by Mark Reagan
This photo posted on the San Antonio Water System's Facebook page shows Texas legislators visiting a SAWS facility in March.
During a Tuesday budget meeting, several council members shifted focus from the Planning and Community Development Department’s proposed budget toward who will steer the future of water policy in the Alamo City.
John Dugan, the department’s director, said his proposed budget includes approximately $100,000 for a study that would look at how San Antonio officials can secure a water supply far into the future.
City Manager Sheryl Scully said officials are negotiating a contract with a vetted and recommended consultant. An item will come to the full council in early October for approval of the study, Scully said.
However, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier questioned whether officials were recreating the wheel because San Antonio Water System already has a plan for securing a future water supply. “Do we not own SAWS? Yes. Does SAWS not collect millions in fees a year? Yes. We pay them. Why do we need to do what we already pay them for,” Krier asked Dugan, who responded that the Planning and Community Development study would look toward 2060, beyond the scope of SAWS’ service. “It’s a much bigger perspective in terms of future and time and the number of actors affecting capacity and the risk for providing water to the future,” Dugan said.
After Krier’s comments, Mayor Ivy Taylor asked District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg if he could expand and help address Krier’s concerns.
“The SAWS water management plan hasn’t been informed by the city process, it’s been bifurcated for a long time,” Nirenberg said, adding that San Antonio has experienced tremendous growth and there hasn’t been a discussion on water. “Absolutely, the SAWS data and water management plan is a place to start, but the city needs to be in the driver’s seat on how the water system grows and how to supply it for future generations.”
Krier said he understood Nirenberg’s point, but SAWS has a huge budget and the council sets its rates—so SAWS should be the preeminent advisor on water policy, according to Krier’s perspective. “If that’s not the case, perhaps we ought to fire them from that role officially. What I don’t want to get into is us reinventing the water wheel.”
After their exchange, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal said he needed clarity on the conversation so he could better report back to his constituents.
“Implicit in the discussion is that they are doing something without our input so we are going to create something that marshals them and says here is how we would like to grow as a city,” Bernal said, rhetorically asking if that was correct.
Dugan said from his perspective, it’s not that his department doesn’t like SAWS’ plan or has a different plan. It’s that the city has not had the lead in a comprehensive plan for 35 years. “We haven’t had a statement of policy and big component of growth is where utilities grow,” Dugan said.
According to Bernal, if the council has issue with any part of SAWS’ operations it should just go over there and change it. “If we have authority to fix it. We should, and save time,” he said.
But this debate is much larger than SAWS, it also includes VIA Metropolitan Transit and CPS Energy, a point Taylor honed in on during the conversation. “My argument would be that the manner in which SAWS or VIA has been operating has been a result of the fact that there’s been a vacuum because we don’t have a master plan document that everyone has bought into that can guide the future. They’ve (SAWS, etc.) been reactive. Maybe we’ve reset or intervened on certain issues, but there isn’t an overarching vision to guide their policy making.”
Bernal said the future of transportation and water policies should be set by council. “You can look at how the city has spread. At a certain point, something should guide the way the city grows, to the degree that we have authority over some of these entities,” Bernal said. “It shouldn’t sound like a negotiation. It should be more like this is what you’re going to do.
If we have authority over them we should just say this is what we are going to do and you’re going to do it.”
Taylor said Bernal’s point was well taken and encouraged council members to speak with board members appointed to the entities to “ensure we are on the same page.”
As for the latest water supply news, the San Antonio Express News editorial board endorsed a plan for a 142-mile pipeline that would provide 50,000 acre feet of water from Central Texas for 30 years starting in 2019, after which, SAWS would own the pipeline.