Increasing patterns of drought in Texas in combination with population growth and diminishing aquifer water supply make the precious resource worth fighting over, which is exactly what the city of San Antonio is doing, as the Texas Tribune reports. Texas water law states that all of the surface water is owned by the state, which the San Antonio lawyers want to challenge as it loses 33 billion gallons of water every year. How? San Antonio’s water supply flows from the Edwards Aquifer, and when it recycles its wastewater, it is discharged into the river, with the city effectively relinquishing ownership of the water. The San Antonio Water System wants to retain claims of ownership to that recycled water since it’s a scarce resource.
There are others fighting over that scarce resource, though, even as San Antonio lawyers are insisting that SAWS owns the asset and should retain rights to it. The San Antonio River flows into the Guadalupe River and then down to San Antonio Bay, and several big water users along the route are resisting the city’s bid to keep their 33 billion gallons. Bill West is the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, a water supplier and hydroelectric supplier for 10 counties in South Texas, and his position is clear: GBRA depends on San Antonio’s wastewater.
San Antonio made an official application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at the end of 2013, but the commission won’t be likely to issue a decision anytime soon, with an answer taking several months, at the very least. San Antonio lawyers overseeing the bid acknowledge that some downstream water rights holders may bristle at the loss, but argue that it has only been recently that San Antonio has been dumping its recycled wastewater into the river. Standards of treatment have risen, and instead of a liability, the treated wastewater released into the river has actually been shown to benefit its ecology. The San Antonio lawyers point out the permits that downstream water users hold were probably obtained before San Antonio began releasing their wastewater into the stream.
Still, that argument may not be convincing in the face of the recent years’ drought and reduced rainfall, and if the TCEQ find that any other water rights would be affected, the agency would likely put special conditions on San Antonio’s permit to prevent hardship for downstream holders.
The San Antonio lawyers state some interesting intentions “for now” for the wastewater: letting it flow to the San Antonio Bay to protect the habitat for species like the endangered whooping crane. The whooping crane in Texas has been the focus of a recent high-profile federal lawsuit that could threaten the state’s water supplies and planning process. As the resource becomes more scarce, and if droughts linger as the population in Texas continues to climb, this won’t be the end of the struggles and competing claims on water use between the whooping crane and other natural inhabitants, industry and civic consumers.