SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. While 100-degree temperatures have finally fled, the worst year of drought in Texas history continues. Despite widespread water restrictions, many large Texas cities, and especially suburban neighbors, are using up to 200 gallons per person per day. But one city, San Antonio, is using much less. NPR's Wade Goodwyn went to find out how.
WADE GOODWYN: Gliding along in a flat-bottom boat on the San Antonio River Walk under an ever-unfolding canopy of cypress trees is a beautiful and authentic Texas experience.
DOUG: Look up behind that stage - five bells. Those represent the first five Taco Bells here in San Antonio. No - the missions, the five Spanish missions...
GOODWYN: Here's what Doug, the boat captain tour guide extraordinaire is not going to mention to his laughing customers: Texas is in the middle of a historic drought, and this river they're cruising along with the ducks and the big bass, the catfish and the perch is actually treated sewage water. Yep.
STEVE CLOUSE: We're at the headwaters of the San Antonio River.
GOODWYN: Steve Clouse is the chief operating officer of SAWS, the San Antonio Water System.
CLOUSE: During wet seasons, the river functions like any other river would. But during the dry seasons, we used to pump from water wells to make sure we had a river, otherwise there wouldn't be water here.
GOODWYN: To keep the river flowing, the city used to have to pump up to five million gallons a day from its precious supply, the Edwards Aquifer. But now, by using a state-of-the-art water treatment plant, the city produces high-quality, recycled water that's just shy of being drinkable. And it's not just San Antonio's River Walk using it - big industrial customers like the Toyota manufacturing plant, Microsoft's Data Center, USAA Insurance, the city's golf courses. More than 60 miles of recycled-water pipeline built in the last decade now snake through San Antonio.
KAREN GUZ: We have a goal to save a billion gallons of water every single year by working with all of our customers.
GOODWYN: Karen Guz is the water system's director of conservation, and, believe it or not, she says they are hitting their billion gallon goal.
GUZ: We are a community that has figured out that it is better to save water than to worry about having to always just acquire more water.
GOODWYN: Guz says it started in the early '90s when the Sierra Club sued the city in federal court to protect an endangered species - the blind salamander - that lived in the water supply of the Edwards Aquifer. When the judged ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, San Antonio politicians and newspapers spitted with rage. How dare a federal judge tell San Antonio it must manage its water? That ugly blind salamander be damned. Twenty years later, the current San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, sitting in Hemisphere Park with cascading fountains all around, says his city has learned the judge was right.
JULIAN CASTRO: The city, over these last two decades, really has made lemonade out of lemons. In fact, the number of gallons per consumer in San Antonio per day that is used has gone down from just over 200 to about 130.
GOODWYN: Unlike the lush lawns in Dallas and Houston, there are yellow lawns everywhere you look in San Antonio. The entire city has a different mindset. Neighbors narc out the cheaters next door to the water cops. After a warning, fines are steep. In San Antonio, everyone's in it together whether they want to be or not. At Sea World, they want to. They've cut their monthly water use from eight million gallons to four million gallons in the last three years. When Shamu splashes the lower rows with fountains of water from his five-million-gallon tank...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND CHEERING)
GOODWYN: ...the water that looks like it's going down the drain under your feet is actually headed for capture. In fact, Sea World has built its own on-site water-filtration system.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
GOODWYN: As important as the conservation is, what's really saving San Antonio right now is its aquifer-storage system. During times when the rains are plenty and the Edwards Aquifer is full, San Antonio aggressively pumps the water out and stores it 40 miles away in a sand formation called the Carrizo. Nobody knows how much water the Carrizo could ultimately store - perhaps as much as 65 billion gallons - but now in the midst of this devastating drought, the Carrizo's massive pumps are sending this rainy-day water back to the thirsty city from whence it came. Jeff Haby is the director of production.
JEFF HABY: It cuts down on the amount of water that San Antonio uses from the Edwards during a critical time, which is good for the entire region. I think it's a huge benefit. I'm very proud of it.
GOODWYN: San Antonio's approach to its water has saved it this year, but as summer turns to fall and winter turns to spring, if the rains don't come, San Antonio and indeed all of Texas is going to learn what the word drought really means. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.