Austin not rac­ing to pipe in wa­ter

City says Colorado River wa­ter is cheaper, needs less treat­ment.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Asher Price ash­er­price@states­man.com

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.

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