The Vista Ridge pipeline project was not far from anyone’s mind during the fifth installment of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, entitled “San Antonio Water: A New Era” at the Pearl Stable Wednesday.
The details of the $3.4-billion, 142-mile water pipeline deal was discussed at length Wednesday during a 6 p.m. public hearing at City Council chambers in the Municipal Plaza Building on Main Plaza. Mayor Ivy Taylor spoke before the panel began, urging participants to attend the evening meeting as well.
“I’m convinced that the Vista Ridge water supply project is a good opportunity for diversification, using a new structure for water delivery,” Taylor said. “We lead the nation in water conservation … we intend to maintain that leadership as we launch a new comprehensive planning process to ensure that our local growth is more sustainable than it has been in the past.”
Taylor and District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, and District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg attended the forum just hours before B Session began.
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The luncheon panel at Pearl Stable addressed the project at length, and one important theme emerged from the discussion beyond the immediate debate over the Vista Ridge proposal: Water in San Antonio is unsustainably cheap.
“We’re now (at) ground zero for both the struggle to protect our environment, but also to ensure that we have continued economic prosperity,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. “We have never priced this precious substance anywhere near to what its value to us is.”
Water pumped from the Edwards Aquifer, no longer sufficient to meet the growing city’s or region’s needs, costs between $331 and $541 an acre-foot. The permitted rights SAWS holds to pump aquifer water is subject to restrictions during times of drought.
There is no way to diversify the city’s water supply without paying more, panelists agreed. Water acquired through a pipeline deal struck with nearby Gonzalez County costs $1,200 an acre-foot. The water that will flow from the SAWS desalination plant now under construction will cost more than $2,000 an acre-foot. Vista Ridge water will cost about the same, depending the final costs of construction and financing the project if it’s approved.
The Vista Ridge pipeline project alone could represent an estimated 16% rate increase in water bills.
Sansom was joined by SAWS Water Director of Conservation Karen Guz; Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative CEO Mark Rose; Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority General Manager Bill West; and SAWS Board Trustee Reed Williams on a panel moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard.
No one disagreed with the notion that we aren’t paying enough for water, even with the utility’s tiered rate structure – using more water means customers pay more per gallon.
“One of the hard discussions that we’ve had in San Antonio – and have been pretty progressive about – is acknowledging that you look at water as a tiered theme,” Guz said. “Health and human safety water is paramount. Then we want to make sure the economic engine of San Antonio keeps going, then you keep going down to (other) needs and (then) things we really, really want. It gets to the more discretionary uses of water. This is where it gets kind of hot and heavy in the community: What is discretionary water?”
About 83% of SAWS bills come in at a level that indicates very little landscape irrigation, Guz said. There are business owners and residents, however, who feel strongly that landscape irrigation is not discretionary.
“God love you, this is Texas. Congratulations, you have an acre of land. Good. But that doesn’t mean that irrigating it and keeping green grass on it is necessarily subsidized by the rest of the community,” she added.
The last SAWS rate restructure in 2010 required the top 20% of water users pay a surcharge for third and fourth tier water. Unfortunately, Williams said, the same rate structure reduced the cost of water for 83% of SAWS customers, meaning the same price break intended to help the economically challenged was extended to middle class and wealthy ratepayers.
“You don’t drop the price of a commodity,” Williams said, bewildered by the price reduction. “You can protect the very efficient users (and) the very needy folks who need a lifeline supply of water…but we set the wrong price signals last time. Absolutely the wrong price signal. When is the last time they dropped the price of gasoline back to 21 cents a gallon?”
Williams served as District 8 City Council member at the time of that particular rate increase.
“(Last time the rate was restructured), I kicked like an old, mad mule and didn’t get anything accomplished. I think this time we will. We’re seating a new Rate Advisory Committee,” he said.
SAWS ratepayers can expect a more aggressive, tiered rate structure in the future.
Costs to local ratepayers from the proposed Vista Ridge pipeline project could be offset if SAWS finds other regional water users interested in buying some of the anticipated 50,000 acre-feet that will be delivered from rural Burleson County to San Antonio starting five years from now. SAWS Board Chairman Berto Guerra predicted there will be no lack of takers for the water in introductory remarks he made at the luncheon forum.
“We probably, in five or six years, will only need about 25,000 acre-feet,” he said. “We believe we can sell some of that water so we will defray some of the costs.”
All this, however, is not to overshadow conservation efforts.
“Raising the price of water is not going to keep us from being good at (conservation),” he said.
“It would be a terrible outcome of this project if it lead our citizens to conclude that because of the ability to bring large, new water supply into the community we turned away from the culture that has allowed us to lead the state – lead much of the United States – in the appropriate and exciting way that we approach (water conservation),” Sansom said.
Guz assured the crowd that the efforts to get residential and commercial users to conserve water will never stop. Opportunities to conserve water still abound, she said, especially if customers take advantage of SAWS’ free house calls to inspect landscaping irrigation systems and provide free advice on how to make them more efficient.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Guz said. Through SAWS’ WaterSaver coupons and rebate programs, customers are replacing their water-intensive turf lawns with “a colorful palette” of drought resistant native plants and reducing consumption an average 4,000 gallons of water per month.
“I guarantee you we can find you a way that your water bill will be smaller,” Guz said confidently.
Mark Rose of Bluebonnet added his perspective as a former general manager and CEO of the Lower Colorado River Authority.
“We don’t do a good job of analyzing the economic cost of doing nothing,” he said. “This is absolutely the most devastating drought that we’ve faced and perhaps the most dangerous.”
More and more cities will be looking to groundwater and pipeline deals in the future, he said, and “You’re not going to make water that’s going to last 50 to 60 years be cheap today. Ain’t going to happen.
“Austin is going to have to wake up to the fact that it is going to have to acquire some groundwater,” he continued. “There has not been a reservoir built in the Colorado Basin since 1951 … Austin has added a million people and not one drop (of new water).”
San Antonio’s population is expected to grow from 1.4 million to 2.4 million by 2040 – perhaps more if annexation of surrounding land continues. The county population, which now stands at 1.8 million, likely will reach 3 million.
“The growth that’s coming will move us into perpetual drought,” he said.
Water and ecology know no political boundaries so it will take a collaborative effort to ensure that regional populations have access to water, said Bill West.
“My long-term vision is to be able to wield water like we wield (electrical) power,” West said. “Eventually, for the benefit of the state of Texas, I think we need to be able to share (water) across the state.”
Prior to the panel discussion, Joe Aceves, the first CEO of SAWS (1992-1997), was honored with the 2014 Water for Life Award. Aceves oversaw the formation and development of SAWS in 1992 by merging three City departments. He successfully led the politically thorny integration of BexarMet customers into the SAWS system in 2012.
One of the difficulties, he said, of the BexarMet merger was, “You didn’t want to make them feel like they were some kind of captured party … you wanted them to feel like equals.”
Throughout his lengthy career as a water engineer and executive Aceves said the most important element in water management is trust.
“We developed a trust foundation,” he said. “You need to know people are going to do what they say they’re going to do.”
Wednesday’s forum was recorded by the local PBS station, KLRN, and will air Friday, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 2 at 1 p.m. on KLRN HD 9.1. The recording will also be available online at www.klrn.org.
*Featured/top image: From left: SAWS Water Conservation Director Karen Guz, TSU’s Medows Center for Water and the Environment Executive Director Andrew Sansom, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority General Manager Bill West, Bluebonnet Electric Coop CEO Mark Rose, SAWS Boardmember Reed Williams, and moderator Robert Rivard. Photo by Iris Dimmick.