The San Antonio Water System will change a planned route for a sewage pipeline to avoid environmentally sensitive land that taxpayers paid $1.5 million to protect, according to the utility’s top executive.

Instead of piping sewage across two properties enrolled in the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), SAWS will route sewage to the south along Blanco Road, away from a planned housing development near the intersection of Blanco and Specht roads in unincorporated northern Bexar County, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told the San Antonio Report on Wednesday.

The decision came after landowners and aquifer advocates spoke out about plans to run a 15-inch-wide sewer main over land owned by the Chapman and Gruendler families. Last year, the families each agreed to a deal with the City worth approximately $750,000 to avoid building on their ranches, which lie over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

SAWS officials wanted to cross the protected properties to using a gravity-fed sewage line. That way, they could avoid uphill stretches along Blanco Road, which would require a pressurized sewage main and multiple lift stations. Compared to a gravity-fed system, these alternatives are more expensive and can be more prone to sewage spills, according to SAWS.

But in a phone interview Wednesday, Puente said crossing the EAPP lands had generated “so much angst” that SAWS staff will recommend an alternative at its June 8 board meeting.

“Just because we’re going a different route doesn’t mean we’re going to put the aquifer recharge area in more danger,” Puente said. “It’s just a different type of protection that we have to be aware of. It’s going to be more expensive for us – capital and operations. But sometimes, that’s what you do.”

SAWS’ reversal came after the utility’s representatives had made repeated offers to buy a strip of the Chapman and Gruendler properties in which to place the pipeline. The next step would have been to take the families to court in eminent domain proceedings to force the sale.

That was before Annalisa Peace, director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, and former District 8 Councilwoman Bonnie Conner, a strong proponent of the EAPP since its inception, drew media attention to the case.

“I think it would just set a terrible, terrible precedent for any future conservation easements that [the City] would attempt to obtain,” Conner said Wednesday. “I don’t know that there would ever be a trust level where people would want to work with the City on this.”

In a May 4 board meeting, SAWS Board Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison reprimanded SAWS staff for not alerting board members earlier that the pipeline would cross land enrolled in the EAPP.

On Tuesday, Puente called property owner Scott Gruendler to tell him about SAWS’ decision to build the sewer line elsewhere. Gruendler had emailed SAWS asking how to sign up to speak during the public comment period at the SAWS board’s next meeting.

“I got a call within an hour after I submitted that email, and it was Mr. Puente,” Gruendler said. Puente asked Gruendler if he did indeed want to speak at the meeting.

“And I said, ‘Yeah, I want to get up and talk,’” Gruendler said. “And [Puente] said, ‘Well, I just want you to know that late last week, we made a decision, and we’re not going to go across the City of San Antonio property easements.’”

Gruendler’s neighbor, Brenda Chapman, heard the news of Puente’s call in a text message from Gruendler. She had found it baffling that SAWS had proposed the sewer line less than six months after she and her husband signed up with the EAPP.

“People, get your act together,” Chapman said Wednesday. “Because I think that easement had to be routed through all of these City departments before the agreement even got reached. I’m pretty sure there were lots of traps run. We had to fill out lots of paperwork.”

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who was among the SAWS board members questioning the sewer line proposal, said avoiding the protected land is the “right call.”

“Twenty years of the EAPP have taught us that our community is serious about protecting the aquifer, and public officials must act accordingly,” Nirenberg said of the program that has preserved more than 160,000 acres over and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer.

Last year, Nirenberg led the push to shift sales tax funding away from the EAPP to fund workforce training, then public transit. City Council later voted to fund the EAPP at a rate of $100 million over 10 years via the revenue the City receives from SAWS.

In a statement Wednesday, Nirenberg said the issue of a sewer line almost crossing the recharge zone “illustrates the benefits of City Council’s 2020 decision ensuring the program is in place for another 10 years.”

“Council must closely monitor and assess the program,” Nirenberg continued.

Puente has said that without City Council action, SAWS staff will continue to find themselves caught between two conflicting mandates: their legal duty to serve new water and sewer customers and the City’s interest in protecting San Antonio’s main drinking water supply.

“A few years ago, there was a task force put together to work on [the City’s] Unified Development Code,” Puente said. “Maybe something like that needs to be put together again, where all the stakeholders are involved, where everybody has that opportunity to say what their thoughts are on these issues. And then ultimately have City Council tell us – through policymaking, through ordinance, through direction – as to how we want to continue to grow.”

On this, Gruendler agrees.

“[Puente’s] right,” Gruendler said. “SAWS, they’re just providing a service, and so there’s nothing that they can do to hold back on density.”

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