Water is on the tip of many Texan tongues as spring eases into summer and, with it, the words "drought" and "restriction" aren't far behind. While the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) continues to encourage innovation and conservation from its commercial and residential customers by offering rebates, coupons, awards and grants – SAWS also takes responsibility for reducing sewer spills, developing and finding new sources of water, and enforcing water restrictions.
SAWS honored four businesses in San Antonio today during its third annual Refreshing Ideas Awards Luncheon for exemplary water conservation and sustainable use practices. The luncheon also included an open conversation between Robert Rivard, our Editor-In-Chief, and SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente about what customers can expect this summer and how SAWS plans on spending its share of the recently authorized $2 billion State Water Implementation Fund, initially funded in part by the Rainy Day Fund.
"We're accustomed to drought," he said. Because of conservation and storage measures implemented throughout the year, Puente is confident that SAWS is prepared for another long, hot summer in San Antonio.
The weather – so far – has begun to cooperate. Once predicted to start in March of this year, SAWS officials are now anticipating Stage Three water restrictions (landscape watering allowed only once every two weeks) won't be needed until June – thanks to April showers.
Currently at Stage Two, San Antonians are restricted to outdoor watering once-a-week during two, four-hour time periods throughout the day.
[For more information about local water restrictions see our coverage: "Get Ready for Brown Grass as San Antonio Nears Stage 3 Water Restrictions."]
Last year, SAWS emphasized community education about and awareness of the restrictions. Most violators were just issued warnings, Puente said. This year, however, "We'll be more aggressive in enforcement ... issuing more citations."
Puente also pointed out rebate and educational programs that help the community conserve water. Programs like the WaterSaver Home Check-Up offer free one-on-one expert water audits for residential customers. SAWS conservation consultants check homes for leaks in bathroom, kitchen, laundry and irrigation systems and suggest cheap or free solutions.
SAWS also offers residential customers coupons and rebates for landscaping materials and efficient irrigation systems and free water-efficient toilets and fixtures. Similar rebates, grants, and check-ups are available to commercial customers.
The awards presented today recognize those businesses that have gone beyond installing low-flow toilets.
"These companies have demonstrated innovative approaches to environmentalism," said SAWS Vice President of Public Affairs Greg Flores, who announced the winners.
The most publicly visible of the awarded companies is The Shops at La Cantera facility. The 1,700 acre open-air shopping mall uses an air conditioner condensation and reclamation system that re-uses water via gravity and efficient design for the mall's extensive water features and lush (but not necessarily thirsty) native vegetation. SAWS estimates that the systems save about 4.3 million gallons of water and more than $65,000 per year.
"H-E-B, traditionally, is one of the top (SAWS) water users ... (they) will not do anything unless it's cost-effective," Puente said, citing their low profit margin on discounted goods and service to the community. "They know the cost of water is part of their bottom line."
Each program and incentive plays a part, he said. "They cumulatively add up to (significant) water savings."
While conservation remains a cornerstone of SAWS water management plans, Puente said, "You cannot conserve your way through the growth we're experiencing."
SAWS will continue to diversify San Antonio's water supply portfolio through a number of different projects, Puente said. The $297 million brackish groundwater facility project -- projected to be the largest inland desalinization plant in the U.S. -- is on track to break ground this fall in southern Bexar County. The plant is scheduled to start pumping 11 million gallons of water per day out of the Wilcox Aquifer in 2016.
Officials are also finalizing selection of a private water purveyor to import 50,000 acre feet of water into Bexar County – equivalent to 25% of current annual supply. Four proposals in which the sellers assume all the capital costs are being considered, Puente said. Water should start flowing to SAWS by 2018. A price tag hasn't been placed on these yet, but, as Rivard pointed out and Puente agreed, this project will cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" in infrastructure, which will eventually be passed on to rate payers.
Another under-developed water source is recycled water, Puente said. While there are many commercial customers currently using recycled water – most golf courses, the Toyota Manufacturing Plant, and CPS Energy – "what we really want is to develop that source for more manufacturing."
We've got a long summer ahead of us, but the tone of the luncheon was optimistic. Local businesses are taking the initiative to conserve water usage, as San Antonio continues to be recognized nationally as a leader in urban water conservation and management, said SAWS Chairman Heriberto "Berto" Guerra during his closing remarks.
"We are so respected as a community for what we have done with water conservation," Guerra said of his conversations with water management teams across the nation. "We are heroes out there ... (but SAWS) has to continue to be responsible to find more water supplies" and cut back on expenses for the ratepayer.