San Antonio Water System (SAWS)
San Antonio Water System (SAWS) continues to struggle with water loss, and San Antonio has not adopted ongoing limitations on outdoor watering other than time-of-day restrictions. In many other ways, however, SAWS sets the “gold standard” for water conservation programs among major Texas cities due to its large and energetic conservation staff and wide array of creative and increasingly targeted conservation initiatives. SAWS has achieved a dramatic decrease in per capita water use over the last 20 years. There is concern, however, that a major new water supply project will undermine the incentive for additional conservation.
San Antonio, located in South Central Texas and in the Region L water planning area, is currently the second largest city in Texas with a population of over 1.3 million. The city’s water, wastewater, stormwater, and water reuse services are provided by the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), a consolidated agency formed in 1992. As noted in its 2014 WCP, “SAWS is one of the more complex water systems in the country.” That complexity stems in part from the dissolution of the Bexar Metropolitan Water District (BexarMet), which had served part of Bexar County and small portions of two other counties, and the transfer of the BexarMet system to SAWS in 2012. As a result, SAWS said in its 2014 WCP that it covers over 900 square miles of territory, has over 450,000 customer accounts, and encompasses 5000 miles of water mains (some news articles have reported a higher number of customers and miles of mains).
The extent of the SAWS water distribution system and the assumption of the BexarMet system are probably factors in the utility’s relatively high rate of water loss, which averaged 14% in the 2009-2013 period. The water loss was only 9% in 2009 but rose to 17% the next year and has remained high. Controlling water loss is a key area for SAWS to tackle.
The main water source for SAWS continues to be the Edwards Aquifer, including one of the most extensive Aquifer Storage & Recovery (ASR) projects in the country that stores Edwards Aquifer water in the Carrizo Aquifer in wet years for withdrawal as needed during dry periods. SAWS also has been using some other groundwater sources and a small contracted volume of water from Canyon Lake. Currently the utility is pursuing a highly controversial pipeline project – Vista Ridge – to bring groundwater from Lee and Milam Counties in excess of what SAWS projects is needed for many years. That potential abundance of water raises concerns about how dedicated SAWS will continue to be in dampening demand for water through conservation (restrictions on water pumping from the Edwards Aquifer as a result of a federal lawsuit in the 1990s was a major impetus for San Antonio’s conservation effort in the first place).
As of now, SAWS has an impressive water conservation program with approximately 20 full-time staff members and a substantial budget, and the utility implements more BMPs than any other water utility in the state. SAWS does extensive and intensive conservation planning, and it increasingly is tailoring initiatives to address its highest water use customers, especially in the area of outdoor watering (SAWS has termed this “concierge conservation”). However, at present San Antonio only limits the number of days allowed for outside watering each week as part of its drought contingency plan, not on a permanent basis.