The authority that regulates pumping of the Edwards Aquifer is interested in expanding its role over the coming years. But its largest customer, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), is resisting efforts to raise aquifer fees.

Earlier this month, the EAA passed a $34.1 million budget for 2021, with no planned increases in aquifer management fees charged to well owners who pump the Edwards Aquifer within its jurisdiction. Since 2012, the EAA has avoided raising its fees of $84 per acre-foot of water pumped from the aquifer.

However, EAA officials are forecasting an increase in those fees over the coming years. Such fee hikes would indirectly affect millions of residents who get their water from utilities that tap the Edwards Aquifer. SAWS, for example, notes the fees as an additional charge on a customers’ monthly bill.

At the same time, EAA officials are discussing expanding new programs, including one that would work much like the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program of protecting land over the aquifer via contracts with private landowners.

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.

In an interview earlier this month, EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz said the EAA has spent “hundreds of millions” on protecting the volume of water in the aquifer. That includes more than $200 million through the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, meant to ensure that there’s enough water for endangered species that depend on the aquifer.

The EAA has also taken what Ruiz called a “balanced approach to making sure there’s enough for every water need across the region.” Such was the mission the Texas Legislature gave to the EAA when it created the authority in 1993.

But over the coming decades, water quality is a looming threat to the aquifer, according to EAA officials. The authority’s water-quality-monitoring efforts have tied development over and upstream of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone to an increase in contaminants.

“It seems short-sighted if we do not look at the quality side,” Ruiz said. “Everything that we’ve spent so far on this resource and making sure there’s enough water out of it would be pointless. We would not have completed the mission.”

But any attempt to raise EAA fees to fund these efforts will likely receive a response from SAWS. SAWS controls approximately 80 percent of the available rights to pump the Edwards, meaning that SAWS pays more into the EAA’s coffers than any other individual permit holder.

On Nov. 6, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente wrote a letter to Ruiz expressing Puente’s “opposition to the EAA moving forward without any public consideration of SAWS customers.”

“Until there is a publicly defined program scope vetted by stakeholders, I would urge you to resist the temptation toward mission creep,” Puente wrote.

Ruiz disputed that characterization, arguing that it might be mission creep if the EAA were to propose new regulations. But the programs it’s discussing will instead be incentive-based, with EAA officials saying they’ll be able to raise much of the funding through the EAA’s nonprofit, the Edwards Aquifer Conservancy.

“There are only so many things we can do, realistically, in the state of Texas to ensure that the aquifer remains protected the way we think it should be protected,” Ruiz said. “And I think that the path of least resistance moving forward is through incentive programs like these.”

SAWS wants to avoid a fee increase as it works to control its own costs. Facing the coronavirus pandemic, no major new projects, and thousands of customers weary of a decade of bill hikes, SAWS officials have said they will not raise rates in 2021 and possibly not until 2023.

That’s why SAWS officials are sensitive about any fee increase from the EAA. What especially caught the attention of SAWS officials was an EAA infographic in an August report that shows aquifer fees increasing from $84 per acre-foot to $88 in 2022 and up to $95 in 2025.

EAA officials say this increase is about keeping up with inflation and making sure its operations budget is big enough to manage even its existing programs. But SAWS officials see the EAA’s forecasts of fee hikes and a discussion of new initiatives as troubling signs.

“They’re going to raise the fees, and for them, that means absolutely nothing, no pain at all,” Puente said in an interview earlier this month. “All they do is send a notice to their permit holders. … They do not do public outreach, they do not do anything at all to get any kind of idea whether this is supported or not.”

Puente went on to fault the news media for not covering the EAA more aggressively.

“I’m being a Trump here,” said Puente, a longtime Democrat. “You guys don’t put the fire under [the EAA] the way you would if [SAWS] raised rates.”

EAA officials say the graphic simply shows a forecast. Any fee increase would have to go through multiple public meetings, hearings, and votes by the EAA’s board, giving people plenty of time to weigh in.

“At this point, they’re forecasted projections based on what we know today,” Ruiz said. “Nothing is set in stone.”

For the first quarter century of the EAA’s history, the EAA has mostly stayed out of the public spotlight, except during court battles. A string of water rights-related lawsuits followed its creation in the mid-1990s, including one that required the authority to shell out more than $4.5 million to a pair of pecan farmers. This year marks the first time since the 1990s when the EAA has had no pending lawsuits on the docket, Ruiz said.

“Historically, the EAA has been just fine to stay under the radar,” said Ruiz, who’s managed the organization since 2012. “Our history has been rife with contentious issues, litigation. We’ve always kept our head down and plodded along.”

Fifteen of the 17 EAA board members are elected by popular vote. But lately, few candidates have been putting their names in the ring.

The most recent example came earlier this month. Though board member Pat Stroka representing District 10 in Hays County was up for reelection this month, the EAA didn’t even hold an election for the position because no candidate entered the race.

It wasn’t the first time. Two years ago, 10 of the authority’s board members were up for reelection. But only two of those races were on the November 2018 ballot because of few candidates entering the race.

“I think some of that stems from the fact that all the contentious issues of the past have largely been settled, and there are solutions in place that are working,” Ruiz said. “If it’s working and humming along like it’s supposed to, it’s not drawing attention.”

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Roland Ruiz’s role at the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.