25th Anniversary Issue
Current 25: How San Antonio got a water conscience
Published: June 1, 2011
When deluge gives way to drought, as happens when the weather pattern shifts from El Niño to La Niña, so does the environmental issues that wrack the community. The bellwether here is the still-flowing Comal Springs, one of the few remaining in South Central Texas: most of the others have dried up due to excessive groundwater pumping. But because those in New Braunfels hung on into the 1990s, they became embroiled in a legal flashpoint. In 1991 the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club used provisions of the Endangered Species Act to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the seven endangered species that live within the Edwards’ fluid embrace.
The San Antonio political establishment went ballistic, knowing that if the lawsuit was successful then the Alamo City would be compelled to change its hitherto wasteful water regime. It refused to plan for the inevitable — a profound failure of judgment — and when the court sided with the Sierra Club, it had wasted precious dollars and time.
So, too, with its ill-advised efforts to build the Applewhite Reservoir in southern Bexar County; after a decade-long permitting process, voters rejected the project in raucous special elections in 1991 and 1994. These back-to-back-to-back defeats forced the city, finally, to consider a more long-term water strategy that would meet federal regulatory requirements and provide a sustainable supply of water.
This process became more compelling and complex with the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which the state established in response to the Sierra Club victory in federal court. Finally, a regional agency would manage the aquifer’s resources, a shift of unparalleled significance. An example: its emerging rules and regulations liberated SAWS to pursue a robust agenda of conservation. It first raised water rates in the late 1990s, then used this capital to educate consumers about low-flow technologies and offered financial incentives to homeowners to make the switch. It also spent millions on a water-recycling plant whose reclaimed flow irrigates parks, golf courses, and campuses, and began planning a state-of-the-art aquifer storage system that would ultimately cost $110 million. Each of these bold ventures saved lots of water and significantly reduced the pressure on the aquifer and the species that inhabit it.
Another element in its conservation strategy has been more problematic. Consider its commitment to water ranching, that is, the buying up of water rights from ranchers, farmers, and others to supplement the city’s supplies. This tactic is what netted Pucek’s Bexar County farm, a good outcome. Much less beneficial has been its subsequent efforts to sop up rights throughout the Hill Country. SAWS has not built pipelines to these sources but instead pumped its newly purchased “paper water” out of its wellheads in the city. This underground transfer of its liquid assets has intensified pressure on Comal spring flow — the very situation that produced the landmark Sierra Club lawsuit exactly 20 years ago.