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Vote Set on San Antonio's Historic Water Gamble

As San Antonio's City Council prepares to vote on a controversial water pipeline, new emails fuel concern that the project might not be necessary.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
A map of the proposed pipeline that will deliver 16 billion gallons of water annually from underneath Burleson County to San Antonio, about 140 miles away.

As the San Antonio City Council prepares to take action on a controversial new water supply project, it remains unclear if the $3.4 billion undertaking — which would pipe in 16 billion gallons of groundwater annually from 142 miles away — is really necessary. 

The council on Thursday is expected to vote on a contract authorizing the Vista Ridge pipeline. If the deal is approved, San Antonio's water utility would pay Austin-based BlueWater Systems to pump water from underneath Burleson County through a pipeline built by Spanish company Abengoa.

But questions linger: Is buying some of the priciest water ever sold in Texas really about securing a needed long-term water supply for the city after decades of failed attempts? Or is it about keeping lawns green even in the most severe of droughts? 

Critics have also raised concerns about whether business interests, instead of the city's needs, are driving the process. "A very small group of people are making a very, very big financial decision," said Amy Hardberger, a fierce pipeline opponent and assistant professor of water law at St. Mary's University. "And it sure seems like ... they're pushing for it because they're going to make money on the back end." 

On the eve of the council's historic vote, emails obtained by The Texas Tribune between a chief contractor for the project and the city's water utility have breathed more life into those objections.

In February, the San Antonio Water System rejected any groundwater pipeline project as too difficult and unnecessary. Weeks later, it reversed course and began advancing the Vista Ridge project.

In between, the utility received emails from Gene Dawson, whose engineering firm is now one of the lead contractors for the project, and who is the main negotiator for the deal. They reveal a businessman adamant about the need to secure enough water, in part to avoid lawn-watering restrictions. 

"It appears our new strategy is to use Stage III and IV Drought Restrictions to bridge our water shortfalls. Is this correct?" wrote Dawson to a top SAWS official, referring to drought restrictions that limit lawn watering to once every two weeks. 

The official responded, "Gene, part of the strategy to fill gaps is Stage III and IV, which can account for up to [7.5 billion gallons] in a year, assuming it occurred year-round." That's just under half of the 16 billion gallons San Antonio would be buying annually if the council approves the deal on Thursday. Nearly 16 billion gallons of water per year goes on San Antonio lawns, according to estimates from SAWS. 

A few minutes later, Dawson answered, "You guys are giving me a headache." He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Less than a month later, after intense lobbying from the business community, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente changed course and agreed to restart negotiations with Abengoa and BlueWater — led by Dawson.

SAWS estimates that residents will see a 16 percent rate increase from the project, more if interest rates rise. The increase could be higher in the coming decades because maintenance and operating costs will increase the price of the water from $2,300 per acre-foot in 2019 to $2,700 by 2050. 

Even the harshest critics of the Vista Ridge pipeline don't dispute that San Antonio needs a new source of water beyond the dwindling Edwards Aquifer, its main supply for decades. But they question how much is needed, and some fear buying so much at such a high price defies San Antonio's culture of conservation.

The water utility is pledging to save 600,000 gallons a year through customer incentives like coupons for xeriscaping lawns or better irrigation systems. But that's a relatively small amount; on a hot day in Austin, that much water evaporates from the city's reservoirs. 

“Is it really only about avoiding drought stage 3 and 4? If that’s the case, then you have an entire city of ratepayers, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, who are going to be asked to pay for a service that they ultimately aren’t using. And that’s to keep everyone’s lawn green," said Sharlene Leurig, who directs the sustainable water infrastructure program at Ceres, which advises cities and utilities on water projects. "And that’s regressive economics and that’s regressive politics.”

San Antonio City Councilman Joe Krier told the Tribune in March that it was worth the expense to avoid harsh lawn-watering restrictions. “You can’t keep your yard, your shrubs alive under those restrictions," he said. "That is the same thing as not having any water. We’ve got to have a system and a supply of water that says, you can keep your single largest investment, your home, looking good in good times and in bad."

Environmental advocates strongly disagree, saying arid environments like San Antonio were never meant to support lush lawns with non-native, thirsty plants. 

SAWS spokesman Greg Flores said the project is about far more than that, though the utility would like to avoid those drought stages as much as possible. (Even today, while the Edwards Aquifer has reached historic lows, San Antonians are still in "Stage 2" drought restrictions. That means they may water their lawns once a week, to the chagrin of other area water suppliers.) 

Flores said it is unlikely San Antonio will need 16 billion gallons of new water each year anytime soon; in fact, the utility originally sought less than half that amount. But he said the city will need it in 20 to 30 years — and it makes no sense to build a pipeline that can't carry the full amount of water now.

Still, projecting future demand is notoriously difficult. In 2009, Austin's City Council voted to spend more than $1 billion for a hotly contested water treatment plant at the urging of the city's water utility and some in the business community. 

Today, the treatment plant sits unused because Austinites' water use has plummeted further than expected. But Austinites still have to pay for it. Two current members of the City Council who voted for the project at the time have now said they may have made a mistake. 

"A lot of it is politics, [and] a general fear" of water scarcity for businesses, said Chris Riley, a city councilman who voted against the treatment plant. "What we did not anticipate was the extent to which Austinites would adapt to the new environment.” 

San Antonio City Councilman Ron Nirenberg said he plans to vote for the project in an expression of "cautious support." He said he wants more conservation, even with an influx of new water. 

But Hardberger said that if people conserve more, the utility will be stuck with a bunch of extra water for which it is paying top dollar.

“It’s going to drive prices up, and people are going to cut back, and now we’re on the hook for 50,000 acre-feet [16 billion gallons],” she said. At that point, “when the money is not there to pay for this contract, what do you think we’re going to do? Sell more water. I mean, this is just logic.”

Indeed, utilities always face a choice during hot and dry periods. They can take the business approach and make money by fulfilling demand for thirsty lawns, or push conservation and lose money.

In an email Dawson sent to SAWS officials in 2012, he supported the business approach.

It was June 26, 2012, and the daytime temperature in San Antonio hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest day on record that year.

"Just think how much water you could be selling today," Dawson wrote.  

Disclosure: The San Antonio Water System was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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