In an attempt to influence San Antonio’s efforts to preserve its drinking water supply and linear parks program, members of two key groups have put forth their own proposal about what to do with a sales tax that funds both.

On Wednesday, members of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA) and the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club proposed renewing an eighth-cent sales tax that funds the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) and the City’s greenway trails program. However, their plan would reduce the period of sales tax collection to two years from the current five.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other local leaders have been pushing for a shift of that sales tax funding to improve transit service to help residents navigate an increasingly sprawling city. Last month, City officials proposed using debt to continue funding the aquifer program at roughly half the current pace, something many environmentalists oppose.

“Our stance has been that this program works, it works at the current level, and don’t mess with it,” said Alan Montemayor, a retired mechanical engineer and volunteer with the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists frequently cite the popularity of the EAPP as a justification for keeping it the same size. In a February poll by Bexar Facts, KSAT, and the Rivard Report, 42 percent of respondents said aquifer protection tops their list of beneficiaries of sales tax funding.

However, the debate is unfolding without much solid scientific information on how much land needs to be preserved to protect San Antonio’s water supply. Even scientists with the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which released a whitepaper on the topic in 2018, have been unable to say precisely how much land would be enough to preserve or how best to protect the aquifer without studies that could take years to complete

The GEAA/Sierra Club proposal, described in a news release as “in the spirit of compromise,” would keep the annual collection of funds for both programs at their current annual levels – $18 million for the EAPP, $2 million for projects to improve water quality, and $16 million for the greenway trails.

The two-year extension would allow more time for Nirenberg and his allies to shore up longer-term funding sources for the the aquifer and trails programs, according to the groups. So far, the environmental groups have not put forth any solid suggestions of how San Antonio can better fund its transit system. Since 1977, VIA Metropolitan Transit has received only half of the one-cent sales tax revenue it’s allowed to collect; Houston and Dallas have opted for the full cent.

VIA officials say that the $40 million per year generated from the eighth-cent sales tax could potentially unlock as much as $321 million in additional federal funds.

The GEAA/Sierra Club counters one proposed by City officials last month at Nirenberg’s urging. The City proposal calls for $109 million over 10 years for the EAPP and water quality projects, while shifting the eighth-cent sales tax to VIA. Another $83.7 million in trails funding would come from Bexar County.

To put the question on the November 2020 ballot, the groups would need the support of the majority of City Council members, many of whom reacted favorably to the City staff proposal at a Feb. 19 meeting.

On Wednesday, Nirenberg in a statement called the City proposal “a solid, sustainable, and secure plan” and said he’s urging his colleagues on council to support it.

“We have underfunded transportation for too long in San Antonio, and that will continue to have a dire effect on our economic competitiveness, congestion, environmental sustainability, and poverty,” Nirenberg said. “The status quo is unacceptable, and so is delaying our obligation to fund transportation adequately. Any proposal that does not direct the available sales tax to mobility would deter our effort to bring dependable transit to our community.”

Since 2000, voters have approved $325 million in aquifer funding and $190 million in trail funding. Another $28.5 million in aquifer funding and $23.2 million in trail funding remains to be collected through February 2021 under the most recent five-year sales tax that voters approved in 2015.

Francine Romero, chair of the City’s Conservation Advisory Board that vets properties for preservation under the EAPP, said in February that she appreciates that the City’s proposal keeps the aquifer program in-house, though she still had questions on many of the details. Romero told the Rivard Report on Wednesday that she doesn’t see the GEAA/Sierra Club proposal as inherently flawed.

“I keep looking for some surety to keep the program going forward,” Romero said. “The City’s proposal has more money, but this proposal has more surety. … There’s no way around this, putting it into the sales tax puts more surety into it.”

GEAA and the Sierra Club are set to discuss their proposal at a media event Friday. The Conservation Advisory Board will also discuss the future of the sales tax at a March 18 special meeting, and City Council will discuss the issue again at an April 1 meeting, according to City officials.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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