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San Antonio City Council Approves Historic $3.4 Billion Vista Ridge Pipeline Project


Standing in front of the San Antonio City Council, barely able to reach the microphone atop the broad wood podium, Verna Dement carried a stack of papers.

The Lee County woman had come to the Alamo City to ask the council to hold up on voting for the Vista Ridge Pipeline Project, a $3.4 billion, 142-mile pipeline, which would draw water from Dement’s neighboring Burleson County, to provide San Antonio and potentially, other cities along the I-35, water for decades to come.

She looked pointedly at the stack, as thick as San Antonio's voluminous phone book. “A group of letters from people all over Texas...” she stated, as she read from a letter. “Dear San Antonio mayor and city council members, I am writing you because your decision about the Vista Ridge project will have a direct and important impact on me, my family, and my community in Central Texas. I believe it is everyone’s duty to protect our aquifers for generations to come.”

To say the Vista Ridge Water pipeline project is controversial is an understatement. Groups on both sides have rallied behind their beliefs. Many say the pipeline, which begins northeast of Austin, will protect the Edwards Aquifer for decades.

Others, like Mu Son Chi, with the Texas Organizing Project, argued that the project is financially risky for the city and its ratepayers. They say a rate hike for water customers is also burdensome and they wonder about the project's sustainability.

Opponents begged the city council to put it on hold. Chi said the problem was that most of the people they had spoken to didn’t have enough information on the project. “Most people don't know anything about it. That's real, so we’re hoping you guys can delay this decision. It's the right thing to do. The size and scale of this project, I think, requires it.”

San Antonio Water System CEO, Robert Puente, spoke about the effects of pushing the pause button on Vista Ridge, and said a delay would mean the project's death — and that more time equaled an increase to the total cost of the pipeline. He admitted, though, that he’d changed course in recent months.

“Yes, in February, I recommended to the SAWS board that they reject this project. And I would do it again today if it was the same proposal as it was then. But this is a different contract now,” he stated, and offered to explain.

The new contract, he continued, outlined that SAWS only pays for the water made available. In addition, the interest rate has been capped, and the risk for the delivery of water now fell on the private developer, not SAWS ratepayers. Ratepayers will be impacted, though, with the average water bill going up by 16 percent by the year 2020.

For people like Becky Oliver, the Executive Vice President of the Greater San Antonio Builders Association, though, there was no ambiguity. “We ask that you vote in favor of moving this project forward,” Oliver told the council during the Citizens to Be Heard portion of the meeting before the vote. She said she was concerned that water scarcity issues would, otherwise, prohibit growth in the city.

“SAWS has done their homework on this project, and we believe buying tomorrow’s water at today’s rate is the smart thing to do. If we do not purchase this water, there are other cities that will gladly purchase it,” stated Oliver.

Residents, however, continued to criticize the city council for not including the public enough in the process. Their viewpoint: Such a big project deserved more time spent on examining the ins and outs of the situation.

Former Councilwoman, Maria Berriozabal, recalled historical projects like the Applewhite Reservoir. Voters decided to abandon the surface water project, based on the thinking that it would lead to unchecked growth. City leaders today, though, said it was a huge mistake, because that growth still happened.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor compared this project to others from the last two decades, and warned that not granting approval would be the wrong decision by Vista Ridge. “We need the water because we are continuing to grow. We've grown from the time when the Applewhite decision was made, to just shy of a million people, to almost 1.4 million people,” she said.

Opponents, though, chanted a phrase inside the council chambers, uttered by Berriozabal, “Not in my name.”

But with motions for approval, North Side Councilman Ron Nirenberg, along with his colleagues, confirmed their support of the project. “With this region’s reliance on the Edwards Aquifer, inevitable population growth, extended drought conditions, and Texas law that treats ground water as the private property of the landowner, the clock began ticking on San Antonio's water security long ago,” said Nirenberg.

And now that many years of planning for approval are finally done with, the work is set to begin. Abengoa, the multinational company selected to lead the project, said the Vista Ridge Consortium would design, build, finance, operate and maintain new production wells, pumping stations, raw water collection, and storage tanks to deliver the new water supply, and support the growing demand from an additional 20,000 people in San Antonio every year.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.