Edwards Aquifer Authority logo on the side of a table.
The Texas Legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority in 1993 to manage the Edwards Aquifer, the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Out of 10 positions on the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s board of directors that were open for election in 2018, only two will be on the November ballot because of a lack of candidates running for office.

The authority manages groundwater pumping permits and other duties related to the Edwards Aquifer, a vast limestone rock layer that holds the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region. Overall, the authority’s jurisdiction includes all of Uvalde, Medina and Bexar counties and parts of Atascosa, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, and Hays counties.

Of the 15 voting positions on the authority’s board, districts 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, and 15 were up for election in 2018. But only districts 7 and 9 will have competitive races this year, authority officials confirmed last week.

District 7 represents parts of San Antonio’s West and Far West sides stretching from neighborhoods between downtown and Loop 410 out west to Loop 1604. District 9 includes large swaths of southern Comal County and northern Guadalupe County.

Voting districts for the Edwards Aquifer Authority's board of directors.
Voting districts for the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s board of directors. Credit: Courtesy / Edwards Aquifer Authority

The District 7 race pits third-term incumbent Enrique Valdivia, an environmental lawyer, against challenger Gilbert Stanley-Medford, a retired banker.

In District 9, retired New Braunfels Utilities executive Roger Biggers is challenging Ron Walton, a retired U.S. Geological Survey geologist and Realtor who is in his second term.

In interviews with the Rivard Report, all four candidates discussed their backgrounds and how they view the issues facing the Edwards Aquifer region.

District 7

Stanley-Medford, 71, has lived in the San Antonio area nearly all his life. After a 27-year career as an agricultural banker, then a commercial banker, he retired in 2010 as CEO of the former St. John’s Federal Credit Union in San Marcos.

He first learned of the importance of groundwater and keeping it clean when financing farmers and ranchers who relied on groundwater wells to irrigate their properties, he said.

Stanley-Medford said the most important issue facing the Edwards Aquifer is the threat of pollution as more homes and businesses spread across its sensitive recharge zone. Water flowing into the aquifer “is not the same quality as it was 40 years ago, basically because of unlimited growth,” he said.

While the authority does have some jurisdiction over chemical storage tanks over parts of the aquifer, water quality in Texas is mostly the purview of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental regulator.

Stanley-Medford said he understands how the authority issues well permits and can issue cutbacks on pumping during drought but is “not sure beyond that what the authority can do.” He suggested reaching more of the public “through the media, having a speakers bureau, something like that,  saying, ‘This is what is happening in your area, this is what is happening to your groundwater, you need a voice in protecting it.’”

Valdivia, 59, an environmental lawyer for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, serves on the executive committee of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club and was a founding member of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

He said his 12 years of experience on the authority’s board has “broadened my view of what’s possible” in reaching consensus on difficult environmental problems.

“I started out as an activist, and it’s been a continuation of my passion in a different context,” Valdivia said. “You get to make a little policy instead of complaining about it. … It’s put me in a situation where I really have to try to understand points of view and work with people who don’t share my background.”

In the time he’s served on the board, the authority has seen the development and implementation of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan to protect endangered species that depend on aquifer-fed springs. The severe drought of roughly 2010 to 2015 also tested the authority’s effectiveness in keeping the springs flowing by enforcing pumping cutbacks when aquifer levels dropped.

“We had the driest year in Texas history in 2011, and we managed to keep the springs flowing and the irrigators raising their crops,” Valdivia said. “They were some tough times, and I think it shows what we’re trying to do at the [authority] is working.”

Valdivia said the authority could do a better job informing the public about its role in protecting the aquifer, which he said is “kind of a subtle story.”

“I think we can do more with the education programs,” he said. “I think we’re going to need to get together with entities like [the San Antonio Water System] … the actual water point of contact with people in the community, and kind of explain that we’re all working together.”

District 9

Before moving to Texas, Walton, 78, worked as a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Denver and volunteered his expertise when new developments threatened to affect people’s water wells in his home community of Evergreen, Colorado. Similar issues are affecting Comal County, where Walton has lived for the past 10 years.

“I want to see all of our constituents who live in the county … outside of the city limits, to be well-represented,” Walton said “There are county issues that are much different than city issues.”

For example, Walton pointed out how the State of Texas delegates issues like land use planning, zoning, and building codes to cities, not counties. He said this is relevant to his area as new developments, quarries, roads, and other byproducts of growth put increasing pressure on the Edwards and other aquifers.

Though he acknowledged that the Edwards Aquifer Authority has little power over things like land use and zoning, Walton said he wants to see county residents’ views represented when the authority negotiates with entities that do have more regulatory power, such as cities, the Texas Legislature, and the TCEQ.

He also contrasted his experience with that of his opponent, Biggers, who Walton said is a “lifetime city resident and lifetime employee of the City who is not experienced or well-informed about the county issues.”

Biggers said he “doesn’t want to get into a shooting match with Ron,” but the “Edwards Aquifer obviously goes out a lot further than the City of New Braunfels.”

“If you’re protecting the Edwards, you’re protecting the Edwards, whether it’s inside the city limits or outside the city limits,” Biggers said.

Biggers, 65, a licensed engineer, worked for New Braunfels Utilities for 35 years, most of the time as executive director for water services. He now works on a part-time consulting basis. Before stepping back from his full-time role, he worked on public relations and legislative issues.

“That’s a lot of what I was doing anyway with water,” Biggers said. “You’re dealing with the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the TCEQ.”

A fifth-generation New Braunfels resident, Biggers said he “grew up on the Comal River,” whose headwaters are fed by the Edwards Aquifer. He’s watched firsthand as many of the grand conflicts and compromises over the Edwards unfolded over the past three decades.

“My experience will work great with the board, having been on the regulated side, as well as knowing the inner workings,” he said.

Biggers said many of the water quantity and drought issues facing the Edwards have been resolved, though he described a legislative solution that would allow entities like New Braunfels Utilities to save water in salty parts of the aquifer using a technology known as aquifer storage and recovery. He called it “a way to stretch the resource” by storing water during rainy times.

“But how do you preserve [water] quality in the area?” Biggers said. “I think that’s the biggest priority. … [The authority has] a lot of power, and they need to work jointly with San Antonio and all the cities that rely on the Edwards to make sure we have the right building codes and all that goes into protecting the recharge zone.”

Remaining districts

Candidates for the remaining eight districts were confirmed by the authority’s board at its Sept. 11 meeting, the authority’s public policy analyst Julia Carrillo said in an email. Six of them are incumbents; two are new board members.

Candidates confirmed at the meeting:

District 1: Carol Patterson (reappointed incumbent)

District 3: Abelardo “Abe” Antonio Salinas III (new appointee)

District 5: Ron Ellis (reappointed incumbent)

District 6: Deborah Carington (reappointed incumbent)

District 8: Kathleen Tobin Krueger (reappointed incumbent)

District 11: Rachel Allyn Sanborn (new appointee)

District 13: Luana Buckner (reappointed incumbent)

District 15: Rader Gilleland (reappointed incumbent)

The lack of contested races for the Edwards Aquifer Authority is not an unusual situation. Valdivia said some board members have never faced an election.

Asked why more people don’t run for authority positions, Valdivia, Stanley-Medford, and Biggers said most people in the region don’t know much about the government entity that manages their drinking water. Walton said it’s because director positions are unpaid and sometimes time-consuming.

“The work that goes through the [authority], a lot of it isn’t upfront or top-of-mind, as in, say, a city council position or county commissioner position,” said Roland Ruiz, the authority’s general manager since 2012. “Every election cycle, there are more prominent, higher-profile races that kind of dominate the public discussion.”

Ruiz also suggested that voters may simply be pleased with the representation they’re getting from incumbents.

Walter Wilson, a political science associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, pointed to a philosophy in Texas of diluting executive authority by having elected officials serve some roles that in other states are filled by appointment.

“Whether you’re looking at the state government … or here in town with so many judicial posts and so many boards of this, that, and the other, the result is that people don’t really know what these offices do,” Wilson said.

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Brendan Gibbons

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