The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Shavano Park.
A site in Shavano Park over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where rainfall helps to restore the limestone aquifer. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
This story has been updated.

City officials have come up with a way to continue a popular program to protect the Edwards Aquifer while shifting the sales tax that currently funds aquifer protection to pay for improved public transit.

At a San Antonio City Council meeting Wednesday, City staffers presented a plan to continue funding the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) at a pace of $109 million over 10 years, generating funds at a little more than half its current pace. Funding would mostly come from City bonds supported by the annual payments the City already gets from the San Antonio Water System.

Under this proposal, responsibility for finding and purchasing land over San Antonio’s main water source would stay with staff at the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the EAPP. 

“Under this option, the program would continue the way it is today, including the scientific evaluation of sensitive areas over the aquifer,” Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez said. 

Over the past 20 years, San Antonio has funded the EAPP and a program to build paved trails along local waterways through an eighth-cent sales tax. Since 2000, voters have approved $325 million in aquifer funding and $190 million in trail funding. 

Another $28.5 million in aquifer funding and $23.2 million in trail funding remains to be collected through February 2021 under the most recent five-year sales tax that voters approved in 2015. 

The aquifer program has permanently preserved roughly 160,000 acres of sensitive land where water trickles into the underground rock layer. The trails program has also paved 70 miles of trails along local creeks and rivers, with another 33 miles under design or construction. 

The fate of the sales tax that funds both programs has hung in the balance since late 2018, when San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and other local leaders proposed shifting the tax to VIA Metropolitan Transit to fund better bus service in an increasingly sprawling city.

“If we do it right, a transportation plan is more than just about transportation,” Nirenberg said Wednesday. “It’s about economic mobility, it’s about disrupting poverty, it’s about making sure that we’re more sustainable and environmentally conscious.” 

The City’s proposal comes after a failed attempt to secure some replacement funding via the San Antonio River Authority. Nirenberg has more recently proposed having the San Antonio Water System take over the funding. SAWS could do so at a rate of $52 million over five years, mostly using SAWS revenue bonds, SAWS officials have said.

Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Wednesday that he has always intended SAWS revenue to be the funding source to leverage the debt to pay for both programs. Previously, Nirenberg and other local officials thought that SAWS might be the only entity that could legally use such debt to conserve land in Uvalde and Medina counties, where most of San Antonio’s water supply originates. 

“In working with [City Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell’s] office, he was able to identify the statute that allows us to do this,” Nirenberg said. “He knows local government code better than I do.”

Asked about this, City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a prepared statement that “Texas law recognizes the importance of water sources in general, and the Edwards Aquifer in particular, and provides the City with opportunities to preserve and protect those resources, notwithstanding their location.” 

The debate over a tweak in municipal sales tax policy has become about whether San Antonio’s current leadership will take big risks to make good on the hundreds of formal City plans detailing growth, transportation, housing, and climate change. Nirenberg at the meeting called the sales tax shift “an inflection point for our city” and said it would be easier for council members to say “it’s too hard.”

“But I think our residents deserve better than that,” Nirenberg said. “They expect better than that of us.” 

Council members could vote as soon as March on the proposal. Voters in November would have to approve the dedication of the eighth-cent sales tax revenue to VIA.

Both the SAWS and the City funding proposals would tap into the 4 percent of SAWS’ annual revenue the municipally-owned water and sewer utility is already providing to the City. Both proposals would use forms of municipal debt to pay for continued purchases of land or conservation easements that block land over the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zones from being paved over. 

The main difference lies in the City’s continued oversight of the entire EAPP, something aquifer advocates had pushed for. 

Francine Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio department chair who also chairs the City’s Conservation Advisory Board, said they asked the mayor for the program to continue, to be financially secure, and for the work of preserving land over the aquifer to stay with the City staff, volunteers, scientific experts, and conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which collectively oversee the program. 

“I’m really happy to see it’s going to stay with the City and the City infrastructure,” Romero said, later adding that “everybody knew the SAWS plan had a lot of challenges to it.” 

Most City Council members seemed comfortable with what’s now at least the third iteration of the sales tax shift. Questions centered on the details of the broader $1.5 billion in funding through 2025 for streets, sidewalks, bus service, bicycle and scooter lanes, and bus-rapid-transit lanes. 

“I would just like to see us move forward with a bold transportation package,” said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). “We have the support, we have a plan, we know the voters want it.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) questioned what he called a “move to try to bring more money into VIA.” 

“I think everyone realizes that we do need a public transportation system, but at what cost?” Perry said. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.”

Council members are expected to hear another presentation on the issue from VIA leaders in March, followed by a likely vote later that month on the new version of the aquifer protection program. 

With clarity emerging on the aquifer’s fate, uncertainty remains about what could happen to the City’s linear creekway trails program. 

While the City could take over the EAPP, funding to continue building creekway trails could come from Bexar County, Villagomez said, quoting figures of up to $83.7 million over five years. 

That could pay for an additional 26 miles of paved trail, including a critical stretch that would connect the San Antonio River to the existing Salado Creek Greenway network on the Southeast Side, according to a City map. The City would continue to fund the security and maintenance of the trail network. 

However, another 71 miles of trails, including connectors joining the Westside Creeks and Medina River trails to the Leon Creek Greenway trail, remain unfunded, even after a potential County contribution. City officials estimate it would cost another $279 million to build those trails. Wolff has said that the County will likely take up the question of trail funding this spring when budget talks begin.

“I need more assurances when it comes to our linear creeks than just what I’m seeing presented right now,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said at the meeting. 

The creek program would likely involve a formal agreement between the City and County to be negotiated over the coming months. Both bodies could vote in May on such an agreement, according to City staff. Councilman John Courage (D9) was among those asking for specifics on how such an arrangement would work. 

Walsh said the City-County agreement would ensure the County-funded designs are consistent with the City’s trail network, though the “Parks Department will likely move from construction to project management.” 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.