problem comes in if the Council chooses an expensive option that may or may not meet the need. The money’s gone and the problem still exists.

        Or, put another way: if the current POSGCD can come with a set of numbers that allows them to get a large slice of $3.4B from SAWS today, then they’ll bite that apple.

        I don’t think any water management district “protects and conserves” the aquifer. They manage it. That means sell what you can to the highest bidder at a rate that is deemed sustainable.

        And THAT in a nutshell is why the Water Policy Study is contentious: it questions the (now) prevailing notion Vista Ridge is both necessary and sustainable. If it’s not either of those, then it’s a bad deal.

        • Joe, what is the acronym? Thanks for adding the additional information to this issue. It certainly sheds more light on it and brings into question the value of the project. However, I do realize the politicians have made their secret handshakes and their decision will most likely be to approve the project.

          • POSGCD = Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Control District (see above link in main article)

            If they have surplus water to sell, then sure, sell it. Win/Win.

            But if they won’t guarantee it – which they won’t – then don’t charge so darn much for it.

            Abengoa cannot get a guarantee from POSGCD for the duration of the lease. Why not? If the data supports the excess capacity for the duration of the lease, then get it in writing. – aka “transferring risk to the supplier” who says the water will be there. “Trust me, I have a study to prove it…”

  3. It’s very interesting to read the subtle shifts in SAWS rationale for why they make decisions and how they change. In February 2014, for example, SAWS VP of Communications Greg Flores stated the due to Abengoa not being able to secure guarantees of the water supply from the POSGCD combined with exceeding conservation goals meant the City didn’t need the 50,000 AFY.

    But now, it’s not a matter of reliability of supply, it’s a matter of paying for water. This appears to be splitting hairs: you pay for a pipeline, you pay for water in wet years, but if it dries up, then you don’t pay for water – but you have already paid for everything else in the years when you didn’t need it.

    I’ve read the contract (dry, tedious) and this is basically what it says: Abengoa can’t make SAWS pay for water it doesn’t deliver, but I can’t find anything that says Abengoa must make water available, either.

    So if, as the case may be, POSGCD turns off the spigot, no one is to blame, bygones are bygones, and SAWS has a pipeline to nowhere.

  4. Oops – forgot to add the link. Greg Flores, SAWS VP, circa Feb 2014

    The Abengoa Project has 30-year permits for water to be delivered to Bexar County. Why is this not good enough for SAWS?

    Even the highest ranked proposal, from Abengoa, was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply. That would mean that SAWS ratepayers would be responsible for making payments even if the water was unavailable.

    Groundwater conservation districts have the authority to regulate withdrawals of water from aquifers, often with little notice or process for appeal. Abengoa was unwilling to guarantee that supplies would not be cut off by the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District that regulates its source aquifer.

    What will SAWS do to make up for the 50,000 acre feet that was needed in 2018?

    Because of successful water management, proactive planning, and additional water supplies being added, SAWS now has enough water supplies and management tools to last until 2027. This provides SAWS the benefit of short-term flexibility.

    Outdoor water conservation efforts, for example, helped San Antonio achieve an estimated 2013 per capita water use of 127 gallons per day, far surpassing the planning number of 135, allowing current water resources to stretch further and avoiding Stage 3 watering restrictions to date.

    Additionally, expanded production from the Carrizo Aquifer in southern Bexar County can be accelerated. The Regional Carrizo Aquifer project is now on line and the Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility is exceeding expectations during drought.

    • Goes to show you the amount of info I have on the project and I have at least been reading the articles-no telling limited other ratepayers knowledge is on this project!!?? If I read this correctly SAWS elected to not pursue the pipeline project in Feb 2014 but a year later is hell bent to get it approve? What changed? I suspect something politically, but who knows?!

      • Dude, SAWS and the (then-Mayor) saying no to Abengoa and Vista Ridge was so early-2014. Please try to keep up.

        This is 2015. Now we don’t care about guarantees the water will be available. We just don’t want to pay for water we don’t get.

        See? No risk! Except of course, the risk of no water being available. You know, the actual risk we’re trying to mitigate in the first place. THAT risk.

        Just be quiet and pay your SAWS bill! The one with the Lifeline rate that doesn’t even permit a household of 1 person to use 100 GPCD. What was SAWS conservation goal, the one they touted? 135 GPCD.

        Please stop asking questions while I’m trying to bamboozle you with acronyms and math and bad data.

        • You are doing a good job with the confusion. I can’t tell if u r for or against the project. My point is i and others have not had time to follow the issue as closely as u. What changed for city council and SAWS to reject the plan last year but now want it? Answe if u can or want to. Also with question what does abengoa bring to table that an american company can’t.

          • I apologize for the confusion. My sarcasm clearly did not play well.

            I can’t speak to the motivation of why it was rejected in 2014 and brought back in 2015. Perhaps Abengoa redefined the business terms, perhaps they saw a different political climate with Mayor Taylor in July 2014 than Mayor Castro in Feb 2014.

            There have been so many elections since Feb 2014 and now, I couldn’t begin to tell you if there was a shift in Council make-up to a more pro-business environment.

            SAWS is, however, an obscene manipulator of data. Yes, obscene. If for no other reason than that, I’d be against the project. If you can’t explain the rate structure that makes the project possible without obfuscating the real costs to real users, then the project demands much greater scrutiny.

          • I sensed sarcasm but was not sure :-). Thanks for your reply-much appreciated. I noticed on the news the support from the various chambers. Seems like the political S.A. machine is determined to see that his project is approved.

    • Joe–you should submit a piece to RR. Your research and analysis is a viewpoint that needs to be heard. I had no idea the proposal was rejected and then a year later pushed through the approval process. Something smells funny here.

  5. Its pretty simple, Joe Krier, ex SA Chamber of Commerce Director, who now sits on city council and Heriberto “Berto” Guera, ex chamber of commerce member and who sits at the head of the Board of Directors at SAWS basically hijacked SAWS away from its original rejection of VR. It is my way(Chamber of Commerce) or the highway. The chamber of commerce used scare tactics to scare city council members in believing SA was going to run out of water, which is an absolute false premise. SAWS is one of the best if not the best water purveyors in the nation when it comes to progressive water supply planning and had the knowledge that it did not need Vista Ridge. The flexibility(and expansion ability) of desal water being bought on as SA needed it was what SAWS was going to rely on. Also, other progressive projects like ASR, water rate structure reform, and the untapped potential of transforming SA outdoor landscape to be more native rather then water guzzling green grass and spray sprinkler systems. The SA chamber of commerce refuses to accept the fact that we live in a semi arid climate and that we need to live within our means. They would rather increase water rates by 50% on an already struggling SAWS rate payer, especially the lower income folks and give the business/general class rate payers a pass on rate increases. The premise being we need to be able to attract new businesses. The problem with that is that SA has a very uneducated work force , so much so , that we will never attract high tech industry like Apple, Microsoft,etc in a big way. They can simply go up to Austin that has a robust economy, highly educated work force and desirable and vibrant living conditions. Where as SA has a dead downtown , except for tourists and a very minimal corporate base that can attract Millennial types. We are getting better but we are still laughed at by Austin , Dallas and Houston and has come up with a motto “Keep San Antonio Lame”. Poor leadership and misguided decisions spurned on by the Chamber of Commerce over the past 25 years as allowed sprawl to become our mantra over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones. SA ignored its inner core and downtown livability and sustainability and would rather continue to sprawl with the onslaught of unneeded Vista Ridge water. It is a sad situation.

    • Makes perfect sense! Thanks for the additional info. I also agree with you that despite the visions, efforts, and money San Antonio will never catch up to cities like Dallas and Austin much less west coast cities. It has to be our city’s leadership that is holding us back. I went to a wedding in Austin last weekend and what a difference in the downtown environments!

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