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Edwards Aquifer News for 2014

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April 2014

EAA moves to Stage 3

On April 10, the EAA declared Stage 3 restrictions for pumpers in the San Antonio pool of the Edwards. San Antonio Water System remained in Stage 2 status, although customers were asked to conserve. SAWS is able to deliver water from other sources besides the Edwards and meet the pumping cutbacks required by EAA. Other cities in the region that rely more heavily on the Edwards imposed additional restrictions on their customers. For example, New Braunfels limited lawn watering to once every two weeks, based on the last digit of the customer address. As always, check with your local municipality to learn exactly what restrictions may apply to you.

February 2014

SAWS shifts water supply focus to desalination; still considering freshwater pipeline

In January of 2011, SAWS issued a formal request for proposals for new water supply projects that would provide an alternative water source and help diversify the city’s long-term water supplies. The objective was to identify projects by which private sector suppliers could provide 20,000 acre-feet per year to San Antonio by 2030, and 60,000 acre-feet by 2060.

By 2013, three were still under consideration, and significant public oppositon emerged against two of them.

One proposal involved pumping water from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer in Val Verde county, and in October opponents packed a SAWS Board meeting in hopes of pressuring SAWS to reject the proposal. They cited impacts on creeks that support the threatened Devil's River minnow, and claimed that models by the Texas Water Development Board have overestimated the amount of groundwater available. Del Rio Mayor Roberto Fernandez said "I certainly appreciate SAWS looking out for its citizens and with the growth you're experiencing, I have no problem with that. Where we have a problem, in our part of the state, is that they not use our water."

A second proposal from Dimmit County prompted the local Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, from which permits would be needed, to pass a resolution to “specifically oppose the exportation of large quantities of groundwater from Dimmit and Val Verde counties, as is being considered by the San Antonio Water System.”

The only proposal with no significant opposition, that of Abenoga Water LLC to bring Carrizo Aquifer water from east of Austin, was also the highest-ranked, but it could only guarantee costs and not water. SAWS CEO Robert Puente said “The highest ranked proposal was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply. We are unwilling to ask our ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with potentially no water.”

The request for new water supplies issued by SAWS was meant to shift all risk to a private developer, calling for the developer to build the project and deliver water to a local SAWS pump station.

In light of all this, SAWS announced it would recommend to its Board of Trustees that it accept none of the proposals and instead focus on an expansion of its brackish water desalination plans. SAWS also announced it had begun exploring the possibility of working in conjunction with the city's energy utility, City Public Service Energy, to co-locate a new gas-fired power plant at the brackish desalination site currently under construction. This would have benefits for both utilities - the power plant would be used to meet peak demands and during off-peak hours, the energy could be directed towards water production and purification. In return, some of the water produced would be used to cool the power plant. As currently envisioned, the expansion could eventually add up to 50,000 acre-feet per year to city supplies, and it would be available for centuries.

Not everyone was immediately sold on the idea of expanding desalination instead of accepting one of the private sector proposals offered for new supplies. Mayor Julian Castro said he was open to support desalination as a way for San Antonio to "control our own destiny", but he also wanted to keep the door open to purchase of other supplies. Long-time water advocate Weir Labatt also said he supported desalination but feared the city might fumble yet another chance to buy water from outside the region. "San Antonio had had a history of failed attempts to secure additional water," he said. "What I hope is this is not another chapter in that same story. I'm afraid it might be."

Others pointed out that shifting to expanded desalination could be seen as a shrewd adaptive response to the availability of technologies that were not economical until recently. Another benefit of a brackish desalination expansion is that it offers the potential to phase in capacity as needed in the future, so that investment could be matched to need.

The business community responded to SAWS announcement by releasing a study that spelled out dire economic consequences if only a small shortfall of water were to occur (see study). SAWS countered by pointing out that water for business and industry would never be cut because it has the supplies to support economic growth. In a statement SAWS said "The only cuts we require of our customers is for lawn and landscape irrigation."

In any case, SAWS Board voted to continue discussions with Abenoga Water, but also defended the staff recommendation. Chairman Berto Guerra said "While I appreciate comments from various members of the public, I do not want to commit our ratepayers to $85 million per year for 30 years for a project that may or may not deliver on its promise. We stand together as a Board. We stand behind our Mayor. We stand behind Robert Puente."

January 2014

Historic well at Hot Wells plugged

In the last week of January, work was underway to plug the historic artesian flowing well at Hot Wells. The legendary Hot Wells site was one of the first places where an Edwards well was drilled, in 1892, to supply the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (later known as the San Antonio State Hospital). The water was hot and sulfurous and deemed unfit to supply the Asylum, but others recognized the potential for a health resort based on curative waters, so the site was developed into a hotel and spa instead. For more on the history, see the Hot Wells page.

Sale of Bat Cave land falls through

In early January the Stratford Land investment company, which had previously indicated it intended to buy and develop the property near Bracken Cave, announded it had changed its mind. A coalition of environmental groups and local officials continued to look for ways to raise funding to preserve all or part of the property. Regarding Stratford's backing away from the deal, Councilman Ron Nirenberg said "It reinforces the belief that this land is of special interest to the public."

J-17 starts year at lowest level since the 1950s, but these times are hotter and drier

The Bexar county J-17 Index Well started 2014 at just above 640', which is the lowest start since the drought of record in the 1950s, and that is something to think about. However, the level at the beginning of the year is not really a good predictor of what it will be for the rest of the year, because of the variability of our rainfall. Speaking of variability, there is another data set that should be more alarming than the year-start J-17 level. Let's look at an excerpt from the Climate Page:

One of the expected consequences of climate change is greater extremes and increased variability, with more intense periods of hot and dry weather, and also larger floods. The summertime rainfall and temperature patterns of the last several years seem to bear this out. In the graph below, the drought years of the 1950s are clustered rather close together. More recently, 2006 was very hot and dry, but it was nothing compared with 2009 and 2011. At the other extreme is 2007, the wettest summer on record and also one of the coolest. 2012 was both warm and wet, perfect conditions for mosquitos that brought Texas the most active and lethal outbreak of West Nile virus in the state's history. While the variability expected from climate change seems evident, by 2013 it is also clear there is an emerging cluster of hot and dry years that exceed anything experienced in the 1950s drought. Four of the last eight summers were both hotter and drier than the worst of the 1950s drought.