Yes, San Antonio needs additional sources of water – but not for the wrong kind of growth. The Vista Ridge pipeline is not the answer.
Mike Beldon’s recent commentary, “Why San Antonio Needs New Water Sources,” began with several points of common ground. Yes, San Antonio needs to be sure there will be adequate water to meet the city's future needs. And SAWS certainly deserves much credit for promoting water efficiency and conservation. (For instance, Beldon’s own home illustrates the beauty of water-efficient landscaping that SAWS promotes.)
Beldon is right that conservation is not enough. Climate change is already giving this region a double whammy: higher temperatures lasting for longer periods and more extreme weather events – especially worse droughts and floods.
The threat of serious and prolonged drought is very real. The last four years were bad enough – but picture that lasting for 35 years or more. Without greatly increased water conservation – not only by residents, but also by commercial and industrial users – San Antonio will not survive a lengthy drought.
Yes, San Antonio needs additional sources of water, but Vista Ridge is not the answer.
The 30-year, $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water project will bring 50,000 acre-feet a year from Burleson County to San Antonio via a 142-mile pipeline. The main reason San Antonio needs additional sources of water is that the city relies too much on mining aquifers for its water supply. In the face of climate change, groundwater and surface water supplies will be at risk. Both the Edwards and the Carrizo aquifers are vulnerable, but for different reasons.
Unlike oil, water is a renewable resource because it comes as precipitation. In an article in Forbes Magazine, Peter Gleick discussed the issue of “Peak Renewable Water,” serious limits to water availability. For communities relying on aquifer water, “Peak Renewable Water” refers to the maximum rate of draw-down possible, given that aquifer’s recharge rate.
The Carrizo Wilcox Aquifer recharges very slowly, according to studies used by the Texas Water Development Board. One 2005 study indicated that the recharge in Burleson County’s segment of the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District Carrizo Wilcox aquifer, where Vista Ridge’s Blue Water Systems partner owns water rights, averages merely 13,000 acre feet per year — only about one-fourth of the 50,000 acre feet Vista Ridge promises to deliver annually to SAWS. Vista Ridge is only one of several projects that have contracted to lease water rights for pumping from that part of the aquifer.
San Antonio may be already at or past Peak Renewable Water from the Edwards Aquifer, too. When human activity – like paving and building over the aquifer recharge zones – destroys or diminishes the capacity of the natural system of aquifer recharge, then much renewable water is lost. For example, during recent downpours north of Loop 1604, a considerable amount of rainfall could not enter the aquifer, due to impervious cover over the recharge zone. Rainfall became polluted “urban runoff” rather than recharge for our renewable water supplies.
One of San Antonio’s highest priorities must be to hold onto as much of the precipitation that falls in our watershed as possible. That includes, not only capturing it in aquifers, cisterns, and lakes, but also retaining it in the soil (e.g., with compost), wetlands, creek beds, and riparian habitats.
Vista Ridge is not the answer because it is extremely expensive, energy-intensive, inflexible and un-adaptable. Energy-intensive water is especially bad, because most Texas energy production uses lots of water and emits great amounts of greenhouse-gasses that contributes to more climate change. The Vista Ridge contract requires San Antonio to pay for all that water, whether or not we need it. And it cannot guarantee that the water will be there when we need it the most.
Worst of all, committing that much money to a single source of future water will prevent the city from investing in alternative and innovative resources that are less expensive, less energy-intensive, and locally accessible. Water captured and stored near to the point of use is far less energy-intensive than water piped long distances. For example, rainwater harvesting is a proven way of supplying lots of water in this region; it also reduces stormwater runoff. New technologies, such as Atmospheric Water Generation now being tested at Trinity University, have the potential to produce large quantities of drinking water with minimal electricity consumption.
San Antonio doesn’t really need more water now, if it conserved and reused more. Vista Ridge is water for future growth, supplied primarily at the expense of current residents.
Mike Beldon repeats the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s mantra that “growth is inevitable.” Not true. Economic downturns, resource availability, local policies and many other factors markedly affect growth in a region. Chamber of Commerce population projections serve mainly to encourage businesses to relocate to San Antonio and the City to provide incentives for such growth. Thus, the story that growth is inevitable is a self-fulfilling and self-serving prophecy.
Cities such as Santa Barbara, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., have successfully limited growth and still have healthy, vibrant economies. Boulder did this by establishing a service area boundary that defined the limits of water and sewer service. Both cities offer residents a very high quality of life and a relatively secure water future.
Inherent in the Chamber’s philosophy is the concept that “growth is good.” True for some, untrue for most. Those who benefitted directly from the kind of growth that San Antonio has experienced in the last 20-plus years (e.g. realtors, builders, land speculators, etc.) are understandably eager to keep doing more of the same. But that is literally not sustainable.
Developers and builders pay only a small percentage of the true costs that produce their profits. It’s the current residents that pay a hefty price for this growth. We pay it in the form of higher property taxes, traffic congestion, air pollution, noise, and other damages to our quality of life. SAWS’ ratepayers have been forced for decades (by state legislation) to cover most of the water supply impact fees that should have been paid by developers. Will Vista Ridge be the excuse to drop those impact fees altogether?
The worst feature of Vista Ridge: It is already promoting excessive use of water by future businesses and residents. How is it that, only a few months after the Vista Ridge deal was approved, California-based Niagara’s water bottling plant was being fast-tracked through zoning approval? Good thing the company bailed on the deal. It would have used some 830 million gallons annually – more than twice the annual usage of the single most water-intensive current business.
How many other water-guzzling businesses are being courted already, with promises of cheap water and energy, tax incentives, and other subsidies at the expense of current residents? When a development agency like Brooks City Base touts San Antonio’s water costs as “among the lowest in the United States,” it is clearly inviting water-intensive industries. California’s dire situation, necessitating huge mandatory cut-backs in water usage, should be a warning to us. City Council must make sure that no commitments are being made for the future that would allow any business to drain our water resources during prolonged or severe drought.
Let’s change San Antonio’s business pitch. We want to attract people to living in a “water-wise” community, not the exploitable “water abundant” city that SAWS and the Chamber of Commerce are promoting.
*Photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.