Category Archives: Drinking Water

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.

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.

San Antonio Water System Makes Right Choice –Focuses on Brackish Desalination Rather than Groundwater Import


Devils River State Natural Area.

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.

Social and Environmental Change for the Holidays

It’s that time of year when people start shopping for holiday gifts…

A great way to support environmental movements is through consumerism. If consumers demand more environmentally, sustainable goods and socially conscious products, that’s what will be provided. Also, what better way to support  socially conscious causes than to purchase gifts that assist them. This way they benefit and even more people learn about the cause through your gift.

We are going to showcase a few online stores whose mission is to improve social justice and/or promote environmental conservation and stewardship.

Definitely don’t stop here, but be encouraged to search and find all the many organizations and companies that are making an impact on being environmentally and socially conscious in producing their goods.

This is just a start.

SOCO Hammocks


This Texas-based brand’s mission is to, “empower underprivileged populations through partnerships with nonprofit organizations who provide humanitarian aid”. They  pay fair wages to the artisans at Indocrafts in the small village of Ubud, Indonesia who make the cozy hammocks. Ten percent of the profit goes to a new nonprofit each month.

These  pack down to the size of a softball, making them great for camping. They also are a good hint for that person who just needs to take time, post up a hammock, and relax. Check out their website here and their blog here.                Kick Back Give Back in a SOCO Hammock!


Greenheart Shop

Greenheart Shop is an online store based out of Chicago that offers an array of products that are both fair trade and environmentally friendly. These products range from kids clothing, to food, to Oil Drum art. Their products are made using sustainable materials and methods and they pay the artisans fair wages. As well as being fair trade and eco friendly, this initiative supports the non-proft, Center for Cultural Interchange, to help international students in the US and Americans traveling abroad to partake in different environmental and social volunteer opportunities.



Olive Barn

Do you love gardening and want to share your love with others? Or do you know someone else who does? Olive Barn, who’s tagline is “Rooted in Sustainable Living”, has organic seed kits, wind chimes,and  sun catchers. Their seed kits would be really great for someone who wants to start learning about gardening or an avid gardener. All their seeds are organic! The business also happens to be owned and operated by a former Texas A&M Aggie and ranked in the top 100 fastest growing Aggie-owned companies.

These are just a few examples of companies working towards more sustainable, earth friendly, socially conscious consumerism. When you start shopping for your holiday gifts, search for stores that offer the items you want to buy, with an environmental mindset attached to their production.

Comment below with other great, conscious companies you have found.


Invasive Species: Zebra Mussels Now In Texas


Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US. They first arrived in 1988 on European ships ballast. Lack of predators against the zebra mussels gave them the ability to infest eastern US waterways from the start. When they arrived here they increased competition for native aquatic species. They attach to our boats and are hard to see because they are only about an inch long. Zebra mussels spread faster than bunny rabbits- they multiply by producing about one million larvae per one single zebra mussel. Texas should be worried about their lakes because as you can see in the graph, they’ve now spread down here. According to, “Zebra mussels can cause tremendous environmental and economic damage – hurting aquatic life, damaging your boat, hindering water recreation and even threatening your water supply.” Find out about if zebra mussel are in our area here.

So what can you do? Firstly, you can spread awareness. Many people don’t know what invasive species are. Spreading awareness brings attention to people like Dan Molloy, a researcher who is trying to find a “natural killer” to eradicate the pests. You can find more information about his research here in this short article. You can also go on outings to help get rid of the zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels attach to many parts of your boat and clean thrive for days. To make sure they aren’t attached to your boat, clean all parts of, drain it completely, and dry the boat for at least a week before entering into a new body of water.

October storms kicking drought to the curb?

Aside from our lust garden boxes and rinsing off pollen from our cars the storms in mid-October added roughly 50,000 acre-feet to lakes Travis and Buchanan, pushing the lakes’ combined storage to more than 700,000 acre-feet for the first time since August 2011. 2011 was the driest year ever for Texas, with an average of only 14.8 inches of rain. The only comparable drought occurred during the 1950s, but no single year during that drought was as dry as 2011. It rained really hard here in Austin, but we can’t capture or store that water. We have no way to stop it from flowing downstream.stevie ray vahn at auditorium shores

The weekend storms are a good illustration of why the lower Colorado River basin needs not just rain, but rain in the right spot, to significantly increase the region’s water supply.

Parts of Austin were hit with as much as 12 inches of rain over the Oct. 12 weekend, turning Barton Creek into a raging river and flooding areas of South Austin. The heaviest rain fell in Austin near Barton Creek, which empties into Lady Bird Lake downstream of Lake Travis. That water cannot be captured downstream of Mansfield Dam in the Highland Lakes reservoirs and is flowing down the Colorado River toward Matagorda Bay, this influx of fresh water will help the health of Matagorda Bay.

It’s critical for rain to fall upstream of Austin in the lakes’ watershed. This is an 11,700 square-mile area upstream of Austin and stretching to the north and west out past Fredericksburg, Junction, Brady and San Saba. Lakes upstream of Austin, Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, only gained about 20,000 acre-feet of water from the storm, most of that was in to Lake Travis.  The measurement there was acre-feet, by definition one acre-foot is 43,560 U.S. survey cubic feet. To us that’s less than 2 percent of the water needed to refill the lakes. But the lakes’ combined storage is 35 percent of capacity, still there is no end to the drought in sight.

 LCRA’s idea is to build a reservoir in Wharton County near the Gulf Coast with the intention to take advantage of rain events like these in the future, so that the flows that enter the Colorado River downstream of Lake Travis can be held for later use. The new reservoir is expected to be complete by 2017.

Nobody is singing rain rain go away come back another day. We have all experienced the drought as it’s has helped drain reservoirs , fuel wildfires, ruin crops and put a real strain on the state’s electric grid. bastrop fire

In February 2013, the state climatologist told the Texas Legislature that high temperatures related to climate change have exacerbated the drought. He said that the state temperature has increased by an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s.

This is what we looked like as of April 2011

This U.S. Drought Monitor map is released each week.

Meanwhile, I’m going to  learn a step or two from the indigenous as they managed to make it through the sizzling summers without our technology, but as always we’ll take any and all rain.

Why Should I Care About The Cost Of Tap Water?

Lone Star Chapter Water Resources Coordinator Jennifer Walker was a guest blogger on the American Rivers Blog today.  Her post follows.

Do big finance and economics play a role in the cost of the water coming out of your tap and should you even care? The answer is yes!

Financial realities are just as important for your water provider as they are for every family in Texas. When financial planning goes awry you may not like the results.

American Rivers just released a new report that provides basic information on how water utilities finance and pay for the water, pipes, plants and electricity that are needed to deliver water to you, the customer. This guide enables water customers to understand the financial underpinnings of their water systems. Just as with our personal finance, there are long-term consequences for decisions made yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Water utilities use a variety of methods to generate revenue to provide water to their customers, this is generally money that we pay for up front or have to pay back in the long-term through debt repayment. There are many assumptions that a utility uses to determine how much water is needed to serve their customers, what kind of infrastructure and programs are necessary to get water to customers and how much revenue can be expected in the future to repay loans and to finance services. This report goes through these considerations and gives consumers the tools they need to ask relevant questions and advocate for the proper management of their water utility.

Understand The True Cost To Avoid Overbuilding – And Overpaying

Consider this example: A utility issues bonds to build a water treatment plant based on an expected growth pattern or per-person water use that never materializes. The bonds still have to be repaid and the financial burden is ultimately spread out among fewer customers who each have to pay more for the water treatment plant than was anticipated. If per person water use is lower than expected, revenues take a hit and the utility could be forced to raise the per unit costs for water to cover debt repayment. Customers lose and costs go up.

Informed customers and community advocates need to be aware of the possible implications of big infrastructure expenditures and ask the right questions to ensure that utilities and decision makers make the best decisions. Potentially unnecessary project like these can be averted with informed advocacy. The example could pertain to a new water supply, a wastewater treatment plant or any other big expenditure made by a utility.

Saving Water Saves Us All Money

The most cost-effective method to provide water to consumers is to use the water and infrastructure that is already available to a community. The concept is that through various strategies consumers reduce their per capita water use thereby making water available to be used for other purposes. These include serving a growing population, dedicating water to keep our rivers healthy or any other use that may be deemed necessary by a community.

The cost of providing water to consumers across the United States is increasing. Using less water saves customers money through reducing the amount of water they are billed for, but that is just one of the benefits of reducing individual water use. When we all save water the community wins through lower overall costs and the environment wins because less water is taken out of our rivers and aquifer to meet human needs. We have a finite supply of water and need to use it wisely so we can meet all our water needs.

The San Antonio Case Study: Many cities have been quite successful in reducing per-person water use. San Antonio, TX has had tremendous population growth over that past 30 years, but they are still using the same amount of water to serve their customers as they did 30 years ago. By investing heavily in efficiency programs to extend their water supply San Antonio has been able to defer purchases of more expensive water supplies and has even shut down a wastewater treatment plant that was no longer needed due to reduced water use.

Consumers Have A Powerful Voice!

Water rate and pricing structures are critically important to consumers and addressed in the report as well. It is imperative to preserve affordability while ensuring that water is priced effectively to cover utility costs and to send a price signal to high water users to reduce their water use.

Water supply, availability and affordability are some of the most important issues facing communities these days. It is incumbent upon consumers to understand the implications of choices made by in our local decision makers that can have lasting effects on our communities, environment, and pocket books. We must all be able to ask the right questions to promote both environmentally and fiscally sustainable water supply decisions.

– See more at:

Texas Water Fluoridation Controversy

When you turn on the water faucet in your kitchen to fill up a water bottle, you don’t usually think about the origin of the water you’re about to drink, how it was treated, and what may have been added to it. The only thing you’re really thinking about is how thirsty you are. We all need water, so we’re all used to just drinking whatever water we can get, as long as it looks clean and comes from a home, business, or water bottle. So it’s not surprising that most people have no idea that fluoride is put into their drinking water every day for dental hygienic reasons, not water treatment.

Woman Drinking Glass of Water

                Water fluoridation started in the 1940’s, when tooth decay was a problem and scientists had been researching the differences in natural fluoride concentrations in water sources. What they found was that areas with moderate amounts of fluoride in the water had fewer cases of tooth decay than those with water sources with lower amounts of fluoride. While they also found that excessive amounts of fluoride could cause things like dental fluorosis, communities started adding moderate amounts of fluoride into their drinking water to keep teeth healthy, at the recommendation of several dental associations as well as the FDA.

Today, water fluoridation has stirred some controversy. The side that promotes water fluoridation states that the benefits of fluoridated water completely outweigh the negatives. Fluoridation costs about fifty cents a year per person, which is cheaper than dental visits, and it has been proven to prevent tooth decay, reducing a person’s risk by about 25%. People who oppose community water fluoridation state that the government should not be in control of medicating communities through public resources because it does not allow people to make the choice of whether or not they want to be medicated, especially since the amount of fluoride one should have for dental use differs per person depending on age, etc. They also state that with increased public knowledge of dental hygiene, there is no longer any reason for the public to be given extra amounts of fluoride. Lastly, they state that many countries in Europe and the US have similar amounts of tooth decay, but most countries in Europe do not use fluoridated water, so the true effectiveness may vary.

Here in Texas, around 80% of the population that uses public water drinks water that is fluoridated. Some communities, including places like College Station, Lago Vista, and Alamo Heights, have voted against water fluoridation, and many more have groups that are trying to end fluoridation. Whichever side you stand on for community water fluoridation, water is our most important resource, so continue to be educated about what is in your water and how it affects you.