Is the Vista Ridge Water Pipeline Project the Right Solution for San Antonio?

The citizens of San Antonio face a multi-billion dollar debt to construct, operate and maintain a 150 mile pipeline to transport up to 50,000 acre-feet of privately owned groundwater when the same amount of water, mostly publicly owned, was and is available from more stable sources of supply half the distance from San Antonio.  There’s more. These alternatives are half to two-thirds the cost depending on the configuration of the project.  The financial implications of this multi-billion dollar transaction will haunt San Antonio for generations, yet it has scarcely registered as an issue in the upcoming city council elections.

Many are aware of the Vista Ridge basics.  SAWS has contracted with private entities to sell them up to 50,000 acre-feet of water from Simsboro portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer located 150 miles away in Lee, Milam, Bastrop, and Burleson Counties.  They may have heard that the residents living in that area prefer to keep their water, or reserve it for Austin’s growing suburbs located in some cases within 20 miles of their region.

They may also have noted legal wrangling between the holders of the water leases supporting the Vista Ridge Project, or the financial collapse of the Spanish company backing Vista Ridge.  The better informed know that SAWS responded to every opportunity to back out cost free from the project by doubling down on its commitment, easing contractual provisions for the private contractors.  Most recently they heard that SAWS needs only 35,000 acre-feet from the project and hopes to sell the remainder to unidentified and frankly uninterested, customers living along the circuitous pipeline path.

What the citizens of San Antonio don’t know is that there are other, cheaper and more secure, sources of water located less than half the distance of the Vista Ridge project.  Public discussion on the Vista Ridge project has been limited to whether or not there is a need for SAWS to diversify its water portfolio, casting the discussion in terms of conservation versus growth, pitting environmentalists against real estate developers.

The question that hasn’t been addressed is whether there are alternatives to Vista Ridge and if so, why didn’t SAWS pursue them?  And if SAWS correctly determined that a new source of supply was needed, was Vista Ridge the only option available?

The tortured saga of how SAWS ended up with Vista Ridge is too long for a short column.  What must be understood is that San Antonio’s water planning region, Region L, has over 80,000 acre-feet of nearby, low cost water available. SAWS has ignored that source of supply, worked against its inclusion in the Regional Plan, and worked tirelessly to prevent that supply from being presented to the city council and the citizens it is supposed to represent.

The Gonzales County groundwater district has permitted over 25,000 acre-feet of water.  The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality has issued a permit for 25,000 acre-feet of surface water, also in Gonzales County.  Combining these two sources with Aquifer Storage and Recovery will produce a yield of over 80,000 acre-feet, more than enough to meet the needs of San Antonio and its suburbs along Interstate 35 for the life of the current Texas Water Plan.

Projects like the foregoing, by partnering other municipalities, offer the prospect of economies of scale and a lower unit cost to ratepayers. They are more resistant to drought as they depend on different sources of supply.  For the long term, partnering with other communities means the costs of maintenance and delivery of water will be shared with others besides SAWS, not to mention that any pipelines would be less than half as long as the proposed Vista Ridge pipeline.

Sadly, SAWS refused to consider even a scaled down version of the above project.  In this version, a SAWS stand alone project involving surface water and storage, would produce a yield in excess of what they expect to obtain from Vista Ridge.  This project, at its most expensive configuration, is less than two-thirds the cost of Vista Ridge.  It no wonder citizens are cynical about government.

The good news?  It’s not too late for SAWS to change direction.  We have an election in May and let’s make sure City Council candidates demand accountability from SAWS, including an independent audit and consideration of an elected board.  It’s likely the legislature will applaud their efforts.

Mr. James Lee Murphy is recognized nationally as an expert in water law and policy and has over 25 years experience in regional water planning.  He brings a holistic perspective on how different sources of water and communities of interest can be integrated to reduce cost, drought exposure, and environmental risk. Mr. Murphy  was the Executive Manager for Water Resources and Utility Operations at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) for over eight years.