It's inevitable - every year as the mercury begins to rise, so does the chance that the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) will ask for voluntary water conservation from local residents. Each time voluntary or mandatory restrictions are enacted, the conversation always turns to an issue that has haunted our city for decades – that of water rights and usage.
A Brief History of Water in San Antonio
In the early 1700s, when San Antonio was a small missionary outpost, most of the water needs of the area were served by fresh sources like the San Antonio River and Olmos Creek. As the outpost grew into a city, so did the demand for fresh, drinkable water. Separate ditches for commercial and residential use were dug, but this was like a bandadge on a gaping wound.
In 1883, George W. Brackenridge established a well and an exploratory digging program that allowed waters from the nearby Edwards Aquifer to be freely distributed to a very large area, a feat the was once thought to be impossible. He sold the water system in 1905, and the first of what would be many disputes over rights and usage began. Tired of dealing with inept ownership, the city of San Antonio finally purchased the "Compagnie des Eaux de San Antonio" for $7 million and renamed it the City Water Board (CWB).
The Edwards Aquifer
There is a 180-mile expanse between Kinney and Hayes County that serves as the Edwards Aquifer, from where over two million South/Central Texas residents (including San Antonio) get their water. The aquifer is in two parts, one made of limestone that falling rain waters seep through in a natural purification system that no other large city in the U.S. has. The water is then distributed from the large underground cavern to thousands of communities and businesses.
Adjacent to the underground reservoir is the recharge zone, where the rain is initially collected. This environmentally fragile environment is home to several endangered species and is often at the center of debate when water rights and usage are brought up. In fact, many large-scale projects like housing subdivisions and a multi-billion dollar PGA Village golf course have been shot down by residents or advocacy groups due to their close proximity to the recharge zone.
San Antonio has quickly morphed into the seventh largest city in the United States. Population spurts of 17% and more every five years were not uncommon in the last century. City leaders have openly courted big corporations here to take advantage of the low cost of living, lack of state income tax, and temperate winters. This, of course, leads to increased demand for water.
The storage of water in the Edwards Aquifer is at the center of great debate. While some argue that there is plenty of water for decades to come, others are more concerned about future generations and a possible lack of water in the next 100 years. No matter which side of this debate you are on, the math is pretty simple. In the 1990s, average yearly water usage was 493,000 acre-feet. The deposits of new water into the aquifer were only 383,900 acre-feet. If this trend continues, the Aquifer will not be able to sustain the area's needs in the future.
Water Plans and Strategies
Since 1998, SAWS has had a 50 year plan in place at all times that is periodically adjusted for the increase in water demand and usage. But even this plan won't work if more water is consumed than replaced by the recharge zone. Therefore, plans like voluntary and/or mandatory conservation and alternative water sources may be used.
In order to address the growing water issues, the South Central Texas Regional Water Planning Group (also known as Region L) was started. The intention of the group is to voice the concerns of 16 distinct regions and balance population growth with conservation and environmental impact.
SAWS is also trying to be proactive by eliminating older water wasters like toilets. In fact, if your home was built before 1992 and has not had new toilets installed since that time, you can get up to two water-efficient commodes for free by taking part in the Kick the Can Program.
While all of these programs help the situation, the future of water and water rights is still up in the air in San Antonio and South Texas. How these problems will be managed is largely dependent on whether the population explosion tapers, if drought-like conditions continue, and commercial needs. Only time will tell how (or if) these issues can be resolved.