A City Council vote Thursday could extend a 20-year-long program to protect San Antonio’s most precious water source under an unprecedented new funding structure.

The vote would change the way San Antonio pays for the preservation of land over and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer, the underground water-bearing rock layer that serves as the City’s main drinking water supply. The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) pays landowners to forever restrict development, drilling, mining, and other aquifer-threatening activities on their property through deed restrictions known as conservation easements.

Over the past two decades, San Antonio has used a sales tax of one-eighth of a cent on every dollar spent in City limits to protect more than 160,000 acres over the aquifer. In 2015, San Antonio voters approved the collection of $100 million in sales tax to fund the EAPP. The 2015 sales tax also included $80 million to fund the City’s Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails system.

But this November, San Antonio voters will only be able to choose whether to dedicate that sales tax to a $154 million City-led workforce training initiative, along with a separate ballot measure renewing another one-eighth of a cent in sales tax to Pre-K 4 SA. A third VIA Metropolitan Transit ballot measure would shift the tax currently used for aquifer and trails to VIA, but not until 2026.

City officials expect to collect the 2015 sales tax until mid-2021 and spend it through late 2022. If City Council approves it Thursday, the new era of the EAPP would begin in 2023. Supporters call it a renewed commitment to the aquifer to the tune of $100 million over 10 years using debt with City funding as collateral.

“It’s a different financial situation this time than it’s been in the past, but it’s still a firm commitment from the City,” Councilman John Courage (D9) said in a Monday digital town hall with constituents.

The new structure council will consider Thursday leaves intact all of the entities that make up the EAPP. These include the Conservation Advisory Board, which informs City Council on which properties it should protect. On Aug. 26, the Conservation Advisory Board passed a resolution in support of the new structure.

Councilman John Courage (D9) leads a town hall about the upcoming vote with his constituents via Zoom. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The new EAPP would also keep in place the Scientific Evaluation Team, made up of aquifer experts who recommend what land should stay pristine to protect the aquifer. It would also maintain the staff at the City’s Parks and Recreation Department that manages the program’s funding and day-to-day operations. Third parties such as The Nature Conservancy, Green Spaces Alliance, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority would continue to negotiate with landowners and monitor preserved properties.

To fund the program, the City in 2023 would begin contributing $600,000 from its general fund, sourced from the revenue the City receives from the San Antonio Water System. That revenue would secure sufficient debt to fund the $100 million program over an estimated 10 years or less.

City officials are anticipating the program’s share of the City budget to increase in step with the City’s debt payments. The City’s general fund contribution would ramp up to $3.1 million by 2027. Meanwhile, City staff expect debt payments to start at more than $500,000 in 2023, increasing to $2 million by 2026. Those annual debt service payments would max out at $7.1 million in 2034 and continue until all the debt is paid off in 2051.

Opponents of the new system say this incremental funding is a less sure bet than the sales tax up for voter approval five years. They worry the EAPP could be easily undone by future councils, and the concern extends beyond local environmentalist circles.

“The reality of this funding mechanism is that it takes the control of aquifer protection out of the hands of the voters, and [puts it] at the discretion of the council,” Grace Rose Gonzales, a candidate in a July runoff for Bexar County Democratic Party chair, wrote in a Monday email to local Democrats. “Council and Mayor could choose not to continue this program at any time with their vote.”

Facing similar concerns at his town hall, Courage assured residents that the resolution includes a measure that would shine a spotlight on future councils who might want to change the EAPP again. The resolution includes a section requiring two public hearings at least 30 days apart ahead of any future council vote to change the EAPP.

One of opponents’ main sticking points is the funding for trails set to expire when the 2015 sales tax collection ends. The City’s popular trails program has created 80 miles of paved paths along local waterways. Despite assurance from Mayor Ron Nirenberg, no concrete plan has been proposed to continue trail construction.

Thursday’s vote is the culmination of a sales tax shuffle saga that began in December 2018, when Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and ConnectSA leaders shared their plans to shift the sales tax to VIA Metropolitan Transit. Nirenberg pledged at the time to find new funding for the aquifer.

That kicked off a series of failed attempts in 2019 to pass some version of the program onto other entities, including the San Antonio River Authority and SAWS. Nirenberg in February proposed the structure City Council will consider Thursday, but he later balked at putting the sales tax shift on the November ballot, citing bad timing amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession.

When VIA’s board in July resolved to call its own vote on shifting the sales tax with or without the City’s cooperation, Nirenberg compromised. Voters will now choose in November whether to allow the City to collect sales tax for workforce development and whether to allow VIA to collect that tax starting Jan. 1, 2026.

If those measures fail, the City will stop collecting the sales tax after gathering the full amount approved in 2015.

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