Opponents call grassroots activist Kenneth Schustereit a "radical conservative wacko" and even "trailer trash," but to supporters, Schustereit is the gender-switch Erin Brockovich. Like the character played by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie, Schustereit is a hard-working regular guy who stumbled onto an important "stealth" public issue; made himself the master of its mind-numbing detail; and is now making waves. That issue is water: as it affects both Schustereit's home town of Victoria, Texas, and the metropolis of San Antonio.

Specifically, Schustereit is dead-set to derail "the GBRA deal," yet another in the series of complicated, high-dollar, low-credibility water-acquisition deals cut by the San Antonio Water System with other water-trading entities.

The plan, now in its protracted "study phase," is a three-cornered deal among SAWS, the San Antonio River Authority, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. If it goes through, SAWS ratepayers will eventually pay hundreds of millions of dollars to GBRA in return for 94,000 acre-feet of water to be pumped to San Antonio annually from a "diversion point" on the Guadalupe River just north of Tivoli, Texas. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons.) But in order for even a drop of Guadalupe River water to reach San Antonio, a huge, ultra-expensive pipeline will need to be constructed to convey this water more than 130 miles northwest — and more than 700 feet uphill — to San Antonio.

Because Guadalupe River water is loaded with various kinds of gunk, a treatment plant must also be built at the pipeline's San Antonio end. And this low-grade water doesn't come cheap. Currently, the Edwards Aquifer water San Antonio drinks costs about $60 to $70 dollars per acre-foot. The lowest figure for Guadalupe River water quoted anywhere in official SAWS documents is $755 dollars per acre-foot. Says Schustereit: "I ... expect a billion-dollar price tag on this project, with most of the money to come from San Antonio taxpayers."

When push comes to shove, however, this river water might not be available to San Antonio at all. The deal allows San Antonio only "run-of-the-river" rights to Guadalupe River water: in time of drought, many others will be standing in line for Guadalupe River water ahead of us. The GBRA has therefore also cut a side-deal to pump up to 40,000 acre-feet of water annually out of Canyon Lake — absurdly enough, given that Canyon Lake feeds the Guadalupe River and is part of the same system. When the plan was presented to the SAWS Citizen Advisory Panel in February 2000, the CAP saw a number of potential deal-breakers, including doubtful availability of water, environmental concerns, and questions about the project's overall feasibility. Nevertheless, SAWS went ahead.

Schustereit is no hydrologist: he's an industrial electrician and sometime pipe-fitter, whose formal education ended in 1975 when he graduated from Stroman High School in Victoria "half a credit short." He's currently living on unemployment checks while restoring a trailer-home next to his parents' house in their modest pecan orchard in Victoria. Yet, formal credentials or no, it's difficult to argue with Schustereit when he points out that water runs downhill.

When inland cities go looking for extra water, they look for it on higher ground rather than lower. What sense does it make for San Antonio to go downhill, all the way to Tivoli, to get its water? If extra water is the desideratum, Lake Dunlap near New Braunfels, for example, is no more than fifteen miles to the north of San Antonio, and on higher ground.

What then is the real rationale for GBRA? Repeated attempts to reach Bill West, GBRA's honcho, proved unsuccessful. West, however, is on record as defending both the GBRA deal and the state's water master plan. West is also on record as saying "growth" can't be controlled, and for refusing to rule out the possibility that Guadalupe River water may someday water the greens of the PGA Village.

Similar arguments were used by representatives of the Texas Water Development Board when they showed up at meetings in Victoria to try to sell local residents on the GBRA deal. As Schustereit acknowledges, if you have very little background on a given subject, it's easy to believe some guy from Austin with the title "chief scientist" who arrives wearing a suit and tie and who gives a presentation on computer-based "groundwater availability models" (GAMs) with the aid of a laptop and a laser pointer.

Schustereit — a burly, bearded guy with kind eyes and an attentive manner — would show up at the same meetings wearing blue work clothes after having put in a nine-hour shift wiring Victoria's new H.E.B. Instead of a laser pointer, he took along photocopies of "Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, as amended by the 77th Legislature." A careful reading of the law, Schustereit argues, demonstrates the Texas water master plan overrides all local water boards. Schustereit, a conservative populist and a defender of individual property rights, believes the state water plan was artfully crafted to destroy all local control of the water supply, whether by local water boards or by individual property owners.

Paranoid though Schustereit's contention may sound, his chapter-and-verse evidence commands respectful attention. For example, it does seem to be the case according to the letter of the law, all decisions of local "groundwater conservation districts" can be trumped by state entities.

Schustereit's neighbors chose to believe him rather than the GBRA. Last November, voters in Victoria, Lavaca, Colorado, and Comal counties rejected the creation of local "groundwater conservation districts," even though such boards form an essential part of the state's water master plan. The Victoria Advocate immediately credited Schustereit by name as responsible for the results.

Traditionally, Texas has held to "the right of capture," according to which groundwater belongs to whoever pumps it out. Schustereit only began seriously to study water issues, very reluctantly, when some guy who showed up to jet out a well (force air down the well to blow sand back from the submersible pump) on his parents' property told him that "someday, you're going to have to put a meter on this well, and pay for the water you pump out of the ground." Hard study eventually convinced Schustereit this guy was right.

"The GBRA deal," says Schustereit, "is about creating water markets. It's about money. Money and power." To make his point, Schustereit references Enron, the Houston-based energy company that imploded last year in the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Until recently, Enron was racking up astronomical profits by trafficking in electricity as a commodity, switching power between one market and another. Enron also trafficked in water through its subsidiary Azurix.

For a while after Azurix burst onto the scene in 1998, its execs talked about taking over the whole world market for water. Eventually their bubble burst — and they were charged with corruption in Ghana, England, and Latin America. It seems clear Azurix was actually about money flows, not water flows. Schustereit cites Azurix as a kind of parable to help clarify the puzzling GBRA deal.

Another unavowed reason may help make sense of GBRA: By locating the "diversion point" so far from San Antonio, the architects of the GBRA deal obviate a possible alternative plan, one clearly better for residents of San Antonio. In fact, this seemed clear many years ago, when San Antonians were debating (and ultimately rejecting) the controversial Applewhite Reservoir project, and then its successor, the "2050 plan."

Applewhite never made sense to Schustereit: "Why were we going out on a flat plain and digging a mudhole" — that is, the proposed Applewhite Reservoir he asked himself — "when we could go up north and dig two or three deep, efficient reservoirs in the Hill Country, and let 'em recharge right over the recharge zone? One really hard rain would fill these reservoirs." Building such reservoirs north of the city would assure San Antonio the continued viability of the prodigious Edwards Aquifer as the primary source of the city's drinking water.

Such reservoirs could rule out the need for the proposed, costly GBRA pipeline. So why haven't these reservoirs been built? Schustereit believes only political obstacles stand in the way of any such "augmentation and recharge" strategy. "San Antonio," says Schustereit, "is run by the developers." Regardless of the possible benefit to the community, developers aren't interested in seeing valuable Northside property disappear underwater. Back when he was "knee-high to a short sheep," Schustereit remembers, he would hear the TV slogan of the San Antonio developer G.G. Gale: "And remember, the good Lord ain't makin' no more land."

These days, Schustereit is perhaps most concerned about what the GBRA plan would do at the Victoria end. A lot of Victoria's water, Schustereit maintains, is going to be contaminated by the "injection wells" oil companies dig to get rid of the briney water used in drilling. Many such wells are leaking "benzene, and every other carcinogen you can think of," says Schustereit. "The strata there are all messed up."

Once again, Schustereit is describing an issue officials seem not to have heard of. Last year at a water meeting in Victoria, that "chief scientist" with his "groundwater availability models" admitted that he'd never heard of such wells — and therefore his computer model didn't take them into account. Yet, local water boards are obligated by law to work from such computer-driven models, no matter how flawed or incomplete.

This spring, Schustereit has been exchanging e-mail with hydrogeologist Cindy Ridgeway of the Texas Water Development Board to urge her to factor leakage of hazardous chemical waste from oil-field injection wells into her models. Ridgeway is resisting. Schustereit argues that if GBRA goes through, the 130-mile pipeline will require a treatment plant on both ends.

Schustereit's bottomless trick-bag of facts commands respect, but it's only intellectual honesty to ask oneself at some point: is this guy some kind of flake? "Absolutely not," says Larry Hoffmann, a member of the SAWS Citizen Advisory Panel and a retired civil engineer with decades of experience. Hoffmann's Water Policy Group met with Schustereit, and came away impressed. Hoffmann gives Schustereit credit for public spirit, for reliable information, and for raising real issues that deserve thorough investigation.

In fact, says Hoffmann, a beleaguered SAWS is starting to back away from some of its own earlier claims for the GBRA deal. At the June 11 CAP meeting, SAWS representatives fervently promised a long, independent review of potential problems. "I'm just so concerned," says Hoffmann, "that we do the right thing."

And what about "augmentation and recharge," the orphan of local water plans? "Oh," says Hoffmann, "that's the way we should be going. We could get more water than we could from these SAWS plans, and for about one-third of the cost." l