A national Latino rights advocacy group and San Antonio’s water utility submitted a filing this week in a long-quiet federal court case concerning whether Latinos are adequately represented in the entity that manages the Edwards Aquifer.

It’s been six years since the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sued the Edwards Aquifer Authority, arguing the structure of its board is unconstitutional because it gives unequal representation to the less-populated areas surrounding Bexar County.

The authority’s structure disproportionally favors Anglo voters in these areas compared to majority-Latino Bexar County, LULAC argued in its initial 2012 complaint on behalf of three Latino plaintiffs who live in San Antonio.

After a 2014 hearing in the case, an order from Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in April 2016 allowed LULAC and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to submit more evidence on their behalf.

SAWS, the municipally owned water and sewer utility serving 1.8 million customers in the San Antonio region, took LULAC’s side early in the case. SAWS holds the majority of Edwards Aquifer, with fees on its water permits accounting for 80 percent of the authority’s funding as of 2012, according to SAWS.

In an advisory filed in Western District Court in San Antonio on Monday, lawyers for LULAC and SAWS pointed out “the passage of time since the matter was submitted.”

“LULAC plaintiffs and SAWS thought it might be helpful to the Court to have the updated information contained in this advisory,” the advisory continues. “They stand ready, of course, to provide whatever additional briefing or argument the Court may deem appropriate for resolution of the constitutional matter under submission.”

In their filing, LULAC and SAWS also pointed out that 10 of the 15 elected board members are up for re-election in November – Districts 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, and 15.

“There’s no question the voting power of the Bexar County voter is dramatically less than anyone else’s,” SAWS attorney Steve Kosub said. “The issue grows worse as Bexar County grows.”

LULAC national legal advisor Manuel Escobar Jr. did not return a phone call seeking comment.

When the case was first filed, it captured the attention of almost every group that depends on the Edwards Aquifer, a massive underground limestone formation that holds the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region.

Many worried that it would upset a carefully constructed arrangement over how to manage the aquifer that involved compromise among San Antonio, smaller cities that also lie over the aquifer, farmers in the region, and downstream communities that rely on rivers fed by the aquifer’s springs.

The cities of San Marcos and Uvalde, New Braunfels Utilities, and Uvalde County were among the entities that intervened on the side of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

Edwards Aquifer Authority Managing Director Roland Ruiz. Image courtesy of EAA.
Edwards Aquifer Authority Managing Director Roland Ruiz. Credit: Courtesy / Edwards Aquifer Authority

“What is at stake here is the unique balance we’ve been able to strike among the various interest groups in the region,” said Roland Ruiz, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 1993.

The board’s structure involves 15 voting members – seven from Bexar County and eight from the more rural and suburban counties surrounding it, including all or parts of Atascosa, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, Hays, Medina, and Uvalde counties.

That gives unequal proportion to smaller counties, such as Medina County, which in the 2010 Census had a population of 172,332, compared to Bexar County’s more than 1.7 million.

That meant board members in Bexar County on average represented more than 244,000 people, compared to an average of 86,166 people, according to LULAC.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority doesn’t dispute those facts, Ruiz said, but such a structure was necessary to achieve compromises like protecting endangered fish, salamanders, and other creatures that rely on aquifer-fed springs while still making enough water available for cities and farmers.

“We know that the system as it was constructed by the Legislature does not conform to that, for a very clear reason, because it was to bring all the various parties together,” he said. “Historically, the battles were always about use and access to the aquifer.”

The authority has also claimed that as a “special purpose district” focused only on water, the one person, one vote doctrine does not apply to it in the same way it would for a general government body, such as a City Council or a Congressional district.

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