SAWS Backpedals on Right Choice – Still Considering Groundwater Importation Project

Last month, we praised staff at the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) for recommending to their Board that the focus of future water supplies for the city should rest on nearby brackish groundwater, rather than the importation of fresh groundwater from locations distant of the city.    Unfortunately, the SAWS Board, sensing pressure from the business community, has backpedaled against that recommendation to reject all three of the groundwater proposals.

The good news is that SAWS did not backpedal on their decision to pass on the groundwater supply proposal from Val Verde County.  The SAWS Board obviously heard loud and clear from environmental groups (including the Lone Star Chapter and the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club), farmers, ranchers, and community leaders that the Val Verde proposal could impact endangered species, affect the flows of the Devils River, and diminish provision of the international treaty downstream along the Rio Grande. All of us at Sierra Club appreciate not having “to court” another endangered species issue with San Antonio.

Unfortunately, following the announcement that SAWS was not going to pursue any of the groundwater importation projects, the business community began exerting pressure on SAWS to reconsider the decision. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce even released a report claiming billions of dollars lost in economic impact to commercial and manufacturers in the region if water supplies have to be reduced.

While the Chamber’s dire predictions certainly sound dramatic, the Chamber’s projections are fundamentally unrealistic. If you look at SAWS Drought Restrictions Page you’ll see that none of the drought plan limitations will be imposed on commercial and industrial used in the manufacturing or distribution of products. Rather the reductions in water use are primarily from restrictions on landscape watering.

Backpedaling
At last week’s SAWS Board meeting, the Board backpedaled to the fork in the road, choosing to continue to evaluate brackish desalination, while also continuing to pursue negotiations with Vista Ridge Consortium, an investor group that proposes to supply 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater east of Austin for $85 million year, or an average unit cost of about $1,700 per acre-foot. SAWS Board Chairman Berto Guerra said during the meeting that Board members will negotiate with Vista Ridge about diversifying their water supply, but not at that price.

Some things to Consider…
As SAWS negotiates a deal with Vista Ridge, they should keep two important considerations in mind: compatibility and reliability.  First, besides being less expensive than the Vista Ridge proposal, brackish groundwater desalination (around $1,380 per acre-foot if one includes the integration pipeline) is more compatible with SAWS nationally recognized water conservation program.  Brackish groundwater desalination can be constructed in phases, giving SAWS the option to fully maximize less expensive water conservation programs before expanding their brackish supply option. The Vista Ridge proposal, on the other hand, is a take-or-pay contract meaning that SAWS customers will be paying for the water year in and year out, whether or not they actually need the water in all years. Such an agreement serves as a disincentive to water conservation because there is little reason to conserve water that is already paid for.

Secondly, let’s consider reliability. SAWS criticized the Vista Ridge Consortium for not assuming the risk of water withdrawals being reduced by the groundwater conservation district that granted Vista Ridge the permits. But how can they? While Vista Ridge does have permits from the groundwater conservation district to supply 50,000 acre-feet to San Antonio, there is no way they can guarantee that amount in perpetuity. Recent court decisions (Day/McDaniel and Bragg) have allowed that a groundwater district can be liable for takings if they deny a landowner use of his groundwater. If a landowner sues a district over denial of a permit, the district may have to ratchet back the volumes authorized to other existing permit holders (such as Vista Ridge) in order to stay below what has been determined to be the available supply.

Stage III Bogeyman?
During SAWS Board discussion last week, several Board members said that they realized customers would likely see Stage III Drought restrictions this summer, but wanted to ensure that this would never happen again, arguing that a lush green city and economic growth go hand in hand.  It does appear that SAWS may have to implement Stage III for the first time in history this summer meaning customers will go from the current Stage II restrictions of once-per-week watering to once-per-every-other week watering. But let’s read the fine print: Under Stage III, watering with a hand-held hose is allowed at any time on any day and watering with drip irrigation is permitted any day, between 7-11 am and 7-11 pm.

Folks can still water during Stage III, just not with irrigation systems or sprinklers that evaporate about 50% of the water into the atmosphere. Again, there is nothing about reducing the amount of water supplied to industrial and commercial facilities for production and distribution.

Water Conservation and Drought Response are by far SAWS’ cheapest source of water. The Texas Water Development Board estimates the unit cost for municipal conservation between $202-$310 per acre-foot. SAWS estimates the savings from drought contingency efforts in 2009 saved 30,000 acre-feet at a cost of $25 per acre-foot. SAWS customers understand this as well, responding that 74% of them prefer water management in the form of restrictions compared to providing as much water as demanded.

Some folks in the business community seem to believe San Antonio has to be “green to grow.” Given the water supply outlook for the state of Texas, this will be a very expensive proposition, and SAWS’ ratepayers – who have been educated about the value of water and the benefits of conservation – may not be willing to pay for someone else’s pipe dream.

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