Nirenberg: Fiscal Responsibility, Water Security Require Investment in SAWS

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San Antonio Water System headquarters sign.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A sign at San Antonio Water System headquarters.

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.

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.

4 thoughts on “Nirenberg: Fiscal Responsibility, Water Security Require Investment in SAWS

  1. Nice words Mayor, but the ‘mandated’ sewer repairs are getting the smallest of the rate increases in 2018, and not the “large majority”. Using the Consent Decree and the EPA as a cudgel to justify rate increases when the numbers paint a different picture is disingenuous.

    If it’s so important, why does it seem to get short shrift in comparison to water supply and delivery?

    In 2018, 3.6% is requested for sewer vs. 4.5% for water supply and 9.7% for water delivery, which includes the fixed charge for the meter.
    In 2017, sewer only got 5.6% vs higher increases for water supply/delivery.
    In 2016, sewer only got 0.1% vs 15.8% for water – and that was after sewer rates were first reduced in the 2015 restructure. 0.1%, or only 4 cents on the “average bill”.

    Over 50% of the original $4M for the affordability program came from sewer, with lesser amounts from water supply and water delivery. If you can afford to take more out, while putting comparatively less in, then I question the emphasis – or even the need – for more money due to the Consent Decree because the numbers don’t match your rhetoric.

    You state the Council has topped off the affordability program with $500k more than SAWS budgeted in 2018. This was apparently a bargaining chip to convince other Council members to support the proposed rate plan. SAWS was extremely quick to take credit for that in its advertising, claiming it was “spending” more money on affordability. In fact, that’s ratepayer money, not SAWS, and it’s offensive when SAWS presents that as a gift to the community, particularly because it’s probably coming out of the City’s General Fund with zero impact on SAWS’ budget. As you point out, it’s our water system and our money – SAWS seems to forget that.

    The budget for replacing failed sewer laterals has not increased a penny in three years, despite claimed inflation costs, and has stayed constant at $4.2M, with an additional $700k added due to SAWS “overhead”. In 2017, SAWS changed the failure impact of sewer laterals away from sewer overflows and EPA-must pay into a much more benign “customer dissatisfaction.”

    In the same time period, the budget for oversizing water mains for new development was increased by 10%. The impact of a smaller line is simply low water pressure, but larger supply lines subsidize growth and sprawl in new developments. You approved those changes while sitting on the Council and did nothing to rectify them this year: more money to get more customers in new subdivisions, but the same money to fix sewer laterals.

    I know for a fact that SAWS’ presentation to the City Council was misleading and unclear. I know this because I personally had to explain it to more than one of them. I also had to explain it to at least two journalists who report on SAWS – that’s how bad it was.

    To date, SAWS has yet to publish the actual rate increases anywhere outside of an obscure reference in the Board Meeting minutes. Is that transparency?

    Community outreach by rank and file SAWS workers is worthless if SAWS leadership is unclear and dishonest in their presentations to the public – and that includes their financial documents. I’ve scrubbed the budgets, I’ve read the CFARs, I’ve reviewed countless presentations and attended public meetings and that’s my bottom-line impression.

    I’m sure the measure will pass tomorrow. I predict 8-3, with an outside chance at 7-4.

    You’re now part of SAWS leadership. I sincerely hope you do better in the future than you and your peers are doing right now.

  2. P.S. Mayor – in your zeal for transparency, please state, specifically, where the extra $1.5 Million for the Affordability Program came from and which Council members were adamant about it.

    I sincerely want to know. In fact, I expect it’s required by Open Meetings laws.

    Please tell me when the revised SAWS and City budgets will be published that reflect the +1.5M and which programs you’ve reduced in order to make the books balance.
    On Wednesday it was an extra $1M, but to get the votes you needed on Thursday you had to sweeten the pot up to $2M.
    I hope there aren’t too many more controversial votes, I’m not sure we can afford that brand of leadership.

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