As the sun rises over the rolling hills on the horizon, Brenda Chapman and her husband can stand on the wooden porch of their farmhouse and look downhill at the horses and cattle grazing on the green pasture owned by her neighbors, Scott and Maria Gruendler.
Their hill, covered in stout-chested oak trees recently marked with orange tape, has become a focus of interest from the San Antonio Water System. SAWS engineers want to use the slope of the Chapmans’ property to build a gravity-fed sewage pipeline flowing downhill from a proposed housing development.
The 15-inch-diameter pipeline would be encased in concrete and studded regularly with manholes poking up from the ground. It would carry between 84,000 and 100,800 gallons of raw sewage per day from 420 homes slated for the Specht Tract, a 173-acre property at the intersection of Blanco and Specht roads, more than a mile from the Chapmans’ porch. National homebuilder Meritage Homes is developing the property, which is located in SAWS’ water and sewer service territory.
But sewage pipelines aren’t supposed to cross the Chapman or Gruendler ranches, both of which include land over the Edwards Aquifer, a vast underground limestone layer that serves as the region’s primary drinking water supply. In fact, San Antonio taxpayers paid good money to stop construction like this from ever happening on the families’ land.
Last year, the Chapmans and Gruendlers signed conservation agreements with the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, a more than 20-year-old initiative meant to protect land over and upstream of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone.
The easements forever block construction on most of the Chapman and Gruendler properties. In return, the families each received around $750,000 from the City, paid for by local sales tax revenue.
Within months of signing the deal, the families started receiving letters from engineers representing SAWS. First, they wanted permission to build a water line across the protected land. Then came plans for a sewer line. By now, the route’s been mapped, down to the 134 trees marked to be cut down to make room for construction.
The Chapmans and Gruendlers haven’t agreed to the pipeline easement. If they don’t, SAWS could seek City Council permission take them to court to force the easement through. The families would receive compensation for their land at a value set by appraisers.
“A lot of our projects require us to go through private property, and we do our best to negotiate with the landowner to purchase the easement, the right to go through there,” SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said in a Tuesday phone interview. “If there’s an inability, a lack of agreement to buy that easement, then we ask our board and City Council for the power of eminent domain.”
But will the City of San Antonio really allow SAWS to build a sewage pipeline on land it spent $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to protect?
“Are they going to stick with their commitment that they made to us on the conservation easement, or are they going with their SAWS development arm and going to approve SAWS coming through?” Chapman said.
‘A great way to protect it’
Chapman grew up in New Braunfels, where she and her husband still have their primary residence. She knew development would eventually come to the area near the 98-acre land her husband bought in the 1990s.
The Chapmans and Gruendlers’ land is part of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone, where the porous limestone lies at the ground’s surface. That means any spills on the surface can quickly infiltrate the groundwater.
“Our [conservation easement] was primarily to protect what we were working to leave as a legacy for our children,” Chapman said. “The fact that it assisted with recharge and helped other folks was kind of an added benefit.”
When the Gruendlers moved onto the 87-acre property next door, the Chapmans helped persuade them to enroll in the EAPP. In an area where encroaching sprawl is a threat, sometimes good conservation easements make good neighbors.
“They are our view,” Chapman said of her neighbors’ land. “By one of us doing it, we are protecting the other, and vice versa.”
Scott Gruendler bought his new ranch on Dal-Cin Drive after living close by, near the intersection of Borgfeld Drive and Bulverde Road. When the spreading development reached him there, he began selling off his 40-acre property and looking for a new rural refuge.
“I’ve seen the development and the sprawl, and so when we invested down here, it was to come down and get away and protect it,” Gruendler said. Enrolling in the EAPP was “a great way to protect it.”
City Council approved both conservation easements in April last year, and the two families signed theirs on the same day in June. The Chapmans got $746,430; the Gruendlers were paid $768,777.
Except for a few small building zones for family houses and barns negotiated ahead of time with the City, the Chapmans and Gruendlers would no longer be allowed to build on their property.
But within months, they received the first letters from engineers representing SAWS. First, the plans were only for a water line, but plans for the sewer line soon followed.
‘Don’t wait to hear from the board’
The SAWS board signed off on the gravity-fed system in January of this year, amending an original plan it approved in June 2020. However, several board members recently made it clear that they didn’t really understand the full picture.
“I’m a bit disappointed that that wasn’t a part of our conversations,” SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger said at the utility’s May 4 meeting.
Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, was the first to raise the issue publicly. In an email to the group’s supporters she said the “issue puts a spotlight on just how problematic is the lack of coherent policy when SAWS service seemingly conflicts with our City’s goals for aquifer protection.”
“Never before has the City approved running SAWS utility lines through an EAPP-acquired conservation easement,” Peace said. “A decision in this matter will influence future treatment of our EAPP lands – sites that were intended to be protected in perpetuity.”
As Hardberger put it at the SAWS meeting, San Antonio’s conservations investments are “coming into a predictable collision course with our growth corridor.”
“If we’re going to continue to grow in a high-density way over the recharge zone, I don’t know how we’re going to avoid these things happening again,” Hardberger said.
SAWS Board Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Burley said the utility’s staff should have better communicated the unusual nature of San Antonio infringing on its own protected land.
“You know better than anybody when these issues are unique and sensitive,” Burley told SAWS staff. “Don’t wait to hear from the board that it’s important to them.”
On this, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said the utility’s staff members need to do better.
“It’s one of those things that I and my staff should know what’s important to y’all and that’s my role is to gauge what each one of you finds important and make sure that you all are told about those kinds of things,” Puente told board members on May 4.
But overall, Puente says SAWS is “handcuffed.”
“We fully understand that they didn’t sign up for this and they didn’t anticipate this,” Puente said of the Chapmans and Gruendlers. “But this is the best of the options we have.”
Puente, a lawyer and former politician who served 17 years as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives, wants to put the focus back on City Council, which he says could give SAWS and City staff more options by reforming the City’s development codes.
“We would love to have more options, but those are not available to us because City Council has certain policies, and those policies have not changed,” Puente said. “Until they change, these things are going to happen.”
‘We need policy’
The Specht tract lies on the part of the map that falls within SAWS’ exclusive territory, where it holds a certificate of convenience and necessity, or CCN. By law, a Texas utility is required to hook up new customers within its CCN unless it formally opts out.
On the Specht Tract, SAWS officials say elevation changes and the CCN leave them with only three choices.
SAWS could avoid the protected land, but it must instead build a sewage line that would flow uphill for a short stretch along Blanco Road. This would require a force main, where sewage flows under pressure, along with at least two lift stations. Lift stations require an electrical connection to pump sewage uphill, and they’re vulnerable to spills when they lose power or clog with debris.
An earlier version of the Specht tract plan called for one lift station, said Andrea Beymer, SAWS’ vice president of engineering and construction.
“One lift station is tolerable; it would have been better than going through these conservation easements,” Puente said. “Multiple lift stations are not.”
SAWS could also formally request the area be removed from its CCN. Beymer said that Meritage Homes representatives told SAWS if that were to occur they would build their own small wastewater treatment plant, a common choice for Hill County developers.
“They would run it until they made their money, and then who’s going to run it after that – SAWS,” Puente said.
A Meritage Homes vice president did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment.
That small sewage plant would also likely discharge its treated wastewater into Cibolo Creek, which also lies directly over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, according to SAWS.
Facing these alternatives, Puente said SAWS won’t finalize its utility service agreement with Meritage Homes until the board hears a risk assessment on the different alternatives at its June meeting.
“If [SAWS trustees] agree that we did the best we could under the circumstances, given the handcuffs that we have, that that is the best protection for the aquifer and [to] abide by our obligations, then they will let us know,” Puente said. “If they feel there’s a better way, a different way, they’ll let us know and then there’s other avenues this developer’s going to have to take.”
Ultimately, Puente said, it’s up to City Council to set the policy that would avoid situations like this. One option: City Council could change City development codes to limit housing density over the recharge zone, Puente said.
“Amend the unified development code if you don’t like this issue going on,” Puente said. “If you don’t like what’s happening and you have the ability to change the rules, change the rules.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who voters reelected to his third term earlier this month, has acknowledged that when it comes to addressing sprawl, the ball lies in City Council’s court.
“We need policy,” said Nirenberg, a SAWS board member in his official capacity, at the May 4 meeting. The mayor said he can “understand the frustration on the part of the [SAWS] staff because it seems like we’ve been having this conversation every month about the need for a coordinated growth strategy with the City.
“We’ve been through a challenging year but it’s high time we coordinate that effort with our different departments,” the mayor said.