Growing up, I had an elderly neighbor who used to say that the solution to drought was to build a pipeline from places with water to places without. At the time, most people thought he was crazy. Three decades later, it looks like some other folks have bought into his idea. Last week, the San Antonio Water System (“SAWS”) Board approved a contract with a water supply company that would build a pipeline and pump water from rural Central Texas to San Antonio.
San Antonio has long relied on the Edwards Aquifer to supply water for its residents, but increased demand due to significant population growth coupled with a historic drought caused city officials to look elsewhere for water supplies. The City investigated many options including conservation, desalination, and piping water in from other areas. As part of this, SAWS put out a proposal seeking bids for a pipeline project to supply 50,000 acre feet/year to SAWS. The request for proposals generated 9 responses.
After considering these various proposals and extensive negotiations, the San Antonio Water System entered into a contract with water supplier BlueWater and Spanish company Abengoa for the “Vista Ridge” pipeline, which would provide up to 50,000 acre feet (16 billion gallons) of water per year to San Antonio. Last week, the San Antonio Water System Board of Directors unanimously approved the proposed contract. The contract will now go before the San Antonio City Council for approval within the next month. To view the 581 page contract, click here.
The Vista Ridge Project
BlueWater secured groundwater leases from over 3,400 Burleson County landowners, allowing them the right to pump the groundwater owned by the landowners. Additionally, Vista Ridge secured the required permits to pump groundwater from the local Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which governs groundwater use in Burleson and Milam Counties.
The Vista Ridge Project would pipe water from Central Texas’ Carrizo-Wilcox and Simsboro Aquifers from a water well field located in Burleson County, to San Antonio, a location some 140 miles away. According to the plan, the project could be prepared to pump the full amount of water permitted–16 billion gallons per year–beginning in 2019 and continuing on for a 30 year term. According to SAWS, this amount of water would serve 162,000 San Antonio families.
Under the $3.4 billion deal, San Antonio will pay only for the water actually delivered each year, an estimated $100 million for the 16 billion gallons per year. These costs would be passed onto rate payers. BlueWater and Abengoa would fund the building of the 140 mile pipeline, while San Antonio would build the connection equipment required to receive the water.
This proposal has caused quite a controversy. [Read article here and video here.] On one side, opponents argue the proposal will significantly increase water bills for ratepayers and could lead to water shortages in rural Central Texas. [For example, read article here.] On the other, pipeline supporters believe this proposal is the solution to San Antonio’s water problems. [For example, read article here.] A number of other considerations and interests are at play.
* The depletion of groundwater for other Central Texas landowners. Landowners who did not sign leases with BlueWater are concerned that their wells may run dry if BlueRidge begins the planned pumping. Many in the City of San Antonio share these concerns, worried that the 50,000 acre feet per year may not be available for the 30 year term of the contract. [Read article here.]
* The impact this project could have on the Carizzo-Wilcox and Simsboro Aquifers and, consequently, on the groundwater management plans for several Groundwater Conservation Districts. Groundwater Conservation Districts are not formed based upon the aquifers they share, but rather more often by political subdivisions. Thus, the fact that the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District approved this well in Burleson County will likely have an impact on the water available and the planning decisions made by surrounding GCDs that also lie above the same aquifers. [Read article here.]
* The right of landowners to pump groundwater and to lease this right. The landowners who signed leases with BlueRidge and will receive compensation may have an interest in insuring this project is allowed so that they receive payment, potentially in the form of royalties, from BlueWater.
* The interests of landowners along the proposed pipeline route who will likely deal with requests for an easement across their property. As the vast majority of land in Texas is privately owned, the 140 mile pipeline will impact numerous Texas landowners who will almost certainly have requests for an easement show up on their doorstep.
* The increased water costs for San Antonio ratepayers. The SAWS will pass the additional costs of the project on to rate payers, who will see an increase in their monthly water bills of approximately 16%. Some may object to this, particularly because the price per gallon of water under this contract is nearly 7 times that of Edwards water currently.
* Payment for water the City does not need. Some are concerned by the contractual requirement that San Antonio pay for the quantity of water received from the pipeline project each year, even if the City does not need that water to serve its citizens.
Other Similar Proposals
This issue is important to more than just those living in Burleson County and San Antonio. There are similar proposals being discussed across the state.
For example, in Bastrop County, just south of the proposed well field in Burleson County, another water supplier has requested permits to pump nearly 15 billion gallons of water per year out of the Carrizo-Wilcox and Simsboro Aquifer in order to pipe the water to cities in need of additional sources. To date, the local Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District has denied these permits. As you may note, this project–although based in a different county governed by a different Groundwater Conservation District–would withdraw water from the same aquifers as the Vista Ridge project. t is important to note this is not the only pipeline project being considered.
In West Texas, just this week, the Texas Tribune published an article about a potential pipeline from Val Verde County to the Permian Basin. Val Verde County residents are scrambling to create a Groundwater Conservation District to monitor and manage groundwater withdrawals and long-term plans for the county. [Read article here.]
Further, similar issues are being seen in New Mexico, where a water supply company is currently seeking permits from the Office of the State Engineer to drill water wells in rural Western New Mexico and pipe the water to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A similar proposal made several years ago was denied, but the new proposal aims to cure the deficiencies identified in the denial of the prior application. This permit application has generated significant opposition, including one request for the New Mexico Supreme Court to step in and take action. [Read article here.]