San Pedro Springs. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Over the last 300 years, the ebb and flow of San Pedro Springs has mirrored how San Antonians use our water resources. As the city grew and wells proliferated, spring flow diminished and, for a time, disappeared altogether.

When pumping from the Edwards Aquifer was cut back due to an endangered species lawsuit brought in 1996 by the Sierra Club, spring flow at San Pedro springs recovered. That lawsuit, which sought to protect the flow of other springs north of San Antonio, also benefitted San Pedro Springs. It’s conclusion led to the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and a regulated groundwater market in the region. This also marked a turning point for San Antonio as it was forced to wean itself from over-reliance on the Edwards to meet all of its water needs.

As we recognize these springs as San Antonio’s birthplace today, the Tricentennial’s Legacy Day, we should also reflect on how their fortunes are a measure of our responsible management of our water resources.

Our challenges include balancing robust growth against aquifer protection and finding other non-Edwards water sources to meet the needs of a burgeoning population. The Edwards Aquifer is one of the most prolific aquifers in the world. It is quickly replenished by rainfall percolating through fractures, caves, sinkholes and other recharge features.

Development, particularly over the recharge zone, brought on by an ever-growing population of city dwellers, destroys many of these recharge pathways threatening the ability of the aquifer to replenish itself. Runoff from rooftops and parking lots degrades the quality of the water entering the Edwards. While the aquifer’s capacity is vast, we have already seen parts of it, such as at the superfund site in Leon Valley, polluted to the point where wells had to be plugged and clean up efforts mandated. There is a demonstrated need to protect the aquifer from pollution.

In 1995, the City Council approved the Aquifer Recharge Zone and Watershed Protection ordinance which, among other things, established limits on “impervious cover,” or hard surfaces that prevent the natural flow of rainwater into the aquifer. While the ordinance’s substantive protections and enforcement could be a lot better, it does provide an important means to mitigate the impact of development on the Edwards. Despite vigorous pushback from developers and property rights advocates, impervious cover limits remain one of the ways San Antonio protects its water.

A strategy which has enjoyed nearly universal support is land conservation. The City, through the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), purchases or obtains conservation easements for properties identified as significant contributors to aquifer recharge. The EAPP is funded through a sales tax increment which has been approved four times from 2000 to 2015 by San Antonio voters. Acquiring conservation easements rather than purchasing property outright allowed for more land to be protected.

Edwards groundwater will likely always be a mainstay of San Antonio’s water resources. However, limits on pumping require us to plan carefully for times of drought and look elsewhere to meet future needs. As for drought management, San Antonio Water System’s aquifer storage and recovery program has been stellar. During rainy times SAWS stores Edwards water at its Twin Oaks Aquifer and Storage Recovery facility in south Bexar County, drawing on it in the dry summer months or during droughts. Nearby, SAWS is also producing additional water via desalination of brackish water. A much more contentious water project, the Vista Ridge pipeline will eventually bring water from Burleson county, 142 miles away.

San Antonio has made great strides improving its stewardship of the region’s water resources. Nevertheless, we will have to do a better job of building a consensus around long term solutions to the challenges we face. Not least of these are dealing with the consequences of change, climate change, displacement of people due to gentrification, and shifts in the political landscape.

Since the defeat of the Applewhite Reservoir project in the 80s there has been a marked fear of allowing voters to decide which projects will go forward. This November, we will likely see three proposed charter amendments from the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association on the ballot which. If they pass, it will be much easier to force a public vote on projects like Vista Ridge and utility rate increases that would have been decided by a City Council vote. Avoiding this outcome will require convincing voters that their government and elected officials do indeed work for them and don’t need to be reined in.

Today the flow at San Pedro Springs is strong. We can take pride in this as a measure of how we have done more right than wrong with our most precious resource. While there will always be change and challenges, we can make the next 300 years three centuries of promises fulfilled.

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Enrique Valdivia

Enrique Valdivia is an environmental attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and the District 7 Director of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.