Edwards Aquifer Authority logo on a tote bag.
Edwards Aquifer Authority logo on a tote bag. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The agency that regulates pumping of the Edwards Aquifer wants to move ahead with an aquifer protection program similar to the City of San Antonio’s – but starting at a much smaller scale.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s (EAA) board of directors unanimously voted to explore a policy of paying landowners not to build on sensitive land with conduits into the Edwards Aquifer, the main drinking water supply for the San Antonio region.

The idea is akin to the City of San Antonio’s 20-year-old Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP). The City Council is now considering a tax shuffle that would shift the one-eighth-cent sales tax that funds the EAPP to workforce development and transportation. The issue has rippled throughout San Antonio water advocacy circles, sparking interest in new ways to fund preservation of the aquifer.

Though inspired by the EAPP, General Manager Roland Ruiz and board members stressed that the EAA’s program would not be a substitute for the City’s. With a $34 million annual budget that comes from fees assessed on Edwards Aquifer groundwater users, it will take the EAA around three to five years to set aside $5 million to start the program, Ruiz said.

In contrast, the City will collect $100 million in sales taxes by mid-2021 for the latest round of EAPP funding. Since 2000, voters have approved $325 million in sales tax funding for the aquifer and $190 million in funding for the City’s network of greenway trails.

“When you compare that to what the City can raise in a sales tax, it’s a pittance,” Ruiz said. “But for us, it’s a start.”

The EAA regulates groundwater pumping from the Edwards and serves as a hub of scientific research into the groundwater source. Its jurisdiction includes all of Uvalde, Medina, and Bexar counties and parts of surrounding counties, roughly matching the aquifer’s boundaries.

Ruiz described the conservation program as a clear next step for the authority, which has helped provide an era of stability in balancing the competing users of the Edwards Aquifer.

“It has the potential for generational impact,” Ruiz told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday. “I think that’s critical when you’re talking about natural resource management. It’s not what you can do today but what you can do that will last and have some permanence from generation to generation.”

The EAA hopes to supplement its seed money with donations and grants to its Edwards Aquifer Conservancy and, potentially, debt, he said.

The EAA could end up raising fees to pay for the program, though not right now. San Antonio Water System customers pay the vast majority of those fees, as SAWS holds approximately three-quarters of the EAA’s total permits. Ruiz said EAA officials had hoped to raise pumping fees going into 2021 but decided to hold off, in part because of the pandemic.

“Give us a year to further flesh out all of this and put some meat on the bones, if you will, and then when we come back with a [pumping fee] increase, let’s say a year from now, we have a really strong case as to why it’s necessary,” Ruiz told board members Tuesday.

On the City side, officials are planning to continue funding the EAPP at roughly $100 million over 10 years, half the pace of the current sales tax collection.

Funding would come from borrowing against the revenue the City annually receives from the San Antonio Water System, City Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said at a meeting of the City’s Conservation Advisory Board on Monday.

Gorzell said doing this would require a City Council vote, which could come as soon as September. Funding likely would start in fiscal year 2023, he said.

Francine Romero, the Conservation Advisory Board’s chair, said “nothing really seems dispiriting” about the City’s funding proposal, though it represents a marked shift from the current sales tax because of City Council’s ability to change it at any time.

“I think it could preserve the program as we know it, but I just want to be frank with people that one vote, one majority vote from council, could end the whole thing,” Romero said at the Conservation Advisory Board meeting. “It’s a big difference from how we did it before.”

At the meeting, several EAA board members expressed their support for starting a new conservation, though some were wary that City officials will see their move as a substitute for the EAPP.

“One thing I’m concerned about is that if we announce that this is what we’re going forward with, people in the City might feel that the pressure is off of them and that we’re going to ride to the rescue and take over where they’re dropping off,” said EAA Vice Chair Ben Youngblood, whose District 4 covers northwestern Bexar County.

Ruiz responded that the EAA “must tread carefully, with the politics around the EAPP issue.”

“As much as I wish we could come in and save the day, so to speak, this is just an effort to set up something for the long term,” Ruiz told the board.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.