A sign indicating an Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone is backed by a development project in Northwest San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Gregg Eckhardt

In its nearly 300-year history, San Antonio’s development has been interlaced with our region’s creeks, rivers, and the Edwards Aquifer. Just try separating the city’s growth from the availability of water. Our city’s potential became clear after the Tonkawa carved the acequias to the headwaters of the San Antonio River and south to the missions, making large sections of our city arable and livable.

As people flocked to San Antonio, demand outstripped the Tonkawas’ handiwork in almost no time, placing ever-increasing stress on the Edwards Aquifer.

For nearly two decades now, however, we’ve been making things right.

Starting in the late 1990s, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) began an innovative program that put recycled water to use on golf courses and in factories, office parks, and college campuses. It ushered in a water-supply fee to help pay for the development of new supplies that would lessen San Antonio’s overwhelming dependence on the Edwards Aquifer. SAWS also built the enormous Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility, a manmade underground reservoir that allows our city to “bank” Edwards water during rainy periods. This is now the largest groundwater-based ASR in the nation and is the model throughout the state.

Perhaps more importantly, San Antonio became an internationally recognized leader in water conservation, saving tremendous amounts of water at a very low cost.

Part of the revolution in how we think about the water we use was Proposition 1, instituted in 2000 as part of the Edwards Protection Initiative. This program allows the city to set aside sales-tax revenue – 1/8 of a cent for every dollar spent – to buy tracts of land over the Edwards’ recharge zone to ensure that clean water continues to replenish this crucial resource. Prop 2, a related proposition, helps pay for a system of linear parks – hike-and-bike trails running parallel to our major creekways. Once complete, the trails will form an “emerald necklace” encircling our city.

Thankfully, the City Council on Thursday accepted a compromise that will put both proposition renewals on the May 9 ballot, with slight modifications. Prop 2, which pays for the development of linear parks along major creekways, will get more funding – up to $80 million – and $10 million will be set aside for demonstration projects aimed at improving the management of our watershed.

As much as $90 million will be available to continue buying conservation easements – which keep land over the recharge zone undeveloped in perpetuity.

I wholeheartedly endorse Props 1 and 2. Preserving the Edwards Aquifer, treating it as the sacred gift that it is, is at the heart of my vision for San Antonio. The propositions will help us protect our long-term water supply and preserve the natural beauty and heritage of our city while boosting our economy and our quality of life.

SAWS and the City Council approved the Vista Ridge pipeline in October – increasing our water supply in a few years by an amount equal to about 20% of our current demand. However, in a city of 1.4 million people that’s expected to grow to more than 2 million by 2040, we must continue to diversify our water supply and maintain our status as an international model in water conservation.

We should consider Vista Ridge a regional answer to the water needs of San Antonio and its neighbors. Signing up buyers along the 142-mile pipeline’s path could encourage development – that’s already expected in the region – on land that’s away from the Edwards and is less environmentally sensitive than the recharge zone. Moreover, we should not treat water as a parochial asset. San Antonio is a regional economic hub and our water supply is directly related to the economy of the entire region. More regional partnerships should be encouraged as part of our future.

Prudent leadership, the kind I’ll provide, demands that we maintain our commitment to conservation and extend it to new areas, including outside irrigation and commercial use.

Finally, as Mayor, I will also explore the potential of low impact development, which the San Antonio River Authority has touted. The aim is to reduce the stormwater runoff flowing off commercial or residential developments, cutting the risk that pollutants will seep into the Edwards Aquifer and the San Antonio River. At the outset, we’ll bring together the real estate industry and aquifer-protection advocates to craft techniques that are cost-effective and protect the aquifer and river.

Under my leadership, we will take these steps because we owe it to the generations to come to ensure that our water, the very essence of life, is protected.

*Featured/top image: Kyle Seale Parkway in northwest Bexar county in 2008. Uncontrolled development like this will eventually affect water quality in the Edwards. Photo by Gregg Eckhardt/www.edwardsaquifer.net .

Related Stories:

Aquifer Protection, Trailways Expansion on May 9 Ballot

An Oral History: War & Peace Over the Edwards Aquifer

Five Reasons Why Council Should Approve Renewal of Edwards Aquifer Protection

City Council Unanimously Supports Historic Water Deal

Weighing the Costs of Water Security or Doing Nothing

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Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal is a former state representative and founding director of the Institute on Urban Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.