Crownridge Canyon Park, a property that was purchased using the one-eighth-cent sales tax from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) stops sensitive recharge areas from being developed. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

On Nov. 3, San Antonio voters will decide whether to direct the one-eighth-cent sales tax currently allotted for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) and the greenway trails to a post-pandemic economic recovery package and, eventually, VIA Metropolitan Transit.

The need for an effective workforce development program to address the extraordinary economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is clear. For a community that suffers from low educational attainment and intractable poverty, such efforts were needed well before this latest crisis. 

But over the past few months, many residents have also pointed to the fact that continuing protections of the Edwards Aquifer to ensure safe, local drinking water is essential. They urged the continuation of the 20-year-old EAPP.

We agree.

That’s why, together, we are pleased that in response, City Council on Sept. 17 approved a $100 million bond-supported program to continue the EAPP for up to 10 years. It was an option endorsed by the EAPP’s Conservation Advisory Board in a resolution passed on Aug. 26. 

This funding will begin when the current program revenue is depleted, at the end of 2022, ensuring a seamless transition of the program. The new revenue stream will continue the acquisition of property rights – primarily conservation easements – over sensitive zones of the aquifer to safeguard water quality. The same management and acquisition structure being used today will be retained to continue the program. Because of the rising costs of easements, and the importance of protecting sensitive areas, the ordinance allows the utilization of the funds to be decided by the pace of acquisition of easements and not be constrained to $10 million per year for each of the 10 years.

The new approach represents a solid replacement mechanism, allowing the continuation of the EAPP for the coming years.

But if our goal is to ensure protection of the Edwards Aquifer, the EAPP continuation passed by Council must be viewed as one tool within a needed, longer-term and more comprehensive strategy to protect this irreplaceable resource. It is critical that discussions on the EAPP continue in order to develop broader, coherent strategies; local and regional mitigation plans; and policies and incentives to ensure that effective aquifer safeguards are in place for the long term.

Today, we know much more about the aquifer than when the EAPP began 20 years ago. The importance of protections in upstream areas that contribute the most aquifer recharge water is now understood to be much greater than originally conceived. A commitment to protect these areas, as well, will be essential; especially as costs rise and population growth pressures increase.

A commitment to the aquifer today must be matched by follow-through to concretely develop partnerships in the region and put in place specific land use tools and practices for managing growth within sensitive areas. It is promising that other agencies, like the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the San Antonio River Authority, along with neighboring jurisdictions, have expressed potential interest in participating in a broader aquifer conservation effort. Also, the City of San Antonio itself, along with SAWS, will need to collaborate more deliberately and strategically to manage growth and ensure sustainable development practices and approaches in sensitive areas of the Edwards’ region. 

To date, some 160,000 acres on the recharge zone have been protected since the EAPP began 20 years ago. To ensure the long term vision, all citizens concerned with aquifer protection will need to hold accountable future mayoral and council candidates to guarantee this program and the broader aquifer protections.

This has been a year unusually fraught with significant problems – a pandemic, social unrest, economic upheaval and political dissonance. Our collective survival depends on collective action. In the name of community and consensus building, we seek a clear, collaborative path forward to address San Antonio’s long-standing poverty and equity issues, the long-term protection of our critical water resource, and a shared commitment to our city’s “Smart Growth.”

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.

Jim Smyle is a consultant and former senior natural resource management specialist for the World Bank, who has worked for decades around the world on sustainably managing land and water. He currently...