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Making Waves in San Antonio

While water is always a big topic for those of us at the blog, it has been a particular busy couple of weeks for water in San Antonio.  With a flurry of town hall meetings, film sneak peeks and big announcements, we thought it was time to catch up readers who may have missed the action.

SAWS’s Big Announcement

First, you might remember that San Antonio Water Systems (SAWS) was reviewing several groundwater purchase proposals.  Throughout the process, concerns were raised about transparency and whether the city really needed an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water.  Also, folks surrounding the Val Verde county proposal area were very worried about the long-term effects of the export.

On February 3rd, after a three-year proposal and review process, SAWS staff announced they recommended shelving all of the project proposals. Instead, staff recommended the further expansion of the brackish desalination project to meet future water needs.  While all of the details regarding the decision haven’t come to light, one of the biggest concerns appears to be tied to the inability of the companies to guarantee firm yield. Although the connection wasn’t explicitly made at the meeting, this is likely the result of uncertainty stemming from recent groundwater legal decisions.  The reality is that these legal decision have created uncertainties regarding the extent of local control over groundwater and no one wants to be left holding the bag if no water is delivered.

The announcement was followed by celebration by some and concern by others.  Several business leaders sent a letter asking for addition information regarding why such a long review process was not followed by the selection of a project.  They expressed concern for the city’s water future and requested a review of the projects and an open dialogue of what led to the decision.   Mayor Castro expressed his own uncertainty about the decision.  Hopefully this will lead the city to a larger conversation about demand projections and additional conservation opportunities.

Town Hall Meeting

The same day as the SAWS announcement, the Express News hosted a Town Hall Meeting on water.   While much of the conversation focused on SAWS’ recent announcement, the conversation was broader and ranged from water markets to Prop 6 opportunities.   Rep. Lyle Larson suggested breaking down the balkanization of water planning and shifting thinking about local water to seeing it as Texas water.  All the panel participants supported the idea that there is no silver bullet for water and that all cities are going to have to diversify their water supplies to remain viable.

An interesting discussion also occurred regarding water rates, conservation and expensive water supply projects.  Robert Puente, SAWS President/CEO, mentioned that one reason for their decision was that San Antonio was using less water than predicted because of successful conservation efforts, which the utility hopes to continue and expand because conserved water is the least expensive supply alternative.  The panel all agreed that new supply is expensive and Juan Gomez of UTSA explained that once expensive supply project are constructed, the business model shifts because the capitol costs must be repaid through rates, which can disincentivize conservation.  He cited recently mothballed desalination plants in Australia as an example of this concern.

SAWS Policy and Planning Meeting

A few days after the Town Hall Meeting, another large crowd turned out for the SAWS Policy and Planning Meeting, which again openly discussed the groundwater project deferral recommendation.  The purpose of the meeting was to inform the SAWS board of the staff findings.  The board had an opportunity to question staff on their recommendation and express their concerns, but they were not scheduled to take action.  There was also a focus on drought strategies and pros and cons of implementing drought stages.  Mr. Puente mentioned that SAWS will bring a newly revised Water Management Plan (WMP) to the board in March to reflect all their new recommendations. The Mayor mentioned that he wanted to approach the WMP discussion with flexibility to leave the door open for vendor options, particularly if the city can partner with other communities to share costs.

Making the Scene

And last, but certainly not least – there was a special sneak peek at UTSA of a new PBS documentary, Water Blues Green Solutions. The documentary features San Antonio as a city that has been innovative in its water use.  It focuses on the city’s water conservation and reuse efforts.  Our own Ken Kramer appears in the show, recounting how the Sierra Club lawsuit in the 1990s to protect endangered species helped put San Antonio on the road to being a leader in water efficiency.  A Q&A followed the viewing.  If you are interested in seeing the production on your local PBS station, check the schedule or contact the station.

In addition to being the focus of a documentary, San Antonio also received a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator Gina McCarthy, who toured the SAWS water recycling and solar power facilities.  Ms. McCarthy said the project is a model for the nation.  Cutting through all the technical speak, she stated simply: “You guys rock.”  Way to go San Antonio. Keep it up.

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