The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) was formed in 1992 to take over the functions of a number of water, wastewater, and water reuse entities in the San Antonio city government. Today, it provides services to 1.86 million people across a 933-square-mile area. Over the last few decades, SAWS has worked to diversify San Antonio’s water supply, which used to rely solely on the local aquifer, so that it includes recycled water, aquifer storage and recharge (ASR), brackish groundwater desalination, and nonlocal groundwater piped in via a 142-mile pipeline.
In this interview, Donovan Burton, SAWS’s water resources and intergovernmental relations vice president, tells Municipal Water Leader about the agency’s work diversifying its water portfolio to ensure that it can serve the rapidly growing communities in the San Antonio–Austin corridor.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Donovan Burton: After college, I began working for a San Antonio state representative in the Texas Legislature, focusing on a variety of legislative issues. I enjoyed the legislative and political process, but after 10 years, I was ready to move on. I was able to come on board with SAWS in 2006 as its legislative manager, working in Austin on SAWS’s many legislative and regulatory interests. Eventually, I became the chief of staff to the president and CEO of SAWS and then was promoted to the newly created position of vice president of water resources and government relations. SAWS had previously had distinct government relations and water resources staffs, but in our state, the two are so intertwined that the decision was made to combine them to enhance our overall effectiveness. That is the role I still hold today. In this capacity, I also focus on compliance issues, including regulatory, water quality, and laboratory issues.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about SAWS and its history.
Donovan Burton: SAWS is one of the largest municipal water utilities in the nation. It serves an area of over 933 square miles with a population of 1.86 million, covering all of Bexar County and portions of Atascosa, Kendall, and Medina Counties. The service areas are established by state regulatory authorities. We have approximately 511,000 connections. Around 94 percent are residential; 6 are general class. SAWS also provides wholesale water to three water retail entities.
We focus on drinking water, wastewater, storm water, and reuse, but also manage a chilled water plant in downtown San Antonio. The water utility used to consist of several separate agencies within the city government, including a water board, a wastewater department, and a water reuse district. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these distinct departments were finding themselves continually at odds with one another over resource allocation and overall policy direction. It got to the point where one department was threatening to sue another. At that point, city leaders convened a meeting of the competing interests to determine how to overcome these divisions and ultimately decided to merge the individual departments into one entity. This led to the creation of SAWS in 1992. SAWS is a hybrid of sorts: It manages itself, but it is charged with serving the needs of San Antonio. To ensure that the city still has a voice in SAWS’s overall direction, the city appoints members to the governing board of trustees and approves our rates and bond offerings.
Municipal Water Leader: Is your area heavily urbanized?
Donovan Burton: Yes. A lot of the suburbs and exurbs of San Antonio are growing at a phenomenal rate. The I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin, which is about 80 miles to the northeast, is one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation. Eventually, the corridor will become one big metropolis.
Municipal Water Leader: What can you tell us about the source of your water?
Donovan Burton: Our primary supply has always been the Edwards aquifer, which sits right underneath our feet and flows artesian, making it an easy source to access. It is a regional aquifer, so other communities and individuals access it, as does the agricultural sector. Just north of San Antonio lie the cities of New Braunfels and San Marcos. These communities are experiencing rapid economic growth, a significant part of which is driven by tourism linked to their rivers, which are fed by the Edwards aquifer. With so many interested parties, there has been significant tension over the use of the Edwards aquifer for more than 30 years. Consequently, one of SAWS’s major objectives since its formation has been to diversify our water supply and lessen our reliance on the Edwards aquifer. This initiative has been tremendously successful: While the Edwards aquifer was once our only water source, we now have nine different sources, ensuring that we will be able to meet our demands through 2070 and beyond.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about how SAWS diversified its water supply.
Donovan Burton: The growing tension over the use of the Edwards aquifer in the 1980s and 1990s was coming from all directions. Agricultural users were concerned about the rapidly increasing use of the aquifer by the fast-growing communities to the north and east of San Antonio, while downstream communities were pressuring San Antonio and other communities to curb their use of the aquifer. In addition, the Edwards aquifer feeds many local springs, which harbor endangered species. When a lawsuit was filed to protect these species, a federal judge directed the state legislature to address the situation; if it did not, the courts would step in to resolve the issue. The legislature responded to the challenge by creating an authority over the Edwards aquifer that capped pumping based on historical-use averages. Entities wishing to access the aquifer had to register their historical averages with the authority and were prohibited from exceeding those levels.
Those were the reasons that led SAWS to begin its quest for alternative water sources. The first alternative water source was simply conservation, which is among the least expensive options. Today, SAWS is proud of the national leadership it has displayed in water conservation, and we are fortunate that our community embraced the effort and continues to do so today.
In the meantime, we also developed the nation’s largest direct recycled water system. We were able to effectively use this recycled water program as an economic development tool to help the city recruit Toyota, Microsoft, and others to establish operations in the San Antonio area.
Another sourcing project was to develop traditional groundwater sources. This actually became quite political. Over the past 50 years, San Antonio has excelled at planning for its water supply needs, but it has not always been as successful in the execution and development side of the equation. A lot of that has had to do with the political dynamics in the state. There are substantial regulations designed to protect local groundwater resources from being accessed by entities outside the area, making this one of our more difficult alternative source ventures.
In the course of these efforts, we also developed the nation’s largest groundwater-based ASR program. In this program, we divert the excess capacity from our Edwards aquifer allocation and pump it into a different aquifer, the Carrizo aquifer, which is south of the city. The Carrizo aquifer serves as a type of water bank or savings account. Its balance is currently approaching 200,000 acre-feet, which is almost a year’s worth of supply for SAWS customers.
Interestingly, we have three source operations going at our Carrizo ASR site. First, there is the storage and recovery element. We can also draw from the Carrizo aquifer itself. We have also developed a brackish groundwater desalination plant on that site, which we anticipate will eventually have the capability of producing up to 30,000 acre-feet a year. That’s a major victory in terms of developing new water sources right here in southern Bexar County and has dramatically helped our diversification efforts.
We also developed another alternative supply project in Gonzales, Texas, about 70–80 miles east of San Antonio, called the Regional Carrizo Project. This was highly contested by local parties, who were worried we would pump too much water and affect landowners. We eventually worked through that by reducing the scope of the project and successfully showing that our use would not undermine that of the local users. Part of the overall effort included an agreement with another local utility that we will pump and treat the water all on one site and will purchase excess capacity when it is available. The agreement allowed local rates to remain stable and was positive for everyone.
Despite all these successes, we still needed another major water supply. We finally decided to engage in a public-private partnership (P3), which happens to be the largest in the nation. In Texas, groundwater regulation can be extremely volatile for water developers because of a permitting scheme that provides permitting anywhere from 1 to more than 30 years. The dilemma is that an entity may invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a project with a shorter-term permit only to have the permit revoked at the end of the term, leaving the entity saddled with debt and with no ability to produce water. We needed to avoid that. Our P3 allows the private sector to take on the risk of this venture. We launched this initiative in 2011 by soliciting bids from the private sector and ultimately partnered with a consortium called Vista Ridge. Our arrangement is different from a traditional take-or-pay water contract, in the case of which if something happens, you don’t have to pay for the water but you still have to pay for the infrastructure. In our arrangement, the private partners agreed that if they can’t deliver a drop of water, San Antonio doesn’t have to pay for anything. It is a major risk for the private partners, for which we pay a premium in terms of higher rates for the water that is supplied. However, we have built that 30-year fixed cost into our plans. The San Antonio city council and the SAWS board of trustees signed off on the Vista Ridge project partnership in 2014, and the system came online in April 2020. It is a 45-million-gallon-per-day (MGD) project and is projected to provide us with 50,000 acre-feet of water a year. While we will always continue to look ahead, these major initiatives have substantially relieved the pressures we were confronting a couple of decades ago and have contributed significantly to the city’s ability to grow its economy.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the dimensions of the new pipeline and what is the origin of the water it delivers to San Antonio?
Donovan Burton: It is primarily a 60-inch pipe and runs approximately 142 miles. To underscore the risk of this venture, the approximate cost of financing, permitting, and constructing the infrastructure, including 18 wells spread between the Carrizo and Simsboro aquifers, was about $930 million. The Carrizo aquifer is about 1,400 feet deep, and the Simsboro aquifer is about 2,500 feet deep in this area. The blend of water that the project delivers is about 30 percent Carrizo well water and 70 percent Simsboro well water, all of which is run through a high-service pump station where it is cooled, enhanced with a small amount of chlorine, and sent south to San Antonio through two intermediate pump stations.
Municipal Water Leader: Which private-sector partners did you work with?
Donovan Burton: The private-sector partners were led by Garney Construction, which is the primary equity partner, and other engineering firms, including Pape-Dawson Engineers, which is local. The consortium has brought on EPCOR USA to serve as the project operator. Originally from Edmonton, Canada, EPCOR today has a substantial presence in Arizona. The project also has an equity partner called Ridgewood Infrastructure; ultimately, Garney intends to turn the equity portion of the project over to it.
Municipal Water Leader: What are SAWS’s other top issues?
Donovan Burton: One issue is our wastewater consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. SAWS will be pushing over $2 billion through the local economy over the next 2 years. A substantial portion of that relates to wastewater-related initiatives, which in large part address this consent decree. They include upgrades, capacity increases, and the rerouting of some pipes. This enormous amount of wastewater work will improve our services, reduce overflows, and support the local economy.
Municipal Water Leader: How has SAWS changed its operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Donovan Burton: When the pandemic first emerged, we carried out several changes, perhaps the most dramatic of which was the movement of about 60 percent of our workforce to remote working environments. Some still go into the office, and a significant number of crews still need to regularly access the office, laboratories, and other facilities or go out in the field for maintenance and repairs. Everyone has managed well, though it was somewhat jarring initially, since like many people, we were simply not fully prepared for this unexpected situation. One significant effort was ensuring that our computer systems were fully operational and that our virtual provider network was capable of carrying everybody. Today, like many other U.S. companies, we have become accustomed to virtual meetings and conducting significantly more business over the internet and by phone. Our information technology people have been invaluable during this process. It has been helpful that regulatory agencies have been willing to ease some of the requirements that do not have an immediate effect on public safety.
I’d also like to mention our Mitchell Lake project. Mitchell Lake is on the south side of the city. It used to be a wastewater treatment plant and is actually still permitted as a wastewater facility. We’re now transforming it into an internationally recognized birdwatching facility run by Audubon International. We have a set of wetlands nearby and plan to transform the wastewater treatment plant into a storm water facility with the help of regulators. The plan is to enhance what is already an outstanding site through wetlands improvement and expansion while building on its educational elements for student learning. It’s a major undertaking, and we are relying on state and federal help to improve this constructed wetlands treatment facility, which will double as a community amenity.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of SAWS?
Donovan Burton: Our vision for the future is a commitment to continuing to lead in terms of optimizing our resources and making sure that we’re doing everything efficiently. Also, our vision is that we remain on the leading edge of technology and treatment and that we continue viewing our expanded city’s future as intertwined with the interests of the larger region inclusive of communities in every direction. We’re a regional community, and we have to continue thinking regionally. We will no longer think in terms of what’s good for San Antonio alone, but rather what’s good for the region. I think we will continue being a good local partner, but our perspective will take into account the whole community, which is San Antonio and beyond.