Sunday, July 12, 2009

Longterm Water

Water was on the city council agenda again last Tuesday. We have been covering the local water issues and made information available here since we started about 5 years ago. Water has been an issue for San Angelo and the surrounding area from the beginning. Fort Concho was built at its present location because of the junction of the various Concho River junctions. San Angelo became the county seat of Tom Green county because water, in the form of a flood, destroyed Ben Ficklin, the former county seat. Water gave San Angelo its start. San Angelo has needed a water strategy from the start.

The Standard times gave a pretty good history of the City's long term water strategy back in 2008 but a few additional points need to be made. First, we need to remember how all this is going to get paid for. In 2001, an increase to the water rate lasting 25 years was added to pay for 4 projects with an estimated total of $156 million. It has already paid for 2” main replacement, treatment plant upgrades, and the Twin Buttes gate repairs, with roughly $116 million remaining to pay for developing a long term water supply. In addition, $20 million from the last ½ cent sales tax was promised to aid development of a long term water source. The sales tax money has paid for most of the testing and development carried out so far. There have been attempts to get some grants and other aid, but the reality is that most of this project is going to be paid for by sales tax money and our water bill. There really aren't a lot of choices. This project is far enough along that we probably should take a good look at how we are using our 4B sales tax money and put more of it into developing water sources instead of projects that are much less critical to the health and survival of our community. We need to back to the voters and ask them if they want us to extend the sales tax to help complete this project. Spend more of the sales tax money on fundamentals.

The other point we need to keep in mind is that water is a regional problem. San Angelo's economy is very dependent on the health of the surrounding economies. Whether it's agriculture, oil, ASU, Goodfellow, or just retail sales, most of our trade is local. If the Eden, El Dorado, or Ozona economies have the sniffles, San Angelo's economy will catch a cold. If we are serious about having a healthy economy, we need to help our neighbors keep their economies healthy, and water is a key factor in the economic health of the region. More than that, San Angelo needs to be a good regional neighbor. Not that long ago, San Angelo was seen as a water bully. Some questionable tactics were used to try and get water rights. This led to expensive law suits, and the introduction of a water master to the area. The policy at that time amounted to “water for San Angelo, no matter what happens to anyone else.” We have outgrown that policy, but the bad memories linger on.

There are even more fundamental reasons to make our water system part of a regional solution. First, from a purely economic perspective, the cost per gallon of water can go down. Our current treatment plant can handle 2 to 3 times our current demand. Spread the fixed costs of a system to more customers, and the cost per customer goes down. There could be other savings because of volume buying and economies of scale. Additionally, a regional system can also increase the long term stability and reliability of the entire water system. We are already getting most of our water from O. H. Ivie, which is almost 50 miles away. The Hickory well field will require at least 60 miles of pipe. Our local lakes would have trouble supplying us with the roughly 15,000 acre feet we currently use each year. In 50 years, we will probably need double that amount of water, which will be close to the capacity of all the water sources we are currently developing. Our neighbors will be in the same situation. If we are part of a regional solution that has access to the water within at least 100 miles, all of us, including our neighbors, should still be in good shape.

It's good to see city government doing some long term thinking about something as important as water. More needs to be done, and they need to expand that into regional thinking.


  1. If the city really wants to get serious about water, then we can't afford to give away all the treated waste water to an exclusive irrigation district to irrigate cotton. We can't afford to send millions of gallons of water a day several miles down a canal where it is known that at least half evaporates or is lost en route due to huge cracks in the concrete.

    Supposedly this irrigation district traded their rights from Nasworthy for the city's treated waste water, but they are getting as much as they want of both. There are no meters to monitor how much water goes out of Nasworthy to the same farmers, despite that a meter is required by law.

    The city pays for the expense of chlorinating and pumping the treated waste water to these farmers, and they get the water for free... The pipeline to get it there cost $20 million. And this pipline was built after a $92 million upgrade to the water treatment plant to irrigate the city farm, which surrounds the treatment plant. That $92 million project was abandoned after 3-4 years of use.

    The city farm could generate $400,000-$600,000 per year as irrigated farmland, as opposed to the $100,000-$200,000 it generates now for dryland farming. Aside from the economic benefits to the city, irrigating the city farm would recharge the underground flows of the Concho, which would increase flows to Ivy, where we get our water to begin with ... but we pump it miles away to the flats, again losing at least half of the water, and lots of tax dollars, along the way.

    As far as Drew Darby's plan to make San Angelo's a regional water treament facility, the water treatment plant currently processes twice as much water as their permit allows, because its cheaper that way ... but shhh... nobody is enforcing.

    Perhaps the prospect of increasing the customer base and overcharging more people for services would be just what we need to get a permit to treat more water.

    But who is going to pay for all the pipelines to become a regional water provider when the city can't even keep its own lines functional? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me --- the motivation, as usual, is more siphoning more money off the consumer.

    And, BTW, how would SA just magically ~become~ "part of a regional solution that has access to the water within -at least- 100 miles???" If San Angelo "has access" (I'm assuming exculsive access) "to the water within at least 100 miles" that will either require alot more money or power to be weilded to assume that right, would it not?

    Sounds like SA would still be in the water "bully category" there ... or would this just be a new mask for the same face?

    So far, San Angelo receives and "F" in my book for managing water (and financial) resources, and they don't deserve to manage a regional area.

  2. Allie, you make some good points. San Angelo's history on water and finances is not all that good. What I am talking about is a true regional partnership, not San Angelo owning a regional water utility. We might want to separate the water department from the direct control of the city, and have it organized as a regional water utility, which would have a regional board of governors. We might want to just have it do partnership agreements with other water utilities in the region for supply and mutual aid. I am not advocating for exclusive rights to any water resource. I also don't think that we should be the only treatment facility for the region. Putting all our eggs in one treatment plan can also be a problem. We will probably need to treat the water close to the Hickory well field. Multiple treatment plants would likely be needed with a good regional solution, just not as many.

    One thing about a regional water solution is that there are already a lot of pipes out there. The Millersview-Doole has miles of pipe running east from here. Partnering with them makes a lot of sense. Other areas would require new pipes. It should be optional for all areas whether to partner with us or not. Pipes and other needed infrastructure should be paid for over the long term by all the people that benefit. Again, it should be voluntary and beneficial to all parties. If there is no benefit, don't join the partnership. Any regional water solution needs regional oversight. Whether it's a partnership, a large utility district, or some combination, it needs to be ran by and controlled by all the stake holders, not just San Angelo.

    I also agree we need to readdress how we are using our treated waste water. I'm not up to speed on all the regulations and stipulations on how that water is used but just on what I know I agree it could be done better.

  3. True regional partnerships definitely make more sense. But, with SA fronting most of the cost of water exploration projects, plants, etc, it seems likely we would end up being the primary stake holder.

    This part of your article is still in my mind:

    "If we are part of a regional solution that has access to the water at least within 100 miles, all of us, including our neighbors, should be in good shape."

    The "access" part is not the solution, so much as is proper management of available resources.

    For the past 4 days I have been out on the Concho river trying to increase stream flows by rebuilding washed out gravel bars and natural falls, mucking out sludge and algae, and identifying locations for the introduction of beneficial aquatic plant species to clean up nutrients and sediment and add habitat in the water.

    Much of the Concho and Colorado Rivers in our region are stagnant, algae infested, warm bands of muck. Ground water sources and habitats are disappearing, aquifers are being depleated and contaminated, and wells and streams are drying up.

    We should be looking at the state of our water resources as the measure of what kind of shape we are going to be in in the future, not what "new" sources we can find to exploit. If this is the state of things now, what about in 50 years when we need twice the water that we currently use?

    The health of our community is tied to the health of our water resources. The water cycle and the life cycle are one.

    Walter Prescott Webb said, "In their efforts to provide a sufficiency of water where there was not one, men have resorted to every expedient from prayer to dynamite. Their story of efforts is, on the whole, one of pathos and tragedy, of few successes and many failures."

    Let's try to take that to heart, and consider the real possibility that San Angelo lacks the natural resources to expand, and we may need to shift the focus of the past several decades from "expansion" (which is always tied to desperately seeking new tax revenues) to doing the very best with what we have.

    The Concho river in town is a perfect illustration of how the city functions.
    We spend millions of dollars on one snazzy new water feature for the Art museum, while over a dozen totally abandoned or over grown and foul water features blight the walking trail along the river. The new feature was hyped as an ecological project to improve water quality, but meanwhile, when ever it rains, you can see another dozen points along the river where water from the city streets, rich with gasoline, motor oil, heavy metals, fertilizers, pesticides, nitrates, phosphorus and sediments, discharges quite directly into the river.

    For the cost of the art museum water project we could have diverted all source point pollution from city streets away from our water supply to biological filtration zones, and upgraded the exiting waterfalls to function "ecologically" as well.

    For the money we have spent thus far on failed water exploration efforts what could we have done to improve the way we utilize our existing resources? What improvements could be made without any additional investment, but by simply changing some glaringly wasteful practices?