A $3.4 billion water pipeline San Antonio is building to meet its future needs could also fuel a burst of development in increasingly parched towns in the Hill Country.
The San Antonio Water System is looking to sell off water it has reserved but won’t need for years – possibly enough to supply 60,000 households for the next three decades. No deal has been made yet, but San Antonio is peddling that supply to communities from Williamson County to Bexar County, including those west of Interstate 35.
Should a deal happen, it would be the first time water would be shipped from counties east of Austin to the increasing sprawl to the city’s west — a nightmare for environmental groups who had hoped suburban growth would be stymied by the dwindling supplies in the Highland Lakes and by unreliable Hill Country groundwater.
Costing at least $2,000 per acre foot, the water will be expensive, but it is still drawing interest from officials, utilities and developers across the Hill Country who have been eyeing ways to get water to their land.
Many of those jurisdictions were already pursuing pipeline projects of their own, and San Antonio’s Vista Ridge pipe project, which will run along I-35, could be the spine of a skeleton of water lines running through Central Texas.
For better or worse, the San Antonio pipeline changes the calculus for everybody involved in the debate over development in the Hill Country. For years, smaller utilities have individually foundered as they sought to move water from the east to the doorstep of the Hill Country. Now, in one fell swoop, San Antonio appears poised to do just that.
“It’s a totally earth-changing event,” said C. Thomas Koch, an engineer who consults on projects in Comal County.
Environmental groups are teaming up with some unlikely allies to fight the westward expansion of water service: residents of Hill Country subdivisions that sprang up with previous controversial water lines.
“We favor keeping the Hill Country rural and scenic,” said Bill Bunch, director of Save Our Springs Alliance.
Robert Puente, president of the San Antonio Water System, said he and his staff met with utilities in the greater Austin area, including the city of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority, New Braunfels, the Western Travis County Public Utility Agency and others.
“The Hill Country is a beautiful area with limited surface water, limited groundwater and no big city to spread rates across,” Puente said. “We would answer the desperate call.”
Gushing for growth
San Antonio committed to the Vista Ridge pipeline project last year to diversify its sources of water. Under the deal, BlueWater Systems will pump the water from beneath Burleson County through the pipe, which will be built by Spanish company Abengoa. BlueWater will send as much as 50,000 acre-feet per year to San Antonio, beginning as soon as 2019. San Antonio will pay for the water whether it needs it or not.
And for years to come it won’t need all that water, especially since it can rely on cheaper sources — thus, says Puente, he’s looking for takers.
There appear to be plenty: Developers, water utilities and local governments across the Hill Country have long been hamstrung by an inability to come together to build infrastructure to ship water from the east, said Koch, who has closely followed regional water planning issues.
“A common carrier ought to bring together the warring parties of Hays County,” which has the greatest need for water, Koch said. “It’s like the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds: You have Wimberley, that doesn’t want anything to do with urbanization, and Kyle and Buda, rooftop communities that can’t build enough subdivisions. People in Buda could give a flip about Dripping Springs. And you have the two” public utility agencies — Hays Caldwell and West Travis County — “that are trying to build empires, each with their own consulting engineers and bond attorneys.”
The planned San Antonio pipeline project will now do the lion’s share of the work, setting up rights-of-way and, most likely, shipping water from the east.
In a fragmented way, one that reflects the competing interests and characters of Hill Country utilities and the communities they serve, several jurisdictions west of I-35 had already been separately pursuing projects that would also move water westward.
Hays County has the rights to 12,500 acre-feet of permitted water from the private firm Forestar. The water would come from Lee County, not far from the BlueWater well field site. Hays County Judge Bert Cobb has said he wants to explore the possibility of transporting that water through the Vista Ridge pipeline, although SAWS officials haven’t indicated whether that will be possible.
The San Antonio water could benefit landowners as far away as Blanco County, where executives in the construction industry voiced strong support in 2012 for a project to bring 15,000 acre-feet of water a year from Gonzales County.
Population growth along the U.S. 281 corridor means that area will need additional water supplies, said Mark Janay, president of the Texas Water Alliance.
To build a pipeline for the Gonzales County water, Janay’s outfit might partner with the Hays Caldwell Public Utility Agency, a governmental body aimed at meeting the future water needs of mostly Hays County towns along the I-35 corridor. It has obtained water rights from landowners near the Texas Water Alliance’s planned drilling sites and could share costs on a pipeline.
The path for that pipeline would be perpendicular to the Vista Ridge route, reducing the opportunity for a partnership with the San Antonio Water System. But Graham Moore, the Hays Caldwell agency’s executive director, said hooking into the Vista Ridge pipeline for a short segment at the end of his line might save infrastructure costs.
Though the San Antonio Water System is primarily interested in selling its water, not allowing other entities to use its pipeline, Puente said he wouldn’t rule out that possibility.
New allies emerge
The prospect of new pipelines running into the Hill Country echoes a controversial line laid more than a decade ago by the LCRA into the Hill Country. Save Our Springs and other environmental groups tried, unsuccessfully, to thwart that line, arguing that development in the Hill Country would eventually lead to the pollution of creeks and streams that ultimately make their way to Barton Springs pool.
Now, curiously, Save Our Springs is partnering with residents in such subdivisions as Belterra and Rocky Creek Ranch — communities that developed as a consequence of the LCRA line — to prevent the further expansion of water-bearing infrastructure. For the new Hill Country households, it’s a question of keeping rates down — they might have to pay for new infrastructure — and preserving what’s left of Hill Country vistas.
Both Bunch and a board member of the water control and improvement district for Belterra, for instance, testified against a legislative proposal last session that would have paved the way for an expanded West Travis County Public Utility Agency.
Janay, of the Texas Water Alliance, said it’s up to lawmakers and local officials to determine when and where growth should be funneled. But if growth is happening and will continue to, he said, the population will need a reliable long-term source of water.
“With every area of the Hill Country, there are those that are looking at the economic potential. There’s also the concern of the Hill Country losing its character because of overdevelopment, and I think there’s an important balance,” Janay said. “We’re just there so that if and when development occurs, then we certainly would like to be part of the solution.”