The SAWS gets closer to controlling the destination of the treated wastewater it rejects


A 2013 permit application submitted by the San Antonio Water System to control 50,000 acre-feet of treated water per year discharged into the San Antonio River is in the final stages of the approval process.

And the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is still trying to derail it.

The Texas Environmental Quality Commission issued a proposed Bed and Banks permit that SAWS requested for environmental and economic purposes. In Texas, groundwater is owned by individuals while surface water is owned by the state, and such a permit authorizes the use of a watercourse’s beds and banks to transport water.

If granted, the permit would allow the city-owned water company to maintain control over the water withdrawn from the Edwards Aquifer after it has been used and discharged into the San Antonio River as a treated effluent – essentially, using the river as a natural channel to move that water downstream.

SAWS ‘Bed and Banks permit application is unique in that unlike other permit holders who move treated water downstream for irrigation, SAWS seeks to protect its water from being taken by others.

During very dry periods, the San Antonio River can reach low levels that threaten its downstream ecosystem, San Antonio Bay, and estuaries along the coast.

On SAWS, wanting to control effluents, comes up against certain obstacles

For several years, SAWS has voluntarily discharged treated water into the river, which is essential for maintaining its health when its flow is reduced. But there is no legal protection to ensure the water stays in the flow, said Greg Eckhardt, senior production and processing operations analyst at SAWS.

“Anyone downstream could divert the water for their own purposes,” Eckhardt said.

If approved, the SAWS license will protect this stream up to the bay in perpetuity.

“We just want to make sure that we have ownership and control of all existing and future discharges of our groundwater,” Eckhardt said.

For the environment, the economy and the future

Three pumps move non-potable water to the Steve Clouse Water Recycling Center on the south side, where treated water is discharged into the Medina River just upstream from where this river merges with the San River Antonio.

Kin Man Hui / Personal photographer

Freshwater inflows perform three important tasks on the coast, said Myron Hess, an environmental lawyer in Austin. They provide nutrients to estuaries and sediments that accumulate at the bottom of the bay, and they moderate salinity.

“The area is a mixture of high salinity gulf water from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the river, which is particularly beneficial to the ecology of the bay,” Hess said.

This is especially true for the endangered whooping crane, which spends time during migration at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf. Blue crabs are an important source of food for cranes, and without the balance between the flows of fresh and salt water in the Gulf, the crab population can decline.

“Having this fresh water is a kind of engine that keeps the whole ecosystem functioning and supports everything in it,” Hess said.

Water is also important for the economy of neighboring communities.

SAWS received 17 resolutions of support from entities across the basin, from Rockport to Floresville.

“There are a lot of economic benefits for the people of San Antonio Bay,” said Steven Graham, deputy general manager of the San Antonio River Authority. “It is particularly beneficial for fishing, tourism and commerce.”

The river authority board passed a resolution strongly supporting SAWS ‘permit application in September 2015, and Graham said the river authority continues to support it.

“We’re not talking about massive amounts of water,” Graham said. “It’s just to make sure the river doesn’t dry up and the estuaries don’t dry up. Now it will be guaranteed to get to the bay.

The fresh water is diverted by the SAWS to the bypass of Swan Lake by the coast, then pumped into the delta that feeds San Antonio Bay.

SAWS is also looking far ahead. Experts expect that as the population of central Texas increases, the supply of treated effluent will also increase.

“It will be the people after us who will decide what to do with this water,” Eckhardt said. “We want to put our seal of ownership on this water today so that the next generation of water managers have this water in their… toolbox. “

Appeal the permit

Massive collection tanks hold sewage at the Steve Clouse Water Recycling Center of the San Antonio Water System on the south side, where the treated water is discharged into the Medina River just upstream of the location. where this river merges with the San Antonio river.

Massive collection tanks hold sewage at the Steve Clouse Water Recycling Center of the San Antonio Water System on the south side, where the treated water is discharged into the Medina River just upstream of the location. where this river merges with the San Antonio river.

Kin Man Hui / Personal photographer

On September 15, the board of directors of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority voted unanimously to request a hearing with an administrative judge to contest SAWS’s permit application.

In a statement, the authority said its action is “a first step in preserving and defending the interests of GBRA and the water rights of seniors in the Guadalupe River Basin, which are used to supply water. and supporting municipal, industrial and agricultural interests in our district of 10 countries. “

If the TCEQ grants the GBRA’s request for a contested case hearing, it will be sent to the State Office for Administrative Hearings, where a judge will recommend that the TCEQ approve or deny the permit.

The GBRA said granting the Bed and Banks permit would threaten its water supply in times of drought. He said SAWS was ignoring its commitment to provide a flow of treated effluent to communities in the Edwards Aquifer region. He argues that senior water rights dictate that counties under the GBRA have a higher priority to divert water from the San Antonio River.

Currently, the GBRA can divert the additional flow south of San Antonio if necessary. But this practice would end if the SAWS permit was granted unless the GBRA made an agreement with SAWS to purchase the water.

In 2014, the GBRA filed a complaint against SAWS over the permit. A Travis County judge rejected it, upholding TCEQ’s power to determine whether SAWS can claim the 50,000 acre-feet of treated water.

Elena Bruess writes for Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. [email protected]


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