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Environmental advocates were dismayed Thursday after City Council set up a shift of sales tax funding away from the Edwards Aquifer and San Antonio’s trail network, with some saying they plan to focus on ensuring replacement funding.
San Antonio City Council voted 9-2 Thursday to put a measure on the November ballot to devote a one-eight-cent sales tax to workforce development for four years before shifting to VIA Metropolitan Transit. The tax currently funds the City’s trails and aquifer protection programs.
The vote means San Antonio voters won’t see a five-year renewal of the popular Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) and Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails on the November ballot for the first time since both programs’ creation in 2000. Over two decades, voters have approved $325 million in aquifer funding and $190 million in trail funding.
Annalisa Peace, director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said she was “heartbroken” after the vote, calling the aquifer an asset “that hardly any other city in the world has, in that it’s this huge supply of clean water that’s renewed regularly every time it rains.”
“It’s going to be very important moving forward,” Peace said of the aquifer, San Antonio’s main drinking water supply. “We don’t feel like [Council members] really understand the value of that resource.”
Mainly through payments to landowners in exchange for permanent agreements not to develop their properties, the EAPP has preserved more than 160,000 acres, mostly over the sensitive Edward Aquifer Recharge Zone in Uvalde and Medina counties. The trails program has led to roughly 80 miles of paved paths, mainly along Salado and Leon creeks and the Medina River.
Since earlier this year, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City officials have stressed that both programs will continue under different funding schemes. The City has proposed using $100 million in funding over 10 years from debt and revenues the City gets from the San Antonio Water System. Bexar County commissioners voted in March to put multiple trail projects in the County’s five-year capital plan, though the specifics are still uncertain.
“The message that is getting clouded is that we are seeking to make a long-term and sustainable commitment to the aquifer program,” Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report on Wednesday. “We are not defunding or abandoning it.”
Before the vote Thursday, several Council members reiterated their support for continuing both programs. Councilman John Courage (D9) said he wouldn’t expect the public to support a sales tax shift without more answers on the future of the aquifer and trails.
“I would not support an election where I didn’t feel the Edwards Aquifer wasn’t completely protected and that the linear creekway trails wouldn’t continue to be developed,” Courage said during the meeting.
Supporters of the two programs say they intend to hold officials to their word.
“For me, the battle now has to become putting enough pressure on the mayor and Council and [County] Judge [Nelson] Wolff to make those commitments firm on how they fund the aquifer protection and how they continue funding the trails,” said Cosima Colvin, who represents District 1 on the City’s volunteer Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board. “Those were the promises.”
During behind-the-scenes negotiations ahead of the vote, some influential aquifer advocates had agreed to not put up a public fight against Nirenberg’s proposal.
Bonnie Conner, a former District 8 councilwoman and one of the original architects of the EAPP in the late 1990s, told the San Antonio Report on Thursday that a “small but mighty” group she called the “EAPP Five” promised not to oppose Nirenberg’s plan, as long as his alternative meets certain conditions: certainty of funding, that the staff for both programs would remain in place, and that the EAPP be structured in a way that a future Council couldn’t easily undo it.
“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, and of course the big question is, what do the voters think?” said Conner, who declined to reveal who else makes up the EAPP Five.
Others might take a more aggressive stance. In an email last month, Peace said the option left for supporters of the EAPP and trails programs would be to vote against all the sales tax initiatives on the November ballot.
“Perhaps that is the only way to get all options for how we allocate sales tax funding back on the table,” Peace said.