There are no easy ways to address the critical water supply challenges that cities across America, particularly growing cities like San Antonio, will face in the future. Booming urban populations will dovetail with more extreme weather patterns, including longer droughts. In San Antonio, we have made strategic investments to ensure long-term water security, from diversifying our water portfolio to one of the largest recycling water operations in the country to continually improving conservation as a first line of defense.
But what have we done to protect the water infrastructure on which that system – which we all own – is built? Not enough. On Thursday, City Council will have an opportunity to approve a rate adjustment that gets our San Antonio Water System (SAWS) back to basics.
This rate increase represents a critical step in reversing chronic neglect of our water infrastructure. A portion of the increase will focus on tackling decades of deferred maintenance on water lines that before 2011 were left largely untouched. There isn’t a more fundamental need than delivering clean water every time we turn on our faucets. Investing in our future means making difficult but necessary investments now so that our children won’t have to pay for our mistakes.
In 2013, SAWS was forced to sign a settlement agreement with the EPA because it failed to keep up maintenance of its sewer lines. Although the consent decree helped SAWS avoid costly federal litigation, it also requires an additional $492 million investment over the next 10 years to reduce sewer spills and maintain sewer system infrastructure. The large majority of this rate adjustment goes to these mandated investments.
But we also want to avoid the same scenario with our water supply lines, which is why I directed SAWS to invest proactively in maintenance, increasing the rate adjustment from 5.3 percent to 5.8 percent. SAWS has been replacing water lines at less than half of the recommended industry rate. We have to do better.
When you own a car, you perform routine maintenance to protect your investment and make sure it’s in good condition. You wouldn’t go years without changing the oil. The City Council must treat the water system, which you own, with the same thoughtful care.
The decisions we make to maintain the San Antonio Water System, just like the infrastructure itself, belong to all of us. SAWS is and should be held publicly accountable. The City Council will continue to advocate for the conservation, transparency, and fiscal responsibility measures that I championed as a councilman and now as your mayor. Already we have worked together to improve the SAWS Water Management Plan to strengthen conservation goals, increase transparency around the groundwater modeling for the Vista Ridge project, and take into greater account how projected population increases will increase water demand.
As SAWS board member, I have also worked to strengthen organizational transparency and accountability, initiating new compensation and evaluation metrics that more accurately reflect community goals. I recognize the valid community concern about CEO Robert Puente’s pay. A regularly updated compensation study will give the board further insight on adjusting pay structures and establishing more appropriate compensation metrics.
We should be careful not to confuse these process improvements with City Council’s responsibility to maintain the water infrastructure itself. Because the health of our water system is vital to our future, the rate increase will go towards sorely overdue capital improvement projects that include water line repair, upgrades, and other basics that address water delivery, water supply, recycled water, and wastewater.
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I have proposed increasing the number of SAWS staff committed to community outreach, and we have committed $1 million to SAWS’ affordability program, making the resource available to more residents. City Council is working with SAWS to strengthen the utility’s community engagement and outreach to help more residents access the affordability program.
For SAWS to deliver an adequate supply of clean and affordable water now and in the future, it must ensure that proposed rate increases strike a balance between proactively addressing our needs and living within our means. As your mayor, that is my vision.
SAWS is owned by all of us and the generations of San Antonians who will follow. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to take good care of it.