Commentary: San Antonio should vote on aquifer protection, greenway trails

Since 2000, San Antonians have voted every five years to dedicate a portion of our sales taxes to the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, or EAPP. Residents are rightfully proud of a program recognized internationally as an elegant solution to protecting our primary source of water.

Absent adequate regulation to protect the quality of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer water supply, we have opted to pay those who own land in the Edwards watershed for the ecological services they provide. Perhaps we could be saved this expense were the Edwards Aquifer Authority to exercise its authority to limit impervious cover on the recharge and contiguous contributing zones.

Efforts to preserve water quality through regulation, however, have been relatively ineffective. City of San Antonio water quality ordinances enacted in 1995 had been largely ignored, as claims of vested rights to exempt development from regulation were still being validated as recently as 2015. Thus, advocates in San Antonio had to look at the purchase of land and conservation easements as the most certain way to protect the primary source of San Antonio’s water supply.

Recently, we have heard it said that purchasing development rights in Medina and Uvalde counties, where 70 percent of our Edwards Aquifer water supplies enter the aquifer as stormwater recharge, is not needed as these lands are not in immediate danger of being developed. We contend that as long as Texas permits direct discharge of sewage effluent from new wastewater treatment plants into waterways that recharge the Edwards, lands in critical watersheds are in need of permanent protection.

Some are of the opinion that the EAPP is no longer needed. Experts disagree. A water policy analysis commissioned by San Antonio and Fair Oaks Ranch recommended a commitment to protecting 35 percent of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone through the acquisition of conservation easements. And a recently issued report by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, “Considerations for the Future of the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program,” concludes “it appears prudent that an effort to continue to acquire sensitive areas within this watershed should remain a focus for the foreseeable future to help ensure the long-term protection of the City’s primary water source, the Edwards Aquifer.”

About a year ago, when we first heard that plans were afoot to reallocate the sales taxes to Connect SA, the 15 San Antonio member groups of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, or GEAA, responded unanimously that they want to retain full funding from the 1/8-cent sales tax for the EAPP and greenway trails and request that City Council put reauthorization of these programs up for a vote in 2020.

Since then, we have met a number of times with Mayor Ron Nirenberg as he scrambles to come up with plans to continue funding the EAPP. No mention has been made as to how the greenways trails will be funded.

The latest attempt to secure alternative funding is to flip the EAPP to SAWS. At a recent SAWS board meeting, it was opined that the best SAWS could do would be to fund the EAPP at half the current level, which may require a rate increase at a future date. This is totally unacceptable.

Read more from Annalisa Peace, Director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, for the San Antonio Express-News here.