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Next Steps for San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Project

This blog was written with the assistance of Amy Hardberger, Assistant Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University

Last week, the San Antonio City Council unanimously voted to move forward with the Vista Ridge Project that plans to bring 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Burleson County to the city. Because of our many concerns with this project, the vote was a disappointment, but last Thursday’s Council deliberation did stir some positives worth discussing.

Edwards Aquifer Protection

Environmental groups have been publicly criticized for opposing the Vista Ridge project. Project supporters argue environmentalists should support the project reasoning the additional water will reduce pumping on the Edwards Aquifer. Indeed, it does seem that initially the water from Vista Ridge could help reduce pumping on the Edwards. But the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has made no written commitment to reducing pumping from the Edwards once Vista Ridge comes on-line.

And what happens down the road?

Pumping 50,000 acre-feet from aquifers in Burleson County is not sustainable. Groundwater models have shown that this amount of pumping will result in over 300 feet of drawdown in water levels. San Antonio is not worried about this because the Vista Ridge partners are assuming the risk of groundwater cutbacks and San Antonio only has to pay for the volume of water actually delivered.

But San Antonio should be worried. SAWS assumes ownership of the pipeline to Burleson County in 30 years, as well as a right to renew the groundwater leases. Only, what happens if there is not enough water? San Antonio is relying on the water for growth. If that volume of water is not available after in the future– which it won’t be – San Antonio is going to return to fully pumping from the Edwards and seek yet another water supply costing billions of dollars.

Conservation and Land Use

Another aspect of this project that created concerns for environmentalists is that the influx of water could deter SAWS from continuing to maximize conservation efforts. Several council members asked SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente to pledge a continued commitment to a strong water conservation program. Mr. Puente assured them that as long as he was President, he would continue such a commitment. Mr. Puente also noted that the 2012 SAWS Water Management Plan (WMP) calls for 16,000 acre-feet of water supply to come from water conservation by 2020.

That sounds great, but as council members Ron Nirenberg and Shirley Gonzales noted, that is just a promise and we should rely on the city to make good on it. Indeed, vigilance over the SAWS Water Conservation Plan is critical. Why? Because 1) SAWS’s 2012 WMP makes no commitment to water conservation past 2020; and 2) the public perception of some is that SAWS has already exhausted its opportunity for water savings from conservation. Councilman Saldana colorfully noted this when he stated that SAWS has ‘cut to the bone on using that tool’.

Even though SAWS’ has made great strides on conservation, there is much more left to do. New water conservation programs have shifted from reducing indoor savings to reducing outdoor water use by offering landscape coupons and irrigation rebates and consultations. As outdoor water use accounts for up to 50% SAWS’ water summer usage, water savings from these programs can reap significant savings.   Demand-reduction programs need to continue and SAWS should commit to maintaining the amount it spends per customer on these programs.

In addition to SAWS’ President, Council also made commitments towards water conservation. One fact the Vista Ridge discussion highlighted was that all growth is not created equal and while SAWS is responsible for conservation programs, they can’t do everything. The city needs to manage growth to ensure the sustainability of existing water resources.

Specifically, Mayor Ivy Taylor expressed an interest in examining current land use ordinances to assist in water protection.   This is critical for two reasons. First, much of the new development in San Antonio is over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone. Not only do these new developments use more water, they threaten the recharge and water quality of the Edwards. Second, the landscaping of these new homes defines the size of its water footprint. Xericaped lawns without irrigation systems have a much different impact than lawns with large lots of irrigated turf grass. This is where the city can and should play a role. Limitations on the amount of turf, particularly in the front lawns, as well as requiring that irrigation systems can only be installed after-market with proper inspection would help control the water demands of new homes while still ensuring their appeal.

Buying water from Vista Ridge should mark the beginning of a public recommitment to water conservation and aquifer protection in San Antonio. SAWS, City Council, and the citizens of San Antonio should work together to put ordinances in place that redefine this commitment.

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