A first-of-its-kind report on the growth and environmental health of the Texas Hill Country cites the San Antonio Edwards Aquifer Protection Program as a shining example of conservation efforts in Texas, and is urging other Texas cities to follow suit.

Produced by the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network, the first-ever State of the Hill Country report was released in late February, and takes an in-depth look at eight key conservation and growth metrics in the Texas Hill Country: population growth in unincorporated areas, acreage being conserved, acreage being developed, the number of pristine streams, per-capita water consumption, spring flow, night sky visibility, and conservation investment.

How growth is affecting water resources as development spurs demand is a key part of the report.

“Population growth in unincorporated areas … means that we’re seeing more demands on traditional resources and means more straws heading into our aquifers,” said Katherine Romans, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance and chair of the conservation network, during a webinar Monday to discuss the report. “It means more wastewater that needs to be treated and disposed of, or [we need to] find a way to reuse and make that a resource in our region.”

Because of the way its land and water management laws are set up, Texas faces a unique challenge as it continues to grow, Romans said; Texas doesn’t afford counties the ability to plan for and manage growth, but instead looks to cities and incorporated areas to manage their land and water use. Because of this, not many tools exist “to ensure that we’re protecting water resources and maintaining habitat and wildlife resources as much as possible” within unincorporated areas, she said.

The report stresses that while the Hill Country’s population grows, so does the region’s amount of impervious cover — the amount of land that can’t soak up rainwater, such as roadways, driveways and rooftops — as does its wastewater output, both of which could lead to less water recharging the region’s waterways as well as more pollutants being present in the water that does re-enter the ecosystem.

“Recognizing the drastic patterns of population growth and the need to steward [water], San Antonio decided to protect the [Edwards] aquifer through the conservation of lands in the recharge and contributing zones,” the report states.

Out of this realization came a 2000 ballot measure that allocated one-eighth of a cent of San Antonio’s sales tax to generate revenue for the creation and continuance of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP). The proposition passed with flying colors.

When the tax expired last year, $325 million had been collected since the program’s inception. That money has gone towards protecting the aquifer through the acquisition of property rights including land purchases, conservation easements, and donations of land over the sensitive recharge and contributing zones. According to the City of San Antonio’s website, to date “the program has protected 161,511 acres over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones through purchase of property and negotiation of conservation easements.” Because the tax allocation expired, an alternative funding plan was approved by the San Antonio City Council in Fall 2020 and includes a commitment by the city of $100 million in funding for the EAPP over a period of up to 10 years.

While the program also protected acres within Bexar County, approximately 70% of the San Antonio section of the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge zone lies west of Bexar. Through the protection program and partnerships the program has established, more than 240,000 acres of land have come under protection over the last two decades. Because of this, the report calls the program the “brightest success story for conservation in Texas” and urges other cities in or near the Texas Hill Country to follow its example.

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, told the San Antonio Report on Monday that she agrees with the new report’s conclusion, and said she hopes the program continues well into the future.

“Other cities, most notably, Austin and Travis County, San Marcos and Hays County, they have to have bonds to protect the aquifer, and in some cases, the endangered species [that live in the Hill Country] — but the citizens of San Antonio actually voted for the sales taxes,” Peace said. “I think the other groups were just kind of in awe of San Antonio.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.