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The Simsboro Aquifer

On December 28, 1998, San Antonio Water System officials announced a major breakthrough in supplying the city with water from a source other than the Edwards Aquifer. Two contracts were in the works that could have eventually supplied San Antonio with up to 90,000 acre feet of water per year, about half of the city's use at that time. The SAWS board approved two draft agreements several days later, on December 31.

In one deal, SAWS would have received water from the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) that was being produced from the Simsboro Aquifer as a by-product of ALCOA's large lignite mining operation in Milam and Lee counties. The Simsboro is part of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. Beginning in 1985, about 30,000 acre-feet of groundwater was being removed per year to keep the mining operation dry and it was released to run down Yegua Creek into the Brazos River. Under the deal, ALCOA would have delivered 40,000-60,000 acre feet per year to a point on U.S. 290 about 100 miles from San Antonio.

In the second deal, SAWS would have acquired groundwater rights on property owned or leased by City Public Service (CPS), and ALCOA would mine the lignite. The property is in the same area as the ALCOA owned mines. CPS purchased 10,000 acres and leased 4,000 more in the 1980s when they were anticipating possible construction of new power plants that burned lignite. It was estimated the tracts could produce up to 30,000 acre feet of water per year.

Both deals were contingent on completion of studies by SAWS to determine if the projects were economically feasible and publicly acceptable, and there were also provisions that allowed San Antonio to back out at any time. If San Antonio decided to move ahead, there were several options regarding what to do with the water. One was transporting it in a pipeline to San Antonio and treat it for distribution to customers. The water is very high quality but some conventional treatment would have been required because it was high in iron and manganese. A second possibility is the water could have been treated to drinking water quality standards and injected into the Edwards Aquifer somewhere in the Recharge Zone. A third option was to swap the water for other water closer to San Antonio.

In the spring of '99 SAWS officials held a series of public meeting to determine whether the utility should move ahead on the projects. Some questioned the cost effectiveness of the proposal and whether or not the Simsboro Aquifer could meet the needs both of SAWS and the local residents. A study by the Texas Water Development Board was initiated to determine the sustainable yield of the Aquifer. It was released in April '99 and concluded the Simsboro had enough water to supply San Antonio with half its needs at that time, and also meet all local needs for the next 50 years. Fearing lowered water levels would leave insufficient water and harm the environment and economic development, local residents asked Governor Bush in October 1999 to stop the sale of water to SAWS. The governor signaled a hands-off attitude. Alcoa and SAWS were both required to mitigate negative impacts to water wells in the mining area if the project was completed.

In July 2000 the San Antonio Water System board decided to move the project forward by authorizing spending up to $300,000 to design the project's collection system. It was estimated the project could have been online by 2015.

In April 2001 engineers for Alcoa outlined their preferred route for the 29.5 miles of pipeline that Alcoa would build to transport water to the delivery point on CPS property. SAWS would then have been responsible for building the remaining 100 miles of pipeline to San Antonio. SAWS considered various routes and whether the pipeline should have been larger than needed so that water from other sources could also be transported.

In June of 2005 the San Antonio Water System decided to end its participation in the project, citing costs, legislative challenges, environmental concerns, local opposition, changing population projections, and new per capita usage patterns. 

In December of 2008, a group of private landowners over the Simsboro approached SAWS and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority with a proposal to develop a project similar to the ALCOA project abandoned by SAWS. Up to 200,000 acre-feet per year would be supplied to San Antonio, the GBRA, and other cities along the I-35 corridor. Brazos Valley Water Alliance spokesman Lourcey Sams said he had "no worries" about getting permits from local groundwater districts and said "It's an education thing. We will have to explain how this affects existing production and existing users. It's not going to be an easy process. It's controversial, emotional, and political. But we should not have any problems. "

In late 2010, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority proposed to team up with private water sellers to build the pipeline and deliver water to San Antonio by 2020. The proposal was in response to a SAWS request that any interested party submit ideas regarding non-Edwards projects. When SAWS narrowed its list of proposals under consideration to four, the GBRA proposal did not make the cut. However, another proposal by the international engineering and construction business Abengoa, with the cooperation of Texas-based BlueWater Systems, was still under consideration. That proposal would pump water from the Carrizo and Queen City aquifers in Burleson and Lee counties.

Materials used to prepare this section:

"City poised to nail down major new water source" San Antonio Express-News, December 28, 1998.
"SAWS OKs water pacts" San Antonio Express-News, December 31, 1998.
"Water future looking brighter" San Antonio Express-News, January 6, 1999.
"Study shows central aquifer has water to meet S.A. needs to 2050" San Antonio Express-News, April 20, 1999.
"SAWS advances water project" San Antonio Express-News, July 4, 2000.
"Alcoa engineers present water pipeline route" San Antonio Express-News, April 18, 2001.
"Another SAWS project facing ax" San Antonio Express-News, June 16, 2005.
"Rural group pitches water project" San Antonio Express-News, December 20, 2008.
"S.A. may get water from 100 miles away" San Antonio Express-News, October 1, 2010.
"SAWS narrows list of potential projects" San Antonio Express-News, April 7, 2012.