Council Approves New Water Rates, Structure

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A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page.

A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page.

City Council unanimously approved increased water rates and rate structure on Thursday, a strong display of confidence in the water utility’s ongoing efforts to diversity the city’s water supply and to encourage greater water conservation.

Thursday’s vote follows two years of study, deliberation, and debate over the city’s long-range water future and the Council’s unanimous vote in October 2014 to endorse the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water project.

Starting in 2016, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) will add four new usage and pricing tiers to the current four-tiered system. SAWS officials have said the new structure rewards customers who conserve and penalizes excessive water usage. Residents who conserve water and use less than approximately 3,000 gallons during their monthly billing cycle will be billed at the lowest rate. Additionally, SAWS will expand and promote its affordability discount for low-income customers.

Rates are projected to increase 7.5% in 2016 and 7.9% in 2017. The new rates will take effect on Jan. 1.

Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer, maintained that the approved rates are a cap, and they may actually be lower than expected. He added that SAWS will return to Council in 2018 and 2019 to shore up projected rates then and even lower them if possible. The new rates will help to fund water and sewer infrastructure improvements, the first phase of SAWS’ brackish water desalination project in South Bexar County, and the controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline.

The latter is planned to pump 50,000 acre-feet of water to SAWS through a 142-mile pipeline from Burleson County.

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said the rate restructuring supports a project that represents “tomorrow’s water at today’s price,” that it is crucial for San Antonio to take advantage of the current price of water.

When water begins flowing through the pipeline from the Simsboro and Carrizo aquifers to San Antonio, which is scheduled to start in 2020, SAWS may sell surplus water to communities along the Interstate 35 corridor, possibly reducing future rate increases.

Puente described the project as a way to let San Antonio “help our neighbors while helping ourselves. … This is truly an opportunity to secure our water future for decades to come.”

Before the Council deliberated on the new rates and structure, more than 30 people took to the podium to offer their opinions. Local business and civic leaders said the City was being proactive about securing future water supply to accommodate San Antonio’s continuing growth.

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who now chairs the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board, said he was convinced the new rates and structure do not disproportionately affect low-income SAWS ratepayers, as many critics contend. Cisneros said he felt confident that SAWS’ affordability programs can help those ratepayers who may need aid when the new rates kick in.

“It’s threading the needle, balancing our future with our needs now,” Cisneros added.

Groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center maintained their opposition of the rate restructuring and Vista Ridge project and spoke at the podium while others held up signs in protest.

A sign outside City Council Chambers in opposition to the Vista Ridge project. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

A sign was placed outside City Council Chambers in opposition to the Vista Ridge project. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

They fear the new rates will negatively affect many low-income residents and that Vista Ridge would benefit only businesses and developers in a city trying to address urban sprawl. Others said the Vista Ridge pipeline would have a detrimental effect on the environment and that SAWS should instead emphasize existing water supply resources and conservation.

Alan Montemayor said the debate over Vista Ridge and SAWS’ rate plan has disenfranchised many residents and it all comes down to SAWS and the City being accountable to “the people,” the ratepayers.

“The financing and structure of this deal circumvents the democratic process,” Montemayor added.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she understands criticisms, especially from individuals worried that any rate increase will impact their wallets. But she voiced confidence that the new rate structure a will ensure a long-term water supply, invests in our water infrastructure, supports continued growth and economic development.

“I know that many people are living on tight budgets and any increase in expenses, no matter how small, can make a big difference,” stated Taylor in an email after the vote. “I believe that the approved rate change package has been structured in such a way as to minimize impact on the most vulnerable residents in our community and in a way that supports one of our most important goals — the conservation of water.”

Each council member shared several questions and concerns with Puente, but many added that acting now is in the City’s best interest and is essential for securing current prices related to the financing of the Vista Ridge project.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) said businesses and even the local military bases do look to the cost of water service as a means of measuring viability of either staying in San Antonio or going elsewhere.

“We gotta plan for the future, and our kids’ future. It’s not just about now,” he said.

Councilmember Roberto Trevino (D1) and some colleagues asked SAWS to return to the Council every six months with a report on how the new rate structure is affecting ratepayers and how Vista Ridge is proceeding. Puente agreed to follow through and schedule such reports.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) repeated his request for SAWS to consider making permanent local Stage I water restrictions as a way to encourage more conservation year round. Puente said SAWS will continue its review of that possibility.


*Top image: A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page. 

Related Stories:

City Council Poised for Key Vote on Water Rates

Cisneros: City Council Should Approve SAWS Rate Changes

Commentary: Is the Vista Ridge Groundwater Reliable?

Water Report Author Fields Questions From City Council

Final Water Report Author: Errors of Draft ‘Fixed’

12 thoughts on “Council Approves New Water Rates, Structure

  1. This decision explains why many people are involved in the voting process. Also, Councilman Gallagher’s comment, “.. said businesses and even the local military bases do look to the cost of water service as a means of measuring viability of either staying in San Antonio or going elsewhere” is ridiculous. The cost of water will run citizens out of San Antonio quicker than a business or the military and the cost of water would have to be very high for a business or the military with millions and billions of dollars invested in operating in San Antonio to consider leaving. Say what you want about the military/federal government but not even it would say lets invest millions or billions of dollars to relocate out of San Antonio so we can save ourselves a few thousands of dollars in water costs. With that type of thinking I’m even more suspect of the vote yesterday.

        • For a long while there was a note from the listmaster with my initial comment to Mr. Ortiz saying that someone was ‘moderating’ my comment. Maybe it was too long or something and had to be vetted to make sure it could stay on the dialog. Apparently the message passed muster. EB

        • Thanks for your clarification about inserting the word ‘not’ in front of voting. I agree with you about the sense of hopelessness which is driving people away from the voting booths. A former city councilwoman expressed the same perception to me just the other day. EB

  2. Mr. Ortiz:

    You should have stayed after the crowd left for lunch at the mayor’s prompting. I stuck around after most of the crowd(but not SAWS) left for lunch at the Mayor’s suggestion, and spoke on agenda item 22 which involved waiving impact fees for water and sewer services to military installations within the CoSA/SAWS reach. I asked my councilman to find the letter from General La Brutta requesting that fees be waived. I heard that Councilmen Gallagher and Krier (motion and second) have assumed that Joint Base San Antonio would want this waiver because of the demon of sequestration.

    I prefaced my comments on impact fee waivers to council and mostly empty gallery by saying that I had heard that council aides were being subjected to verbal abuse from irate constituents. I made the statement that since council has made an unconscionable decision to the detriment of their working poor and fixed income constituents, I promised to request everyone I know to direct their verbal abuse solely upon this body, and not upon the long suffering folks who field phone calls at city hall.
    I reminded council that the military bases in San Antonio pay not one cent of property tax, and that working people already chip in a sizable share of their federal income taxes to pay for the military’s global operations. I started to say that council could offer Joint Base San Antonio the opportunity to provide in kind environmental services along the lines of the Camp Bullis water capture project in lieu of impact fees, but was interrupted by the Mayor. Council went ahead and approved this possibly unsolicited gift to Joint Base San Antonio unanimously with Councilman Nirenberg standing aside and Councilman Lopez out of the country. EB

    • As a retired officer who sometimes worked with local agreements and infrastructure, I think any request by a commander for “waiving of fees” would be highly suspect. It sounds an awful lot like solicitation of a gift.

      In my time, a local Congressman was lobbying hard for the base to provide a letter to the Texas Legislature saying that a 1604 road project would benefit Randolph (it would have). We were advised at the time to stay out of it, despite the clear benefit.

      • That’s what I thought, and I am not retired military, active duty military, or a civilian employee/contractor. I do have some friends at or above the rank of colonel and I intend to ask about this recent maneuver by the San Antonio city council.

  3. Here is part of what Linda Curtis of Bastrop, from one of the four “forced
    donor” counties for the Vista Ridge Pipeline which includes Burleson, Lee, and Milam counties, had to say to the SA city council on this topic:

    ….”The Chamber of Commerce (the real estate lobby) was all over the news yesterday beating their chests that WE need this water – no, THEY need this water – we, the citizens need fair rates, protection of our water resources and an open and fair process for deciding these mega-projects.
    The Chamber (the real estate lobby) went so far as to say yesterday that the military might
    not want to continue investing in San Antonio if you don’t pass these unfair rates for Vista
    Ridge. Why was the Chamber and not the military saying this?…….”

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