The National Academy of Sciences has released its first review of the Edwards Aquifer Authority's Habitat Conservation Plan. Credit: Courtesy / EAA

On Wednesday, City leaders said they are all for moving forward with a plan designed to preserve sensitive habitat and natural resources that stretch from the Northside to the Hill Country, as well as initiatives to improve local air quality.

City Council was briefed in B session on the implementation of the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan as well as an interlocal agreement between the City and Bexar County.

In a separate B session briefing Wednesday, Council members backed continuing efforts to improve local air quality despite an uncertain future with the Trump administration and a Republican Congress coming in January.

Habitat Conservation Program Nears Implementation

The City and County signed an interlocal agreement with the goal of creating a local conservation plan back in 2009. The plan stemmed from a larger, multi-pronged effort to help protect the military mission at Camp Bullis, as well as the land surrounding the post.

The plan, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted in late 2015, essentially streamlines the process by which developers could comply with the Endangered Species Act in a select area.

Private developers and non-federal public agencies would abide by specific rules and pay varying fees to ensure their projects would not violate the Endangered Species Act.

As a result, the plan establishes new preserves to offset habitat “lost” to the approved projects within a seven-county area that stretches into the Hill Country.

These projects could include future bond-funded works like those proposed for the City’s 2017 bond.

The plan covers nine local species, including the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Helotes Mold Beetle, a cave-dwelling invertebrate.

City officials said the plan balances the interests of the environment, military, and economic development in the area.

“Any project that involves removal of habitat can benefit from this plan,” City Development Services Director Roderick Sanchez told Council.

It would likely take $130,000 annually for several years to implement the plan. Sanchez suggested adding a surcharge which, over time, would make the plan financially self-sustaining and hiring a third-party company to manage the plan on a daily basis.

Parties interested in doing projects in the area covered by the conservation plan may do so on a voluntary basis.

“The more projects that participate, the more revenue we generate, the more land we acquire,” Sanchez said.

Currently, land acquired through Propositions 1 and 3 and other City property and open spaces are eligible to participate as preserves.

As of right now, projects over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones are eligible to use the plan. Sanchez noted that the SA Tomorrow plan already encourages more land-intensive development patterns to take place outside of the recharge and contributing zones.

City and County officials plan to finalize the interlocal agreement by late January to oversee the plan’s implementation. Then, a coordinating committee will be appointed.

Councilman Cris Medina (D7) said he liked the plan’s role of preserving sensitive land around Camp Bullis.

“This is an important part of that process, reassuring the mission at Camp Bullis,” he noted.

“This is something that military families need to see as an asset to them and to us,” added Councilman Joe Krier (D9).

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she is “looking forward to the next steps on this.”

Trump, Congress Mean Uncertainty for Possible Non-Attainment Tag

San Antonio, for now, remains at risk of being designated non-attainment, or non-compliant with federal clean air laws.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the acceptable level for ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion (PPB) to 70 PPB.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in August recommended designating San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, and El Paso as non-attainment cities.

Based on daily eight-hour averages taken last year, the latest readings have San Antonio at 73 PPB, and, therefore, in violation of the current standard.

A non-attainment designation could mean expensive measures to control pollution, rigorous planning for transportation projects, and strict vehicle emissions inspections. In turn, those measures could make the city less attractive for businesses to expand in or move to.

But President-elect Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress are pledging sweeping changes, including some related to environmental and energy policies.

Jeff Coyle, Government and Public Affairs director for the City, told Council the new administration could significantly impact air quality standards and associated policies.

Downtown San Antonio on a particularly smoggy day. Technically "smog" is ground level ozone. Photo courtesy of SA Clean Technology Forum.
Downtown San Antonio on a particularly smoggy day. Credit: Courtesy / SA Clean Technology Forum

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump would pick Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, to lead the EPA.

Pruitt, a noted skeptic in the climate change debate, joined a coalition of state attorneys general to sue the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan, which aims to decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Several states have also challenged the 2015 ozone standard in court.

Further media reports claim that the Trump administration could pull the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

According to Coyle, many federally elected leaders have long wanted to shift air quality rule-making power from the EPA to Congress.

“It’s not to complicate the issue, but it is to say the landscape has changed,” Coyle said.

The EPA is presently scheduled to fully implement the 70 PPB standard in October 2017, when non-attainment designations become official.

Douglas Melnick, director of the City’s Office of Sustainability, told Council that, “it’s important for us to take action,” regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.

Melnick said the City is proceeding with ongoing initiatives, such as a public awareness campaign that will launch in January. The campaign is designed to offer tips on how individuals and businesses, both big and small, can help improve air quality.

January will also mark the implementation of the City’s anti-idling ordinance, and the release of the cost of a non-attainment study by the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

In April, the City plans to release its own study on how air quality in a non-attainment area affects public health.

Melnick pointed to the SA Tomorrow plan, which contains strategies such as increasing and protecting the City’s tree canopy, enhancing renewable energy applications, and adding/improving routes and sidewalks to encourage more cycling and walking.

Mayor Taylor said it is one thing to be unsure about how the air quality designation saga will play out for San Antonio and other cities in a similar situation, but she agreed the City should push forward with ways to improve air quality.

“I’m glad (those strategies are) woven into some of the goals of SA Tomorrow,” she added.

“We must continue to take action and continue to protect ourselves,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said.

Councilman Medina, whose son has asthma, said poor air quality deeply impacts respiratory ailments.

“Rest assured, I’ll do everything I can do to work with you and with this body on these initiatives,” he added.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said it’s highly likely the Trump administration and Republican Congress will try to roll back air quality regulations.

But, Nirenberg added, a future administration and Congress could just as easily seek stricter regulations.

Nirenberg noted research on poor air quality’s impact on health and high public support for many pollution-controlling measures.

“We need to push forward on this,” he added.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.