SAWS is Challenged on Project Transparency
A recent article in the San Antonio Express News caught my eye and echoed some of my own thoughts so I decided to bring it here in case you missed it. Last year in their new Water Management Plan (WMP), San Antonio Water Systems (SAWS) laid out several new or expanding water supply projects to ensure San Antonio’s water future. One of these projects was the Request for Competitive Sealed Proposals or RFCSP, or as I call it: the pipeline project. This project sought bids from water marketers to bring 20,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from other parts of the state to San Antonio in an effort to diversify the city’s water source.
My concerns with this project started with the lack of transparency of the WMP rollout. There were few view public meetings scheduled and they were not well publicized. To SAWS’s credit, after mine (and many other people’s) complaints, they added several additional meetings before the plan went before city council. However, SAWS never accepted written comments or officially responded to comments raised at the public meetings as is generally the practice with reports of this kind. This meant that you could go to a meeting, ask a question or questions (as I did) and be told “that is something we still need to figure out” and that was the end of it. I don’t even know if the meetings were recorded or if official notes were taken regarding citizen’s concerns.
Specifically, I had concerns about how little was known about the pipeline project at the time of the WMP approval process. For example, there were no numbers regarding how much of a rate increase the project would require or how any seller could guarantee a firm yield of groundwater under current uncertainties. I was told the project was still early in the proposal process and more information would be available later. I trusted SAWS that this was true and that the public would have ample opportunity to understand the project once more was developed. Now, I am not so sure.
Since those meetings a year ago, I have been disturbed by how little information has been disseminated regarding this project. Apparently, I was not alone. I should mention that I interact with SAWS quite a bit and I sit on some of their committees. Generally I find the staff to be extremely open and helpful, but the pipeline project has been an odd exception. There is even confusion as to the current size of the project. I understand the WMP to say the project was initially planned to deliver 20,000 acre-feet with a chance of expansion to 50,000 acre-feet after 2018, but apparently the request for proposals was modified to ask for the full 50,000 now. This confusion personifies the problem.
I cannot say whether the city does or doesn’t need that water because I haven’t heard SAWS’s reasoning, but I can say that many new supply decisions are driven by providing water for peak summer months and much of that water is for lawns. If San Antonians are going to be on the hook to pay for this water, the city first needs to have an open and frank conversation about whether it is needed. It is possible that I am jumping the gun here and SAWS has a roll-out plan ready for public involvement before they commit to a purchase. I certainly hope that is true. San Antonio has a wonderful history of water conservation and efficiency in large part because SAWS has partnered with its users. That needs to continue.