In San Antonio, Investment in Water is Priority Number One

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As Councilmember Ron Nirenberg explains, San Antonio has made a number of strategic investments to diversify its water portfolio and ensure long-term water security.

(Photo: William Luther, San Antonio Express-News)
A group of explorers enters the Edwards Aquifer in Texas, via the Seco Sinkhole in Medina County. The city of San Antonio grew and benefitted from the area’s fortuitous location over the Edwards Aquifer, which continues to supply the vast majority of the city’s water. (Photo: William Luther, San Antonio Express-News)

This is a guest post by Councilmember Ron Nirenberg.

Although the United Nation’s “Water for Life” decade officially ended last year, the profile of water issues is being raised across the globe. Half of the world’s population lives in a state of water shortage, and more than one-third do not have adequate sanitation. Here in the United States, supplying clean water for future generations is a central issue for every major American city.

San Antonio is no different. As the seventh-largest city in the United States located in an increasingly drought-stricken region, accommodating the needs of a population that is expected to double to 3 million within 35 years is a top concern for local policy-makers. Businesses cannot grow and thrive, and people cannot survive, without the promise of future water security. In fact, in 2013, the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank cited water scarcity as the number one economic concern for Texas.

As the saying goes, water is life. So, too, water is the underpinning of our economy. And like every major city, ensuring that water is available and affordable for future San Antonians has meant a focus on managing infrastructure, with access to low-cost financing and partnership from public and private sectors along with every level of government.

That mission drives the work of the National League of Cities during Infrastructure Week, a nationwide push to raise the profile of transportation, water and broadband network needs in large and small American communities. As city leaders, we have an obligation to plan, build and maintain what comprises the backbone of our country. So it is critical, with ever-stretched resources, that cities work together to inform and collaborate with our federal and state partners to address these collective challenges.

Nearly 400 years ago, settlers chose the San Antonio area because of its proximity to the fresh water of the San Antonio River. Through the years that followed as migrants came from the north, west and east, the city grew and benefitted from the river and the area’s fortuitous location over the Edwards Aquifer: the efficient, unfiltered, sole source underground aquifer that has continued to supply the vast majority of this region’s water ever since.

But as other communities that depend on the aquifer grew, San Antonio has had to make strategic investments, backed by the ratepayers of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), our publicly-owned water utility, to diversify its water portfolio and ensure long-term water security. This has meant continually improving conservation as a first line of defense and reaching agreements with communities near and far to share resources – and infrastructure – to import water to supply SAWS. In 2014, SAWS broke ground on the largest inland desalination plant to filter brackish groundwater and augment up to 15 percent of our water supply by 2026. Brackish groundwater, thought to be a vast and relatively untapped source of water in Texas, is a key to long-term water security but is dependent on strategic investments in water infrastructure.

In response to frequent drought, the Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility, in operation since 2011, stores unused water during wet months in a secondary aquifer and provides a “bank” of water that can be drawn upon during dry, high demand years. The amount of water stored in the ASR recently exceeded 100 thousand acre feet, which is the equivalent of almost one-third of the current annual SAWS water demand.

In 2013, SAWS was one of the first utilities in the country to come to agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on a consent decree to eliminate Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) and comply with the Clean Water Act. Discharges of raw sewage from stormwater that overwhelm sewer infrastructure has been a focus of the EPA because it threatens water supplies in cities across the country. Part of the city’s settlement includes a promise to invest an additional $492 million in sewer system replacement over the next decade. Today, our city partners are working to not only resolve this issue to protect public health but to prevent additional economic impacts from noncompliance with federal guidelines.

In all of these efforts, the city of San Antonio, and its partners at SAWS, are working to ensure that there is enough good, clean and affordable water for all San Antonians in the future. As an American challenge, “One Water, One Future” will require partnership and investment from public sector agencies at the federal, state and local levels. Achieving success on water security should be every city’s number one priority. Infrastructure Week is a time for us to raise the banner.

Take part in Infrastructure Week and learn more about the challenges and opportunities cities face with regard to water infrastructure by joining the live steam of the National League of Cities and Value of Water Coalition Hill briefing, “Securing our Water Future: 21st Century Solutions for 21st Century Cities,” on Thursday, May 19 at 2:30 p.m. EDT.

About the Author: Ron Nirenberg is a councilmember in San Antonio, Texas. He currently serves as Chair of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.