The Cost of New Water: A City That’s Outgrown its Aquifer

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By Robert Rivard

There might be more entertaining things to do on a Saturday afternoon, but with one eye on the U.S. Women’s soccer team as they dominated Colombia in a physical 3-0 win, I also visited the Edward Aquifer Authority website to check the Bexar County  J-17 well.

The J-17 well is in the shed at the foot of the Fort Sam Houston water tower.

If water is a city’s lifeblood, then the J-17 well is the pulse of metro San Antonio. You’ve probably driven by the wellhead countless times. It’s located in a shed under the water tower at Fort Sam Houston.  It’s been there since 1956, replacing the well used since 1932. J-17 lies along a major flow channel of the Edwards Aquifer. Hydrologists say the site quickly rises and falls with pumpage and recharge and thus serves as an accurate measure of aquifer water supply.

Saturday’s well reading, a measure of relative water pressure, stood at 644.2 feet, 16.5 feet below the historical average for this calendar date, and falling. San Antonio is in Stage II water restrictions right now, which went into effect  when the J-17 well dropped below 650 feet.  Without August rains, the J-17 well likely will fall below 640 feet, triggering Stage III restrictions, reducing lawn watering to one day every other week.

Water and water conservation is a frequent topic on The Rivard Report, including a June 9 article, “Cheap Water: End of an Era,” which forecast a coming rate increase in 2013, and a day earlier, “Spills and Sprawl,” which examined the growing risk of sewage spills and other contaminants threatening the integrity of the recharge zone.

Over the years, the aquifer’s plenitude has lulled San Antonio into well-hydrated complacency. For decades, groundwater has been abundant, clean and cheap. Voters rejected efforts to develop surface water resources. Now, it’s about to get more complicated. City leaders and SAWS officials will soon have to address the simple fact that the city has outgrown its water supply. Any solution will require creativity, a willingness to stand down political opposition to rate increases, and a whole lot of communication with the public.

Right now San Antonio is not on a path to achieve the ambitious SA2020 goal of reducing per capita consumption to 116 gallons of water per day per household. In recent wet years, consumption has been as low as 124 gallons, but during the drought that number spiked to 149 gallons a day or even higher. In a city that sees itself as leader in terms of conservation, what more can be done?

Former St. Augustine lawn in Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape

In Alamo Heights: a vibrant, drought-tolerant garden and edible wildscape.

NO one at SAWS, City Hall  or the Bexar County Commissioners Court has an appetite for promoting the kind of changes that would allow San Antonio to conserve its way to the SA2020 goal. What would it take? A twofold plan to eliminate a significant percentage of non-native St. Augustine grass. Other cities in the arid Southwest have offered incentives to business and homeowners to replace existing grass lawns with wildscapes, and passed ordinances to limit grass lawns  that developers can install in new construction.

Landscape irrigation is the single big variable on the table. We’re already maxing out use of recycled non-potable water.  Most people who oppose such change, including many influential business leaders, believe the only alternative is Las Vegas-style gravel and cacti landscaping. A brown San Antonio, they argue, will scare off companies dependent on water.

Solarization: Don't scrimp on the mulch and newspapers

Converting grass to wildscape is easy with solarization. Use mulch on top of newspapers to kill grass and weeds.

I live with a master gardener, which means I’ve learned that solarizing your grass lawn and replacing it with a colorful, native wildscape is actually a highly desirable alternative, and something that is taking place in many other cities where conservation-minded individuals are moving away from automatic irrigation systems and water waste. In San Antonio, there is no public incentive  to encourage such change.

That leaves San Antonio with one other option: Find more water, something just about everyone in the state outside East Texas also is doing. In other words, it’s a competitive market; scarce available water will not be cheap.

SAWS already is expanding its water inventory. How? It’s building a brackish water treatment plant and continuing to recharge surplus aquifer water into underground ASR facilities, which are then reserved for use when primary water supplies require supplementation. Even those measures, however, are insufficient to meet future demand. That is why last year SAWS issued a so-called request for proposals from public and private entities with access to other alternative water supplies.

Since then, the process has been carried out beyond public view as SAWS initially reviewed nine proposals that it deemed plausible, and then pared the list down to four finalists announced in early April. Members of  City Council, who will have to approve the inevitable rate increase necessary to fund the purchase of outside water, have not seen the proposals or been briefed by SAWS. Should such an important decision be taken outside of public view, leaving voters and ratepayers unable to form their own judgements about such a fundamental change?

The closed-door process of deciding who in the secondary water market will be chosen by SAWS is supposed to occur as part of the utility’s process to update its 50-year comprehensive water management plan, which was supposed to be released this summer. It now appears that won’t happen until September or even later. The current 2009 Water Management Plan update available online is outdated; SAWS officials use more current data when briefing civic and business leaders.

Buying water from outside sources might be necessary, according to informed people I’ve spoken with, but ratepayers remain in the dark about the costs. New water will be expensive water: expensive to buy, to transport, to treat for impurities, and to move safely and efficiently around the SAWS service area. A city that sits atop an aquifer can drill wells at the point of demand. Not so with water brought in from elsewhere. A distribution and filtration system will have to be built. That is in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars already needed for improvements to existing infrastructure to reduce untreated sewage spills and to control water leaks, which now account for nearly 15% of all SAWS water being pumped.

Public officials have a tough but necessary task ahead of them in educating ratepayers about the cost of securing our water future.

We will explore the issue on Oct. 10 when the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum stages another water symposium  that I will moderate before a live audience in San Antonio. KLRN-TV will broadcast an edited version of the symposium.

You don’t have to wait until then to watch a program that addresses many of the same issues at the state level. Texas Monthly organized and hosted a July 12 symposium in Austin that complemented an excellent special report, “The Last Drop,” published in the July edition of the magazine. Here is a link to “Life by the Drop: Solutions for the Looming Water Crisis in Texas,” the complete symposium video.

By the way, I just checked the unofficial J-17 live well reading. It’s down from 644.2 feet noted at the beginning of this article to 643.61 as I sign off.

Coming next: A look at more punitive pricing for major water users, and how that money could provide SAWS with much-needed infrastructure capital, and also ease the effect of a rate increase on low income ratepayers.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.



7 thoughts on “The Cost of New Water: A City That’s Outgrown its Aquifer

  1. Great article, Robert. We can always count on the Rivard Report to do the much-needed reporting on water conservation. One additional conservation program for owners of rural land in San Antonio and Bexar county that I was hoping to see mentioned in your article is the Aquifer Protection Initiative. This competitive program pays landowners to conserve their land through something called a conservation easement. To learn more about this program and how landowners can pursue funding, see our blog about it:

  2. In 2010, median household income in Queensland, Australia was about US$48,000 as compared to San Antonio’s median household income of $42,513 in 2009. According to the Queensland Water Commission (2009), in South East Queensland residents responded to drought restrictions by decreasing water use from 70 gallons per person per day (gpcd) to 34 gpcd. After restrictions were lifted, water use rose only to 43 gpcd. I don’t propose that San Antonio’s 116 gcpd target be reduced by 40% or more to match Queensland’s, but clearly a reasonable quality of life and economic growth can be achieved even with a much more conservative consumption of water that projected. And conservation will always be cheaper than additional sources. The trick is how to get there.

    Your report of the lack of transparency in the current planning processes and political will to deal with this complex and politically charged issue is particularly worrisome. All positive experiences with self-regulation (and that will be a big piece of a successful and sustainable water supply strategy) have certain elements in common: (i) a credible threat that creates a climate for action; (ii) establishment of objectives and policies to deal with the threat that reflect the values of the community/society in question; and (iii) establishing priorities based on where there is a consensus among a critical mass of key stakeholders. Implementing these principals in function of defining San Antonio’s water future require both of these ingredients (transparency and political will) plus a third: a genuine desire to engage with and involve key stakeholders in the process. Finding solutions through such an approach is a very lengthy process so sooner begun, the better.

    Just two other quick comments:
    * Re: “We’re already maxing out use of recycled non-potable water”. I believe there is much to be done there. Current users of “purple pipe” water extravagantly waste that resource (how common is it to see sprinklers running at local univerisities (e.g., Trinity) and public facilities (e.g., sport’s fields) during the heat of the day and water running off down the street? Just because it is recycled should not be a license to misuse it. Basic conservation guidelines for recycled water are needed to ensure its wise use and broadest availability.
    * I am looking forward to your next article but would suggest that “punitive pricing” is not the issue. The issue is paying the full (real) cost of water, both from a quantity and a quality perspective….and that also includes the current value of future costs for ensuring both. That may seem punitive to some, but failing to price the resource correctly will ultimately be punitive for all.

  3. Robert,
    This is a very readable, clear and comprehensive report on San Antonio’s water demand/supply equation. You serve your city well, even if the politicos don’t.

  4. I am very pleased you are involved in the water debate. You are a very fair, objective reporter of the facts. Keep up the good work as this issue is by far the most critical issue facing our city and our region. A city without water is a city that dies.


  5. SAWS has complimented my interest in a comment on Twitter today, but also asserted that I have my facts wrong. I have left messages for Greg Flores, SAWS VP-Public Affairs, and invited him to point out any mistakes. I’ve also offered he and other SAWS officials the opportunity to submit their own articles for The Rivard Report, an offer they have not taken up to date.

  6. Thanks for the article, Jim! I think there is much that individual residents can do in San Antonio to reduce their direct water use (as well as shrink their overall water footprint – a much more important variable involving various consumer choices – including dietary. For example, one kilo of boneless beef takes 16,000 liters of water to produce, much of that used to grow the grain that cows eat. One hamburger uses 2,400 liters of water), but I’m wondering if the real culprit in SA is not so much the average Jane or Joe but industrial and military uses of the municipal water supply? I think it is unfair to suggest that population growth or lawncare decisions are the chief concern here – although I agree that water sensitive landscaping is appropriate. I agree with Jim’s post below that SA could look internationally for ideas for resident- and small-business level water conservation; going with the example of Australia, BASIX-like requirements for new residential construction and commercial development (required rainwater harvesting and greywater recyciling) could help – as could more incentives (and possibly less restrictions) aimed in these areas. But tell us more about industrial and military uses of municipal water with your next report, please! And keep SA’s public swimming pools open year-round, as they do in Australia – and as it could help reduce water consumption and energy costs in other areas (as well as keep SA healthier).

  7. Just curious. I was born in 1966. I looked at the water levels last week formt hat time period and they are about the same as now. Keep in mind our population has more than doubled since then. If the acquifer has alwasy been up and down, like now, and we have over double the population of 1966, and triple the population of 1950, and our levels are more or less the same in terms of variances, how are we to really believe the doomsayers? I am not close minded at all. Just would like an answer to an obvious observance that the sky(or in this case , acquifer), isn’t really falling…( at least in a permanent sense).

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