Higher fines, new heavy user ‘surcharge’; SAWS board passes new drought rules

SAWS Board voted unanimously to send the proposal to City Council

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Water System unanimously approved changes to its rules for how its customers can water their lawns and how they’re punished for heavy water use during drought periods.

Officials with the city-owned water utility said current drought restrictions are not doing enough to save water. They hope to have many of the proposed changes in place for much of this summer, including brand-new restrictions to close a “loophole” that allows customers with drip irrigation systems to use much more water than people with sprinklers.

The utility said it’s aiming at reining in some of the biggest water users.

“So what we are trying to achieve is to get additional water savings from about 10% of our community,” SAWS vice president of conservation Karen Guz said. “Approximately 90% of San Antonians are watering once a week like we asked them to do. And they’re using amounts of water that are very modest.”

The San Antonio City Council will also vote on the proposals, likely on June 20. If they approve them, new restrictions on watering hours could go into effect immediately. Increased fines and surcharges wouldn’t happen until mid-July.


SAWS has four stages of watering restrictions, which are generally tied to the level of its primary water source, the Edwards Aquifer. The lower the aquifer gets, the less you’re allowed to water your lawn and garden.

The water system is currently at Stage 2, which restricts landscape watering to once a week during four-hour windows in the morning and evening.

But while the rules apply to all SAWS customers, not everyone can get punished for breaking them.

The $137 citations for drought rule-breakers only apply to customers in San Antonio or within five miles of its city limits. SAWS customers who live in other suburban cities, however, can’t get hit with the municipal citation.

SAWS map of customers that can currently avoid enforcement of drought restrictions (San Antonio Water System)

Instead, SAWS officials want to start charging violators directly through their SAWS bills, which would allow them to enforce the penalties across the board. Trustees also approved raising the cost of the penalties for larger users and repeat offenders.

The new penalties for violating drought restrictions, approved on May 23 by SAWS trustees. (San Antonio Water System)

Customers would be able to appeal the fees through a committee of non-SAWS employees. First-time residential violators would also have the option to avoid the fee by taking an online course.


Under the utility’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 drought restrictions, customers can only water their landscaping once a week. As currently written, Stage 3 restrictions reduce that to once every other week.

As that restriction would affect everyone, including the customers who are already conserving water, Guz said the utility wants to try a different approach.

The every-other-week watering restriction would be held in reserve for Stage 4, she said. Instead, going to Stage 3 would mean hitting the top 5% of residential water users with an extra surcharge.

For every 1,000 gallons a customer uses above a set threshold — 20,000 for residential customers — they are charged an extra $10.37. Last summer, the average single-family home used fewer than 8,000 gallons a month, Guz said.

A proposed surcharge would hit SAWS' heaviest water users with an extra charge once they pass a set threshold (San Antonio Water System)
A proposed surcharge would hit SAWS' heaviest water users with an extra charge once they pass a set threshold (San Antonio Water System)


Once SAWS institutes watering restrictions, landscape irrigation is confined to only the morning and evening.

Under Stage 1, the watering periods are before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Once Stage 2 is in place, the hours are restricted further to between 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m.

However, Guz said people have asked about watering even earlier in the day, and the utility wants to save power during the evening peak hours for energy use.

SAWS is recommending switching the watering periods to before 10 a.m. and after 9 p.m. during Stage 1 restrictions and 5-10 a.m. and 9 p.m.-12 a.m. during Stage 2.


Unlike sprinkler systems or even soaker hoses, SAWS has very few regulations on the use of drip irrigation. Depending on the watering restriction stage, it can be used six to seven times more often than other types of landscape watering.

While Guz said drip irrigation is more efficient than spray irrigation because it has less evaporation, it generally applies water “as fast as spray irrigation.”

The systems have recently “exploded” in popularity, and Guz originally recommended putting them under the same restrictions as spray irrigation.

However, in her recommendations Thursday, the original proposal had been partially rolled back.

“Kind of met in the middle,” Guz said.

Though drip irrigation would still be allowed on fewer days than it is now, it would still be allowed more often than spray irrigation.

Drip irrigation has been largely unregulated compared to spray irrigation systems. The new rules would clamp down on that advantage, but not all the way. (San Antonio Water System)


SAWS also plans to begin inspecting new irrigation systems to ensure they meet standards.

Poorly designed and installed irrigation systems can waste 20% of the water, according to the utility. Guz said the utility would inspect the plans as well as the final system.

It could require SAWS to do about 10,000 inspections each year, though Guz said they do not plan to begin phasing in the inspections until January.

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.

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