Category Archives: Water Conservation

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.

Using Our “Good Cents” to Reduce Water Loss

By Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair, Sierra Club-Lone Star Chapter

What if someone came to you and said that they would like you to loan them $100, but you knew that person usually lost or wasted at least $15 to $20 or more of each $100 they had? You probably would be reluctant to give them a loan without a commitment that they would stop wasting so much money and without a plan to follow through on that commitment, right?

That’s the approach the Texas Legislature took last year when legislators overwhelmingly passed HB 3605 – a bipartisan bill by Democratic State Rep. Lon Burnam (and others) and Republican State Senator Glen Hegar. Among its provisions, HB 3605 requires a retail public water utility receiving a loan from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to use a portion of that loan or any additional financial assistance from the agency to “mitigate” the utility’s water loss if the loss meets or exceeds a certain threshold. TWDB is required to adopt rules to set that threshold and to govern how state financial assistance is to be used to address a utility’s water loss.

Legislators were probably spurred to action by reports of billions of gallons of water lost each year through leaking pipes and water main breaks in water distribution systems in many parts of Texas – especially troubling when so much of the state has been experiencing major drought. For example, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2011 that at the height of that year’s drought the City of Houston lost more than 18 billion gallons of water, reaching a peak loss of about one-quarter of the water the City’s system pumped in September and October 2011.

But it’s not just Houston where “we have a problem.” TWDB reports that in 2010, according to water loss audits submitted by 1900 water utilities, there was a statewide “real” water loss of over 225 billion gallons of water, almost 14% of the total volume of water produced by those utilities that year (and not all utilities actually submitted the required audits). Granted that water loss is a complicated issue – some “apparent losses” of water reflect inaccurate data, and percentages are not always the best way to evaluate water loss – it is still staggering to think that we as taxpayers and ratepayers foot the bill for large water supply projects only to see billions of gallons of water wasted in leaking distribution systems.

But thanks to HB 3605 and other legislation Texans have the opportunity to make sure that state financial assistance to water utilities makes water loss reduction a top priority. In order for TWDB funds (our state’s “good cents”) to be used effectively, however, we need to make sure that HB 3605 is administered as intended. TWDB must set the water loss threshold at a level that captures a large number of utilities with significant water loss. Moreover TWDB needs to require a water utility meeting or exceeding that threshold to take steps to reduce real water loss, not just study their water losses further (although a valid water audit is a necessary first step to further action).

The Sierra Club has submitted comments to TWDB raising concerns about some of its staff’s proposals for implementing HB 3605. Although recognizing the good faith commitment by TWDB staff to addressing water loss, the Sierra Club is concerned, for example, that TWDB is considering a threshold that will only require a relatively small number of utilities to take action to avoid wasting water.

TWDB staff has been taking informal public comments in preparation for developing rules to implement HB 3605. Although the deadline for submitting informal comments has passed, there will be a 30-day public review and comment period after the draft rules are proposed (likely sometime in April). So if you’re concerned about water loss, you will have a chance to express your views then. For information about the development of the HB 3605 rules contact John Sutton, TWDB Municipal Water Conservation staff, at

Let’s make sure that TWDB shows the good sense to use its good cents to help water utilities curb their water loss.



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.


Future of Water in Texas


Unless you have been living under a rock for the last several years, you probably have heard that Texas has been facing a severe water crisis. You don’t need to be an expert hydrologist to understand this; after all this is Texas, where sizzling temperatures and dry conditions have always been a part of living in the desert southwest.

Most of you will remember that 2011 was the driest year in Texas history; the state reportedly only averaged 14.88 inches of rainfall that year. However, this is not the first time the state has faced water crises of that magnitude. In 1917, Texas averaged only .11 inches higher than in 2011, making average rainfall for that year only 14.99 inches. These numbers indicate a continuous struggle that Texas has had with water preservation for several decades, so it’s time for Texans to take action on a better water plan for the state.

Earlier this year, the Texas State Legislature passed a resolution that will allow the state to use its Rainy Day Fund to finance $2 billion dollars’ worth of water projects across Texas (referred to as the State Water Implementations Fund or “SWIFT”). That measure will be put up to Texas voters as constitutional amendment (Proposition 6) for the November 5th election. This ballot measure will be Texas’ first attempt to finance a statewide, long-term plan for water supply and water conservation.

So if voters were to approve this effort, what would that mean for Texans? Here is some language, as taken from the Prop 6 official website:

“The constitutional amendment providing for the creations of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas to assist in the financing of priority projects in the state water plan to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.”

Enabling legislation that becomes law if Prop 6 passes provides that:

  • Not less than 20% of the funds shall go to water conservation or reuse projects;
  • Not less than 10% of the funds shall go to water projects in rural areas, which may include agricultural water conservation projects;
  • Only projects called for in the regional and state water plans will be eligible for this funding, and those projects must be prioritized at the regional and state levels based on factors such as cost-effectiveness and the effect of the project on water conservation and prevention of water losses.

So on November 5, voters have the opportunity approve billions of dollars to craft a borrowing-and-lending system for water projects here in Texas. There does not appear to be a specific list of projects that will be given the green light assuming this plan passes, this amendment would simply allow voters to put state money into a fund for water supplies and water conservation.

How the money will be apportioned is still unknown,” said Ronald Kaiser to the Houston Chronicle, “people are putting all their faith in the water board.” Kaiser is Professor of Water Law and Policy at Texas A&M University.

The 2012 version of the State Water Plan highlights 562 water projects; which include reservoirs, water treatment, and watershed protection roughly costing $53 billion dollars, of which the state would be expected to provide loans for half of that amount (the loans would have to be paid back to the state by local and regional water suppliers). This high cost, which could be pared by more aggressive water conservation efforts, indicates that the state needs to be smart about allocating the necessary funds to complete proposed projects and needs to evaluate projects more closely.

Last week, Governor Perry took the stand in North Texas, urging voters to pass Prop 6. With the state population expected to double in the next five decades, Governor Perry has rounded up a bi-partisan group of supporters to rally for the passage of Proposition 6 in Texas.

Through this process we’re going to be able to turn two billion dollars in seed money that’s in the Rainy Day Fund into 30-billion dollars’ worth of water projects across our state,” he said.  “We can’t make it rain, but we can take measure to extend our existing water supply and work to develop new supplies.”

Rifling through the endorsements of proposition 6, one can find quite the laundry list of corporations, businesses, non-profits, and environmental advocates all throwing their name in the hat in support of this amendment.

Some of the organizations that have endorsed Prop 6 include: the League of Women Voters, The Nature Conservancy, Texas AFL-CIO, Ducks Unlimited, numerous businesses and trade associations, the Texas Farm Bureau, as well as the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The diversity of support for this measure reflects the critical need to plan for our future water resources wisely in an increasingly drought-plagued state.

The Sierra Club supports passage of Prop 6 because of the commitment that state legislators have made to water conservation and to prioritization of water projects in the administration of the new state water funds,” said Ken Kramer, State Water Resources Chair of the Sierra Club, “It is important that the commitments to conservation are honored in the implementation of Prop 6, but voter approval of Prop 6 will be an important first step toward meeting the state’s water needs, and we urge Texas voters to cast their ballots for Prop 6.”

The answer is clear: Texas definitely needs to act on its water crisis problem. We all can agree that with a growing population and increasingly drier weather conditions, water needs to be at the forefront of our priorities here in the state.

Click HERE to view the official press release from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Early voting: October 21 – November 1

Election Day: November 5.  

Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair

The 13th annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair is a great reason to plan a fall road trip!  It takes place the last weekend in September (9/27-9/29) in downtown Fredericksburg, TX and has something for the whole family to see and do.  You can taste, test and explore your way through this event.

See the Solar Car Races, taste organically grown food and learn how you can make a difference with your water usage.  Do you want to know how you can afford solar panels on your home?  How about growing your own food? Come out and learn!  You can get the whole schedule here.

There are four distinct categories of events.

1)   Renewable Energy

2)   Organic/Sustainable Growing

3)   Green and Efficient Building and Sustainable Living

4)   Alternative Transportation

David Foster, the State Director for Clean Water will be a keynote speaker. Learn more about him through this site.  As you know, Texas is in a severe drought.  He said “Outdoor lawn watering is a huge driver of municipal demand.  We need to re-think our landscaping practices if we are going to manage our water crises.”  Come to learn how you can change your landscaping to become more drought tolerant.

Don’t forget to bring your refillable water bottle.  We will see you there.


Pictures from:

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: