Amidst unprecedented growth and aridification due to climate change, San Antonio, the booming Texas city, has become a national leader in water conservation.

Located at the southeastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, above the karst limestone of Edwards Aquifer, the San Antonio region has long attracted human settlement, due to the area’s abundant natural springs. Native Americans who once inhabited the dry Texas Coastal plains were drawn there, calling it Yanaguana, or “Sacred Water”, while the Spanish colonists built their missions along the banks of the San Antonio River, only after finding no other suitable places to settle in dry South Texas. It is fitting then, that San Antonio is still being defined by its limited, yet reverentially protected, groundwater.

With the United States grappling with the water crisis in Flint, the #NODAPL water protection movement and increasing water stress across the Southwest, it’s becoming clear that water resources will be a major point of conflict in the coming decades. While other cities play catch up, San Antonio has been at the forefront of progressive water conservation for decades. According to their 2012 Water Management Plan, San Antonio has the “best water conservation program in the U.S.” Over the past two decades, water consumption has remained relatively stable, even as the city’s population has grown by nearly 50%. In addition, the city boasts some of the cleanest water in the country and a well-diversified portfolio of water sources that buffer the Edwards Aquifer in times of drought.

San Antonio

An international group of scholars and practitioners participating in the recent Symposium on Ecological Wisdom examines the historic Espada Aquaduct in San Antonio. Photo by Daniel Alvarado

According to the San Antonio Water System, or S.A.W.S., there is no magic bullet that has led to the city’s success in water management. Instead, the key has been a combination of early adoption of progressive conservation policies, a non-stop public awareness campaign, and—increasingly—deployment of technological solutions, from real-time meter monitoring to building one of the country’s largest desalination plants.

“We have been giving away free low-flow toilets since the 1990s, something other cities have only recently begun doing,” quipped Ann Hayden, S.A.W.S. Communication Manager. “San Antonio has been very aware of conservation for decades, due to federal regulations that could reduce our main supply [the Edwards Aquifer] by 40%, under the Endangered Species Act.”

In the 1990s, San Antonio was over-exploiting the Edwards Aquifer to the extent that the federal government sued the city under the Endangered Species Act, famously citing the rare Texas Blind Salamander as the creature at risk of losing its only habitat. The government required San Antonio to develop a long-term water plan for the region, which was a controversial ruling at the time. However, Hayden says that “being forced to conserve turned out to be an advantage; today, low-flow toilets are the norm in San Antonio, and we are moving on to things like incentivizing turf replacement and encouraging permeable hardscape.”

While these small-scale retrofits may seem like minor gains, they start to add up to big savings when you consider S.A.W.S. serves nearly 500,000 metered residential homes alone. Add in multifamily, commercial, and industrial users, and the conservation results are enormous. In 1982, San Antonians were using 225 gallons per person, per day. In 2013, that number was 125. Despite these successes, S.A.W.S. is phasing in even more ambitious conservation measures in the near future.

According to Karen Guz, S.A.W.S. Director of Conservation, they are currently working with the University of Texas research consortium Pecan Street to test a new product called “The Blue Ring”—a water meter monitor that allows residents to view their water usage in real time on their phone, down to the gallons per minute. “It allows people to recognize their typical water usage, identify big users, or even spot leaks.” Guz says.

In addition to new hardware, S.A.W.S. is exploring the possibilities of Big Data in water conservation. “We are data and tech nerds in the conservation department,” Guz explained. “We are now aggregating data from across the city’s departments to determine how best to serve our customers—not all water users are alike, after all.”

Despite exciting new technology in the conservation sector, Guz says that S.A.W.S. still employs a healthy bit of skepticism when it comes to new gadgets. “For instance, automated irrigation systems that use weather conditions to determine watering schedules often end up using much more water than the residents would with a manual system, with no real benefit to the landscape.” She adds that “inevitably, these systems fail, often without the residents noticing—until they get that $1300 water bill.”

Guz emphasized that their most effective tool in conservation, particularly in the residential sector, continues to be an ambitious public education program. “When it comes to policy, the first step is to educate like crazy. Once the public is aware, we introduce incentives to encourage behavior changes.” This process can take years, Guz says, but with patience they have seen major results. “Finally, we introduce reasonable regulations, making the conservation measures the norm. By this time, only a few outliers are still using the old methods.”

While conservation remains extremely important to S.A.W.S., in the past decade they have undertaken an enormous effort to expand and diversify their supply. While the Edwards Aquifer remains the main source of water, S.A.W.S. now draws from several other aquifers and surface reservoirs, as well as the nation’s largest direct-recycled water system, the 3rd largest aquifer storage & recovery facility, and a recently-opened brackish groundwater desalination plant.

More controversially, the city is currently in the process of constructing the Vista Ridge Pipeline, a 142-mile long project drawing water from the nearby Carrizo Aquifer, which would purportedly increase the city’s supply by 20%. The project has drawn criticism due to its high cost, financial riskiness and a 50% rate hike that will take effect after the project’s completion in 2020. Critics also question if the expensive project is even needed and if the money could be better spent on things like increased conservation.

Ann Hayden (S.A.W.S. Communications Manager) sought to explain the need for the Vista Ridge Pipeline in terms of the projected growth of San Antonio, which is expected to nearly double in population in the next 50 years. “We have known for a long time that we have to diversify our supply.” Hayden said. “We have to start early to be sure we have access to these resources… and we have to look at [S.A.W.S.] as a more regional water source.”

In addition, she commented that “climate change is something we are taking into account while we develop relatively expensive options.” She explained that in times of drought, it will be important to have a diversity of sources to ensure that their main source, the Edwards Aquifer, is not over-exploited.

With this level of long-term planning, it appears that San Antonio is as well-positioned as any city to continue to thrive, despite the uncertainty of the next century.

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