In Kendall County, SAWS Faces Questions on Export of Edwards Aquifer Water

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San Antonio Water System headquarters sign.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A sign at San Antonio Water System headquarters.

As the San Antonio Water System dips its toe into selling water further outside its service territory, big questions are emerging about the municipal utility becoming more of a regional water purveyor.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Kendall County, where SAWS last year signed an agreement to provide water to developers of a 375-acre property less than a mile south of Boerne city limits.

According to SAWS, water for that project would come from Canyon Lake. But a pair of bills pending in the Texas Legislature would allow SAWS to sell water from the Edwards Aquifer across the Bexar-Kendall line, something state law currently does not permit.

For all of San Antonio’s 300-year history, the Edwards Aquifer has been the city’s most important water source. Even today, with SAWS tapping every major lake, river, and aquifer in the region, the Edwards still makes up the majority of San Antonio’s water supply.

Ever since the aquifer battles of the 1990s, pumping of the vast limestone rock layer has been regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority. Its territory covers Uvalde, Medina, and Bexar counties and parts of Atascosa, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, and Hays counties.

Among the rules governing the aquifer is one that prohibits moving Edwards water outside of this area. That could change as the result of the two bills – SB 1170, sponsored by State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), and HB 1806, sponsored by State Rep. Tracy O. King (D-Uvalde).

For SAWS, the change would allow them to provide a critical backup water supply for the development, known as Boerne West. The water supply contract also involved developers adopting some of San Antonio’s environmental ordinances covering water conservation, light pollution, tree preservation, and others. All are stronger requirements than they would be subject to in an unincorporated part of Kendall County.

“The ability to sell Edwards water actually gives us the ability to further protect the Edwards Aquifer by requiring developers to follow stricter development rules that we would impose,” SAWS board Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. said at SAWS’ April board of trustees meeting Tuesday.

But some are questioning what this means for the fast-growing areas on the northern fringes of San Antonio.

Access to water has in some cases been a check on rapid development in these areas. Rivers and aquifers of the Hill Country are sensitive to drought and have not typically been able to support the kind of dense development happening on San Antonio’s outer edges.

“The concern that I hear is if you let this one come in and bring its own water, what’s going to stop the next one from coming in and bringing its own water, and all of a sudden we have a lot more development coming in than we already do,” said Kendall County Commissioner Christina Bergmann (Pct. 1), whose precinct includes the Boerne West development.

Limiting the availability to supply water can limit the density of development, said Annalisa Peace, director of the nonprofit Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

“It’s one of the very few tools that these communities have that they can use.”

Legislation offers flexibility

For now, SAWS officials don’t seem interested in exporting much Edwards Aquifer water – the cheapest of all water sources the utility can tap. Donovan Burton, SAWS vice president of governmental relations and water resources, said the push to change the law is about “finding limited, beneficial, win-win partnerships.”

“We are not in the business of selling off a bunch of Edwards Aquifer water,” Burton said. “That is not what this bill is about. That’s not what we would do, and frankly it just doesn’t make a lot of practical sense for us to want to do that.”

But as SAWS trustee Amy Hardberger put it, what seems impossible today might seem like a great idea in the not-so-distant future.

“The one thing we do know about the water market is that it changes,” Hardberger said at the board meeting. “Things that don’t look commercially viable in as short as five years can suddenly seem like a great idea.”

To ease concerns, SAWS is seeking an amendment to limit this kind of export of Edwards Aquifer water to 1.9 billion gallons per year, a change that Campbell supports.

King, whose bill has made it out of committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

In an emailed statement, Campbell said that by giving SAWS more flexibility to deliver Edwards water, “we will be able to conserve and manage our natural resources more efficiently.”

“Kendall County is growing rapidly, and that requires long-term planning,” Campbell said. “These bills protect the precious Trinity Aquifer and the existing wells of Kendall County residents while lowering the costs of piping water from over-tapped or unreliable supplies into the region.”

SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne Texas.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne.

Vista Ridge heralds change

Issues like these are probably why SAWS officials said last year that they want more public input on whether San Antonio should start selling more water. Next year, after its Vista Ridge pipeline comes online, SAWS will have more water supplies than it has ever had.

In April 2020, the more than 140-mile pipeline will begin delivering 16.3 billion gallons of water per year from aquifers below Burleson and Milam counties, east of Austin.

Vista Ridge water will be San Antonio’s second-most expensive source at roughly $2,000 per acre-foot, according to SAWS’ 2017 water management plan. Those payments are expect to amount to a little more than $100 million per year, SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson said at the meeting.

By contrast, Edwards Aquifer water is SAWS’ cheapest supply, costing the utility between $241 and $704 per acre-foot, depending on drought cutbacks and whether water rights are purchased or leased.

SAWS officials have always been clear that they plan to sell a portion of that Vista Ridge water to offset the pipeline’s cost to SAWS customers. So when word got out it was seeking legislation that would let it sell more Edwards water, it raised alarms among some SAWS watchdogs.

“One of the arguments we used to talk against Vista Ridge was that it was really an attempt to make water so plentiful that it could be wasted,” said Alan Montemayor, a member of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club who’s a frequent speaker at SAWS public comment periods. “Since you’ve been trying to sell Vista Ridge water at high cost, you want to sell Edwards water at a lower cost.”

Burton said that’s not the case.

“Regardless of the source, the price will be the same,” he said. “The City Council will ultimately set the price. … We are not trying to price cheaper water so we could sell it and profit or anything like that.”

Vista Ridge supporters have said that even though it will be years before San Antonio truly needs the full 16.3 billion gallons the pipeline will supply, it makes sense for San Antonio to buy tomorrow’s water at today’s prices. After 30 years of water payments, SAWS will own the pipeline by 2050.

“We’re bringing in Vista Ridge for our children and our grandchildren, which has been our goal for this board and this City Council,” Guerra said.

That leaves the question of what to do for now with the excess water. At the SAWS meeting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a board member in his official capacity, called the issue “a byproduct of the fact that we have a rapidly urbanizing state that has really no modern water laws.”

“For a utility like SAWS, we’re having to plan for the future, which leaves us in some near-term paradoxes,” Nirenberg continued. “We have to secure long-term water supply through diversification of our portfolio, that includes regional sourcing. But we also don’t necessarily need all that water in the near term, so what do we do with it?”

That’s a debate that San Antonio has yet to have, Peace said.

“If the citizens and through their elected officials, say, … ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead and be a regional water supplier,’ that’s one thing,” Peace said. “But we’ve never had that discussion.”

8 thoughts on “In Kendall County, SAWS Faces Questions on Export of Edwards Aquifer Water

  1. Do not sell the Edwards water to anyone but your service area. Every year we’re on drought alert. You also need to consider all the people that are on wells still in Bexar County. Take care of home, first.

  2. As a resident of Kendall County, I am greatly concerned with the prospect that water will be piped into our county which is a Priority Groundwater Management Area (PGMA). Because it is a PGMA, density regulation is crucial, not just in regards to actual water supply, but because of the impacts of dense development such as impervious cover and our slow recharge of groundwater, effluent being dumped into our creeks and streams- which are riddled with karsts- and the potential contaminants to an already precarious aquifer. 2 years ago, Senator Campbell was lobbied by a private developer to approve a water control and improvement district in southern Kendall County. She approved this WCID, without a water source, whose directors then circumvented adequate notice to the residents of Kendall County. The SB 1170 is being introduced by Senator Campbell to further aid these private developers by pumping Edwards water into Kendall Co to supply their development. This is an egregious use of state powers, circumventing local water and control districts and county and city residents’ expressed goals of sustainable and responsible development in a PGMA. There is the possibility that some of the groundwater being sold by SAWs is going to come from grandfathered, unregulated wells which were grabbed up in Bexar County by a local land broker, partnering with a New York corporation. These water loop holes will only be pushed larger and larger if bills from Austin and private profiteers continue to circumvent the careful planning and stewardship of local residents and their city and county representatives. Keep Edwards water where it is needed- in the urban complex of San Antonio and Bexar County.

  3. WOWOWOWOW!!!!
    Suddenly we are told that the. Pape Dawson takeover of SAWS involved us paying a FORTUNE for water we don’t need? That we have so MUCH that we can sell all the excess?
    And that the sneaky water purveyors and pipeline boys that control SAWS even got Donna Campbell and the boys in Austin to CREATE A NEW LEGISLATION TO SELL ALL THAT EXCESS??!??
    Wow! The water RipOffs sure have been busy creating all those lies and misrepresentations!!!!

  4. SAWS claims that it wants more input from the public. Why? They ignore the common people and do acrobats for developers, and other business interests.
    SAWS must answer to us and stop making shady deals. SAWS is the water utility of San Antonio, not the state of Texas!

  5. Donna Campbell is trying to pull a fast one on us. She’s also introducing SB422, which would make it illegal for SA to enforce it’s tree ordinance in the city’s ETJ! Knowing that, I’m seeing the connection to SB 1170. So she wants the state to take away our ability to regulate development in our ETJ, unless a development gets SAWS water from the Edwards? This seems like the “protection” the mob used to offer neighborhood businesses…Suddenly this seems less about regional planning for the future, and more about making money right now for a developer who’s contributed to her. If SB422 pass by a 2/3 majority, it will be effective immediately. If it simply passes, then it goes into effect Sept. 9th of this year!

    • You must be talking about:

      I think there is room to work with this bill. I don’t believe that SA should impose anything on anyone where SA is not in control. As a resident of an area that was annexed in the late 90’s, we have been raped for our taxes and neglected in our infrastructure.

      From the article:
      2.) Bexar, Comal and Medina County residents are represented by their elected County Commissioners. These same commissioners signed an agreement allowing CoSA to regulate development in its ETJ. So the “regulation without representation” mantra is a myth.
      -If they are truly in agreement with CoSA, then this bill shouldn’t affect anything. If the county commissioners feel that the direction that CoSA is going is not kosher with them, then they are free to do what is right for the people they represent.
      3.) The developers from California, Michigan and Dallas, who are clear-cutting and paving over San Antonio’s ETJ, don’t live there or in the city. So they aren’t entitled to vote in City elections anyway.
      -If ETJ residents cannot vote in city elections either, then they shouldn’t be ruled over in any fashion by officials elected in elections that they weren’t allowed to participate in.
      4.) Landowners in the ETJ don’t pay city taxes.
      -And they shouldn’t be controlled by officials elected in elections that they weren’t allowed to participate in.
      5.) Developers are well-represented by lobbyists at City Hall, and by their advocates who serve on the Planning and Zoning Commissions.
      -This seems like a CoSA problem that CoSA needs to clean up and has nothing to do with the residents of the ETJ. Clean up CoSA and affiliates before demanding anything from anyone else.
      6.) The committee that writes San Antonio’s land development codes, the Technical Advisory Committee, is dominated by developers and advocates for the development industries.
      -Again, this seems like a CoSA problem that CoSA needs to clean up and has nothing to do with the residents of the ETJ. Clean up CoSA and affiliates before demanding anything from anyone else.
      7.) ETJ landowners, and developers, wherever they live, are always free to speak before City Council and any city commissions.
      -Have you ever been before the city council? Especially during citizens be heard? IF they even are present, they are sleeping, on their cellphones or other electronics. They don’t pay attention.

  6. Where can a new community, in the San Antonio surrounding area, go for new fresh water?

    Drilling for water is highly restricted and could be too costly, especially within the Edwards Aquifer jurisdiction. Who are the new fresh water suppliers?

    The future cost of water for San Antonio, and, San Antonio Regional area could increase by ten times ($2000 per acre foot for new Vista Ridge water compared to the old rate of $200 per acre foot for Edward Aquifer water).

    Selling water to neighborhoods in Kendall County should be evaluated with the grand scheme in mind for the Edwards Aquifer.

    The grand scheme must become a workable Edwards Aquifer Regional Area master plan, and, the Edwards Aquifer master plan must have input from all stakeholders. Texas laws must properly support the master plan. Stakeholders include downstream San Antonio River users.

    SAWS shares much of the Edwards Aquifer water with San Antonio River downstream users and wildlife. SAWS reduces its use of Edwards Aquifer water to allow for adequate flow of Edwards Aquifer spillover water (Comal Spring and San Marcos Spring, which flow into the San Antonio River). The spillover water protects endangered species and other wildlife.

    SAWS is a leader in innovative ways of managing the Edwards Aquifer water, which includes water conservation. SAWS is developing a desalination plant to treat water at a nearby aquifer that has too much salt. SAWS is developing the Vista Ridge pipeline alternate source of fresh water. SAWS developed Aquifer and Storage and Retrieval (ASR) as a way to store water in times of plenty.

    Other ways to recharge the Edwards Aquifer, in times of plenty, will help prevent flooding, and will help increase Edwards Aquifer water for the regional area, perhaps a at cost closer to $200 per acre than $2000 per acre.

  7. On April 2, 2019, a letter was presented on my behalf during the SAWS meeting of the Board of Trustees. The key points from that letter are provided in response to this coverage of a major change in Texas water policy.

    That would be a change to existing law to allow the importing of Edwards Aquifer water into Kendall County.

    As a consequence, this water could then be sold beyond not only beyond the existing boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), but beyond the boundaries of the SAWS Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CCN) as well as the boundaries of San Antonio and outside of the City’s Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ).

    TO: San Antonio Water System (SAWS) Board of Trustees

    FROM: Milan J. Michalec, Kendall County, TX.

    SUBJECT: SB 1170 and HB 1806

    I request you consider a vote by this Board to withdraw SB 1170 and its companion, HB 1806 from consideration by the Texas Legislature.

    I make this request by pointing out these bills are being used to solve a water supply problem for Kendall County WCID No. 3 and this should be included as a consequence of changing the law to legally allow Edwards Aquifer water into Kendall County.

    The problem began when this water district was created in Kendall County by Local and Special Law in the Senate over two years ago, without a confirmed source of water.

    By these laws, there will be a fix to resolve an issue that began in the Legislature that now, as proposed, is to be fixed by the Legislature.

    A better way forward would be for the developer to work with the local community of Boerne rather than the City of San Antonio.

    As proposed by these bills, their solution will eliminate local resources that could be provided by local government capabilities and options through negotiation and compromise with the developer to reflect conditions in Kendall County rather than Bexar County.

    Though Rep. King’s bill was presented as a House Bill, it is actually the companion bill to a Senate Bill—SB 1170 authored by Sen. Campbell.

    In other words, just to be clear, the bill carried by Rep. King actually belongs to Sen. Campbell. Why does this matter?

    It matters because of a bill she used to create Kendall County WCID No. 3—SB 914 in 2017. This was a water district in search of a water source.

    Two years later, that source of water could finally be resolved if the Legislature were to act on her behalf and approve the movement of Edwards Aquifer water as a backup to the SAWS take of water from Canyon Reservoir into Kendall County,

    I urge you to let Boerne and this developer resolve their water issues without the involvement of this Board using resources and investment intended for San Antonio.

    Milan J. Michalec

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