Re-framing San Antonio's Water Future
by Meredith McGuire, Co-Chair of the Conservation Committee
What does San Antonio need to learn from the California water crisis? Dr. Char Miller offered some interesting insights to our own looming water crisis when he spoke (by video conference) during the Water Forum at Trinity University on May 19. Dr. Miller, formerly Professor of History and director of the Urban Studies Program at Trinity, is now the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Southern California. His extensive, acclaimed research and writing about San Antonio’s water issues and decision-making make his experience with California’s water crisis especially interesting. He has given many talks in California about what California should learn from San Antonio’s history of enhancing and protecting its water sources. This talk, however, emphasized what San Antonio must learn from California’s mistakes leading to the current water crisis and from some of Los Angeles’ recent exemplary practices for a better water future.
Char spoke of John Wesley Powell’s concept of hydraulic districts, what Miller called “watershed commonwealth,” as the best approach to community decision-making about water stewardship and protection in a region where our lives are bound together with of those who live upstream and downstream on our watershed’s precious source of fresh water. Unfortunately, most political boundaries fragment the watersheds of our nation and state. They typically produce political decisions that result in gross misuse of precious resources, water contamination, and environmental degradation. In the face of today’s water crises, however, communities and whole regions could make more effective decisions about water supply and quality, if they would work together on the level of a watershed and find common cause in its protection.
Dr. Miller used the Edwards Aquifer as the best instance of how people take collective action to protect the watershed commonwealth for the well-being of the whole region that depends on the aquifer. He noted that time and time-again, San Antonio residents raised their voices in defense of their aquifer from political threats, such as the thrice-proposed Applewhite Reservoir, an expensive boondoggle promising vast surface water supplies from damming the Medina River. [Had it been built, it would have been bone dry the last 2-3 years, due to drought–reduced river flow.]
The parallels between SAWS’ current Vista Ridge project and Applewhite are obvious. As former Council member Maria Berriozábal pointed out last October, when Council approval was being rushed through deliberations: Vista Ridge is Applewhite IV – only far more expensive, far more wasteful, and far more dangerous for aquifer protection. The Acting Mayor (Ivy Taylor) and SAWS have promoted a top-down decision-making process about our water by refusing to hold sufficient open and informed public discussion of all the options for meeting San Antonio’s water needs in the future. We need to re-frame San Antonio’s water future, democratically re-asserting our ownership – together with all who share the watershed - of the moral responsibility for protecting our watershed commons for the common good.
Char Miller discussed some of Southern California’s massive mistakes in the 19th and 20th centuries: building numerous pipelines to pump water over mountains from distant lakes and rivers, paving over natural aquifers’ catchment areas, while channeling existing waterways into storm drains and dumping the water that fell as rain into the ocean as polluted wastewater. He also noted Los Angeles’ recent award-winning “best practices,” like removing impervious surfaces over the aquifer catchment areas, using bio-swales to let storm water percolate down into the aquifer, and restoring wetlands. Nevertheless, as an extremely dry region, Southern California may never be able to save enough water to support such a large population. Although our area has never been so dry (or so populous) as Southern California, might we share a similar fate?
Re-Framing to Cope with Mega-Droughts, Ongoing Regional Droughts, and Climate Change
SAWS and Chamber of Commerce spokespersons have tried to frame San Antonio’s need for water as a mere public relations problem. They tell us that San Antonio should not settle for “adequate” amounts of water, but should be known as a place of “abundant” water. They claim that we need the Vista Ridge deal so that San Antonio can avoid the “stigma” of being a dry climate. To deny the possibility – indeed probability – of serious, prolonged drought is to set our city up for a water crisis perhaps more disastrous than that facing Los Angeles right now. Such a drought would not be a “natural disaster,” but rather – a humanly caused one.
To become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events that climate change will make more frequent and more severe, we need to change how we think about droughts. Before, during, and after rainy periods (like the ones we’ve been experiencing this Spring), we need to be carefully preparing for the dry months that could last for many years, even many decades. We also need to think of droughts as regional, not just local, phenomena. That means, if our region is experiencing drought stresses, but our locality is getting some rains and relief, San Antonio is still vulnerable.
New data, such as a 2015 study by Cook et al. (“Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains”), suggest the high probability of a 35-year-long drought before the end of this century. How can we withstand such a drought? The weather extremes triggered by climate change also include heavy downpours and flooding, heat waves that last weeks desiccating the soil and evaporating surface waters, record-high daily low temperatures that prevent night-time cooling, and so on. To prepare, cities must deal with all the contingencies in an integrated way to meet needs for clean water, energy, shelter, food, and security.
How can we increase the water supply to meet people’s needs? As we learned in grade school, the hydrological cycle – of evaporation and precipitation – means that no one can produce “new water.” All the molecules of water on the earth today were here in some form thousands of years ago. Our water supply is limited; if we use it up faster than new precipitation falls, we may run out. Unlike many other scarce natural resources, however, much water is renewable by the hydrological cycle. But if human activity – like building over the aquifer recharge zones – destroys the capacity of the natural system of aquifer recharge, then much renewable water is lost. If human activity – such as one town continually overdrawing a fragile aquifer – destroys its potential for recharge, then all the communities of the whole watershed have lost a source of water. One of our highest priorities must be to hold onto as much of the precipitation that falls in our watershed as possible. That includes, not only capturing it in aquifers, cisterns, and lakes, but also holding it in the soil (e.g., with compost), wetlands, creek beds, and riparian habitats.
Reframing Our Water Supply Options: “Waste Not, Want Not”
Juliet Christian-Smith and Peter Gleick, in the introduction to their 2012 edited volume, A Twenty-First Century US Water Policy, argue that the 19th and 20th century conventional approach to water supply was a “hard path.” It was focused almost exclusively on large-scale, extremely expensive infrastructure projects, like dams, reservoirs, and extensive networks of canals and pipelines. Economies of scale were prioritized, while economies of scope went unrecognized. Detrimental environmental impacts on rivers and riparian ecosystems, wetlands and estuaries, rarely counted in calculations of the real costs of water, according to this perspective. Huge projects required such enormous, long-term commitments of (usually government) resources that they were not adaptable to change or implementing new technologies. The systems were centralized, with decision-makers often remote from the lives of the people who used the water. The reigning assumptions seemed to be that increased productivity and increased population required proportionately increased amounts of water to be supplied. Decision-making itself tended to be rigid and isolated with separate decision-making agencies working in silos rather than together (e.g., separate decisions about water, energy, and storm water management, rather than integrated planning to accomplish all three inter-related goals at the same time).
Like most US cities, San Antonio took this conventional approach to water supply throughout most of its history, as a diagram of its water infrastructure and its history of construction costs would indicate. The most expensive examples of decision-making along “hard path” lines are the proposed Vista Ridge project and the desalination plant, now under construction, together with the extensive pipelines to bring in saline water from an aquifer in another county. Like Los Angeles’ pipelines from Owens Lake and the Colorado River, and like Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, these extremely expensive and inflexible water projects may not serve us well, precisely when we need the water the most. For example, what if – in year 15 of a 35-year mega-drought, both groundwater sources for that purchased water become so overdrawn that pumping is halted? What if fracking operations in the area cause contamination or depletion of wells that San Antonio thought would supply the city for more than 30 years? What if, having been sold the myth of “abundant water,” a large proportion of San Antonio residents are completely unprepared to adapt to greatly reduced water from SAWS? What if, having spent so much money on Vista Ridge, SAWS has no funds to develop better alternatives quickly? Vista Ridge is San Antonio’s “hard path” route to water crisis.
Let’s devote our resources to more flexible, local and community-supported “soft path” approaches instead. The “soft path” for water supply focuses on meeting water-related needs – not just supplying water. If businesses could have their water-related needs met by using water-efficient equipment, then the existing water supply could stretch farther without detriment to economic productivity. In a 2003 study of California water use, Gleick and colleagues analyzed water use and potential savings from water-efficient practices in households, landscaping and gardens, as well as commercial, institutional, and industrial sectors of the state’s economy. They conclude that “… it is much cheaper to conserve water and encourage efficiency than to build new water supplies or even, in some cases expand existing ones.” [emphasis added] With our region’s higher rainfall, San Antonio would almost certainly experience even greater savings from comparable conservation and efficiency-enhancement measures. Although the city has already achieved a considerable reduction in water usage rate, compared with 30 years ago, systematic water-efficiency measures, such as those described by Gleick, in all sectors of the local economy could conserve as much water as Vista Ridge would supply.
Another key “soft path” approach involves reserving the higher-quality potable water for uses that require it, while utilizing “fit-for-purpose” water for other uses. SAWS’ excellent “fit-for-purpose” water project involves recycling sewage (for use as compost, methane energy, and recycled water redistributed through SAWS’ “purple pipes” for landscape irrigation, fountains, and the Riverwalk water itself), but that recycled water is hardly enough. San Antonio misses many valuable opportunities to capture rainwater and stormwater run-off, which would be excellent sources of “fit-for-purpose” water for, not only irrigation, but also many commercial, municipal, and industrial uses.
SAWS seems to be avoiding some of the most valuable and cost-saving aspects of the “soft path.” Christian-Smith and Gleick (2012: xix) point out that “the soft path recognizes that investments in decentralized solutions can be just as cost-effective as investments in large, centralized options.” Decentralized solutions, such as capturing and storing rainwater near the eventual points of use (e.g., industrial cooling processes), are not only water-efficient but also energy-efficient. Many “soft path” measures involve decentralized investment, too. For example, rather than SAWS or City of San Antonio (CoSA) supplying all money for investment in water supply, the businesses or neighborhoods that would benefit from using captured rain- or storm-water could collectively invest in a mini-grid of “fit-for-purpose” water. SAWS may be avoiding such measures out of fear of lost revenue, but that is short-sighted, because every gallon of aquifer water saved by a household or business investing in its own water supply is a valuable piece of San Antonio’s water security.
The “soft path” approach requires thinking about water in an integrated way. But SAWS, CPS, and CoSA are not structured to encourage that kind of thinking. Given San Antonio’s long history of struggling with flooding and storm water runoff, the city could realize far greater volume of stormwater capture than Southern California (see Stormwater Capture Potential in Urban and Suburban California). If San Antonio’s agencies could collaborate to turn flood control into large-scale stormwater capture – simultaneously making good use of mandated stormwater fees as incentives to make good use of water that is currently nothing but destructive and polluting.
Thinking about water in an integrated way means taking water-efficiency into account in energy production and taking energy-efficiency into account in providing water. It also includes reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses involved supplying energy and water.
Unlike most US cities, San Antonio has already taken some exemplary “soft path” measures. In addition to the recycled sewage water, San Antonio employs an aquifer storage and recovery facility to retain excess aquifer water in wet months to be able to use it in dry months. Especially important is the voter-supported (yet again this year!) use of sales tax funds to acquire conservation easements to protect land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The 2014 documentary (Penn State Public Media), Water Blues/ Green Solutions, highlights these laudable achievements.
When a preview of the San Antonio segment of the documentary was shown at a U.T.S.A. water forum in early 2014, SAWS CEO Robert Puente used the celebratory occasion to announce that SAWS had decided not to pursue the route of water purchase and inter-basin pipeline transfer, because it was not needed and not cost-effective. The audience applauded enthusiastically. But the Chamber of Commerce and some other political powers prevailed to reverse that decision, and within a month, the SAWS Board had approved the decision to engage in contract negotiations for the Vista Ridge deal.
The documentary had emphasized the extent to which San Antonio’s residents cared about their water, working together to protect and conserve it. Viewing the documentary again recently, I thought about the ideal of a “watershed commons” and how important the people of San Antonio and the whole watershed are in accomplishing our collective water future. What happened to their voice in the decision-making process? This is clearly a case of a small group of powerful people choosing the wrong path, to the benefit of only a few and to the detriment of many -- not only current residents, but also generations to come.
Let us reclaim and defend our watershed commons. Let us take the “soft path” to prepare our community for a sustainable water future.
Introducing the Texas Water Conservation Scorecard
The Texas Living Waters Project, a partnership of the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Galveston Bay Foundation, has released an analysis and ranking of the water conservation efforts of more than 300 water utilities in Texas. The Scorecard is primarily an evaluation of utilities based largely on their level of effort to advance water conservation, and to a lesser extent on their achievements.
We have developed an interactive website for people to explore what their water utilities are doing to conserve our most precious resource. Please visit the Texas Living Waters Water Conservation Scorecard website on your phone, computer, or tablet or download the May, 2016 scorecard (PDF file).