San Angelo – “Securing long-term water supply critical to city (Posted By Mike Mecke)

By Kiah Collier
Posted April 10, 2010
San Angelo Standard-Times

SAN ANGELO, Texas — The San Angelo City Council didn’t take action on much last week but provided direction on a variety of important issues.

One item on the agenda caught my eye when it was posted Friday afternoon: Discussion of future steps for a long-term water supply.

I immediately thought, “future, future.” With a population that is expected to double between now and 2060 and available groundwater becoming more and more scarce, the state’s water needs are set to increase exponentially and the search for it will become more and more competitive — and more expensive.

Every city official I’ve talked to has said water supply is one of the top issues — if not the top one — facing San Angelo in the immediate and long-term future. Everyone can agree that a city’s stability is shot without a stable supply of H20, but what does that stability cost?

It turns out the discussion on Tuesday was about ways to fund the $120 million Hickory Aquifer project, which is scheduled to bring water into the city by 2014. Long story short, the city has owned rights to Hickory since the 1970s and is finally getting around to tapping into it. Good plan. But, the project is still largely unfunded. Before it’s all said and done with, City Manager Harold Dominguez said, there would most certainly be an increase in base water rates, but the city is trying to figure out ways to “minimize” that impact.

There has been $14 million dedicated to the project from the half-cent sales tax, but that leaves $106 million unaccounted for. There were various options presented Tuesday on how to chip away at what’s left, and your half-cent sales tax dollars appeared to be the best solution that came out of the council meeting.

But Hickory is not the end of the story.

With the city likely to face stricter usage restrictions on Lake Ivie Reservoir, its primary water supply, all Hickory is going to be doing for the first 11 years is making up for that loss — at least until 2025 when the city will see a 40-something percent bump in the amount of water coming in from the aquifer (Much like the usage restrictions on Ivie, the staggered increase from the Hickory supply was set up as part of the permit approval process through the Hickory Underground Water District to help preserve the life of the aquifer). The main reason the city hasn’t yet faced usage restrictions on Ivie is that it has started using much less water, thanks to public education and conservation efforts, says the city’s Water Utilities Director Will Wilde.

Because of those potential usage restrictions as well as the city’s estimated population growth, Wilde says the city “most definitely” needs to be looking beyond Hickory for another supply — a “plan B,” as city council member Charlotte Farmer has called it. But Wilde told me that Hickory is the only available supply within a 50 miles radius of the city. It’s not until at least 100 miles to 150 miles out that there is something else to work with. What does this mean?

“Those costs could be double and triple for what we’re seeing for the cost of the development for the Hickory,” Wilde said of the cost of bringing in water to the city from that far away.

In the Hickory funding discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, Dominguez noted that O.C. Fisher Lake and Twin Buttes, San Angelo’s main water supply before Ivie, were never meant to be water supplies — they were built primarily for flood control. Dominguez also said these two sources were nearly dried up when he first began working for the city in 2003. And we’re still technically in a drought, Wilde reminded me. Moral of the story: San Angelo really, really needs access to groundwater and needs to get moving on Hickory as soon as possible.

The economy is apparently a reason for the rush, too.

Dominguez said Tuesday the city needs to take advantage of the low bids contractors are making because they are short on work while the economy is still recovering (also, interest rates are low). Dominguez said this could save the city anywhere from $30 million to $40 million dollars on the project.

The other options Dominguez and city Finance Director Michael Dane presented involved taking advantage of certain tax rate reductions and/or the possibility of asking voters if the city can extend the “sunset” on the half-cent sales tax from 20 years to 30 years, which could provide an additional $20 million for the project.

The sunset was put in place when the half-cent sales tax was established so that any debt acquired for a sales tax-funded project must be paid off in 20 years or less. I wonder if we will find another supply before Hickory is paid off?

I’m also interested to know what the city is thinking about for its plan B. Options I’ve heard about include a regional partnership (we already share Ivie with Abilene and other surrounding communities). How much is securing that plan B going to cost, both purchasing rights and getting it to the city?

The good news is that the water in San Angelo may soon be tasting better. The water coming in from Hickory by 2014 will be mixed in with Ivie water at the water treatment plant, but it’s a softer, better quality water. Treatment will cost about the same, Wilde said, but you are likely to notice a difference in the taste.

Kiah Collier is a multimedia journalist who covers city hall and local and state politics. Contact her at kcollier@gosanangelo.com.

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