Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Steve Clouse vividly recalls the bad old days of San Antonio’s water and sewer system, back when the San Antonio River ran black below the city, with dead fish floating at the surface.
Clouse, 59, started in 1985 as a “sample man” in the city’s wastewater department and has witnessed more changes than almost anyone who’s still an employee of the San Antonio Water System during his 33 years in San Antonio.
Clouse is retiring this month after nearly 10 years as SAWS chief operating officer, overseeing about half of SAWS’ roughly 1,700 employees. He’s been an integral part of the growth in SAWS’ system, which now encompasses 12,000 miles of water and sewer mains, three wastewater plants, and about 10 different sources of drinking water.
Clouse credits many of his colleagues over the years for the ideas that have made the SAWS system what it is today. But perhaps more than anyone else, Clouse deserves credit for explaining that system to a wide audience.
When it comes to the SAWS system, Clouse is a tall, straight-backed, mustachioed encyclopedia. Clouse's colleagues and SAWS board members showed their appreciation for his knowledge during a ceremonial goodbye at the utility's December board meeting.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who serves on the SAWS board in his official capacity, said multiple people pointed to Clouse as a vital knowledge source when Nirenberg wanted to “get his feet wet” on local water issues.
“There were lots of opinions about who I should talk to, regardless of whether I was talking to former mayors, business leaders, environmentalists, or neighbors,” Nirenberg said at the December SAWS board meeting. “There was always one person that was high on their list, and it was Steve Clouse.”
At the meeting, SAWS trustee Eduardo Parra, a civil engineer, compared Clouse to a professor.
“Because you have that heart and you explain everything with so much knowledge, [while] being kindly and patient,” Parra said.
Clouse often tells people he has the best job at SAWS, frequently moving from the field to the boardroom and back.
“I feel more comfortable in my boots than my black shoes, for sure,” Clouse said. “Because I grew up in the plants and the field, that’s definitely where I’m the most comfortable. I have a lot of very good friends still that make the plants what they are today.”
A recent survivor of cancer, Clouse said he’s not exactly sure what he’ll do after leaving SAWS, though he’d like to have some kind of public-service role. At the board meeting, he choked up a bit as he gave his final address.
“It’s been a truly wonderful experience,” he said, concluding with a simple “Thank you. Appreciate it.”
A Boerne guy
Clouse grew up moving around in a military family, but he considers himself a Boerne person. His father bought property near what is now an exurb of San Antonio after the family car broke down in the rain on a drive between San Antonio and San Angelo, Clouse said.
“It was a goat roper town, for sure,” Clouse said of the old Boerne. “Everybody in San Antonio made fun of you because you were from Boerne. But it was idyllic.”
Clouse still lives in Boerne, on property he and his wife, Geri, purchased near his parents’ land.
Clouse raised his daughter and son there and spent plenty of time repairing ranch roads, riding dirt bikes, and taking care of animals. They used to have cattle, which he’s sold off, but they still keep chickens.
Geri Clouse is a parenting counselor with a large following, Clouse said.
“I think I’m her No. 1 practice dummy,” he said. “I think I’m used as a lot of examples of what to do and not to do.”
After graduating from Texas State University with a degree in aquatic biology, Clouse took a laboratory job in Austin before he and his wife moved to San Antonio.
“You think you’re going to ride horseback in Montana and sample pristine streams,” Clouse said of his degree. “The reality is you’re going to work in a wastewater plant.”
Clouse started work at the now-closed Rilling Road wastewater treatment plant. It had “many of what today would seem like unbelievable problems, and it was what we dealt with in those days,” he said.
The lab they worked in was so rundown that technicians would sometimes pass their time by scraping moss off the plant's walls and running tests on it, Clouse said.
Dos Rios Water Recycling Center, the San Antonio area's newest and largest wastewater plant, was a huge leap forward, Clouse said. After it opened in 1987, Clouse was placed in charge of the new plant’s operations.
After Clouse’s retirement, SAWS will rename Dos Rios in his honor, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente announced during Clouse’s retirement party last week. The move is rare for the utility, which typically names its facilities after places, not people.
Having a sewage plant named after you might not seem like an honor to some, but Clouse is proud of SAWS’ accomplishments at the plant, particularly on the environmental side.
The treated wastewater Dos Rios generates is reused throughout the city via a network of purple pipes. Sewage sludge left over from the process is recycled for compost, and leftover methane gas is processed and put into a pipeline to be sent to market.
SAWS' recycling of waste products marks a shift from the 1980s, when the foul liquid discharged from the Rilling Road plant was one of many problems facing San Antonio's waterways. At the time, the city still used Mitchell Lake as a sewage sludge dumping ground, creating conditions Clouse described as “deplorable.”
SAWS ceased dumping sludge there in 1987, after Dos Rios opened. Today, Mitchell Lake is a bird sanctuary still owned by SAWS but leased by an entity of the National Audubon Society.
Despite the progress, SAWS still has hundreds of millions of dollars in work to do on its sewer system under a consent decree with federal regulators to stop the release of raw sewage into creeks and rivers. Recent estimates put the total amount of work required at $1.4 billion.
'Into the firing line'
One story from early in Clouse's career involved a program to spread sewage sludge from Dos Rios on farms in rural areas south of San Antonio, as a soil enhancer.
Around 200 people showed up at a meeting at a country church, upset about the sludge program. None of the top brass at SAWS wanted to attend, but Clouse, who was then plant manager, volunteered. He went alone.
“I told them, ‘I’m here because this program is, I think, beneficial for the region,’” Clouse said. “They were never going to hear it; they just wanted to go after me.”
At the meeting, Clouse pledged a temporary halt to the sludge spreading, according to archived news footage that SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente shared at the December board meeting.
“He’s … a person you send out into the firing line if you need to,” said Puente, who was not working for SAWS at the time.
Clouse has often served as a calm, informative voice during contentious public meetings that involve SAWS. Recent examples include its controversial Vista Ridge pipeline project, a $2.8 billion endeavor – not including $200 million in the integration costs – that would pump 16.3 billion gallons of water a year from more than 140 miles away.
During such meetings, some City Council members or people in the public eager to spar with people like Puente often would quiet down and listen closely to Clouse explain the SAWS system in more detail.
James Murphy, an attorney and former executive with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, said Clouse often provided cover for SAWS’ political leaders to pursue “some seriously flawed management decisions.”
Murphy has clashed with SAWS officials over multiple issues, including Vista Ridge, which he considers an unnecessary and overly expensive project. He thinks SAWS should have cooperated more with its neighbors to develop a more sustainable regional water supply source.
“Whenever they needed a spokesman to put City Council or the public to sleep, it was Steve Clouse,” Murphy said.
In his final speech to the SAWS board, Clouse spoke highly of SAWS leadership, including Puente, saying that they always make decisions for the best of the community as a whole.
“When nobody’s watching, those folks do the right thing at all costs,” Clouse said.
Clouse also said he feels good about leaving the SAWS system in the shape it’s in. He called SAWS' conservation department one of the best in the country and said its diversity of water supplies is the envy of other water utilities.
After legal and political battles over the Edwards Aquifer in the 1990s, SAWS embarked on a strategy of finding water outside the Edwards. Vista Ridge is the latest example, but SAWS currently taps every major lake, river, and aquifer in the region.
“Our functionality and flexibility in our operation today is so much better than if we were entirely dependent on the Edwards,” Clouse said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s a cost associated with it, and we all have to deal with that. … But from an operational, from a resiliency, from a city security perspective, we’re in infinitely better shape.”
Equity questions for the future
While Clouse is proud of the challenges he and his colleagues have been able to solve, he said that generations of water utility operators who come after him will have to grapple with big problems of their own.
“In the not-too-distant future, the affordability and the socialism of water will be a big question mark,” Clouse said.
For example, SAWS has eight residential tiers for water rates. The more customers use, the higher the price. The rates are an attempt to balance SAWS’ financial plans, the right to affordable water, and the need for water conservation.
“Is it fair to have such different costs of water?” Clouse said. “Do people have the right to pump as much water as they want, provided they can pay for it? All those questions, I think, are really going to surface and become big issues in the future.”
Clouse serves on the Steering Committee of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, an effort among the City, CPS Energy, Navigant Consulting, and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
One of the working groups in the plan focuses solely on equity, the idea that those doing the least damage to the climate shouldn’t have to bear the greatest burden.
“Those equity questions that seem to be coming up more and more, I think, on the value of water – that’s going to be a big issue too,” Clouse said.