Austin not racing to pipe in water
City says Colorado River water is cheaper, needs less treatment.
The San Antonio Water System could move forward on a proposed $2.2 billion pipeline that will skirt Austin’s eastern flank.
In the coming month, the board of the water-thirsty San Antonio Water System could move forward on a proposed $ 2.2 billion pipeline that will skirt Austin’s eastern flank.
Yet officials in Austin, which recently convened a task force to explore new wa- ter supply options, say it isn’t interested in participating in the pipeline, which will move underground water from beneath Burleson County to points east and south.
Even as drought continues to choke the region, forcing communities across Central Texas to take a hard look at their water supplies, Austin’s lack of interest in the pipeline project reinforces how its destiny appears tied to the Colorado River, just as San Antonio’s has long been tied to underground water.
The Colorado has been crippled by a shortage of inflows from its tributaries. But forecasters say this fall and winter are likely to be wetter than normal.
In the short term, though, the drought has ratcheted up political pressure on water projects throughout the region.
In late September, the SAWS board will vote on whether to pursue the $3.3 billion pipeline project.
San Antonio, which has long sought alternative sup- plies to augment the beleaguered Edwards Aquifer, often unsuccessfully, says the project could increase its water supplies by a fifth, providing enough water for 162,000 families.
San Antonio plans to partner with a private supplier — Blue Water Systems — to get its hands on the water. Blue Water has already secured the rights to pump 71,000 acrefeet of water per year from Burleson County.
As Austin’s per- capita consumption has declined, an acre- foot is now roughly equal to the amount of water consumed by four Austin households a year.
The San Antonio project would tie into a pipeline already controlled by Blue Water, one that terminates in Manor, within a few miles of Austin’s own system of pipes. (The pipeline going south to San Antonio would be built by Abengoa Water USA, a subsidiary of a Spanish company.)
But Austin officials say they are holding put.
“We’re keeping ourselves informed of groundwater options, but we’re not engaging in any negotiations with groundwater suppliers or with San Antonio,” said Greg Meszaros, head of the Austin Water Utility.
Meszaros said the Burleson County water is more expensive than Colorado River water and requires further treatment before it can be mixed into its piping system.
San Antonio could pay as much as $110 million a year over the next 30 years for the water and infrastructure; Austin pays far less under a complicated, long- term $ 100 million contract signed with the Lower Colorado River Authority in 1999.
In the early summer, a volunteer task force assembled by the Austin City Council said the city should be more aggressive about conservation before turning to expensive and logistically difficult sources.
In a sense, Austin has doubled down on its commitment to the Colorado, investing in the construction of a water treatment plant in Northwest Austin, which added $ 1 billion in debt that the water utility must pay back over 30 years.
This month, with Austin’s blessing, the river authority’s board will likely move to keep more water impounded in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the chief reservoirs of Central Texas, even at the risk of jeopardizing environmental, fishing and farming interests downriver.
The LCRA decision, which involves amendments to a water management plan previously submitted to the state, comes as the water flow rate into the Highland Lakes continues to be abysmal.
In July, water flow- ing into Central Texas’ chief reservoirs was only 16 percent of the normal amount, said Ryan Rowney, who heads water operations for the river authority.
The lakes might get relief from above.
The National Weather Service has declared at least a 65 percent chance of a weak to moderate El Niño, the weather phenomenon stemming from Pacific Ocean temperatures that typically spells a rainier- than- normal fall and winter in Texas.
“It’s going to take sustained, heavy rains over the Hill Country to turn this situation around,” said LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose. “That’s the good thing about El Niño: You can get storm after storm.”
Such relief cannot come soon enough for a growing swath of the Hill Country. According to the U. S. Drought Monitor, Hill Country counties Gillespie, Kerr and Kendall are facing a worst- category exceptional drought, while Travis, Hays and Williamson counties are in the middle- of- the- road “severe” drought category.