San Antonio: At A Glance
As noted in the 2016 scorecard update, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has struggled with water loss, and the situation has worsened since then. SAWS in many ways 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. However, water loss remains a major challenge and is problematic for many San Antonio residents who have raised concerns about major new water infrastructure projects while so much water is being lost in the existing distribution system. Moreover, SAWS does not have days-per-week outdoor watering restrictions on an ongoing basis, unlike some other major utilities such as Austin Water and Dallas Water Utilities. SAWS, however, continues to make improvements elsewhere, for example by increasing the number of conservation BMPs implemented (the most by any water utility in Texas thus far). Also, the utility has now put its Water Conservation Plan online to increase transparency and accountability to its customers and the general public.
The City of 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 1.8 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.
SAWS is one of the more complex water systems in the country. The 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. According to the 2019 WCP, the territory covered by SAWS encompasses 930 sq. miles and 775,399 total connections. Although for decades the Edwards Aquifer was the sole source of water for San Antonio, SAWS now has a variety of additional water sources, including an aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) project, a brackish groundwater desalination plant, and a new pipeline currently nearing construction (at the time of this writing) that will import groundwater from two Central Texas counties.
The overall water conservation score for SAWS decreased by three points since the 2016 scorecard due to slight variations in different categories. The City received zero points in the 2020 scorecard for its percentage water loss due the increase in total water loss from 14.87% to 17.38%. Additionally, SAWS received fewer points on the conservation pricing signal than it did in 2016 due to a change to the City’s water rate structure resulting from the cost of new water infrastructure projects. One of those projects, the Vista Ridge pipeline, has been a very controversial project due to its cost, concerns that the need to sell additional water will dampen SAWS commitment to water conservation, and the juxtaposition of water loss in the SAWS system while a new groundwater pipeline is being built.
On the other side of the ledger, while water loss dampened the water conservation score for SAWS, the utility did post its Water Conservation Plan online in recent years, aiding public scrutiny of the WCP, and SAWS has achieved a GPCD of less than 125.
SAWS could improve its water conservation program by implementing permanent no-more-than-once-a-week outdoor watering restrictions on an ongoing basis, not just as a stage in its drought response plan. Also, SAWS needs to take effective steps to curb its high water loss rate and explore ways to return to a water rate structure that sends a stronger conservation pricing signal. While SAWS has developed and implemented an extensive set of water conservation programs, the utility cannot afford to ignore the fundamental issues that may dampen the ultimate success of its water conservation efforts.