San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and SAWS Board Chair Heriberto (Berto) Guerra (right)
(left) San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and SAWS Board Chair Heriberto "Berto" Guerra work together during a utility collaboration meeting in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The path to stepping up funding for San Antonio’s public transit network without sacrificing other popular programs lies directly through the San Antonio Water System, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. 

Nirenberg and top San Antonio Water System officials called Tuesday for SAWS to take on funding the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. That way, revenue from the one-eighth-cent City sales tax currently paying for aquifer protection and greenway trails can be shifted to VIA Metropolitan Transit to pay for more frequent bus service and dedicated bus lanes to help residents navigate an increasingly sprawling city. 

At SAWS’ December board meeting, Nirenberg said shifting the sales tax revenue to VIA Metropolitan Transit, which also receives revenue from a half-cent of local sales tax and another one-eighth-cent from the Advanced Transportation District, is the only way to adequately fund transportation. 

“I’ve identified a path forward,” Nirenberg said. “Now, we’re having to work out all the details and answer all the questions, but this is our way that we don’t have to choose between transportation and water quality. We don’t have to choose between creekway [trail] systems and transportation. We can do all of these things and be a grownup city that’s ready for the future.” 

SAWS isn’t new to aquifer protection. Before voters authorized the City’s program in 2000, SAWS managed a similar initiative, acquiring land over the Edwards Aquifer that later became part of Government Canyon State Natural Area in west Bexar County, among other land deals. 

Nirenberg’s proposal is the latest to address San Antonio’s transportation challenges without forgoing other programs. An earlier idea to have the San Antonio River Authority take on some of those responsibilities failed when river authority board members voted to kill discussion of a new tax that could have funded some parts of the programs. 

Under the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, nearly 160,000 acres have been protected with approximately $255 million in sales tax revenue since 2000. Officials use the tax money to pay landowners to keep their land permanently undeveloped.

At Tuesday’s meeting, SAWS Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. said the utility is willing to take on aquifer protection again. Under the SAWS’ previous land acquisition program, 27,500 acres were protected in Bexar, Uvalde, Medina, and other surrounding counties. That required $11 million in SAWS cash and land donations, with another $13 million from private conservation groups, according to SAWS. 

“It is the mayor’s plan and our plan to take that back over,” Guerra said. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered. There’s a lot of discussion. But at the end of the day, we are the experts in this type of scenario.”

However, Nirenberg and SAWS officials were light on details Tuesday about how such a program would work and what it would cost. They didn’t offer specifics when asked about the cost to SAWS customers or whether the manpower to find and negotiate land deals over the aquifer would stay with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department or move to SAWS. 

“Those details remain to be worked out over the next month or so,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg did say they are looking at costs comparable to $90 million over five years for aquifer protection raised by the latest round of the sales tax, which voters approved in 2015. 

Nirenberg also said the SAWS board would work to “make sure there’s no fiscal impact overall to SAWS.” He pointed to recent efforts to streamline the City’s and SAWS’ procurement processes to cut overall costs. 

“That’s the kind of work we’re going to be doing to ensure there’s not an impact to the SAWS ratepayers to take on this program,” Nirenberg said. 

Any proposal that could raise SAWS rates is likely to encounter at least some opposition. The average SAWS residential customer has weathered bill increases of 50 percent between 2015 and 2020 to fund new water projects and update SAWS’ leaking and undersized sewage system. In November, the SAWS board approved a 2020 budget that includes a 52.4 percent increase in the water supply component of residents’ SAWS bills. 

SAWS board members also said they need answers on how taking on aquifer protection will affect utility bills. 

“I know aquifer protection is at the top of our mission … but the cost is very much an issue that affects the southern sector where I represent,” SAWS Vice Chair and former AT&T manager Pat Jasso said at the meeting. 

David McGee, a bank CEO who represents the utility’s northeast quadrant, echoed the call for transparency about costs to SAWS customers, adding that the board also needs to know how much more land needs to be protected to make sure the aquifer stays clean. 

“There’s been a lot of work that’s been done over many, many years,” McGee said. “Just how close are we to ensuring the recharge-ability of the aquifer?” 

Members of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, who act as SAWS watchdogs, also say they’re worried about how the proposal would affect low-income customers. 

“I personally worry this will be another burden on the ratepayers, that it will be the poor who bear the brunt,” said Alan Montemayor, a member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee. 

After exploring several funding options, officials believe that SAWS revenues are the only alternative to the sales tax for aquifer protection that does not require action from the Texas Legislature, Nirenberg said. One example they considered is the use of bond money for easements outside of Bexar County, which would need legislative action, he said. 

There’s also a question of what would happen to the City’s linear greenway parks program, which also receives funding from the sales tax. 

Since 2000, the City has built 69 miles of greenway trails, especially along Salado and Leon creeks and the Medina River, with eventual plans to connect them in a ring that extends around the city. In November, the City’s Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board passed a resolution urging the City to continue using the sales tax to fund the trail network. 

On Tuesday, Nirenberg said he’s working with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to find a way to continue trail funding. 

“It’s a capital priority for us as a City,” Nirenberg said. “It’s certainly an important priority for the County as well. We hear about it from all our residents that they enjoy that program and they want it to continue.” 

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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.