About 100 business owners, organization leaders and citizens attended the San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference. Photo by Bill Hurley.
About 100 business owners, organization leaders and citizens attended the San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference. Photo by Bill Hurley.

Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg’s keynote address to the “San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference” organized by imagineSanAntonio and Solar San Antonio at Rackspace headquarters.

The conference featured “presentations by local and national experts (covering) topics, such as water supplies and droughts, extreme weather events, wildfires, urban heat islands, public health, electric power supplies, alternative fuels, air quality, carbon emissions, how to determine an organization’s carbon footprint, and strategies to achieve resilience.” Read more from day one: Conference Tackles Climate Change in San Antonio: No Longer ‘If,’ Now ‘When.’

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg speaks at the "San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference" at Rackspace. Photo from Nirenberg's Instagram.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg speaks at the “San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference” at Rackspace. Photo from Nirenberg’s Instagram.

Good afternoon. First, I want to thank imagineSanAntonio for inviting me to join you. The agenda at this conference is extremely important to our region and everyone living in it now, and certainly in the future.  I am grateful for the forward-thinking leadership in resiliency of those here today, including Lanny Sinkin and Les Shepard (director of UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute), and those who paved their way. Specifically, every effort here forward is a tribute to the life of Lanny’s dad, Bill Sinkin, who will be remembered as much for his important work for my five-year-old son Jonah’s generation, as he will before his work to uplift the Civil Rights Movement in South Texas.

I say that because the challenges we are addressing in sustainability and resiliency, while growing in urgency, are in fact about the kind of future we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Future-proofing San Antonio extends from our policies on urban density and transit to renewable energy and water planning. The case can and will be made that resiliency has immediate economic return for our communities, which is tremendously important. But what Bill Sinkin and other pioneers in this area recognized long ago, is that if we hold out for carrots in sustainability policy, we leave it to our kids to get the stick.

The question I was asked to answer in my talk today was: “Does San Antonio have the political will to become a resilient city?”

My answer is yes. And let me tell you why.

Late last year, I had the distinct honor of being appointed to the National League of Cities Energy Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee. This group is dedicated to developing and advocating for policies on air and water quality and energy policy on behalf of municipalities across the country. San Antonio will have a seat at the table, in part, because of the things we are already doing well to meet the challenges of a changing world.

Just this week, the city announced the hiring of our permanent Chief Sustainability Officer. Doug Melnick will oversee an operation that provides support throughout the administration to implement future-proofing policy, in the areas of energy efficiency, development services, corporate sustainability, transportation – you name it.  Through the SA2020 goal-setting process in 2010, this community identified several priorities, including job creation, balanced growth, air quality, water conservation, recycling, and sustainable energy.

Part of Melnick’s charge will be to continue moving these efforts forward in areas where we are making good progress, such as reaching 1,500 megawatts in available renewable energy, and areas where we need to do better, like reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfills. Regarding the latter, you’ll be pleased to know that just yesterday, City Council approved the next phase of the Organic Material Recovery Program, a ‘green cart’ recycling program that diverts organic waste from traditional landfills and into compost piles. This is significant because nearly 45 percent of the waste stream is made of materials that could be composted and diverted from landfills altogether.

Dozens of dirt and compost piles occupy the 120 acres that make up New Earth, Inc., a local compost plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick
Dozens of dirt and compost piles occupy the 120 acres that make up New Earth, Inc., a local compost plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick

In addition to reducing future brownfields, we are saving money as a city now: the cost of processing a ton of ‘brown cart’ waste is nearly 50 percent more expensive than processing a ton of organics. In August, we will also begin single-stream recycling of plastic bags.

These efforts are consistent with the sustainability mission, a mission that is increasingly embraced by cities nationwide as a way to maintain our country’s international strength and breathe new life into our economy. As you heard last week and throughout the conference, our ability to adapt to changing financial, political, and climatological realities extends from local economic impact to issues of national security.

There is perhaps no better way to frame a discussion of future-proofing a Texas city than by talking about the single most important element for sustaining life and driving the economy: water.

In a synthesis report last year, the EPA cited the rising economic value of water as a result of worldwide and localized scarcity. That reality has been here in our state for more than half a century, from the historic drought of the 1950s to the present ‘new normal’ that has caused Texas cities and counties to begin acquiring groundwater rights at a blistering pace. In December, a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas cited water scarcity as the most significant threat to the Texas economy.

In our region, we are fortunate to have an abundant underground source of water in the Edwards Aquifer, and while many of us can remember a day when that water carried no restrictions, sustainability policy from organizations like the Edwards Aquifer Authority has helped us to reduce our future risk and adapt to the present booming population growth.

Years ago, people could have big green lawns they could water every day no matter the temperature. In a smaller city, with fewer demands on our sole source aquifer, water was as plentiful as the blue Texas sky. Today’s reality is different, and our local and regional water policies recognize that it will grow increasingly difficult for our city’s water system to keep delivering pure and plentiful water for future generations. Only responsible long-term water planning can do that, which means balancing the needs and wants of many groups and institutions with varying opinions and interests.

The San Antonio Water System has made tremendous progress with its conservation, water reuse, and aquifer storage efforts. The fact remains, however, that 90 percent of our drinking water, and the vast majority used by industry, comes from the Edwards Aquifer.  According to scientists and water planners, that will not change.

Over the past several decades, the city has adopted a wide range of policies, regulations, and standards for the protection of water supply, particularly the aquifer.  Agreements have been reached to manage development over the Recharge Zone, including San Antonio’s Water Quality Ordinance, an effort that began as early as the mid-1970s in the wake of the federal Clean Water Act.

These city policies are a series of standards that represent significant and successful compromise between the economic demands of a growing city and the imperatives of fostering a sustainable economy, a balance that continues to be maintained. Through several revisions over the years, San Antonio has reduced impervious cover over the sensitive Recharge Zone, reduced contamination risk, and established best practices, such as the use of water quality basins for stormwater catchment. These are important efforts to note, since the Recharge Zone comprises thousands of acres where water enters the aquifer quickly, and without being filtered. At its very heart, security for San Antonio and South Central Texas – resiliency – should begin and end with our ability to protect this source of water as the lifeblood of our economy.

Today, San Antonio continues to lead through innovation in this department, and residents not only understand the importance of future water security, they put their money toward the effort. The Edwards Aquifer Protection Initiative, a sales tax approved three times by voters, has now preserved more than 100,000 acres of land throughout the Recharge Zone by the purchase of conservation easements.

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.

Property owners keep their land, but the public places on it an easement that prohibits future development. The return on investment is increased economic security from the protection of our primary water source, a great deal for every home and business in this region. So far, the program has helped to preserve more than 10 percent of the Recharge Zone’s total acreage, and it has become a model statewide and nationally.

It is absolutely vital that we continue to push this effort – and support it in future elections – as our region’s most pressing economic and environmental priority.

But despite our best efforts to protect our sole source aquifer, San Antonio citizens, businesses, and government must be engaged in an effort to manage the threat of water scarcity through every means available.  A resilient city is one that can adapt, and, in terms of water policy, that means an all-of-the-above solution: conservation, protection, and diversification of our region’s water supply.

I believe in order to do that, the conversation of water security – inclusive of all those three things – must be elevated from simply a utility-level concern to one of critical importance for governance in the city of San Antonio.

Last week, I filed a request for city staff to begin compiling information about our own policies and procedures so that we can answer the following questions:

•    How are the City’s current policies affecting water quality and supply?

•    How do the City’s growth strategies impact our water security measures?

•    Do these efforts complement or conflict with each other?

•    And most importantly, how are ratepayers impacted?

To plan for a sustainable water future, our policies at the city should be in concert with the strategies of our water utility. Water planning should not be a separate conversation, it should be a part of EVERY conversation. Ensuring a long term supply of clean and abundant water for the benefit of future generations and a growing economy must always be a key driver of decisions on the City Council dais. And water quality isn’t the only issue of sustainability that is a pressing concern to our economy and our quality of life.

One of the major success stories coming out of San Antonio over the last decade has been our ability to keep air clean, especially in contrast to other big cities here in Texas and nationwide. We are the only top ten city that is still in compliance with EPA National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Unfortunately, those days are likely nearing an end.

Indeed, scientists and political observers tell us that we are in danger of nonattainment as soon as 2016. In fact, if measurements were taken today, we are already out of attainment, which would normally trigger a set of regulatory burdens, reporting requirements, and mitigation that will make it harder to do business in San Antonio, build roads, and fund basic infrastructure.

From SA2020's Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of SA2020.
From SA2020’s Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of SA2020.

From an economic perspective, I think we can all agree that this is unacceptable, especially considering that this region is subject to pollution oftentimes out of our direct control. Nevertheless, standing by idly is not an option. Last summer, the City Council called for a comprehensive examination of where we currently stand regarding air quality and what we can do to mitigate the existing pollution proactively. The expectation is that within three to five years, EPA Clean Air standards will again be revised downward (that’s the only way they go), putting us at some level of non-attainment. A collaborative effort between the City of San Antonio and the Alamo Area Council of Governments is underway, and we are working to establish an action plan for the region, in order to keep our air clean as an economic priority.

Sustainability is now also gaining momentum in our development process, and increasingly, it is being embraced in city policy and by the private sector. In December, we broke ground on the marquee project of the 2012 bond cycle: Hausman Road. At a total cost of $62 million, it is the largest voter-approved roadway project in city history, and it will also be the greenest.

"Curb cuts," an LID feature that allows water to flow into open fields instead of getting channeled into gutters. Madison High School's Agriscience Magnet Program has implemented many LID features in its recent redesign. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
“Curb cuts,” an LID feature that allows water to flow into open fields instead of getting channeled into gutters. Madison High School’s Agriscience Magnet Program has implemented many LID features in its recent redesign. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Through the use of Low Impact Development techniques in the Hausman design and construction, we are taking the principles you heard about from the San Antonio River Authority last week and applying them – in large scale – to roadway infrastructure on the city’s northside. LID is cost-effective, and it seeks to manage stormwater as close to the source as possible while engineering infrastructure that mimics natural hydrology.

On Hausman, we are using natural materials and a below-grade median to channel water, into a drainage basin, filter, and disperse it. Off the roadway, we are also installing extensive hike-and-bike trails, reclaiming right-of-way to encourage healthier living. The city will also soon explore the systematic use of LID techniques by offering incentives for such development through our own codes.

Resiliency does not always take a complete reversal of course. Sometimes the solutions are common sense and require incremental changes, working with stakeholders, and identifying market solutions, as is the case with Hausman Road. We are committed to doing that in every area of the city.

Finally, I wanted to offer a thought about why I believe San Antonio does, indeed, have the political will to move this conversation further. In my perspective, a resilient city is a civically engaged one. Though sustainability policies are centered on energy, the environment, and natural resource management, we often forget that our greatest, most precious resource in a democratic society – and one that has grown alarmingly scarce – is an active and informed citizen.

As some of you may know, civic engagement was my profession for nearly a decade while working for the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  I worked with cities around the country on ways to get citizens – particularly young people – interested and informed on policy decisions that affect them and their communities. That mission is certainly what fuels my work as a councilman.

I believe that in San Antonio, creating a culture of civic engagement should be our greatest concern.

The fact is, every goal that we have to improve our city – from energy efficiency to job creation to water security – rests on our ability to get people involved with those efforts in their businesses and homes, and to support policy and policy-makers that work in the same direction. I just described to you some important efforts for economic sustainability that are underway in San Antonio. But as it stands today, these priorities could change drastically from one term to the next, especially as one looks at the success rate for voter turnout in municipal elections, hovering between five and ten percent. Often, very few people determine the fate of the entire city.

The good news is we are beginning to recognize and prioritize this as a city, and civic engagement, education, and transparency are central goals for San Antonio’s strategic vision.

You may have noticed new mobile applications for city services and a recognition from the Public Technology Institute that San Antonio has one of the best communication networks supporting a push toward civic engagement. This week, we announced an effort to broadcast theWednesday work sessions of our City Council, where policies and programs get thoroughly reviewed. In my district, I launched the D8 Community Academy, whose mission is “proactive constituent services.” If you can’t come to our office, our office will come to you.  We organize volunteer efforts to identify and advise on policy issues, and we host blockwalks targeted toward people who are typically disengaged from the civic process, to help them understand why and how city government plays a role in their lives.

A resilient city is one in which there is an ecosystem of sustainable, future-focused people, businesses, strategies, and activities.  In San Antonio, while there is much work to be done, that ecosystem exists. So to answer that first question, yes, we have the political will, but now we owe it to ourselves and our children to play the long game – doing not what is easy, but what is necessary – to become a resilient city.

Thank you.

*Featured/top photo: About 100 business owners, organization leaders and citizens attended the San Antonio Environmental Challenges: Opportunities in Resilience Conference. Photo by Bill Hurley.

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Ron Nirenberg

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.