Developers interested in building over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone within the city’s jurisdiction may soon find they are no longer guaranteed water and sewer service from the San Antonio Water System — at least, not without meeting new requirements.

Under current rules, any development that wants to use SAWS for water or sewer service must be given those services if it lies within the utility’s designated service areas.

That includes development over the environmentally sensitive recharge zone, a requirement that has long caused heartburn for some SAWS trustees, who have lamented not being able to weigh these cases individually.

Now the city is launching a process to update its policy in ways that could give SAWS the ability to bring more nuance to its decision-making process, by adding specific requirements developers must meet to receive SAWS services when building in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

The updated policy will also bring more clarity to “edge” cases — proposed developments that lie outside SAWS’ water or sewer service areas but within the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. Right now, SAWS’ staff and board decide if services will be granted. The goal will be to create a more formal framework for that decision-making.

A recent example of an edge case would the 1,160-acre, 2,900-home development proposed on what was once part of the historic Guajolote Ranch just outside of Grey Forest. The property is located within SAWS water service area and in the city’s ETJ but outside the utility’s sewer service area.

In that case, SAWS was required to give the development water services.

Trustee Amy Hardberger, who has repeatedly expressed frustration that SAWS is “positioned as the gatekeeper for land development and land use,” applauded the launch of this policy update at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“I’m so excited about this presentation, I feel like I’ve been waiting for it for years,” Hardberger said.

For too long, she said, it’s been unclear which entity is in charge of making sure developers build in ways that protect the sensitive recharge zone.

Clarity about what requirements developers must meet in order to secure water and sewer service is therefore a very welcome addition to city policy, Hardberger said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an ex-officio SAWS trustee, agreed.

“We have to figure out how can we position SAWS to be the best option for service in the areas we know are going to be developed … and then when we have that leverage, we can start talking about [obligations],” Nirenberg said.

He added that he’d like to see enforcement discussed as part of the policy update: “None of this is worth the paper it’s written on if we can’t enforce it.”

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, told the San Antonio Report that it’s evident that SAWS trustees understand how growth impacts SAWS’ water supplies, and are “committed to working with the city to establish coherent policy related to San Antonio’s growth.”

Peace said she’s been calling on the city and SAWS to do this since 2008.

“I was really happy with the directions outlined today,” she said.

Rudy Niño, assistant director of the city’s Planning Department, told the San Antonio Report these discussions first began back in 2016 with the creation of the city’s SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan.

The plan called for more collaboration between the city and its public utilities and for the city to create more guidance for growth plans and policy decisions made by the utilities, Niño said.

Recent changes to state law that have made it more difficult for the city to annex property within SAWS service areas but outside city limits has made it imperative that the city act sooner than later he said during the meeting.

After working with stakeholders to formulate new rules, the planning department hopes to bring the proposed changes before the city council by the end of April.

Avatar photo

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.