A Free-Market Energy Blog

First City Without Water: S.A. or L.A.?

By -- September 25, 2014

Evan Smith, Editor Texas Tribune: “Who’s making money on this deal (the Vista Ridge Pipeline)?  

Robert R. Puente, CEO of San Antonio Water System: “Nothing wrong with making money. Free enterprise and Capitalism are what makes this world go.”

– Symposium: Conversations on Water–The Vista Ridge Pipeline Proposal and  its Local Impact, University of Texas, San Antonio, August 12, 2014.

“Which large U.S. city will be the first to run out of water?” is a question being asked as a result of a new study by The Environmental Hydrology Laboratory at the University of Florida. The study ranked San Antonio worst out of 225 U.S. cities as to drought vulnerability.  And Los Angeles was nearly so, ranked at 220.

San Antonio and Los Angeles are both ranked high in drought vulnerability despite that both have depended on conservation as the major water policy for several decades. San Antonio’s per capita water use is 127 gallons per day compared to L.A.’s 123 gallons. But will both cities be consigned to economic stagnation and a race to the bottom of the Dust Bowl as population grows and the only way to meet water demand is to squeeze more and more from existing customers?

L.A. is doubling down on conservation and has a $7.5 billion state water bond on the ballot in November as part of its long-term water plan. But even if statewide voters passed the new bond, California’s two newly proposed reservoirs would add only one percent to existing state surface water storage capacity (see table below).  Moreover, according to provisions of California’s proposed water bond, 50 percent of all water storage would have to go for Sacramento Delta “ecosystem restoration”. L.A. would be lucky to get a trickle of that added supply if and when the two new reservoirs would be completed 9 years from now.

California Average Annual Water Availability, Storage and Use 1998-2005(in millions of acre feet or MAF)
Precipitation 200.0 MAF
Groundwater storage capacity 1,458.6 MAF
Reservoir storage capacity 41.0 MAF
Unimpaired water availability (annual safe yield) from groundwater and reservoirs 71.0 MAF
Gross water use 83.0 MAF 100%
Water added by proposed Sites & Temperance Flat Dams 0.823 MAF 0.99% or 1%
Source: Ellen Hanak, Managing California Water, 2011, p. 72


A possible bi-partisan Congressional drought relief bill is stuck in the U.S. Senate and may die if Republicans wait for a possible supermajority after November national elections.

Unlike L.A., San Antonio isn’t waiting for a statewide vote on a water bond or an act of Congress to reduce the impacts of drought. San Antonio has embraced a strategy that a union-controlled and environmentalist obstructing City of Los Angeles would never pursue: a joint public-private venture to bring more water to San Antonio in only five years.

Let’s take a brief look at the 5-year water plans of both cities.

LADWP Five-Year Plan: ‘Toilet to the Tap’

The City of Los Angeles 5-Year Integrated Water Resource Plan (June 2012) mainly depends on a set of recycled water projects. All totaled, L.A. is planning to produce 59,000 acre-feet of recycled water by 2035.  That would add about 41.0 gallons of water added per household per day by 2035.  But this would be water to backfill projected future losses of water from curtailment of state imported water.

L.A. has no water storage or desalination plants on the planning board over the next five years.  Let’s compare this with San Antonio.

San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Pipeline – Not L.A. “Chinatown”

The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is moving toward importing 50,000 acre-feet of water from Burleson County by partnering with the Abengoa Water Corporation for purchase of water through the new 142-mile Vista Ridge Pipeline to be completed by 2019. The pipeline would be financed, built and operated by Abengoa, a private, international water and energy infrastructure corporation based in Seville, Spain.

This would not be a Los Angeles-style “Chinatown” water grab.  3,400 water rights holders in Burleson County would be paid an annual fee for their water.  Thus, no condemnation of land for water wells would be needed, although pipeline rights of ways would have to be acquired. Leasing of water rights is still in process.

Additionally, SAWS is renting available capacity in an existing pipeline to bring about 25,000 acre-feet of water from the Carrizo Aquifer in Gonzales County by 2015 and building a new desalination plant that will produce 33,000 acre-feet of water by 2016.

All totaled, SAWS is planning on adding 108,000 acre-feet of new water over the next five years.  That equates to adding 35.2 billion gallons of water or 1,212 gallons of new water per year per existing household per day, or 30 times more added water than L.A. by 2019.   San Antonio plans to sell any unused portion of its water supplies from the Vista Ridge Pipeline to other cities to reduce water rates to its customers.

A Race to the Dust Bowl: SA or LA?

The new added water will increase San Antonio water rates by 16 percent.  In contrast, Los Angeles wholesale imported water rates rose 15 percent in 2009, water deliveries were cut and customers had to reduce consumption by 20 percent.  L.A. got a zero water allocation this year from the California State Water Project.

Public-private water policies are unlikely to be adopted by Los Angeles. But then, again, San Antonio looks like it is not going to be the first large city to run out of water.  In contrast, Los Angeles is risking becoming tapped out by “conservation only” water policies and dependence on state and federal reservoir projects that won’t be ready for a decade, even if approved by state voters and Congress.

Which City Will Run Out of Water First?

Los Angeles San Antonio
Population 3,852,782 (city 2012) 1,327,554 (city)
Gallons of Water Used Per Household Per Day 123 gallons(2011) 127 gallons(2013)
Drought Vulnerability Rank (225 = worst) 220 225
Normalized Availability of Water 0.05 0.04
Drought Vulnerability High High
New Recycled Water Supplies 59,000 acre-feet by 2035 75,000 acre-feet by 2019
New Imported Water Supplies in 5 Years 0 acre-feet 28,000 acre-feet by 2019
Total Water Added in Acre-Feet 59,000 acre-feet by 2035 108,000 acre-feet by 2019
New Water Supplies Per Household 41.0 gallons per day by 2035 (LA City) 1,212 gallons per day by 2019
Monthly Water Bill 2012150 gallons/person/day100 gallons/person/day50/gallons/person/day $100$65$25 $30$20$15


Wayne Lusvardi writes for Calwatchdog.com and formerly worked for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.





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