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Water project hit with public-records lawsuit

By   /   March 18, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part of 8 in the series Sunshine Week 2016

Seeking the release of public information about condemnation of private lands, a Texas environmental group is suing one of San Antonio Water System’s partners in the controversial Vista Ridge pipeline project.

Watchdog.org photo

HEADED TO COURT: An environmental group fighting the “San Antonio Hose” is suing to obtain internal data about the Vista Ridge water project.

The Save Our Springs Alliance filed suit in Travis County District Court to force the Central Texas Regional Water Supply Corporation to disclose its meeting minutes and communications under the state’s Open Records Act.

The water project is a public-private partnership between San Antonio’s municipally owned utility, San Antonio Water System (SAWS), and project manager Abengoa Vista Ridge.

Abengoa created the corporation to “facilitate and serve the public purpose of the [Vista Ridge] Project” for acquiring easements and rights-of-way by exercising its eminent domain authority across more than 470 parcels in seven counties along the 142-mile pipeline route from Burleson County to San Antonio. The corporation has also been used to explore low-interest public financing for the project, although no financing has been secured yet.

Abengoa, which maintains that the corporation is exempt from the Open Records Act, has not responded to the lawsuit.

“The Vista Ridge project team wants to have its cake and eat it too,” says Lauren Ice, staff attorney with Save Our Springs Alliance.

“A private company has created this water supply corporation to get the benefits of a public entity, namely eminent domain, yet when the public requests access to information as straightforward as meeting minutes, the corporation tries to hide from the open records law.”

The corporation is controlled by a four-member board of directors, a majority of whom are affiliated with Abengoa.

The Vista Ridge project and SAWS have been plagued by transparency blunders since before the city signed a contract in 2014. The latest concerns center on Abengoa’s financial condition.

Last November, San Antonio City Council, at the urging of SAWS, approved a 50 percent rate hike intended to further financing for Vista Ridge.

Less than one week later, Abengoa S.A., the Spain-based parent company, announced it was restructuring in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. Its subsidiary, Abengoa Vista Ridge, reported in February that it was seeking a new partner to provide 80 percent of the initial $82 million in equity.

“These moves have raised lingering questions about how much SAWS knew when it represented to the council before the rate hike that Abengoa was on firm financial ground and improving,” Ice said.

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SOS submitted several public information requests for information from SAWS, but was rebuffed.

“While SAWS has been assuring council that the Vista Ridge dealings are honest and transparent, it has also withheld information we requested citing the private interests of the private entities involved,” said Ice.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sided with the water supply corporation in a March 1 opinion, which concluded:

“We find the corporation is not sustained by public funds for purposes of the [Open Records] Act. Consequently, the corporation does not fall within the definition of a ‘governmental body’ … Accordingly, the corporation need not respond to the requests for information.”

But the AG’s office added that its opinion was “limited to the facts as presented to us [and] must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other information or any other circumstances.”

If built, the Vista Ridge pipeline would deliver 50,000 acre-feet of water annually from Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer wells.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected] and @Kenricward.

Part of 8 in the series Sunshine Week 2016


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.