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

A dialogue has emerged on the relative merits of programs apparently now competing for a future share of the City sales tax. This has included confusing statements about the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP). As chair of the Conservation Advisory Board, the recommending body to City Council for the program, I’d like to clarify by addressing key questions. 

What does EAPP do and why is it important?

In policy science jargon, the EAPP is an elegant response to a wicked problem. Elegant policies are as simple and effective as possible, while wicked problems are characterized by entangled conditions resistant to easy fixes.

Given the complexity of water flow, property rights, and jurisdictional limits, ensuring water resources in Texas qualifies as a wicked problem. Originating in 2000, the EAPP provides the elegant remedy by purchasing land and development rights (through conservation easements) to sustain quantity and quality of recharge to the aquifer’s San Antonio pool. It thereby avoids the challenges and limitations of regulating pollutants and overuse. By precluding development over the recharge and contributing zones, the natural recharge process is preserved, and San Antonians continue to enjoy the freedom of plentiful, untreated water from our primary source.   

To be sure, it would have been optimal if the program had appeared in the 1970s, when citizens mobilized against looming development on Bexar County’s portion of the recharge zone. Although concessions were won, development was not slowed.

An erroneous figure, attributed to a nameless official, recently emerged asserting that the program has already protected more than 90 percent of sensitive recharge features in Bexar County, thus fulfilling its goal. That distorts the truth. Over 90 percent of the recharge zone in Bexar County has been developed, master planned, or protected by conservation efforts, but the first two categories comprise the vast majority of that percentage. 

The EAPP has protected relatively few acres in this county because there was little left to preserve, and what is available may be prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the majority of the recharge zone is outside Bexar County. The significant opportunity for protection remains in Medina and Uvalde counties, where about at least 70 percent of recharge occurs. The EAPP has focused on protecting land in these areas, particularly along major watercourses. 

It is also important to understand the reliance on conservation easements. Opponents protest that the program pays wealthy landowners to do what they have always done. While that remark would draw a chuckle from many of the ranchers who have sold easements, it is off the mark in another way. The program does not pay landowners to do (or not do) something. Rather, an easement is a legal transaction, in which the City purchases development rights, fully and in perpetuity, based on a fair market value of those rights determined by a licensed appraiser. Once sold, the remaining value of the land, in turn, is devalued by that amount.      

Wouldn’t this land have remained undeveloped anyway?

Some argue that there is little development threat in these western counties. But, while growth predictions for our region have recently declined somewhat, significant growth will inevitably move westward from San Antonio. That may happen gradually, but it did not happen overnight in Bexar County either, and this slow progression allows the program time to secure development rights before costs skyrocket.

As identified by Texas Land Trends, the aging of the state’s farming/ranching population has led to extensive subdivision and fragmentation of farms and ranches. For example, the number of 100 acre or larger ranches in Medina County dropped from 1,051 in 2007 to 1,035 in 2017. In Uvalde, it dropped from 469 to 331. This likely means that large holdings are being sold for future development, whether for single-family subdivisions in eastern Medina County, an easy commute to the city, or for ranchettes and weekend cabins in Uvalde County. 

In short, by securing land before the region has been overly compromised by development, we prevent a problem rather than having to remedy it. While potentially frustrating to those who demand evidence of success, I am grateful that we cannot point to a better quality or higher quantity of water as a result of the EAPP. This means we got there in time. 

Does it have to be funded by the sales tax?

Money is money, no matter if it comes from a bond or a tax, but the tax is optimal for a number of reasons. For one, renewal as is would require just two steps: Council agrees to put it on the ballot, and citizens then vote it up or down. Given that the program has always received strong support (78 percent in 2015), up seems likely. 

Shifting EAPP to bond funding, as proposed, would require several additional steps. It is currently illegal to spend general obligation funds outside of city limits, so the State Legislature would first have to change the law. That is far from a given, and would not happen until 2021 at the earliest, after current EAPP funding has already expired. Second, bond oversight committees, and City Council would have to endorse devoting some portion of the 2022 bond to aquifer protection. This is also not a given, since many worthwhile projects will compete for inclusion. Finally, it would also require voter approval. 

In addition to these unknowns, other favorable characteristics accrue to the sales tax. First, it is free of the financing costs of bonds. Second, a significant portion is generated by our robust tourist economy, which is only fair, since visitors also use our water resources. Finally, because the Texas Local Government Code regulates its use, this money can only be spent for “a watershed protection and preservation project; a recharge, recharge area, or recharge feature projects; a conservation easement; or an open-space preservation program intended to protect water.” For example, purchasing an easement on a ranch that does not demonstrate recharge value, simply because it is scenic would not pass muster. It is unclear how similar restrictions would work with a bond-funded effort. 

Hasn’t enough land been protected already?  

Hydrogeologists I’ve spoken with believe the answer is no. While protections achieved so far are significant, it would be imprudent to stop now. I attempt an explanation here, although it deserves deeper discussion.

Let’s begin with the recharge zone. This consists of about 500,000 acres in Bexar, Medina, and Uvalde counties, of which 151,000 (about 30 percent) have been protected (mostly by EAPP, but also by some other entities) and another 11,000 will be protected with remaining 2015 funds. Another 142,000 acres are already developed and beyond protection. This leaves about 200,000 acres that still can be secured. 

This is not to say we must or even can protect all of this; realistically, not all landowners will be interested in selling rights. Furthermore, this includes 50,000 acres west of the Nueces River, which hydrogeologists now believe contributes to the San Antonio pool but could be assigned lower priority. The 200,000 acres is simply a good starting point for discussion. With average easement prices at $1,354/acre, according to EAPP staff, that approximately amounts to $270 million, or just over $200 million excluding the western area. 

Another consideration is adding protection north into the contributing zone. While water enters the aquifer’s karst formations in the recharge zone, much of it begins its journey in contributing zone streambeds. The contributing zone is vast, but the Edwards Aquifer Authority identifies 118,000 acres worthy of protection—land within a 5-mile buffer of the recharge zone, and within 1,000 feet of a watercourse. 

As a City, we need to discuss this program’s continuation through reality, truth, and facts. I have covered only a portion of the strength of the EAPP here. Every month, the Conservation Advisory Board meets to consider recommendations. The public is welcome, and meetings are posted on the City’s Legistar webpage.      

Dr. Francine Sanders Romero is the Chair of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program’s Conservation Advisory Board, and also serves as a City of San Antonio Zoning Commissioner for District 8. In her professional...