San Antonio will continue preserving land over its sensitive drinking water source as it has for the past 20 years, though a City Council vote Thursday will change the program’s funding source.

City Council voted 9-2 to approve a new structure for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), which pays landowners not to develop their properties over and upstream of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone. Council members in August moved to shift the sales tax that has funded the EAPP for two decades to a $154 million workforce development program in response to the coronavirus pandemic, subject to voter approval.

In place of the sales tax, the most recent version of which voters approved in 2015 for $100 million, the City will fund the EAPP by issuing debt and with annual cash payments from its General Fund. City officials expect those sources will generate $100 million over 10 years.

San Antonio voters will decide in November whether to shift one-eighth of a cent per $1 of sales tax to jobs training. Many on council believe the jobs program is essential to helping residents survive the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“We are facing an emergency,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at Thursday’s virtual meeting. “We can’t abandon our neighbors who need help. … Fortunately, we aren’t choosing between the aquifer and our neighbors. We can address the needs of both.”

The vote sets a course for the future of the EAPP. Voters originally passed it in 2000 and renewed it three times, preserving 160,000 acres of sensitive land, more than half the size of San Antonio city limits. Many aquifer advocates resisted changes to the program, which they consider an elegant solution to protecting the aquifer using incentives rather than regulation.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who rarely vote in tandem on controversial issues, both voted no on the new funding plan.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who voted for the new structure, said he has been “getting a lot of heat” from residents who want to see the EAPP unchanged, though he’s found that many don’t understand how it actually works.

“What we do is we take sales tax dollars and then we send them out of county to pay ranchers to continue doing what they’ve always done,” Pelaez said. “It really does blow a lot of peoples’ minds that’s what the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program is.”

For Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), “this die was cast in August” when the council voted to put the sales tax-funded workforce development program on the ballot in November. If voters don’t approve it, the soonest City Council could vote to shift the sales tax back to the aquifer would be in May 2022, according to City Attorney Andy Segovia.

“I certainly don’t want to take that risk with this program,” Sandoval said. “I think we have a solution to find funding for it now.”

The City will continue collecting sales tax money for aquifer protection until reaching the $100 million cap in spring 2021, Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said. At that point, the City will have $20 million remaining to carry the EAPP through 2022. The new system would start in 2023.

In voting against the plan, Treviño said he had heard an outcry from residents who wanted to keep the EAPP in place. Both he and Perry said they saw no need to vote on it only a week after Gorzell laid out details in a Sept. 10 briefing.

On Thursday, Gorzell, whose department oversees City-owned utilities, said “there would be no rate increase required by SAWS to support this program.” Perry was skeptical, citing the City’s move last August to take a greater share of SAWS’ revenue, bringing in an additional approximately $10 million in 2020.

“That will accelerate a rate increase; I don’t care how you look at it,” Perry said.

Ahead of the vote, many on council sought assurances about the continued expansion of San Antonio’s popular network of linear creekway trails, now stretching approximately 80 miles. The 2015 sales tax propositions approved by voters included $80 million in trail funding.

On March 10, before the coronavirus ravaged local budgets, Bexar County Commissioners voted to include more than $240 million in their fiscal year 2021 budget for what the County called the “Bexar County River and Creek Program.” However, the program was not included in the County’s fiscal year 2021 budget passed Tuesday.

But in a Wednesday letter to Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff committed to securing trail funding. Wolff said he is “particularly supportive of the Westside and Southside creeks projects, which have been neglected for many years.”

“COVID-19 has adversely affected our community and Bexar County, causing us to temporarily halt our plans in moving forward with this project,” Wolff wrote. “There have been some concerns that this means Bexar County has permanently shelved this proposal. That’s not true. Due to the current financial uncertainties, we’re waiting until April 2021 to identify funding opportunities available for this project.”

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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.