A Historic Water Grab, Err, Deal

In this City Council meeting screenshot, San Antonio Water System Board of Trustees Chairman Heriberto "Berto" Guerra Jr. speaks to City Council October 30, urging approval of the Vista Ridge Pipeline while protestors stand behind him. - CURRENT
In this City Council meeting screenshot, San Antonio Water System Board of Trustees Chairman Heriberto "Berto" Guerra Jr. speaks to City Council October 30, urging approval of the Vista Ridge Pipeline while protestors stand behind him.

San Antonio City Council agreed to what several council members described as a historic water deal, ensuring a diversified water supply and more than 16 billion gallons of water a year—for 30 years.

North Side District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, a vocal supporter of the deal between San Antonio Water System and the Vista Ridge Consortium, said the unanimous Council approval secured the largest sans Edwards Aquifer water supply in the Alamo City's history.

“We gave two thumbs up to business, economic development and job growth in San Antonio. This new long-term supply of water is for the children and grandchildren of those who live here today," Krier said in a post council meeting statement. "The Vista Ridge Pipeline is a game-changing, historic deal that will improve the quality of life for all our citizens for decades to come.”

During a nearly four-hour long public comment session, numerous people spoke out against the deal, calling it a water grab that would negatively impact working-class and low-income San Anto residents. But support for the project was just as strong, with a small army of real estate agents, multiple chamber of commerce representatives, developers and contractors touting the project, praising economic development. 

In the November 5 issue of the Current we take a hard look at how the project, which includes an estimated 19 percent rate hike by 2020, will affect Alamo City residents who live below the poverty line. But here, we'll take a look at whether San Antonio City Council just approved a huge water grab.

So this deal is between SAWS and the Vista Ridge Consortium, which is comprised of the Spain-based company Abengoa and Austin company Blue Water, which holds more than 3,000 water leases in Burleson County and the surrounding area. 

Abengoa will build a 142-mile pipeline for the water. Completion is expected in 2020 and the pipeline will pump more than 16 billion gallons of water into San Antonio each year, diverting some stress off the Edwards Aquifer. SAWS will only pay for water that is pumped into San Antonio and can sell the water to other municipalities. 

Representatives with the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center slammed City Council, urging members to postpone the vote.

"And you wonder why people in San Antonio don't vote; because we know you don't really listen to us," an Esperanza rep told the Council. "You listen to the real estate folks, the engineers, the lobbyists, the bankers, the chambers, the folks who want to build, build and build, all in the name of economic development. But really, these are individuals who are concerned with lining their pockets."

SAWS Spokesman Greg Flores called "water grab" criticisms unfounded.

"First, this is not a 'water grab.' We are purchasing this water from landowners who own it, and a groundwater conservation district that controls the supply. Second, this water is greatly needed for San Antonio’s future. Our community is growing by 20,000 new people every year while supplies from the Edwards Aquifer are cut by 44 percent under the deepest drought stage (as we speak the cut is 40 percent)," Flores said.  "During the short-term, some of this water may be available for sale to other communities with water shortages, allowing them time to prepare their own long-term water supply plans."

Flores said SAWS was already talking with Fair Oaks Ranch, Converse, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Canyon Regional Water Authority, San Jose Water, Hays Caldwell Public Utility and others about purchasing water from the utility.

But San Antonio also needs some of that water, Flores said, explaining that the Alamo City can't meet its projected demand by 2060 without Vista Ridge. Some public commenters begged to differ, though, saying San Antonio already has enough water and that Vista Ridge water is excess that will be sold and used to attract development.

"San Antonio will need this water very soon. We do not have the supplies necessary to meet projected demand in 2060 without Vista Ridge, or any of the other components of our Water Management Plan such as Desalination, additional water conservation, expanded Local Carrizo supplies in Bexar County, and additional Edwards water rights. Our Water Management Plan includes all of these components to meet the long term demands of a rapidly growing city," Flores said.

However, the opponents are not buying that argument, with one asking Council how they would feel if someone came in and purchased water from the Edwards Aquifer.

So while rates are expected to increase by more than $30 in 2020 for the average monthly bill, San Antonio's Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said those projections don't factor in the sale of water to other municipalities and entities.

Should SAWS get cold feet, the utility can terminate the deal within the next 30 months, but would have to pay Abengoa up to $40 million in fees.

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