They need leaders that won't drive them crazy

The top positions at SAWS and the EAA are among the most pivotal in the city - and they're vacant

Wanted: water experts willing to swim with the sharks.

After six months, two crucial positions remain open: the president/CEO of the San Antonio Water System and the general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

In influencing San Antonio's and the region's water policy, these posts arguably have as much power as the mayor or county judge. Whomever the respective boards hire need to have their own impervious cover to withstand the outpouring of political pressure that accompanies the position.

With the EAA, political pressure comes from the Texas statehouse, where some legislators have tried to usurp the authority's power. In the case of SAWS, developers try to exert influence over the utility, most recently through a battery of lawsuits over impact fees. (Critics contend developers succeed: For example, SAWS and the City agreed to lift some irrigation restrictions for the first PGA Village project.)

The status of the search

The SAWS board is negotiating with its top candidate, and hopes to hire the new president and CEO by early September.

EAA is accepting applications for general manager through August 31. The board hopes to fill the position before its November 2 election, when seven seats will be up for grabs.

A joint workshop on water issues between SAWS and the EAA is scheduled for Tuesday, August 24 at 2 p.m. in the conference room at the Marriott Plaza Hotel, 555 S. Alamo. The meeting is open to the public.
"When you look at San Antonio's water for the future," says former EAA board chairman Mike Beldon, who also heads the Greater Chamber of Commerce's Ad Hoc Water Committee, "there's going to be a lot of money at stake. Walking through that political landmine to make the right decision is difficult."

SAWS: Public utility experience wanted

In March, General Eugene Habiger left SAWS three years into his 4 1/2-year contract after he and the SAWS board decided to part ways, citing differences in vision for the public utility.

Beldon had lobbied the SAWS board on the former four-star Air Force general's behalf, but Habiger soon found that his military experience didn't translate to the public sector. "Every guy comes out of the military has issues. Gene had to manage an organization while making adjustment to the non-military sector. It's an added burden. It would have been easier if he'd known the politics of the sector."

Since Habiger's departure, national headhunters Mycoff & Associates and the SAWS board have interviewed candidates, with a preference for those who have managed a utility and "have a good grasp of Western water issues, acquisition and scarcity issues," says SAWS Board Chairman Jim Mayor. "We want someone to bring stability to the organization, with people skills to bring the organization together."

He or she must also wade through an alphabet soup of water projects to ensure San Antonio's water supply for the next century: LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority), GBRA (Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority), Alcoa, and RNR (recharge and recirculation), as well as desalinization and conservation.

All these projects require costly feasibility studies to determine the cost to San Antonio ratepayers, and the possible damage to regional communities' economies and ecosystems. Yet, some studies have already run over budget. For the LCRA project study, SAWS budgeted $1 million a year for about six years; that amount has increased to about $6 million annually.

The new leader will have to interact with the business community. Mike Harris of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, which works closely with SAWS on policy, says that the new CEO must have a strong background in capital improvements. "There's so much going on at SAWS with the 50-year-water plan, which ties directly into economic development. We have to make sure the water rates aren't too so high that we can't support economic development."

EAA: No micromanagers

Former EAA general manager Greg Ellis was a less controversial figure than Habiger. He left last spring; his family lived in Houston, but he worked in San Antonio.

"Greg Ellis is difficult to replace," says Beldon. "He's a water lawyer and he has a strong technical understanding of water. He was a good manager of people. Greg comes across arrogant, but his people really liked him."

The EAA is a regional authority, governing the water quality and quantity in the aquifer throughout eight counties. It interacts with governmental officials on every level: from U.S. Fish & Wildlife to the state legislature to SAWS - the latter of which must comply with the EAA's pumpinglimits.

EAA Board Chairman Doug Miller says the national search hopefully will yield a new president with extensive background in water resources, including Texas water law that states groundwater is private property and surface water is public. "Whoever gets selected needs to understand the conjunction of the two," Miller said.

The EAA's technical staff can compensate for a new leader's knowledge gap, says George Rice, who is serving his first term on the EAA board. "Don't try to micromanage the technical folks; the manager has to stand up to the board members who want to influence the work of the technical staff to get the answers they want.

"And the state legislature is a big problem," Rice adds, referring to State Senator Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), who in 2003, spearheaded legislation that would have stripped the EAA of much of its power. Armbrister's district could supply water to San Antonio if the GBRA deal goes through. SAWS was conspicuous by its absence in lobbying on the EAA's behalf.

Rice says he would be skeptical of an applicant imported from SAWS or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "There are some pretty good people over there, but I don't think they're very good organizations."

By the end of 2004, both agencies should have new leaders whose ultimate responsibility is to ensure the quantity and quality of San Antonio's water supply æ a daunting challenge given the city's growth and uneven water resources.

"`Local lawyer and water activist` Kirk Patterson said something a long time ago," recalls Beldon. "'The problem with the aquifer is when we need it most, we're restricted from using it.'" •

By Lisa Sorg

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