Harlan McVea and Steve Badrich
It happened. The SAWS Board of Trustees unanimously passed one of the biggest water deals in the history of the San Antonio Water System - a water sharing agreement with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) estimated at $1 billion. The vote was 6-0, but Mayor Ed Garza, ex officio member of the SAWS board, conveniently left the meeting before the LCRA proposal (item 31 of the 32 item agenda) was taken up, therefore abstaining from the vote.
As reported in the Current `"SAWS raw water deal," February 21-27`, this SAWS-LCRA deal is one that, over its 50-year term (with one optional 30-year extension), develops 330,000 acre-feet of water by trapping Colorado River water down around the Gulf Coastal Plain. After SAWS - or rather the ratepayers - foot the bill for the entire cost of developing this billion-dollar hydroinfrastructure, the contract then stipulates San Antonio give more than half of the water away (to Austinites, LCRA, rice farmers, among others) almost for free, before finally piping its smaller share (132,000 acre-feet) uphill through 172 miles of expensive, yet-to-be-constructed pipelines. This is water San Antonians will get to drink, but only after a water treatment plant is built to purify the unclean river water.
Upon learning of this one-sided deal, the Regional Clean Air and Water Association posed questions to all SAWS board and City Council members in a letter sent on February 1:
Why isn't SAWS bringing this contract to City Council review before it is acted upon by the SAWS board, which would result in at least a billion dollars in cost that would have to be covered by water rate increases?
Why hasn't the San Antonio public, nor its public officials, had any opportunity to examine or negotiate concerning the enormous "Total Estimated Capital Costs" of the proposed plan?
Why does this proposed contract burden San Antonians with the cost of essentially subsidizing rice farmers at a rate far more than the value of their crop's actual net profits in the form of water subsidies?
Why, despite a National Wildlife Federation report on the matter, does the proposed contract not address the fact that, according to LCRA's own numbers, the ecosystem of Matagorda Bay may well be destroyed during a drought season due to a drop in freshwater flowing into the bay?
Yet, despite the fundamental relevance of these questions, no SAWS board member nor any City Council member responded to the queries.
Furthermore, despite its enormity and longevity, why had the average San Antonian not heard of this expensive and environmentally degrading proposal? Why hadn't SAWS tried to talk to the citizens regarding the terms of this deal as LCRA did when it held a series of public hearings on the matter in its own water region?
"I'm not familiar with any contract from a public agency that has been open for public review and scrutiny prior to the official action," stated SAWS Planner Susan Butler. Since this is her explanation of why San Antonians had not been involved in
the review of this contract (though LCRA had three times directly involved the public in its consideration of the deal), it seems reasonable that the average San Antonian might not be the "public" best suited to analyze and critique the bewildering terminology of the 74-page SAWS-LCRA contract.
Which may be why Butler so proudly stressed SAWS' involvement and close working relationship with the Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP), a group that exists to put the "public" in this public utility. She praised the panel's contributions to the crafting of the SAWS-LCRA contract.
Butler admits that amidst all the negotiations surrounding this and other alternative water plans for San Antonio, "The Citizens Advisory Panel told us to study the Edwards Aquifer and make it the cornerstone of our water policy." Yet SAWS did just the opposite.
Despite Butler's statements, according a panel member, "The Citizens Advisory Panel played no role in crafting the LCRA contract ... because the language in the
contract was completely fixed before Susan Butler briefed the CAP in January 2002." And, even though the panel's Hans Helland and Larry Hoffmann made specific suggestions for changes in the contract (changes that would benefit San Antonians over the other major players in the game), SAWS didn't change anything in the proposal.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, this LCRA deal is just the latest in a series of unbelievably costly, environmentally damaging, semi-secretive water contracts that SAWS has managed to sneak in under the radar.
A couple of years ago SAWS made a deal with Alcoa to buy water "discovered" during Alcoa's mining of lignite (an incredibly dirty, ultra-polluting form of coal) in Bastrop County. The SAWS staff secretly negotiated the deal, with no CAP nor Board review, and failed to give either body sufficient time to review the proposal before demanding its approval by the SAWS Board.
In actuality, the local area groundwater district (Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District) is allowing much less water to be exported to San Antonio than SAWS wanted. Furthermore, the Alcoa water deal is extremely costly ($707 per acre-foot) compared to alternative water plans, and requires treatment of the water to remove harmful contaminates such as manganese. This plan represents a guaranteed degradation of our water supply, as does the LCRA plan.
The Guadalupe Blanco River Authority deal signed last year (an interbasin transfer plan, unreliable in drought years) was yet another done with an air of secrecy. SAWS, refusing to allow any public hearings or adequate Board review, sneaked through a water plan that costs an incredible $800 per acre-foot of water, in addition to heaving an extra $9.8 million per year in added energy costs (for pumping the water to San Antonio) onto the shoulders of SAWS ratepayers.
Last Tuesday, according to Kirk Patterson, president of the Regional Clean Air and Water Association, the Board vote was "perfunctory and poorly informed."
"Chairman Jim Mayor's response was particularly bad," stated Patterson. After ignoring two weeks worth of email and telephone requests by Patterson to meet and discuss fundamental issues of the SAWS-LCRA contract, the chairman "demonstrated astonishing ignorance about the effects of the LCRA contract." During the entire vote discussion, Mayor spoke as if SAWS had already drained the Edwards Aquifer, consistently ignoring all evidence to the contrary and dismissing the numerous and fiscally responsible alternative water plans that SAWS has continually pushed aside in favor of costly, environmentally irresponsible, secretive deals - culminating with this, the king of them all.