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

Councilmembers Ron Nirenberg (D-8) and Ray Lopez (D-6) have filed a Council Consideration Request to have placed for voter approval on the May 9 ballot the extension of the 1/8 cent sales tax to continue funding of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) and the Linear Creekway Parks Development Program.

Arguably, the EAPP is the best tool that San Antonio has to protect the Edwards Aquifer and thus ensure our drinking water security and future. Reportedly, however, Mayor Taylor questions the worth and necessity of the EAPP. According to a San Antonio Express-News article, she suggested that there may be other ways to achieve the EAPP goals without extending the program – through the master planning process she initiated last year that is now underway, for instance.

Another Council member, Rey Saldaña (D-4), also suggested that there may be other, higher priorities than the EAPP for which the 1/8 cent sales tax might be used. Undoubtedly, many other interests also are hoping to get their hands on these funds for their own pet projects that have nothing to do with protecting San Antonio’s principal drinking water, which is clearly under a long-term threat from high density development and urbanization of the aquifer’s recharge zone.

In response to Taylor’s and Saldaña’s doubts and in support of Lopez and Nirenberg’s request, I would like to offer the following reasons as to why it would be both wise and important for City Council to put the EAPP on the ballot and let the voters decide.

1. Water security is a #1 priority for San Antonio.

For the truth of this assertion we need look no further than City Council’s recently approval of the Vista Ridge project. Valued at $3.4 billion or more, that project would provide only about 20% of our long-term, future water supply and this at a cost at least 400% higher than we pay now for Edwards Aquifer water. The Edwards Aquifer water supply can never be fully substituted for and, is expected to always be our single most important water source. Protecting and conserving this water is therefore both one of our principal challenges and as well as an essential element of ensuring our water future and sustainability as a community.

What are the main threats to the Edwards Aquifer water supply? Very clearly one of the greatest threats, and the one for which the EAPP is designed to respond, is contamination. The Edwards Aquifer is made up of porous limestone and rainfall runoff flows right into it. This type of aquifer is called a karst aquifer. Scientists who study karst aquifers will tell you that what you see on top of the ground is what you will be drinking. Allowing high density development throughout the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone will, inevitably, over the long term – be that in 10, 50 or 100 years – lead to contamination of our drinking water. If we do that, we will have to treat Edwards water before we drink it.

The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.
The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

2. Efficiency.

What would water treatment cost? Nobody knows, other than that it would be very expensive. We can get an idea of treatment costs by looking at other recent, large-scale water treatment construction projects. One that treats a similar volume of water to what the Edwards would require is New York City’s project to treat water from the Croton Reservoir. It will cost New Yorkers about $640 to treat each acre-foot of drinking water (author’s calculation). That is about $100 more than the current cost of untreated Edwards water. That is, having to treat Edwards water would likely double its cost, at minimum.

Through the EAPP, however, San Antonio has demonstrated its wisdom and foresight by taking significant steps to avoid polluting our aquifer and incurring the high treatment costs that would bring. To date the EAPP has protected 130,000 acres and, that is said to provide an estimated 36 billion gallons per year, or about 40% of our current water consumption.

So, if we compare the cost of the EAPP to the cost of water treatment, preventing contamination would cost less than about 1/10 (or, possibly, even much less) of the cost of treatment.  It is much cheaper to protect water quality through the EAPP than it would be to have to clean it up if we do not.

3. Simplicity.

Alternative solutions for protecting Edwards water quality are almost all regulatory in nature, i.e., zoning, ordinances, building codes, etc. Administering, enforcing and monitoring compliance with these requires expensive bureaucracy. Command-and-control approaches, we have learned, are subject to becoming politicized, overly influenced by special interests and, watered down if not waived all together. See, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott’s rhetoric about taking authority away from local governments to put in place ordinances such as San Antonio’s tree ordinance. Putting them in place and implementing them is also – especially in Texas – subject to challenges on grounds of regulatory takings and of infringement of private property rights.

4. Respects private property rights.

Easement property on Blanco Creek. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
Easement property on Blanco Creek. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Texas is a strong property rights state. The EAPP is fully consistent with property rights as it forces no one to do anything that they do not otherwise want to do with their land. Alternative solutions, such as master planning (which has no teeth) and zoning (which does) are regularly and successfully challenged in Texas as infringements on private land owners’ rights.

5. A free market solution.

The purchase of development rights through the EAPP is a market transaction between the landowner and the program. A willing seller sells at an agreed, estimated market price to a willing buyer. Being a market-based solution, it further supports the contention that the approach has the advantages of simplicity, efficiency and being respectful of private property rights versus other options.

This ballot initiative has earned the approval of the voters of San Antonio three times in the past and the resulting programs have proven exceptionally successful in achieving our goals of Aquifer and watershed protection.  There are no good reasons (but a number of poor ones) to not allow voters to vote on this program again in May. If 20% of our water supply is worth $3.4 billion, than protecting the other 70 or 80% through renewing the EAPP is surely worth one-tenth that amount.

If you’re interested in supporting a sustainable water future, contact San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and your City of San Antonio Council representative let them know that you support putting the EAPP and linear creeks on the May Ballot for renewal on the City Council Agenda this Thursday, Jan. 15 or no later than Jan. 29.

 *Featured/top image: Kyle Seale Parkway in northwest Bexar county in 2008. Uncontrolled development like this will eventually affect water quality in the Edwards. Photo by Gregg Eckhardt.

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Jim Smyle is a consultant and former senior natural resource management specialist for the World Bank, who has worked for decades around the world on sustainably managing land and water. He currently...