With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Amy Hardberger is an Assistant Professor at St. Mary’s School of Law. Her classes include Property, Land Use Planning and Water Law. Before joining St. Mary’s, she was with the Texas Office of Environmental Defense Fund. She worked with both the Energy and Water Programs on state and national policy initiatives regarding water conservation, energy/water nexus and regional water planning. She is a member of the State Bar of Texas and the Western District of Texas, and she is a professional registered geologist in the state of Texas.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: For the layman, can you quickly lay out what’s at stake with the current dispute at SAWS?
Amy Hardberger: I think there’s a lot at stake and it’s similar to what other cities are going to be faced with as well. It’s balancing having sufficient water for the future at a cost that is palatable by all users. It’s really about how much do you need and for what purposes. We haven’t really been faced with those discussions in Texas yet.
We really have sort of had enough (water), which sounds odd considering how much drought we’ve had. But the truth is we really have. Going forward, with continuing limiting supply and huge amounts of projected population growth, I think it’s time to revisit those basic questions.
Trib+Water: So you would say this dispute is maybe a portent of things to come across the state?
Hardberger: I absolutely do. I think that San Antonio is just hitting that first. I think we’re a little bit ahead in these discussions.
Trib+Water: What is it about San Antonio that puts it in the vanguard on this issue?
Hardberger: Well, San Antonio has had a history of limited water use because of the Edwards Aquifer issue. Many years ago, San Antonio was under fire for having the majority of its water come from one place. Which is kind of funny when you look at it because essentially Austin has the exact same problem.
But San Antonio has been making the effort to diversify for about 15 years where other Texas cities haven’t.
It’s a product of history, but I don’t think it’s unique in any way. Most cities have been getting their water, historically, from one source. It’s just that San Antonio has some other unique attributes to it that sort of motivated us to start looking at diversification. But that doesn’t mean diversification is unique to San Antonio.
Trib+Water: Water policy is seen by a lot of people as a highly technical conversation. What is the public’s role in setting water policy? What does the public need to do to get more involved?
Hardberger: While it can be technical, it is in fact something that affects all of us. We all need water, so, obviously, it affects us in that way. And we all pay for water one way or the other, especially those of us living in municipal areas.
We even pay pass through costs for water. What you don’t realize is that if water runs out somewhere else and they can’t grow crops because they haven’t been managing the water well or because there’s a drought, that means there are less of those to go around, whatever they’re growing, and then that rate goes up.
You almost get the effect of a fuel surcharge with water. But I don’t think we really recognize that that’s what it is.
People absolutely need to be paying more attention. I think you don’t need to know all the details. You don’t need to be a groundwater law expert to be part of the conversation. I think the bigger conversation questions are, how much do we need? For what uses? And who should be paying for that? You don’t need to be a lawyer to be part of that conversation.
Trib+Water: Is there something about San Antonio’s history that makes for greater public involvement?
Hardberger: Historically, the average San Antonio citizen is more involved in water discussions than any other city. Part of that is that we have had lawsuits around our water 20-plus years ago and that woke people up to the situation.
San Antonio Water System and Edwards Aquifer Authority have done a really good job because we needed public buy-in for when we go into drought measures. And the only way you’re going to get citywide buy-in is for people to understand why they need to do it.
So you see a really incredible reactivity in San Antonio when we go into Stage 2 or Stage 3. People, for the most part, just do it. It’s just part of living in this town. Lots of little things that we do here that a lot of cities don’t do. For example, the level of the aquifer is always in the paper every day and stated on the news. We do a lot more conversing with water customers here than in a lot of other cities.
Trib+Water: What lessons can be drawn from the rest of the state from San Antonio’s example?
Hardberger: The rest of the state needs to be having the same discussions about demand and what is it we’re going to use the water for. For example, how important are lawns? Should we be putting fresh water on lawns?
Another big discussion area that I see is the link between water and land use and development. When you look at demand, it’s really driven by new people moving here. And so a lot of questions come up in the “who pays for it?” category. How much should be paid by existing ratepayers and how much of that should be passed along to the new user that’s really driving those costs, both from an infrastructure standpoint but also from a straight supply standpoint.
Texas is drought prone and is going to continue that way. I think that we’re going to have to have some really honest discussions about where we live climactically. Lawns might start to look a little bit different. And that’s OK because that could make the difference between sustainability and not being sustainable.