25th Anniversary Issue
Current 25: How San Antonio got a water conscience
Published: June 1, 2011
Ronnie Pucek had San Antonio over a barrel. It was, admittedly, a barrel of catfish, but that only made the situation all the more comic and contentious. In 1991, he and his silent partners purchased land in south Bexar County, drilled a monster well, and, making ready use of Texas’ arcane right-of-capture law, began pumping upwards of 40,000 gallons a minute to flush through the Living Waters Catfish Farm. Although there was no legal constraint on the amount of water the aquaculture concern could use, its impact on the Edwards Aquifer — and thus on San Antonio’s potable supplies — set off alarm bells. The city and SAWS scrambled to find grounds to halt Pucek’s operations, noting reasonably enough that no single entity should have the right to absorb as much flow as could support one-quarter of San Antonio’s population. Over the next 10 years, they spent buckets of cash on legal fees: In the end, they bought out Pucek and his backers for approximately $30 million.
This was a very expensive lesson for the city, the first of many during the 1990s, arguably the most pivotal decade for water politics and policies in the modern history of San Antonio. Alas, some of what it taught us has been ignored in recent years — one reason why the city recently has been identified as the fourth-largest city in the U. S. that is running out of water.
It’s not as if San Antonians have been unaware of the significance of water — in all its forms — to life in South Central Texas. Indeed, there had been any number of singular moments in the past. In 1891, banker George W. Brackenridge funded an exploratory well on Market Street, and its prodigious gush launched the cheap-water era that lasted for a century. There was the legendary flood of 1921 that tore the town apart. Deserving mention too is the searing drought of the 1950s (and the lesser ones in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as the one tightening currently). Oh, and there have been some exquisite brawls over the Edwards Aquifer’s vital recharge zones: In the 1970s, developers and activists tangled over housing subdivisions and shopping centers, struggles that have been reprised ever since. After all, whatever condition the water washes off streets and parking lots in these sensitive areas is how it ends up in our drinking water.
Each of these stories, however, found full and interlocking expression in the last decade of the 20th century. As a result, San Antonio had to develop — however painfully, slowly — a new consciousness about water, a new way of inhabiting its home turf.
Start with floods. What the native peoples knew, the Spanish came to recognize, and the National Weather Service now confirms: San Antonio lies within Texas’ Flash-Flood Alley. Powerful storms routinely rock the region, dropping immense amounts of rain, such as the 19 inches that slammed down in 1998. Once, that amount of water would have scoured the downtown core but not this time: its torrent was captured by the San Pedro Creek and San Antonio River tunnels, completed in 1991 and 1997, respectively, $150 million that was very well spent.