2 min read November 2022 — Invest: spoke with Robert Puente, president and CEO of San Antonio Water System, about the impact of recent droughts and climate change, their plans to develop water resiliency and to maintain their strong record of conservation, and the importance of having community members advise their board. “We want to build water security for decades to come,” he said.
What are the biggest achievements or milestones for the San Antonio Water System this year?
The challenges we faced over the last couple of years have really shown how resilient we can be. We have proven this throughout the pandemic and throughout Winter Storm Uri that came through Texas, as well as recent supply chain issues. We didn’t miss a beat through all of that . The Southwestern U.S. has been under a severe drought, which hasn’t been seen in hundreds of years. We are doing what we can to do to meet the needs of the public. In San Antonio, we have prepared for these types of droughts, and we have flourished despite them. In the 1950s there was a long drought, but the intensity of 2011-2014 was hotter and there was little rainfall during that time. Despite all this, we have water security for decades to come, even with the tremendous growth we have experienced. The drought of 2022 has been difficult, and we don’t know if it will continue into 2023, but we are well prepared to deal with it. Also, in the name of resiliency, we have reached an agreement with our sister public power company to have backup generators at our key pump stations. They will maintain the generators, but this will be a reserve for us during emergencies. When not in use during emergencies, the power will be sold back to the grid. We are ensuring our resilience and helping pay for it at the same time.
How do you anticipate and meet the challenges of climate change?
Every five years we update our Water Management Plan. We are making sure to address climate change and how it impacts our water supply. We need to estimate the demand by anticipating the usage of each individual, as well as the impacts of people moving to San Antonio. The thing we do is plan for the worst-case scenario, so we can know that we can meet the incremental needs of our customers if we have a once-in-a-lifetime drought.
What are some challenges regarding access to water?
Our basic source of water in the South-Central Texas region is the Edwards Aquifer. About 30 small cities rely on this aquifer. One third of the water is used for agriculture, and another third has to be released due to federal regulations. It has to exit through springs which feed into rivers so it can make its way to the Gulf Coast. We have built the nation’s largest recycled water system. We clean it up in a wastewater treatment plant and we put it back into use for manufacturing and irrigation use. We also have the largest ASR source, which stands for aquifer storage and recovery. We store excess water in a nearby aquifer during rainy years, and during drought we withdraw some of that water. We have been taking water out recently, but eventually we will put water back in. We want to build water security for decades to come.
You are in the unique position of having community members to advise the SAWS board, what are the benefits of this type of structure?
You never want to be in the position of just listening to people within your own small sphere, such as interest groups, governing structure, or executives. The citizen groups help to do that and they have to be diverse from all parts of the city, but also diverse in gender, race, and occupation. We have people that are industry driven on the board, and people that are active in their neighborhood community, so we can see how our ideas resonate. We want public buy-in for what we want to do. We are the experts regarding water, but sometimes we work in a vacuum of public perception. One of the things we wanted to do was have a committee look at our rates.The overall issue was to make water as affordable as possible for everyone. The community members gave us ideas to change the rate structure, so we are actually lowering our sewer and water rates this year for residential customers. This business model is tough, because we are essentially asking customers to conserve water and buy less of our product. The growth in San Antonio has been huge, but we are basically using the same amount of water today that we were 25 years ago. We are the best in the nation with water conservation, and we will continue to be. The better we are at conservation, the less new water and wastewater infrastructure we have to build in the future, saving our customers money. We saved so much water that we closed one of our wastewater treatment plants, but if we need to build a new one it would be very expensive. This is why conservation works for us.
What are your biggest challenges and how does that relate to the bigger picture in the utility sector?
The biggest challenge is the cost of providing our service. Water is not a luxury that you can leave or take. You need to have water services; and our most vulnerable population needs to have affordable water. When we reduced our water rates, we changed the way we deliver and charge for water concerning people at the federal poverty level. It is a self-fulfilling program, because the more people that qualify for affordability rates, the more we charge for our largest accounts and users of water. This creates a cycle of equity. Supply chain issues and labor shortages are also impacting us significantly. People have many choices for employment right now. Some of our people are in the sewers or continually outside in the hot sun or freezing rain, so we need to pay them well to retain them.
What is your outlook for the San Antonio Water System in the near term?
The outlook is very good, and we are at the cutting edge of many of the things we do. We need underground storage of water, and we need to conserve to meet the challenges of the future including climate change, but we already do all of that. We need to ensure that we continue to meet those challenges through innovation while keeping water affordable for our most vulnerable customers.
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