Grant Ellis has worked for the City of San Antonio since 2011. Previously, he worked as the executive director of the Valley Land Fund, land conservation manager at Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, and conservation advocacy programs officer at the American Bird Conservancy. Now he’s one of two full-time staff members tasked with protecting San Antonio’s most precious resource, the Edwards Aquifer.
Robert Rivard: What exactly is Proposition 1, and what is your role in managing the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program?
Grant Ellis: Proposition 1 was the ballot initiative number assigned to the City’s aquifer protection program when it was presented to the voters in 2005 and 2010. Before that, in 2000, it was called Proposition 3. Today, we tend to use the terms “Prop 1” and “Edwards Aquifer Protection Program” almost interchangeably. The voter-supported initiative allows for a 1/8-cent sales tax collection to be used toward the purchase of land or conservation easements over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge and Contributing Zones (see map above or download full size PDF here). The City’s program has a full-time staff of two, and I am the project manager.
I’d like to point out that lots of other great agencies and organizations are doing some really wonderful work toward aquifer protection, and that the City’s program is just one of the tools in the overall toolbox. My role, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty minor.
RR: What has been the impact of Prop 1 over the 14 years since voters approved the 1/8 sales tax to protect undeveloped lands over the Edwards Aquifer?
GE: The City’s program has had a tremendous impact. To date, since the first program was passed by the voters in 2000, we’ve spent $183 million and have protected 126,376 acres of land over the Recharge and Contributing Zones of the aquifer.
City Council has recently approved two additional conservation easement acquisitions, including the 1,521 acre Crescent Hills property approved Thursday, that, once we close on them, will raise the total of protected lands to 128,347 acres.
RR: How much revenue does the 1/8 cent sales tax generate each year?
GE: Approximately $18 million per year.
RR: Voters approved extensions of the program twice since its inception, correct? When will the current program expire or come up for consideration by voters for extension?
GE: That is correct. The voters supported extensions of the program in 2005 and again in 2010. The 2010 ballot initiative passed with over 60% of the vote. The current sales tax will expire in April 2016, and would be eligible for a renewal at that time. I believe City Council is currently discussing the idea of placing the program back on the ballot for the voters sometime in 2015, which would ensure a smooth and seamless transition from the current sales tax collection to the next one, but no final decision has been made yet.
RR: How do you go about identifying land to protect?
GE: It’s important for the City to remain objective in our analysis of land. In the early days of the program a Scientific Evaluation Team (SET) was convened to provide data and information about the aquifer and about the areas of land we should focus on. Based on the feedback and input of the SET, we were able to construct a GIS spatial model that allows us to analyze all the properties in our target area. The model ranks each parcel based on four contributing factors: hydrogeological features, biological components, size and location. For instance, a large property that is directly over the Recharge Zone, adjacent to existing protected land, that has a major creek or river running through, or has a cave or sinkhole on the property, would rank fairly high in our model.
RR: Can you explain the role and makeup of the Conservation Advisory Board?
GE: The Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) is a nine-member advisory panel, appointed by City Council, that oversees the acquisition and stewardship of all program lands. They evaluate all potential properties that City staff and our non-profit partners who make up the program’s Land Acquisition Team (Green Spaces Alliance and The Nature Conservancy) bring forth for consideration.
The CAB includes representatives from San Antonio Water System, Edwards Aquifer Authority, San Antonio River Authority, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. Additionally, the City’s Parks director sits on the CAB and there is a representative from the City’s Parks and Recreation Board, as well as representatives from both Medina and Uvalde Counties. The CAB meets monthly to discuss new items and vote on recommendations to City Council. All meetings are open to the public. City Council has the ultimate say in whether we acquire a property or conservation easement, but the CAB issues recommendations based on analysis of each property.
RR: What has been the total cost, and what does it represent on a per acre basis?
GE: Total cost for the duration of the program since 2000 is at $183 million right now. On a pure per-acre basis that represents about $1,500 per acre. But I think we need to qualify that a bit by saying that the first $45 million spent under Proposition 3 did not allow us to pursue conservation easements. We bought 6,553 acres of land exclusively in Bexar County with that first round of funding, but when Proposition 1 passed in 2005, we were able to expand our acquisition strategies to include conservation easements, which are much more cost-effective and often make more sense for the City. With the $138 million that we’ve been able to use under Proposition 1 we’ve been able to protect 119,823 acres of land, which comes out to about $1,150 per acre.
RR: Does the City pay market rate to acquire conservation easements, or does it purchase land and hold it, or in partnership with other entities such as the Texas Nature Conservancy?
GE: We do pay market rate for the value of the conservation easement. We use certified appraisers who are trained and experienced in conservation valuations to help us determine the value of each property’s conservation easement. Of course we also consider bargain sale components if the landowner is interested in accepting less than the market value of the conservation easement. And we are always exploring new ways to leverage Prop 1 dollars with other funding sources to help make our funds go further. But the values are always based on market value appraisals. The City then holds the conservation easements and, with the help of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, monitors each conservation easement on an annual basis. We have a staff member here named Susan Courage who is dedicated to the monitoring of all 55 of our current conservation easements. It’s very time-consuming.
RR: Can individuals who own land over the recharge zone contact your office to propose selling a conservation easement?
GE: Yes, we receive phone calls all the time from interested landowners. In the early days of the program it was much different. Landowners, especially in the rural parts of Medina and Uvalde Counties, were reluctant to partner with the City. Considering that these are perpetual conservation easements, I can understand why.
Forever, as we like to joke, is a very long time. But once a few of the early conservation easements deals were completed, word spread that it wasn’t such an onerous process after all, and landowners began to tell their neighbors and friends and other folks that participating in the program was a pleasant experience. After that, landowners began to line up with questions. Today, we have no shortage of interest in the program. I consider that to be one of the unheralded success stories of this program. City staff takes pride in having established and maintained a healthy working relationship with all of our participant landowners.
RR: We better share that telephone number interested land owners can call.