Leaders of regional water management agencies gathered earlier today, Oct. 8 at the Pearl Stable for the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum’s annual water forum. While panel discussion participants touched upon what local organizations are doing to conserve available water supplies now, the fate of a local, long-term project received significant attention.
The forum took place a few hours before the San Antonio City Council was to have what observers expected to be a lengthy public hearing on the proposed Vista Ridge water supply agreement. If approved, the pact would lead to the construction of a 142-mile pipeline to deliver 50,000 acre-feet of non-Edwards Aquifer water from Burleson County – northeast of Austin – to San Antonio, beginning 2020.
In 2011, the San Antonio Water System issued a request for competitive proposals for 50,000 acre feet of non-Edwards Aquifer water so it could diversify its water supplies. After reviewing nine received proposals, SAWS chose a proposal submitted by the Vista Ridge Consortium. The consortium is a partnership between Abengoa and BlueWater Systems, which has put together 3,400 leases for water rights with local landowners in Burleson County. SAWS officials consciously strived toward making the entire process transparent to the community. SAWS even uploaded an updated copy of the proposed Vista Ridge agreement to its website, www.saws.org.
“We took the unprecedented step of negotiating everything in public,” SAWS Chairman Berto Guerra told the panel/luncheon audience. “We hope we can call this proposal an accomplishment when the council votes on the agreement three weeks from now.” Guerra said the proposed pact has changed over the last several months, adding that previously the agreement contained a clause for automatic price elevation. “When we sat down with Vista Ridge, we told them this has to be a win-win for all of us. We asked them to fix the price for 30 years,” Guerra explained. The SAWS chairman added that, if all goes well with an approved pact, the price would drop after 30 years because, by then, SAWS would have paid for the capital project.
People involved with SAWS’ part of the Vista Ridge negotiations said that, for the moment, it is not known how much of a fiscal impact such a new water supply would have on local SAWS ratepayers. The uncertainty over costs is one of many questions presented by individuals and groups either opposed to the project, or at least want it slowed down. Panel moderator, Bob Rivard of The Rivard Report, asked SAWS board member and former San Antonio City Councilman Reed Williams whether SAWS would seek out other customers for Vista Ridge water to help offset the impact to local ratepayers from future rate hikes. “The water needs to be priced to use, to be priced as a value creator,” Williams said. “There will be rate increases. Will those rate increases be 16 percent? We don’t know right now.” Williams said, if all goes as planned, SAWS would have some time immediately after an agreement is signed to talk with other stakeholders and potential future customers about an adequate price for any surplus water. “People won’t pay a price for this water if it won’t allow them to develop or to growth their business,” he said. “Water isn’t priced well. It has never been priced well.” The panelists agreed that responsible sharing of such a precious natural resource as water is vital to the growth of varied economies around Texas.
“Water is a regional issue, not just a local issue,” said Bill West, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority general manager. “We’ve got to provide our citizens the amount of water they need at a reasonable cost.” The panelists added, as San Antonio is trying to further reduce reliance upon the Edwards Aquifer, developing new water supplies is just one part of the equation. “There’s still so many economically feasible ways to conserve water,” said Karen Guz, SAWS’ water conservation director. “If somebody were to ask me if we’ve done all we can to conserve water, my answer would be a resounding ‘no’.”