A Pipeline of Discontent

Three years ago, Uvalde’s water-war veterans had good reason to worry. A deep-pocketed company called Southwest Texas Water Resources had started quietly building its case for a $250-million water pipeline from Uvalde to San Antonio, and had hired two marquee names in Texas water politics: former State Representative Robert Puente and lobbyist Marc Rodriguez.

But Puente, a soft-spoken and dapper attorney who’d retired from the Legislature and the chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee in January 2008, wasn’t on the job for long. He became interim CEO of the San Antonio Water System less than two months after going to work for STWR, the brainchild of a California water consultant named Rodney Smith. Not that Puente’s ascension soothed rural residents worried about the urban giant to the East slurping up their water supply. After word of a July 2008 meeting between Puente and STWR officials leaked out, some of the project’s critics assumed the fix was in. Puente won SAWS’ top job outright in November 2008.

Add to that the prickly fact that Rodriguez, a longtime friend and onetime business partner of Puente, held lobbying contracts with both SAWS and STWR, and it’s not hard to see why anxiety ran high.

“These people seem to be pretty well connected,” Annalisa Peace of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance observed at the time. “It seemed like all of a sudden, this project was on everybody’s radar.”

Jump to the present, and you find STWR still pushing ahead, but against stiff resistance from communities west of San Antonio. Indeed, the project now appears to be on the verge of collapse, at least politically. But any proposal to pipe Uvalde water to San Antonio – in essence transporting it from one huge of pool of the Edwards Aquifer to the urban area sitting over another massive pool of Edwards water – is mostly about politics.

The project’s troubles come as SAWS goes on the market for a major water-supply project that could greatly reduce San Antonio’s dependence on the Edwards Aquifer, something a Uvalde pipeline couldn’t do since its water too would come from the Edwards. The utility is accepting proposals for long-term projects through mid-summer; the winner would start delivering 20,000 acre-feet of water in 2020 and gradually build up to 80,000 acre-feet per year. (In the very hot and dry 2009, SAWS customers consumed 169,000 acre-feet of water. In much wetter 2010, they went through 161,000 acre-feet.)

SAWS sought initial ideas from water developers last year, and got 13 responses in October, including STWR’s. It hasn’t released any of the details, but most of the sketched-out projects probably would pipe water from beyond the Edwards Aquifer.

Some of San Antonio’s business leaders have long wanted SAWS to get its hands on Uvalde water, seeing it as potentially one of the cheaper means of insuring the City has enough water to continue its economic expansion. But chances are good that they’ll be disappointed. SAWS is pushing away from its near-total dependence on the Edwards, and, just as importantly, opposition west of here is plainly too pitched.

Whiskey’s for drinkin’…

John Harrell, retired city manager of Uvalde, has seen his share of pipeline proposals, though probably none of them were as formidable as STWR’s. Still, the bones of the company’s plan, for which it hired San Antonio-based Pape-Dawson Engineers, are pretty simple: Build a 70-mile pipeline and pump up to 40,000 acre-feet per year to San Antonio.

So far, 25 pumping-permit holders, representing 62 families, have agreed to provide water for the project, according to an STWR spokesman. He declined to detail what kind of agreements they have with the company.

Some of the pipeline’s most steadfast opponents are people like Harrell, who remembers the shock of wells running dry during a devastating drought in the ‘50s. STWR’s counterpoint is that, since then, better irrigation technology and the use of water-conservation techniques by farmers have slashed the amount of water pumped from the ground and taken significant pressure off of the Uvalde pool. But that argument hasn’t made much of an impression on Harrell.

“The most valuable resource to the region would be taken from us,” Harrell said of STWR’s bid.

Before it could build even a yard of pipeline, STWR would have to change state law. Specifically, lawmakers would have to dump a prohibition against a Uvalde-to-SA pipeline that was written into the 1993 law creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority – a provision inserted to pacify the area’s deeply suspicious farming interests.

STWR pushed legislation unsuccessfully that would have ended the ban in the 2009 Lege, but few believed it could be done in a single session. It’s back this session in a bill filed last month by State Representative Roland Gutierrez, who holds Puente’s old Texas House seat. (For Gutierrez’s defense of the legislation, check out this On the Line with Terry Gildea </index.php/podcast/on-the-line/700-on-the-line-feb-26> .)

But the bill appears to be doomed, barring some legislative sleight of hand.

“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” one lawmaker joked.

The two San Antonio reps who sit on the House Natural Resources Committee, which would be critical to the bill’s advancement, aren’t exactly embracing the measure. Republican Lyle Larson opposes it and Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer says he’d support it only if SAWS declares that it needs Uvalde water – which the utility hasn’t done.

In the Senate, there’s no sponsor yet for the legislation and State Senator Carlos Uresti, whose district snakes from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso and takes in Uvalde County, not only doesn’t support it but likely would fight it from his perch on the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee. Uresti hasn’t ruled out seeking the 2012 Democratic nomination in the 23rd Congressional District, which roughly mirrors the territory he represents in Texas Senate. So alienating a swath of western voters probably won’t make his to-do list this legislative session.

STWR’s Smith shrugs off the heavy-weather forecast.

“The legislative process is a fluid process, and we have had some very positive conversations with many legislators from around the state who understand that the transfer of water is going to be vital to many communities,” he said in a written statement. “As the legislative process plays out, we believe that it will be clear that the project makes sense both economically and scientifically.”

Larson, who unsuccessfully ran in the 23rd Congressional District in 2008, isn’t necessarily opposed to piping water from the west, but when he arrived in Austin last month to start his freshman term, he found opposition to a Uvalde pipeline running hot. To help make his point, Larson’s office forwarded a list of 60 entities – city councils, commissioners courts, school boards, water conservation districts, and private-sector organizations and businesses – that have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline. One of the listed opponents is the late Gov. Dolph Briscoe’s Briscoe Ranch Inc., a major owner of water rights in Uvalde County.

“This is an exercise in futility,” Larson says. “Some lobbyists are going to make some money off of it, but it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Austin lobbyist Marc Rodriguez, however, is no longer drawing a paycheck from the project. At the start of the 2011 legislative session, he again worked for both SAWS and STWR (and the City of San Antonio and Bexar County and CPS Energy). But after Gutierrez filed his pipeline legislation and a companion bill calling for a study of the project’s potential impact in SA, whispers about Rodriguez’s dual role started up again and Puente intervened.

“I told him of the potential conflicts arising, and he made that decision [to drop STWR as a client] on his own,” Puente says. “You don’t want to get to a point where there’s an appearance [of a conflict of interest], and we were getting close to an appearance.”

SAWS might want to take out an ad to that effect.

Puente made that disclosure in an interview Monday. Several days earlier, Vic Hilderbran, general manager of the Uvalde County Underground Water Conservation District and a grizzled water warrior, talked about Rodriguez’s two lobbying jobs as a sign that SAWS isn’t as neutral as it appears.

“I don’t know, but that seems to be a certain amount of collusion,” said Hilderbran, brother of State Representative Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville.

Rodriguez did not return a phone call Tuesday from PDA. A Texas Ethics Commission record shows that he stopped working for STWR on Feb. 21.

The City-owned utility, of course, would have to be the prime customer for water flowing through the pipeline. Otherwise, the project would make no sense as a business deal. But Puente reiterates that SAWS hasn’t taken a position on STWR’s effort.

He also says SAWS is ahead of schedule in lining up new water sources for the near term and won’t need an additional long-term supply in place until 2020.

But some members of the business community worry that the utility’s not moving fast enough.

Roofing contractor Mike Beldon, a former chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and a behind-the-scenes actor in local politics, is one of the bigger proponents of looking to western water. Three years ago, he helped organize a meeting between STWR officials (including Puente and Rodriguez) and a small gathering of business leaders at the Oak Hills Country Club, though he wasn’t an investor in the project.

In an email Monday, he didn’t endorse STWR’s plan, but he chided SAWS for not getting behind the drive to remove the pipeline prohibition.

“The issue is not that the business community is arguing that SAWS should tap Western water. The issue is that they should consider it, which they have historically refused to do,” Beldon wrote. “By considering it and helping get legislative changes that would allow a pipeline, they not only open the possibility of using Western (Uvalde) water, they can use that possibility to drive down the cost of alternative sources.”

Later in the email exchange, he added: “Just hopeful that SAWS will take the opportunity, while it exists, to tie up significant amounts of water and assure that San Antonio is ‘drought proof’ now and into the foreseeable future. Not sure that is their vision.”

Last year, when the utility asked water purveyors for proposals to deliver new supplies to SA as part of its 50-year plan, it got 13 responses, including STWR’s plan. But those were just the preliminaries. SAWS now is seeking formal proposals, which are due July 22.

“SAWS continues trying to diversify off of the Edwards Aquifer,” Puente said.

But the guidelines for the proposal don’t rule out selling Edwards water to SAWS. It just disallows water that the utility could fetch through its own infrastructure.

A spokesman for STWR declined to speculate on whether the company would hand in a proposal to SAWS in July if the Legislature fails to dump the pipeline ban.

… Water’s for fightin’

Weir Labatt, a blunt-spoken member of the Texas Water Development Board, had more to do with the pipeline prohibition’s creation than anybody – apart from the farming interests that saw to it that measure was written into Texas law. In 1989, he was one of the San Antonio City Council members locked in a standoff with Uvalde irrigators over water rights, a classic city-versus-country conflict.

In one of their super-charged bargaining sessions, Labatt said something that a generation of SA water planners wish he hadn’t.

“Negotiations were going hot and heavy, and I said we could simply build a 96-inch pipeline from Uvalde,” he says. “That got everybody excited because of the rule of capture.” That’s the rule ­­that says you have the right to pump as much of the water under your property as you’d like – and it’s a staple of the rough-and-tumble frontier Texas that makes up so much of our folklore. That’s why the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority was so dramatic – it imposed permitted pumping, with caps.

“They didn’t like what I said in 1989 and they reacted to it, incorrectly, in 1993,” Labatt says.

Under the EAA’s permitting scheme, SAWS can buy or lease water rights from landowners over the Edwards’ Uvalde pool but actually pump the water from the San Antonio pool. (Between the two pools is an apparently narrow, little-understood opening called the Knippa Gap, through which an unknown quantity of water flows east to west.) Currently the utility can draw more than 21,000 acre feet of “Uvalde” water in Bexar County.

So why simply re-shuffle the deck? Why stop pumping here, only to rely on a pipeline to ship the water to SA – when it’s all Edwards water, critics routinely ask.

STWR’s answer is that pumping from Uvalde would take some of the pressure off of the environmentally sensitive Comal and San Marcos springs. They also say that the amount of water drawn from the Uvalde pool has plummeted because of more efficient irrigation equipment, from 150,000 acre-feet annually in the late ‘80s to about 60,000 acre-feet currently.

But the project’s detractors talk about the complexities of the Uvalde pool, about how it overlaps with other aquifers, about the mysteries of the Knippa Gap, and how all of that makes modeling too difficult.

“The geology of the Uvalde pool is much more complex than the San Antonio pool of the Edwards Aquifer,” says Con Mims, executive director of the Nueces River Authority and a longtime critic of Uvalde pipeline plans.

For his part, Labatt declines to comment on STWR’s project, but his ardor for Uvalde water seems to have cooled. He’s still anxious, however, about drumming up new water supplies. He says time’s flying and companies offering water deals today could bolt tomorrow if a more willing buyer surfaces.

“I feel very strongly that SAWS needs additional sources of water – non-Edwards sources,” he says, “whether it’s from the west or the east or wherever.”

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