San Antonio – like many Texas cities these days – is thirsty for more water. For the past three years, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has been seeking proposals to import 50,000 acre-feet of precious groundwater to San Antonio as part of a plan to meet the estimated future water demands of the city. Both the Lone Star Chapter and the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club have expressed concerns to the SAWS Board and staff that these groundwater-importation proposals could impact endangered species, provide a disincentive to water conservation, and unnecessarily raise water rights.
If SAWS selected the groundwater import project from Val Verde County, there would likely be significant reductions in spring flows around the Devils River. Such reductions could have impacts on endangered species that rely on these spring flows, and could impact provisions of the international treaty downstream along the Rio Grande.
As part of the Val Verde or any other groundwater proposals, SAWS would pay for 50,000 acre-feet of water every year, whether or not they actually needed that amount of water in all years. These ‘take-or-pay’ contracts, as they are called, serve as a disincentive to water conservation – an area where SAWS has become a national leader – because there is little reason to conserve water that you have already paid for.
Earlier this month, SAWS staff announced that they are recommending to their Board that all of the groundwater import proposals be rejected and instead, are recommending the expansion of the brackish desalination program set to begin in 2016. As initially conceived, this expansion would be in conjunction with a natural gas electrical generating facility that would be used primarily to power the desalination facility, but could also be used to meet peak electrical demands.
All things considered, this is a good move by the SAWS staff. Brackish water desalination facilities can be built in modules. Consequently, SAWS has the potential to expand its facility only as and if the need for water arises, and after the cheaper water conservation programs have been fully maximized. Certainly, there are concerns regarding the construction of a new natural gas facility. The Lone Star Chapter will continue to emphasize the potential for solar power or other renewable energy sources to power the desalination facility. Other concerns about desalination are discussed in the Lone Star Chapter’s publication: Desalination: Is it worth its Salt?
The position taken by SAWS staff is not the final word. The SAWS Board has yet to approve the staff’s recommendation, and there will likely be much discussion before a final decision is reached. Stay tuned.