This article has been updated.

Two parcels of land that are now protected by conservation easements under the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program may be some of the last plots preserved with the one-eighth-cent sales tax that has funded the program since its launch more than 20 years ago.

With that sales tax now earmarked for the city’s Ready to Work program for the next four years, and then set to fund VIA Metropolitan Transit after that, the city designated $10 million in its fiscal year 2023 budget to continue the program.

It will likely allot a similar amount to the program in subsequent years, said Phillip Covington, special projects manager for the program.

That’s less than the average of just over $15 million the sales tax generated annually, and there are no guarantees of future funding, but environmentalists say they’re relieved to see the city make the commitment this year. They say the program has been one of the most effective ways to protect the aquifer, which supplies drinking water for more than 2 million people.

“I’m glad to see the city has found a new tranche of funding to continue this vital program,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

It is costing the city $3,143,208 and $294,575, respectively, to purchase conservation easements over the 2,268-acre Moos Ranch in Uvalde County and the 74-acre Littleton Ranch in Medina County.

A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and the holder of the easement — in this case, the City of San Antonio — under which the landowner voluntarily restricts certain uses of the property to protect the quantity and quality of water entering the aquifer. Once an easement is signed, it applies to all future owners of the land.

A composited map shows the two target properties for the City of San Antonio's Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.
A composite map shows the two target properties for the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

After being approved as part of the city council’s consent agenda Thursday, the parcels now bring the total amount of protected land over the aquifer and its recharge or contributing zones to 177,635 acres. About $1.4 million in sales tax funding is left.

The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program launched in 2000 after voters approved the creation of a one-eighth-cent sales tax that would generate up to $45 million through 2005 for the acquisition of lands over the Edwards Aquifer for watershed protection.

At that time, the program was limited to properties within Bexar County — despite the fact the aquifer spans eight counties. Eventually, changes in state legislation allowed the program to buy land outside of Bexar County, and today, the majority of protected properties are outside Bexar County, Covington said.

The program now boasts 123 conservation easements and 23 properties purchased outright, he said.

In 2005, local voters approved extending the program to 2010, and again in 2015 to 2020. That year, however, voters approved shifting the one-eight-cent sales tax funding the aquifer protection program to workforce development and then to VIA.

When the tax expired in the spring of 2021, $325 million had been collected for the program since 2000.

Speaking to the San Antonio Report Tuesday, Mario Bravo (D1) stressed the importance of protecting San Antonio’s natural resources.

“It is vital we continue this important program into the future,” Bravo said. “I hope my fellow council members will see this as well.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.