SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne Texas.
SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Behind the white metal gates on Corley Road south of Boerne lie 375 acres of gentle pastures, Texas live oaks, and an old ranch house visible from the fence line.

In the near future, this ranch could look a lot more like a suburban neighborhood less than a mile away, just one of many new housing developments in the fast-growing town on the southern edge of the Hill Country.

What will distinguish the so-called Boerne West project is that it will be developed under some of the City of San Antonio’s most stringent environmental ordinances, even though the land is not in Bexar County and lies less than a mile south of Boerne in Kendall County.

These rules govern light pollution, the amount of tree canopy cover on the property, water quality from drainage and storm runoff, and cutting back on sprinkler use during times of drought. They hold sway inside San Antonio city limits and in the slightly larger sphere of influence known in the planning world as the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Something else that’s unusual: Water to supply this neighborhood will come not from nearby Boerne or from a local water supply company, but from Canyon Lake via an agreement with the San Antonio Water System.

The environmental regulations are a condition of the SAWS agreement. The public utility agreed to provide water, and the developer, Bakke Development Corp., agreed to adopt San Antonio’s regulations in a deal that Mayor Ron Nirenberg held up as an example of how the City can influence growth in the region.

“That development was going to get water somehow, some way,” Nirenberg said. “We’d prefer it be with full environmental protection and the kind of standards we put in place for regionally and environmentally conscious development.”

The deal is relevant as SAWS considers selling water from its Vista Ridge pipeline, now under construction, to cities and private developments hundreds of miles away. SAWS officials say they have approached nearly every community along the Interstate 35 corridor between Round Rock and San Antonio about buying water from the 142-mile pipeline that could tap into aquifers below Burleson County, east of Austin.

Nirenberg said such partnerships are necessary because the state government treats Texas like “several different outposts that have to look after their own [water supplies].”

“Large urban areas like ours are having to protect their long-term water futures in a sustainable and ecologically conscious way,” he told the Rivard Report. “We can also export our sustainable development practices that are more beneficial environmentally for the region.”

At its March meeting last week, the SAWS board of trustees approved a water supply agreement with Bakke to supply 62,600 gallons per day. This could eventually increase to nearly 650,000 gallons per day, provided the developer meets certain conditions, according to SAWS documents.

As part of the deal, Bakke agreed to adopt San Antonio’s ordinances governing dark skies, tree protection, drainage pollution prevention, and drought management. The company will have to install about 3.75 miles worth of new water mains and pay more than $10 million in impact fees to SAWS.

“The SAWS deal was based on a variety of reasons including economics: It costs less to buy water closer to my project rather than pipe it in from farther away,” said the company’s president, Phil Bakke, in an email.

At the SAWS board meeting, President and CEO Robert Puente said Bakke could have gotten water from “wildcatters” interested in pumping the nearby Trinity Aquifer, which is seen as sensitive to drought.

Puente didn’t mention the company by name, but he appeared to be referring to Texas Water Supply Co., which has access to Trinity water wells in Bexar County. Puente said that in dry times, SAWS shuts off its own Trinity wells to avoid affecting people living in nearby communities that rely on the aquifer.

At the meeting, Cara Tackett, senior vice president of Pape-Dawson Engineers, which is working for Bakke, confirmed that the developer did have the option to buy water from Texas Water Supply, but the choice of SAWS water came down to “cost and reliability.”

Through a spokesman, Texas Water Supply CEO Bill Gehrmann said the decision was about the distance to the company’s wells, with the nearest ones lying roughly 13 miles from the Biedenharn property, the future site of Boerne West, as the crow flies.

State water laws would not allow water from the vast Edwards Aquifer below Bexar County to be pumped over the Kendall County line. That’s why SAWS says it will supply water from Canyon Lake it receives via an agreement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. The City of Boerne will provide a backup supply, according to SAWS.

Jeff Thompson, Boerne’s deputy city manager and economic development director, said in an email that Boerne “was approached about being the water service provider for the Biedenharn development and advised them that they should seek other water supply alternatives.”

Boerne only provides water inside its city limits “with only rare exceptions,” he continued. The way the development is structured and financed will make it difficult for Boerne to annex it “for many, many years,” he said.

The City of Boerne has secured enough water to plan for more than 20 years of growth that would see its population jump from 15,000 to 35,000, he said, adding that the development “would significantly alter that plan” as it relates to periods of high water use.

“The ability to serve not only the homes, but also the water needed for irrigation of lawns and other non-essential uses does not fit our current plan,” Thompson said. “Furthermore, modifications to the city’s existing water treatment plant to meet the additional need for the Biedenharn development are not financially feasible for a system of our size at this time.”

A large concrete pipe lays on the ground near the Vista Ridge pipeline project site in Stone Oak.
A large concrete pipe rests on the ground near the Vista Ridge pipeline project site in Stone Oak. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAWS documents show the utility aims to eventually supply water from Vista Ridge to the Boerne West project. Water is set to begin flowing through Vista Ridge in 2020.

Bakke said that Boerne West’s first phase will be residential only, and the number of lots it will contain has not yet been finalized.

“I will have that in the next month or so as we tidy up all remaining details,” he said.

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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.