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San Antonio Approves Historic Water Project

The San Antonio City Council on Thursday unanimously voted in front of a packed chamber to approve a controversial pipeline that would bring in groundwater from 142 miles away.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Lee County resident Hilde Sides protests the Vista Ridge Water Supply Project with other Lee and Bastrop County residents outside the San Antonio City Council public hearing on the project on Oct. 8, 2014.

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio City Council on Thursday unanimously voted in front of a packed chamber to approve a controversial pipeline that would bring in groundwater from 142 miles away. The $3.4 billion project would pipe in 16 billion gallons of water each year from Central Texas' Burleson County. 

Known as the Vista Ridge pipeline, the project was pushed by the city's water utility as the best way to shore up a long-term water supply for San Antonio beyond the dwindling Edwards Aquifer, after decades of failed attempts. For more than 30 years, each mayor of the city has promised to secure a new supply, without success. 

"It’s taken us 37, 38 years to get here," San Antonio Water System's (SAWS) board chairman Berto Guerra told the council before the vote. "We waited a long time.”

The utility's president and CEO, Robert Puente, told the council, “I believe that the vote you are taking today will be the most important and historic vote that you will take."

It was a decision that came after more than two hours of testimony from a sharply divided public. Powerful business leaders urged the council to sign off on the project as a way to ensure job growth, while local environmental groups and advocates for low-income people called it unnecessarily expensive and risky. Dozens of Central Texas residents also showed up, concerned that pumping groundwater there would harm their own resources.   

Many also pleaded for the council to wait a few months and study the project further, given that even SAWS had rejected such groundwater import projects as recently as February. The utility reversed course after pressure from business leaders, raising questions about whether the motivations behind the project were really city needs or business interests from San Antonio contractors who would help build it. Even the utility says 16 billion new gallons of water annually may not actually be needed in San Antonio for decades. 

“The magnitude and breadth of this decision affects 1.4 million people,” said Vanessa Quezada, who took time off from her job at an area pharmacy to speak. “We have not done our due diligence to hear all sides. … All I’m asking for is a reasonable amount of time to inform the community.” 

Puente took aim at those opposing the deal in his testimony to the council Thursday, turning around to look at the group carrying signs reading "Stop the Water Grab" and wearing the slogan "Not in My Name."

“They want delay. But delay to what end? What is the identifying goal of the delay?” Puente asked. “Yes, in February I recommended to the SAWS board that they reject this project … but this is a different contract now.”

The price of the new water was closer to $3,800 per acre-foot during negotiations on the pipeline earlier this year, and now the utility says it has been able to negotiate that to closer to $2,300 per acre-foot.

Council members said they had some concerns and wanted to be sure that SAWS could back out of the contract before the financial closing of the project, which is expected in the next 30 months. Private companies — Austin-based BlueWater Systems and the Spanish company Abengoa — will be responsible for financing and building the pipeline, as well as pumping the water. SAWS will have the ability to back out, but would have to reimburse the companies up to $40 million for doing so. 

Some also feared water rates would be too high. SAWS says residents will pay about 16 percent more for water starting in a few years because of the Vista Ridge project. 

“For a good portion of those folks, today’s water rates are already an issue for them," said Rey Saldaña, a councilman. “It is not lost on me that any rate increase would hurt them even more.” 

But ultimately, all council members agreed the project would meet a clear need for a new long-term supply after decades of trying. 

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor pointed to the history of a proposed reservoir called Applewhite, which San Antonians rejected twice in the 1990s. The arguments for and against Applewhite were similar to the Vista Ridge debate. Business interests said Apple White was necessary, while environmental advocates and others said the reservoir was too expensive and would hurt the environment. 

“Twenty-five years later, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like both sides were right and both sides were wrong," Taylor said.

The city became a national leader in conservation efforts, and Applewhite may not have been needed at the time. But growth didn't stop, even with the lack of water resources. Now, the city needs to confront that growth, Taylor said.

"I do feel the weight of history at this moment," she said.

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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