SAN ANTONIO — Amid strong objections from residents and robust backing from the local business community, the San Antonio City Council on Wednesday unanimously — albeit cautiously — approved plans for a sizable water rate increase. It will pay, in part, for a controversial, $3.4 billion pipeline local officials say is crucial to the city’s long-term water security.
Dozens of citizens testified against the hike, which will raise the average residential water bill 50 percent by 2020, and urged the 11-member body to reconsider, saying poorer residents cannot afford it — an issue council members said should be addressed by an affordability program. However, the majority of opposition articulated during an hourslong public hearing before the council vote pinpointed the project known as Vista Ridge, which calls for piping in more than 16 billion gallons of water per year to San Antonio from Burleson County in Central Texas over the next five decades or more.
Residents affiliated with various academic institutions and community organizing and environmental groups repeatedly told the council Wednesday they haven’t received enough information about the project and that it appeared to benefit developers and engineers rather than San Antonians. They also said it would lead to more urban sprawl and cast doubt on its long-term viability.
“The real estate lobby was all over the news yesterday beating their chest that San Antonio needs this water. No, they don’t need this water,” said Linda Curtis, executive director of the League of Independent Voters, which is representing residents in Burleson and neighboring counties who are concerned about the impact that pumping for Vista Ridge may have on their water supply.
“We, the citizens, need fair rates, protection of our water resources and an open and fair process for deciding these mega-projects,” she said, adding “The deal is vulnerable as hell ... the water is not secure.”
Local business leaders, meanwhile, described the project as key to the city's continued economic growth.
"Knowing that we have a secure source of water for the next 30-plus years is critical to attracting new businesses to San Antonio, growing our population and keeping our military" installations, said Coy Armstrong, president of the Real Estate Council of San Antonio.
But whether 50,000 acre-feet of water ultimately will flow into the Alamo City annually for decades to come continues to be an open question amid a lack of information about the impact such a large amount of pumping will have on the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. If it’s too much, the local groundwater conservation district could pull the plug on the project’s water permit — something even Robert Puente, head of the San Antonio Water System, the city’s water utility, has acknowledged as a possibility.
However, Puente and other city officials have repeatedly offered assurances that if that happens the city wouldn’t be on the financial hook because of the terms of its contract with Abengoa, the Spanish company set to build the 142-mile pipeline.
The council unanimously approved that contract last year amid a similar public backlash, essentially greenlighting the Vista Ridge project. But another wave of criticism has mounted in recent months as Wednesday’s rate increase vote neared, prompting Mayor Ivy Taylor to delay the vote.
The latest protests have been fueled by factors including the city’s decision to delay releasing a council member-requested water report — a leaked draft copy described the Vista Ridge project as “high risk” — along with an announcement by Moody’s in August that it was considering downgrading Abengoa’s credit rating, which already is bad. The company also was recently hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging that it misrepresented the state of its balance sheet to investors.
Most recently, a report commissioned by an environmental group said Vista Ridge pumping will have a big impact on not only the Carrizo-Wilcox but also two rivers fed by the aquifer — the Colorado and Brazos — which are key water sources for several of the state’s major cities.
Taylor, the mayor, said Wednesday that she understands the concerns surrounding the project but echoed business in leaders, saying she thinks it is crucial to ensuring the city's continued economic growth. And the rate increase, she said, "has been designed to minimize the impact" on poorer residents.
Costs associated with the Vista Ridge make up a relatively small portion of the overall rate increase, with most of it going toward the construction of a nearly completed desalination plant and federally mandated repairs to the city's aging sewer system.
Asked about the potential that Vista Ridge won’t pan out, either because of a permit loss or Abengoa’s financial difficulties, Taylor told The Texas Tribune that it is a concern from a “regulatory standpoint” but that “at this stage, you know, I can’t say that that keeps me up at night.”
“I think we’ve done everything we can in structuring the deal to try and provide what we need here for the continued growth of our city and to have protections in place for us financially,” she said, adding that it is important to diversify the city’s water sources rather than “put all our eggs in one basket.”
On Wednesday, Puente told the council that if the project falls through, the backup plan would be to double a nearly completed desalination plant. Previously, the utility had recommended against Vista Ridge in lieu of expanding that plant.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who has emerged as the loudest critic on council of Vista Ridge, said he, too, is assured that the city is financially protected if the project falls through. But he said he will be closely watching other studies underway that may indicate whether the Carrizo-Wilcox can produce the promised water.
"This vote is not a rubber stamp," he told council. "It is another opportunity to perform the kind of due diligence" that this type of project requires.
Citing lingering uncertainties and criticisms, Nirenberg and a few other council members requested that the water utility update them on the project every six months and enhance its transparency, including livestreaming its board meetings and posting backup materials along with meeting agendas.
“I hope that when the future bears out, we’re on the right side of this,” councilman Rey Saldana said Wednesday. “Only time will tell.”
Disclosure: The San Antonio Water System was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.