Massive Central Texas pipeline project runs into turbulence

A $3.4 billion San Antonio pipeline project that could provide more water for parts of the Hill Country and communities along Interstate 35 appears to have hit some headwinds.

Ground hasn’t yet been broken on the 142-mile project, known as the Vista Ridge pipeline, but it is under attack both at its source, from rural and environmental interests anxious about drawing down the water table, and at its destination, from critics who say the city and its water utility haven’t been sufficiently transparent about its costs.

The San Antonio Water System has said it will try to sell off water it has reserved but won’t need for years – perhaps enough to supply 60,000 households for the next three decades. No deal has been made yet, but much of the water would be shipped from counties east of Austin to the increasing sprawl to the city’s west — seen as a nightmare by environmental groups that had hoped suburban growth would be stifled by the dwindling supplies in the Highland Lakes and by unreliable Hill Country groundwater.

The city and water utility “are trying to sell it as a done deal,” said Bill Bunch, director of the Austin-based Save Our Springs Alliance. “That’s about to blow up into a big fight.”

This week, Save Our Springs and other environmental groups released a hydrology report they commissioned that said Burleson County, where the water will originate, would see an average drop in the water table of 179 feet due to the project; in Bastrop County the drop would be 46 feet.

Proposals to move water from the east to meet development needs in major cities give “no consideration about draining water from (rural) communities,” said Judith McGeary, director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. “These communities will dry up and blow away” if their water is exported.

But Gary Westbrook, manager of the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates water in Burleson County and approved the permits that could send water to San Antonio, said permits could be adjusted if need be.

“Our job is to manage these aquifers and protect property rights,” he said.

“This project was developed with a focus on ensuring that local management of the water occurs,” said Donovan Burton, vice president of governmental relations and corporate strategy at the San Antonio Water System. “If the local (regulatory) folks in Burleson and Milam counties believe the drawdowns are unsustainable, they’re able to manage the water going forward — so far they have said it was very sustainable.”

San Antonio, long dependent on the Edwards Aquifer, committed to the Vista Ridge pipeline project in 2014 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 of water per year to San Antonio, beginning as soon as 2020. San Antonio will pay for the water whether it needs it or not.

(An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water used by four average Austin households annually.)

Even as the city has long sought to expand its water sources, with mixed success, San Antonio Water System’s biggest hurdle might be deepening anxiety in its own backyard over the project and how it will affect ratepayers.

In September, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Texas A&M University had replaced the chief author of a water policy study commissioned, then delayed for months, by the city. A draft of the study called the pipeline project “high-risk” because of the distance of the source from the city, the number of regulatory agencies involved and the short contract period, among other reasons.

City officials said the draft contained inaccuracies and a university official told the newspaper the draft wasn’t fully “baked.”

Now authorities find themselves accused of being less than forthcoming about the project’s total cost and San Antonio’s water projection demands.

“This was never fully vetted,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy expert at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio who says the project has been pushed by the city’s business community.

Burton disagrees.

Discussions at board meetings and discussions with members of the public show that “one of major tenets of project has always been transparency,” he said.

The current dispute echoes one from the late 1990s, when San Antonio Water System aimed to pipe in water from the Rockdale area, about 60 miles northeast of Austin. A community group from Milam County and surrounding counties rallied to oppose the project, which residents feared would rob them of their well water. The project eventually fell apart as pipeline costs spiraled.

This time around, San Antonio appears eager to share the costs: For years to come it won’t need all the pipeline water, especially since it can rely on cheaper sources. Robert Puente, president of the San Antonio Water System, told the American-Statesman in March that 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 earlier this year.

Costing at least $2,000 per acre-foot the pipeline water would be relatively expensive, but it has still drawn interest from officials, utilities and developers across the Hill Country who have been looking for ways to get water to their land.

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