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Reflecting on A Legacy at SAWS

Date: August 05, 2022

With San Antonio Water System (SAWS) legend Steven Clouse retiring at the end of this year, WateReuse Texas Managing Director Noelle George sat down with him to discuss his 37-year history at SAWS, the process of diversifying the city’s water supplies through their reuse system, and SAWS’ achievement of a “reuse trifecta.”

Noelle: How did you come to work at SAWS and what was your first role like?

SC: I had wanted to move to San Antonio around 1985 and it wasn’t a good time to be looking for a job. I found a job as a Sample Man. (That was the official title, but there were both men and women in the role.) We were just starting to set up limits on what could be put into the sewer system.
My job was to go to all the different businesses, open the cleanout on their sewer pipe, stick my hand in the bucket, and collect whatever was being discharged to the sewer system. We didn’t have a well-developed pretreatment program – people could put all sorts of horrible things in there at the time. We were just starting to make the sewer system more than a trash can of things that people didn’t want.

Eventually I got the title of wastewater engineer, even though I am not a registered professional engineer. They don’t let you do that anymore! It worked very well for me not having it, but I’d love to have had more engineering background and education.

I loved the job. A wastewater plant is a constantly evolving system, so we always had some sort of water quality trend that we needed to reverse or a new treatment process that we needed to put online. I set up our original composting operation and did a lot of work with biosolids. I was also very heavily involved in setting up the water recycling program.

Setting Up Reuse in San Antonio

Noelle: Did you help create San Antonio’s plan for recycled water that was released around 1996 or did you mostly implement the plan after it came out?

SC: I came along at just the right time for a bunch of cool things. In 1996 a judge decided that San Antonio had to diversify our water supply instead of just using the Edwards Aquifer. That was really the spark that initiated the use of wastewater effluent for non-potable purposes in San Antonio.
The first step was setting up a conservation department to use our water more wisely, and then to look at the quality of the effluent coming out of the treatment plants. In the early 80’s the wastewater effluent quality was horrible, and they were just finishing up a big series of improvements at the plant. Everyone was marveling at how well the plants were able to produce good water. It was a logical step to take that improved effluent and see how we could put it to a positive use in San Antonio.

Noelle: After SAWS set up the conservation department and addressed the quality of effluent, what was the next step?

SC: We started outreach with golf course operators, businesses on the riverwalk, and other large businesses across town that we thought might have an interest in the use of this water. We approached the business community to ask if they would be willing to accept the treated effluent. Once we talked about the improvements to the plant and demonstrated that we were able to consistently produce high quality water, they weren’t as opposed as I thought they would be. Everybody wanted to do the right thing and they were very open-minded with it, but they had to be assured that we had our act together.

One surprising group we had early opposition from were horticultural folks. The more sophisticated the golf course, the more concerned they were about recycled water affecting the color of the grass or the tropical plants they had around their courses. I assumed the businesses around the Riverwalk would be hesitant and the golf courses would be on board, but it was almost the opposite. We had to train the golf courses in how to irrigate effectively with reuse water. Once they learned that, they realized the reuse water was better for the grass and plants and helped cut down on fertilizer costs due to the nitrogen and other minerals.

Noelle: What was the biggest challenge of bringing the recycled system into reality?

SC: We built a system that was far beyond what the regulators encouraged us to do. Instead of building a plant with a straight pipe to one customer, we built a full 135-mile loop around the city. We can move untreated and treated water between our plants, but it really upset the apple cart in the standard approach for permitting. It created all sorts of confusion because the regulators permitted on a plant-by-plant basis.

Normally you have a wastewater plant that goes to a river outfall, but now we have multiple wastewater plants that go to multiple outfalls. The regulators loved the concept of the system we built, but when the plants had a violation, it was a huge problem. In the previous permitting paradigm, one violation was multiplied by the number of outfalls even though they didn’t discharge any water. Our violations were multiplied by a factor of five or more, so we looked like the worst polluter out there. We had to do a lot of work with the regulators to change their paradigm for tracking violations.

Noelle: Can you talk more about how San Antonio handles biosolids and reusing other components of wastewater?

SC: Everything that comes through our wastewater gets put to beneficial use – we coined the word “trifecta” a few years ago.

In addition to recycling water, we’ve done a very good job of improving our sludge treatment processes and are preparing to put a couple hundred million dollars into our process to take it to the next level. Our sludge is fully composted and used across San Antonio in a manner that helps our conservation program because the healthier the lawn, the less water it requires to make it through a drought. When we treat the sludge, we also produce methane gas that we sell back to the natural gas grid. Very few utilities have been able to put all three resources to beneficial use.

SAWS has spent over 20 years diversifying their water sources to prepare for droughts like those we are experiencing this year, and they have accomplished so much! Look for more from Steve Clouse in future newsletters, including his advice for utilities considering reuse and his thoughts about the future.

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