There are better options than the Vista Ridge Pipeline

by Gary Gold
posted November 5, 2014

When your glass of water is empty, its time to stick your straw in someone else’s glass, right? That seems to be the most recent water management strategy of the San Antonio Water Services (SAWS) board. On Monday, September 30th, the board unanimously approved a $3.4 billion plan to construct the Vista Ridge Pipeline, a project that will transfer up to 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year over 142 miles from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Burleson County to San Antonio. As a statewide leader and innovator in water supply management, San Antonio water planners have taken a step in the wrong direction by approving the Vista Ridge Pipeline.

Up to this point, SAWS officials have been on the forefront of intelligent and innovative water planning in Texas. From storing water in underground aquifers in order to prevent evaporation, to desalinating otherwise unusable brackish groundwater, to offering rebates for water-efficient technologies, water planners in San Antonio have proven to be extremely shrewd in choosing management strategies. Unfortunately, the Vista Ridge Pipeline is a regression from this trend. The project is not only unreliable, but is also an unintelligently funded investment.

The Burleson Community will ultimately be the ones paying the price for the Vista Ridge Pipeline. These people are likely to incur a substantial financial burden as a result of San Antonio’s decision to tap water supplies in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. Prior to the Vista Ridge pipeline agreement, the Texas Water Development Board predicted that water levels in the aquifer may decline by as much as 300 feet by 2050 due to groundwater pumping in the region. And these numbers likely underestimate drawdown given the recent interest in the Carrizo-Wilcox water from municipalities including both San Antonio and Austin. Declining water levels will be a huge financial burden for the Burleson community as people with groundwater wells in the region will be forced to drill lower pumps to access water in the aquifer. Dr. Robert Mace, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Water Development Board, indicated that sustained groundwater removal at the Carrizo-Wilcox will become a significant expense for current groundwater users if water levels continue to decline. It will therefore be the Burleson County community who will carry the cost burden of the Vista Ridge Pipeline, an unfair consequence of San Antonio’s decision to put a straw in their glass.

Additionally, the SAWS agreement to construct the Vista Ridge Pipeline demonstrates an unwise use of city funds. The city of San Antonio will be paying the private firm Abengoa to carry out the project rather than financing the project through SWIFT, a statewide $2 billion fund that offers low-cost loans for water projects. The interest rate agreed upon between SAWS and Abengoa is twice as much as a SWIFT-granted loan could offer. Alternatively, expanding brackish groundwater desalination would be less expensive, more reliable, and eligible to be financed by a low-interest SWIFT loan.

Advocates of the Vista Ridge Pipeline point to the need to diversify water resources. This point is valid, especially given the current state of the Edwards Aquifer, the major water resource for San Antonio. However, sticking another straw in the already over-subscribed Carrizo-Wilcox is uneconomical, unreliable and unwise. At this point, the most cost-effective solution would be investing further in water conservation. Water planners in San Antonio should do more to ensure their glass of water is full from their local resources rather than drinking from the less-than-full glass of others.

Gary Gold is a graduate student in Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.