A raucous group of protestors flooded City Hall on Tuesday afternoon to drop off what they said were stacks of more than 8,000 signatures calling for the City to stop the 142-mile Vista Ridge water pipeline project.
“My water, my life, my right to fight,” echoed through hallways and stairways of City Hall. About 30 of the more than 75 people that gathered on the building’s steps ventured inside the building to hand-deliver the signatures.
At one point, when told by City staff that no Council members nor the Mayor were available to accept the packages in person, they started banging their hands on a desk in unison.
“I’m disappointed,” Former Councilmember María Berriozábal said when it became clear no one beyond City staff was coming. “(But) frankly I’m not surprised. We have not been listened to.”
She held in her arms what she said was 1,200 signatures from San Antonians. Representatives from other central Texas counties said they have collected about 6,800 signatures on their statement in opposition to the project and, after some debate on whether to do so, they were left with Assistant to City Council Christopher Callanen to file with the City Clerk.
A City spokesperson estimated that the Clerk’s office received a total of 2,200 signatures on Tuesday from almost entirely “residents of Central Texas counties, addressed to multiple statewide officeholders.” The Clerk’s office will make digital and physical copies of the statements and distribute it to City Council members and the mayor.
“Dropping it off (with City staff) doesn’t give us the assurance that anyone is going to get it,” said Diana Lopez, a protest organizer who works with the Southwest Workers Union after leaving City Hall. “We want to do it face to face with the people who are making the decisions.”
Lopez said they will instead present the signatures during the public hearing Thursday at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers. The results of a controversial water report will be explained earlier in the day by its lead author, Director of Texas A&M University’s Institute of Renewable Natural Resources Roel Lopez. The report’s leaked draft, which was critical of Vista Ridge and has been criticized for using inaccurate research methods, fueled renewed opposition from some environmental and water policy groups.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and Council members Alan Warrick (D2), Roberto Treviño (D1), and Mike Gallagher (D10) are in Mexico for the San Antonio to Mexico DF Trade and Economic Development Mission. Other council members were simply unavailable during the lunch-hour protest, said Ron Nirenberg (D8).
“I reassured them that no one is to blame for the fact that there wasn’t anyone here,” Nirenberg said of his encounter with protest organizers after the event. “Previously scheduled travel and the fact that we’ve got a lot going on – including events that happen during lunch” led to today’s frustrations. “But there wasn’t any malice.”
“Banging on doors doesn’t get my attention,” he said. “What gets my attention is people engaging in the democratic process … which is what they (protesters) did as well.”
The $3.4 billion project that plans to 16 billion gallons of water from Burleson County’s Carrizo Aquifer to San Antonio every year for 30-60 years was unanimously approved a little over a year ago by City Council. But protestors, most affiliated with community and activist groups, have loosely banded together to form the Mi Agua Mi Vida (“my water my life”) Coalition as City Council prepares to vote on SAWS’ proposed rate increase and rate restructuring.
“The rate hike and the rate structure are very unfair to working class and poor people,” Berriozábal said.
Customers are looking at a projected average monthly rate hike of 7.5% in 2016, and 7.9% in 2017, part of which is a 1.8% and 3.2% respective increase in the fixed water supply fee. A portion of water bills will start going towards the Vista Ridge project in 2016, but the increases also reflect needs for the brackish water desalination project and federally-mandated sewer line upgrades and repairs.
SAWS is also asking City Council to approve a new rate structure that further divides the current five-tiered structure into eight. To encourage conservation, SAWS residential customers that use less than 2,992 gallons would receive a reduced rate and discounted Availability Charge. Charges would be exponentially higher for customers that use a lot of water. SAWS officials say less than half of residential customers will see a decrease in their monthly water bill. People that use more water for “discretionary uses” – like watering a large lawn or washing a car – will pay more.
City Council is required to approve SAWS’ new rates before the deal’s financial closing phase.
“We requested a major public hearing in the evening so that people could come,” Berriozábal said, a request that in her opinion is not fulfilled by those held during B and A Sessions of City Council. She’d like to see something held in a larger space without the formal rules of speaking times in place during citizen to be heard sessions. “Just coming for two minutes to speak at city hall is not enough.”
Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Executive Director Graciela Sanchez said the city can do without the water from Vista Ridge.
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“Our community has learned to conserve, we’re not wasting water,” Sanchez said, adding that a combination of conservation, desalinization, and rainwater catchment will be enough.
But both the draft report and the final report recognize the need for at least 50,000 acre feet more per year to keep up with San Antonio’s rapidly growing population and economy in addition to its existing projects and programs.
Nirenberg welcomed the activity in City Hall.
“This is democracy in action. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always turbulence free,” he said. “In fact when it’s working properly it’s quite the opposite.”