When is a scandal not a scandal? When the City Council and a captive local media conspire to cover it up. While our Mayor is crusading against Charter Amendments, he and his allies continue to ignore the combination of corruption and incompetence that characterize Robert Puente’s leadership team at the San Antonio Water System.
Puente, SAWS CEO and his staff appeared before a special session of the San Antonio City Council on February 8, 2018 to address concerns regarding the Vista Ridge project. Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked Puente about “excess water sales” that were part of the original council approval of the Vista Ridge project in October, 2014. Several Council members also asked specific questions regarding excess water sales from the Vista Ridge Project. “Excess water” is represents the difference between the contracted amount of water and the actual amount SAWS has determined and informed the Council it actually needs.
The San Antonio City Council approved the Vista Ridge projects with only minimal review based on the personal recommendation of both Mr. Puente and the SAWS Board Chairman, Beto Guerra, a key player in the SA Hispanic Chamber. The contract they approved obligated residents of San Antonio and other customers of SAWS to pay for 50,000 acre-feet of water delivered by a private vendor from the Simsboro portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.
Somewhere between October, 2014 and February 8, 2018 SAWS determined that the actual amount of water that would be needed from the Vista Ridge Project was only 35,000 acre-feet. As a practical matter, this means the people of San Antonio will have to pay for 15,000 acre-feet of water that they are unable to use, since the contract requires us to pay for all the contracted water the vendor is able to deliver.
There are many reasons to regard the Vista Ridge Project as a terrible project, more expensive than alternatives closer to home. Even if we agree with the projects proponents, the question remains “what did Puente know, and when did he know it?” The Vista Ridge well-field is located north and east of the city of Austin. The project’s pipeline right-of-way therefore follows in close proximity the Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio.
The State Water Plan, as of October 2014, reflected the need for additional water supplies along this corridor, and includes a multiplicity of small, relatively undeveloped, projects to meet anticipated demand. While some studies were undertaken by various political subdivisions, there were no significant financial expenditures or loans procured by public entities to develop projects to meet this particular demand until 2017.
In the past two years, the Alliance Regional Water System (ARWA) and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) have obtained or sought loans from the Texas Water Development Board of over $500,000,000 to develop two separate well fields, each of which will produce approximately 15,000 acre-feet of water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. GBRA’s loan was approved in July of this year, months after Mr. Puente assured the Mayor and city council that he would make sure San Antonio residents were not stuck with the bill.
Perhaps if Puente cared more about his constituents than protecting his salary, the $165,000,000 in debt burden that GBRA is assuming to secure 15,000 acre-feet of water could’ve gone to San Antonio to help SAWS customers defray the cost of the Vista Ridge Project.
From information publicly available, and there isn’t much information as Team Puente has objected to releasing public information related to their marketing efforts, it seems that Puente and his management team missed an opportunity to enter into “excess water sales” with ARWA, GBRA, the individual members thereof, or any other potential customers along the Interstate 35 corridor.
It is vital for the public and the City Council to understand the “what did they know and when did they know it” question, as in less than two years SAWS ratepayers will be responsible for paying for 15,000 acre-feet of expensive Vista Ridge water that could’ve been avoid by better planning and public outreach. The fact is Mr. Puente and his inner circle failed to consider the financial benefit to its customers and others from avoiding duplicative water supply projects.
There may be more sinister forces behind Team Puente’s inaction on Vista Ridge “excess water”. In February 2014 SAWS effectively ceded their water supply planning to foreign speculators in groundwater. Since that time, water supply planning in Texas has been compromised by the same class of speculators. They have no interest in saving tax and rate payers money.
Quite the opposite. Contractors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisors profit from many, duplicative, water supply projects, all guaranteed by John Q. Public. And to think it all started with Puente and SAWS. It’s well and good to complain, however we need to act. The first order of business is the removal of Robert Puente as CEO, along with Donavan Burton, and his Austin based lobby team. There needs to be a thorough house cleaning of SAWS upper management. Second, the immediate removal of Beto Guerra from the SAWS Board and his replacement by Amy Hardberger as Chair.
Longer term, legislation is needed in the 86th Session to abolish the SAWS appointed Board and replace it with an elected Board. SAWS fell victim to scandal because it is unaccountable. Once appointed by the City Council the Board disappears from public scrutiny and is manipulated by certain favorite consultants and prominent local citizens.
Along with restructuring the SAWS Board, the City Council should assume control for planning lobby activities, and conservation. With these two changes SAWS can regain its footing as what it was meant to be, a well-run public utility, and leave the politics to the City Council, where it belongs.
James Lee Murphy is the Executive Director and General Counsel of the America First PAC. He has a 30-year career in executive management of water and is a recognized Global Water Leader in the area of water supply planning. For more information on the SAWS reform project, send an email to James Lee Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.