Controversial Water Report to Get Peer Review

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Image courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Image courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Calvin Finch, the lead author of what has become a controversial report on long-term water management and conservation in San Antonio and Fair Oaks Ranch, stands by his work. His still-unreleased report has become the talk of the water community, even if only a handful of people have read it.

Finch said he submitted his team’s final draft of the document on Monday to the City’s Planning and Community Development Department and Texas A&M’s Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR). Meanwhile, some reports indicate his name has been removed from the report over factual disputes with the City and SAWS.

“The questions, comments, and conclusions are consistent with that July 15 (draft report),” Finch said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not sure what the City of San Antonio or IRNR will do to alter it.”

The draft report, which has been widely circulated at City Hall and beyond, has been strongly criticized by San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and some City officials who say it contains biased opinions and inaccurate descriptions of the Vista Ridge water pipeline project while downplaying the utility’s water source diversification efforts – among other complaints.

Click here to download the 235-page July 2015 draft report as well as a memo from Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni sent to City Council on Sept. 22 that details “examples of inaccuracies and omission of current facts.”

Calvin Finch, Ph.D.

Calvin Finch, Ph.D.

Finch and other sources said the report will now go through a peer review process by researchers at Texas A&M in College Station before the IRNR’s official presentation on progress to the City Council’s Transportation, Technology, and Utilities Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

The report was initiated by Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) in February 2014 with the purpose of informing major policy decisions regarding water security and city planning. Nirenberg said at the time that the City needed a long-term water plan separate from the SAWS plan. That was not necessarily welcomed at SAWS, the City-owned water and wastewater treatment utility.

The report’s contents won’t be directly informing the City’s FY 2016 budget, approved on Sept. 10, but will come out just in time for City Council to vote in late October on rate increases – in part to pay for the Vista Ridge pipeline – and its new rate structure, designed to encourage and reward water conservation.

“The report that they deliver will be one that we can base good policy on,” Nirenberg said.

IRNR Director Raul Lopez will lead the peer review, sorting through requested edits from SAWS and the City into the final draft. Lopez could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Finch’s report classifies the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge project, among others, as a “high risk water supply because of the distance of the source from San Antonio, the number of regulatory agencies involved, the relatively short contract period, and the financial status of the major sponsor, Abengoa.”

Designed to provide up to 16.3 billion gallons of water from Burleson County annually for 30 years by 2020, the Vista Ridge deal was unanimously approved by City Council last October.

Map of the Vista Ridge pipeline.

SAWS map of the Vista Ridge pipeline.

“I’m confident and ready to defend the document and the conclusions,” Finch said. It’s unclear if he’ll be given the opportunity to do so in a formal setting with the City and IRNR. He said if they disagree with the way the report was written, the final product will have to make note that changes may not be accepted by the authors.

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente has already offered a robust defense of the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge project.

President and CEO of SAWS Robert Puente at the panel discussion “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA. Photo by Scott Ball.

President and CEO of SAWS Robert Puente at the panel discussion “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA. Photo by Scott Ball.

“There were very obvious errors and opinions — opinions are fine, but don’t identify them as facts,” Puente said in a Tuesday interview. “The report misrepresents the liability terms of the contract with Abengoa, a Spain-based publicly traded company, and Austin firm Blue Water Systems, that involves 3,400 leases for water rights with local landowners in Burleson and Milam counties,” Puente said, “and risk is contractually negotiated away from (SAWS).”

Puente said the report is still in draft form, waiting to go through proper processes.

He pointed to the report’s use of several local media outlets, including published reports from the Express-News, Texas Tribune and the Rivard Report.

“It needs to be more scholarly,” he said. “How can you have a scholarly document like that based on an opinion piece?”

Finch, who was set to retire from his position as lead scientist at IRNR in May, but stayed on to complete this report, said he would have been remiss not to cite his own expertise and information available in the media.

“This was not designed to be original research, (rather), an analysis of the information available,” Finch said. “If you don’t use your expertise and information available in the media and documents put out by SAWS … how do you draw opinions? Do you just not have an opinion or do you accept what SAWS is predicting whats going to happen? … We were selected for our expertise and neutrality.”

Finch is the former director of SAWS water conservation and resources departments and negotiated for SAWS when the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan (EAHCP) was formed with area stakeholders. The plan, along with several other projects and programs, were praised in the report.

The Vista Ridge project was “identified as ‘innovative’ and potential for great importance for the future,” he said, but such statements have been overshadowed by critical comments.

Nirenberg said he is confident that Texas A&M and IRNR will produce a reliable report worthy of long-term policy planning.

“We need to have an academic report that has credibility,” he said. “I just want the facts on the table for us to make smart policy decisions.

“The whole intent of getting a public report is to scrutinize information and feel free to take opposing view points. These decisions are not easy when they are so impactful and these are long term decisions,” he said. “I’m looking forward to letting the process play out and being armed with the facts … it needs to be done and it needs to be done publicly.”


*Top image courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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Proposed SAWS Rate Structure to Promote Conservation

4 thoughts on “Controversial Water Report to Get Peer Review

    • Actually, I was thinking he seemed unbiased. What does he or anyone else have to gain by putting out a report that’s critical of a $13 Billion project? Nothing. What does possible friends of SAWS executives or anyone associated with the pipeline have to lose if this critical report is published and received as accurate? $13 Billion in contracts.

  1. The “water study plan” envisioned by Councilman Nirenberg does not seem to provide the information he stated he wanted in his council consideration request:
    “a comprehensive report on all City policies, procedures, standards, regulations, and initiatives involving the cost, quantity and quality of the water drawn from the Edwards Aquifer. Water security – ensuring affordable, abundant, and clean sources of water for future generations of San Antonians – is the most basic and important element of economic quality and vitality of life for our citizens. Therefore, the goal of this
    study and report is a long term planning initiative to provide for affordable and adequate
    supplies of water to support the needs of San Antonians and the economic development of the San Antonio region through the year 2050. This report should include as a minimum, a plan to provide affordable rates and abundant clean water to San Antonians; to determine how the City protects the Edwards Aquifer as its main source of drinking water; and how City growth policies impact the management and operation of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and vice versa; and any recommendations for changes or improvements. As part of this analysis of current city policy, staff should consider and report on the costs and benefits of particular policies as they relate to the cost of our water, the impact of water policies and water supplies on both economic growth and the protection of our water supply, how policies align with the goals of the State and South Central Texas Regional Water Plans (Texas Water Development Board), how policies conflict or complement the City’s growth/annexation plans and projected growth of water demand, and how policies impact financial risk and rate inflation borne on City residents and ratepayers.” The report seems to focus on initiatives but little on City policies, procedures, standards, regulations, … SAWS should be the respondent to Councilman Nirenberg’s council consideration request not some education entity.

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