State to San Antonio: No, You Can't Own Your Wastewater

San Antonio Bay is home to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where endangered whooping cranes live. The water that flows into the bay from the San Antonio River is vital to the species' survival.
San Antonio Bay is home to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where endangered whooping cranes live. The water that flows into the bay from the San Antonio River is vital to the species' survival.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

Several months after San Antonio Water System's bold move to secure ownership of its treated sewer water even after it gets released back into a public waterway, state regulators are saying they doubt that's possible. 

"Staff believes that TCEQ does not have authority under statute to issue a permit based on this application," wrote Michael Gill, a member of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's water availability division, in a letter to the utility. He went on to ask the water system, known as SAWS, for more information about how and where it would use the water, but noted that even with that knowledge, "staff does not believe it can recommend that the application be granted."

SAWS has not explained exactly how it would use that wastewater or even at what point along the San Antonio River it would divert the water — the utility simply says that it would like to have the rights to use it in the future, for everything from environmental flows to municipal water supplies. In its letter to the utility, the TCEQ said it could only issue water permits for water that will actually be diverted and reused. "The application does not request authorization to divert water at this point," the agency wrote. 

"We wholeheartedly disagree with the staff's position," said Steve Kosub, an attorney with the water utility. He said that staff's interpretation of water law only applies to wastewater flows that are derived from uses of surfacewater; by contrast, San Antonio's water comes from the Edwards Aquifer, and groundwater is regulated completely differently. 

Kosub said the conversation about SAWS' request, which is specifically to use the "bed and banks" of the San Antonio River to transport its treated wastewater all the way to the coast for the benefit of the environment, has just begun. “The letter was just the first communication from the staff. This is the start of the process, by no means the end of the process," he said. 

The growing city's water utility wants the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to give it absolute rights to tens of billions of gallons of wastewater it treats per year. Right now, that water goes into the San Antonio River — in fact, the city buys some of it to fill its famed downtown riverwalk — and flows all the way to San Antonio Bay on the Gulf Coast. Under Texas law, once it's in the river, it's owned by the state, and San Antonio Water System would need a permit to be able to use it again. 

The utility's application last December set off a battle with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which provides water cities, farmers, and industries in South Texas. Since the San Antonio River flows into the Guadalupe, the river authority says it depends on SAWS' wastewater to supply its own customers, especially in today's drought. The dispute highlighted how valuable treated sewer water, once considered useless, has become in an age of diminished water supplies.