Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On a former ranch property near an elementary school in Stone Oak, the largest water tank ever built by the San Antonio Water System is under construction.
The tank is approximately 81 feet tall and big enough to hold 10 million gallons, according to SAWS Vice President of Engineering and Construction Andrea Beymer. That's enough to fill 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
"This is where they'll hand off water from one water system to another water system," said Lilliana Gonzalez, a SAWS communications specialist who led a tour of the construction site on Friday.
SAWS has recently named this site Agua Vista Station, a nod to the Vista Ridge pipeline now under construction and set to begin piping water to San Antonio in 2020. Most of SAWS' water comes from the Edwards Aquifer below San Antonio and other nearby sources; Vista Ridge will funnel water here from underground aquifers more than 140 miles away.
SAWS is planning for 45 million gallons per day to flow through Agua Vista, adding up to about 16.4 billion gallons per year. That's enough to meet approximately 20 percent of SAWS' demand in a system that serves 1.7 million people in the San Antonio area.
With only 18 months until the time when SAWS must begin paying the private companies building Vista Ridge, SAWS officials insisted that they’ll be ready to take the water when it starts flowing.
That's regardless of the outcome of a lawsuit with a construction contractor that involves a portion of a pipeline that will connect Agua Vista to the rest of the SAWS system.
The lawsuit came in September after SAWS’ board of trustees voted to award a more than $48 million construction contract to Guy F. Atkinson Construction, a Colorado-based subsidiary of commercial and civil contracting giant Clark Construction.
The job involved building part of a 15-mile pipeline that would connect Agua Vista to the rest of SAWS’ system. The project involves four miles of new pipeline that would link 11 miles of existing pipeline to integrate Vista Ridge into the rest of SAWS' system.
SAWS calls this pipeline its Central Water Integration Pipeline, and it would stretch from Agua Vista down to its Basin Pump Station near the Alamo Quarry Market.
A joint venture between Oscar Renda Contracting and Southland Contracting sued SAWS the week after the vote. The Renda-Southland partnership had submitted the lowest bid for $31.4 million – $16.6 million lower than Atkinson’s bid – but was not awarded the contract.
In legal filings and interviews with the Rivard Report, Southland partner Rudy Renda and his attorneys argued that SAWS staff had used an arbitrary and unfair method of deciding who should win the contract.
“We’re not doing it because we need $31 million,” attorney David Pritchard, who represents the partnership, said in a Thursday phone interview. “We’re doing it because what SAWS did was just wrong. We’ve been in business since 1930 and we know a stinky [contract] solicitation when we see it.”
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said that SAWS is “very comfortable with the way we scored” the bids for the project.
“When you’re on the losing side, you’re going to say it’s arbitrary,” Puente said. “We fully believe we used the discretion that we’re allowed to, that we did what we’re supposed to do as far as looking at his proposal, scoring it, debating it, analyzing it.”
A person who answered the phone at Atkinson’s Golden, Colorado, headquarters referred questions to a Texas-based Atkinson staff member, who did not return a phone message left Thursday.
On Wednesday, SAWS scored an initial legal victory in the bid dispute when a Bexar County district court judge decided not to issue a restraining order that would have immediately stopped Atkinson’s work on the Central Water Integration Pipeline.
However, both sides confirmed that the litigation could still delay the pipeline's completion.
Regardless of the suit's outcome, work is continuing on the Agua Vista site. Roberto Gonzalez, superintendent with contractor DN Tanks, said they've been building the 10-million-gallon tank since March.
Only a few hundred feet from the SAWS tank is its twin, an identical tank built by Kansas City-based Garney Construction, the company leading the consortium that's building Vista Ridge. The tank belongs to Garney and will be used to store Vista Ridge water before it is blended with the correct chemicals to match the water already in the SAWS system.
In April 2020, SAWS must begin paying an estimated $220,000 per day for the water. After the September board meeting, Puente had said SAWS must pay for the water "whether we're ready for it or not."
But in a Thursday phone interview, Puente and SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse told the Rivard Report that SAWS has ways of using the water, even if the lawsuit holds up the completion of the Central Water Integration Pipeline.
“Under separate contracts, not part of this dispute, we’re building the receiving facility, the tanks, the treatment plants, the pumps that could push a lot of the water towards Stone Oak,” Clouse said. “Even if the large pipeline going south out of [Agua Vista] does get delayed, we’re going to push as much water as possible into Stone Oak.”
The lawsuit is the latest snag for the Vista Ridge project in recent years. The most significant came in late 2015, when the Spanish conglomerate originally picked to build Vista Ridge, Abengoa, initiated bankruptcy proceedings.
After some initial turmoil, Garney took an 80 percent controlling stake in the project in 2016.
Also that year, members of San Antonio's firefighters union, then-union consultant Greg Brockhouse, and other pipeline opponents led a petition drive to challenge rate increases necessary to pay for Vista Ridge. The effort failed after they couldn't get the necessary number of signatures.
In the current dispute, Renda-Southland is seeking a temporary injunction that could halt Atkinson’s work, which has been underway for “the last couple of weeks,” SAWS Vice President of Communications Gavino Ramos said.
That fight is just getting started. On Tuesday, a judge is set to hear both sides discuss the injunction request, among other issues.