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San Antonio approves $3.4B for water pipeline

Friday, October 31, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Saying the city needed to act to secure a new, long-term source of water, the San Antonio City Council voted Thursday to approve a $3.4 billion project to build a pipeline to deliver an estimated 16 billion gallons of water each year from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer in Burleson County.

The flow from the 142-mile pipeline will increase the city’s water supply by an estimated 20 percent while taking pressure off the Edwards Aquifer, which is San Antonio’s primary source of water.

The pipeline, named the Vista Ridge project, will be financed and built by a group of private companies, including Austin-based BlueWater Systems and Abengoa, a Spanish company. The private contractors will also be in charge of pumping water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer (about 80 miles northeast of Austin) to San Antonio.

While the San Antonio Council was unanimous in approving the project, members of the public were sharply divided over the decision. Of the 40 people who signed up to speak about the project Thursday, about half were for the project and half opposed. Most in opposition were concerned about what the water would cost.

A number of citizen groups from Lee and Milam counties also showed up to protest the deal. They are concerned that pumping such a large amount of water from their aquifer could rob them of their natural resources.

San Antonio, which is the seventh-largest city in the U.S. by population (1.4 million in the city; 2.3 million people in the metro area), has depended on the massive Edwards Aquifer for its water since the 1800s and earlier through private wells. According to the San Antonio Water System, or SAWS, the city has always taken enough water from the aquifer to keep it from needing additional water sources such as reservoirs. But no longer.

And when the water gets to San Antonio, it will not be cheap. SAWS officials estimate that they will initially pay about $2,300 per acre-foot of water obtained through the Vista Ridge pipeline. SAWS officials say the project will raise its customers’ water bills by as much as 16 to 18 percent.

By comparison, the Lower Colorado River Authority currently charges $151 per acre-foot to deliver Highland Lakes water to its water customers with firm contracts. The City of Austin does not pay these rates because of a 1999 prepaid contract that stipulates that the city doesn’t have to pay for water until it uses 200,000 acre-feet for two years in a row. Currently, that isn’t projected to happen until 2030 or so.

South Texas officials began to question the sustainability of drawing an ever-increasing amount of water from the Edwards in the 1980s, and politicians have been promising for more than three decades that the city would find new sources of water. A proposal to build a lake, the Applewhite Reservoir, was turned down twice by the voters in the 1990s. The Vista Ridge project is spurred by the long Texas drought, which has been depleting the aquifer for several years, even as the city has continued to grow.

But the lengthy water pipeline will not necessarily be an express route to San Antonio. Some of its water is likely to tapped to flow to a number of Austin-area communities and small water utilities.

A number of Austin-area communities and water authorities have been negotiating with BlueWater as a source to supply their customers. In May, the Monitor reported that the West Travis County Public Utility Authority said it was talking to firms selling water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer looking for an additional 10 million gallons a day in order to serve a planned development of 1,600 homes along Hamilton Pool Road.

Several other small water corporations, some of them formerly owned by the LCRA, are also said to be in the market for water piped in from Burleson County.

Also in May, Hays County officials entered into a $1 million a year contract with Austin-based Forestar Real Estate Group to secure 45,000-acre-feet of water per year from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Lee County. At the time, the Monitor reported that Hays County Judge Bert Cobb said, “I want there to be water so that my children and grandchildren can enjoy the beauty and the opportunity of Hays County, just like I did. That’s why I came here.”

The City of Austin has had talks with companies that supply water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer going back over the past decade, but they have never resulted in any agreements. More recently, an Austin Water Resource Planning Task Force made a number of recommendations on how the city could both conserve and find new sources of water, but they rejected a suggestion that the city obtain groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer. The panel’s recommendations are still under study.

San Antonio officials say they expect the Vista Ridge pipeline to be operational by 2020.


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