The Alamo Torch hosted an educational forum last Thursday, April 6th, at the Blue Star Brewery in San Antonio on the Vista Ridge Water Pipeline project, SAWS’ (San Antonio Water System) flagship project. The speakers were well respected Texas water resource experts – Jim Smyle, member of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance; James Murphy, water law, planning, and policy consultant; George Rice, Texas hydrologist and groundwater consultant.
The three speakers agreed from the outset that the Vista Ridge project is the wrong alternative for San Antonio’s future. In his presentation, Mr. Jim Smyle provided quick facts showing the troubled history of the unregulated water utility’s recommendation and the San Antonio City Council’s controversial decision to implement the high risk Vista Ridge project, a 142 mile water pipeline construction project that will transport 16.3 billion gallons a year from Burleson to Bexar County.
According to Smyle, SAWS management and their technical staff rejected Vista Ridge in 2014 recommending instead an expansion of brackish water desalination which would satisfy the city’s water demands through 2040. Before the end of the year, SAWS management reversed their position and negotiated contracts with the Spanish multinational corporation, Abengoa S.A., which later filed for bankruptcy in March 2016. In October 2014, short on disclosing facts explaining clearly to the public the cost and benefit impact of the pipeline project to the residents spread across seven counties, the City Council unanimously approved the historic $3.4B Vista Ridge pipeline project. Did the Mayor and City Council do due diligence and require an independent study of the agreement considering the size and financial risks associated with the $3.4 billion multi-county infrastructure construction project?
Smyle agreed that San Antonio needs to diversify its water supply and accommodate projected population growth but, in the recent past, as Smyle reports, SAWS water conservation and planning engineers and their management staff have calculated that there is enough water supplies planned through the use of expanded brackish water desalination to accommodate growth for 10 to 15 years without Vista Ridge.
Why did SAWS reverse their position on Vista Ridge? One explanation is obvious. Follow the money. Major construction companies and businesses hoping to financially benefit from the long term construction contracts back the multi-billion dollar project. Another disturbing detail was revealed in a March 2016 article published in the local San Antonio paper. Days after the council vote, the CEO of Pape-Dawson Engineers, the engineering company and environmental consultant for the Vista Ridge project, gave a maximum allowable contribution to Mayor Ivy Taylor. In 2014 and 2015 combined, “Dawson and his family donated $18,000 to Taylor’s coffers, far more than any other source of campaign funding for the mayor”. READ HERE
Smyle argues that due diligence was not performed by the SAWS board. It approved a 500 page contract one week after it was finalized. No independent assessment of the $3.4B contract was completed. No rigorous analysis of alternatives was completed.
The City Council was negligent as well. It never required an independent financial evaluation of contract costs, benefits, risks, alternative comparative analyses or question why a city contract was being signed with a financially troubled company. Why is San Antonio buying almost double the amount of water than it actually needs before 2050 as estimated by SAWS engineers? What will the excess water, especially in wet years, bought at a high cost, do to conservation efforts?
While there are other details worthy of review as covered by Mr. Smyle in his talk (see video of presentations at the Alamo Torch website) FORUM VIDEO he advises the Mayor and City Council members to protect the city’s residents from conflicts of interest and decisions driven by vested interests, to adopt standards and appropriate analysis and scrutinize all aspects of these complex, costly projects to ensure transparency, accountability, and HONESTY in developing and approving projects especially when public and private partnerships are involved.
James Murphy, former executive of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, presented a case for a better, lower cost regional water plan for San Antonio. He presented a number of detailed slides about the Mid-Basin Water Supply alternative which emphasizes cooperation between water district authorities sharing facilities and integrating water delivery projects, water storage, the use of multiple water sources from areas closer to Bexar County.
According to Murphy, SAWS did not consider other water source alternatives and when the Mid-Basin supply alternative was presented, SAWS threatened to take the proponents to court to stop the implementation of the alternative project which was considered a competitive threat to their preferred option – the Vista Ridge pipeline. Who stands to benefit substantially from the Vista Ridge project? Pension managers who will fund the multi-billion dollar project, water lease speculators, and construction contractors.
Mr. George Rice, a hydrologist and independent groundwater consultant in Texas, spoke of the effects of piping water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer that serves Burleson and other counties from which the VR pipeline will be drawing water to transport to Bexar County. The aquifer stretches from Louisiana to Mexico.
The impact of the drawdown from the aquifer which will be filling the Vista Ridge pipeline will reduce water flow from streams like the Colorado River which draws from the aquifer and reduce water drawn from the wells currently supplied by the aquifer. The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer has an enormous amount of water flowing through it as does the Edwards aquifer, Rice pointed out. But the Edwards has restrictions on the amount of water drawn from it to protect the needs of the population and the ecosystem that depend on the aquifer. The protections from over pumping the Carrizo-Wilcox groundwater are much weaker, according to Rice.
Vista Ridge will primarily affect Burleson, Bastrop, and neighboring counties. There are other water pumping projects being considered which will be drawing from the same areas as Vista Ridge. Rice fears that the tremendous pumping of over 180,000 acre ft. of water from the new pumping stations, continuing to climb sharply by 2020 and beyond will have serious consequences on groundwater availability as measured by the state of Texas. Those property owners who have shallower pumps could be in deep trouble, Rice predicts. He is very concerned about the pumping levels planned for Vista Ridge and the other projects tapping into the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer. The aquifer does not have the same protections as the Edwards and there is a great risk that the water replenished in the recharge zone will be surpassed by the level of pumping as projected. Yes, current beneficiaries of this water who are homeowners, ranchers, farmers, and businesses may very well be in serious trouble and are justified in their concern and opposition to the Vista Ridge project.
Another troubling detail was covered during the question and answer period of the forum. What happened to the $120 million loaned to Abengoa, the original pipeline construction partner of SAWS which was to be used to purchase materiel for the pipeline project? The money appears to have vanished and has not been accounted for by SAWS or Abengoa’s successor, Garney Construction, which assumed construction project responsibilities and some liabilities. Who’s responsible for the accounting of this loss?
Ultimately the environmental, economic, financial, and quality of life risks associated with this large scale multi-billion dollar project as guaranteed by our municipal officials will be borne by the people of San Antonio, her neighbors, farmers, ranchers, property owners in the outlying counties. The buck stops not with the sitting Mayor and council members or the SAWS executives but with the ratepayers who may be looking forward to a future of never-ending SAWS rate hikes.
Helpful References on the Vista Ridge Pipeline Project
Speaker Presentations at Vista Ridge Summit, April 6, 2017
Vista Ridge Pipeline Project: The Wrong Alternative for San Antonio and Other Lessons Learned by Mr. Jim Smyle
Mid-Basin Water Supply Alternatives to Vista Ridge by Mr. James Murphy, Esq.
Effects of Pumping from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer by Mr. George Rice
Independent League of Voters
Vista Ridge Page
Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance HOME
A Closer Look at the Vista Ridge Water Pipeline: What is it Good For?
Hill Country Alliance
SAWS Vista Ridge Pipeline Project
SAWS/Vista Ridge Pipeline Project: Facts and Figures
Reports, Articles, Commentary
Effects of Vista Ridge Pumping on Groundwater and Surface Water in the Lost Pines and Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation Districts – Report by Texas Hydrologist George Rice
SAWS closes on financial deal for Vista Ridge pipeline project by Chris Shadrock, KSAT, 11/3/2016
The Source: Garney Failure Could Mean SAWS Takeover Of Vista Ridge Project by David Martin Davies, Texas Public Radio, 10/20/16
Bankruptcy sheds more light on Abengoa’s Vista Ridge dealings by Brendan Gibbons, SAEN, 9/2/2016
Flawed Vista Ridge project doesn’t make sense Commentary by Jim Smyle, SAEN, 4/25/16