Despite a request from the North San Antonio Chamber for the San Antonio Water System to fully expand its water service area on the city’s environmentally sensitive Northwest Side, the utility’s trustees voted Tuesday to continue deciding on providing services in this area on a case-by-case basis.

The trustees also unanimously approved a proposal to expand the southeast part of SAWS’ wastewater service area and to pull SAWS’ wastewater service area out of Comal County on its northeast part.

SAWS’ service area is where the utility has “first right of refusal for service.” In other words, a developer can’t seek water from another provider without first seeing if SAWS will be their provider. Unless there is reasonable cause for refusal, SAWS must provide water and/or wastewater within its state-approved service area to anyone who asks.

Prior to voting, SAWS’ board of trustees discussed the benefits and risks of the service area changes at length. Their public discussions surrounding any changes first began in March when the idea was first introduced to the trustees by SAWS staff.

For a long time, the utility’s service area has served as a point of contention between SAWS, developers and environmentalists due to the fact developers must secure water and wastewater service agreements prior to starting construction. Environmentalists have pushed for the utility to deny access to water or wastewater services as a means of halting developments, but the utility’s hands are typically effectively tied under the state laws regarding service areas.

During the formal presentation to the board of trustees, Andrea Beymer, SAWS’ vice president of engineering and construction, said the Northside’s business community was hoping to see SAWS extend its water service area. She showed that the North San Antonio Chamber had submitted a formal letter to SAWS, asking it to extend water service to the full extent of San Antonio’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) and to only continue reviewing sewer service on a case-by-case basis.

Trustee Amy Hardberger, who has repeatedly expressed frustration that SAWS is “positioned as the gatekeeper for land development and land use,” said she appreciates that the utility is not doing a blanket extension of its water service area into this environmentally sensitive area and instead will continue to examine development requests on the city’s northwest side on a case-by-case basis.

“There are so many variables in that area because of the geology and the importance in terms of water quality and water recharge,” she said. This portion of San Antonio sits over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

Hardberger added that because of these factors, she would not have felt comfortable with a major extension such as the one SAWS is giving to the southeast service area. This section of San Antonio is less impactful to the aquifer, and aquifer advocates have often pushed for new growth to be in this part of town.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a trustee by virtue of his office, agreed with Hardberger, adding that the city and SAWS do not want to stop growth, but want to ensure it continues to happen responsibly.

“The goal here … is to make sure that whatever does happen out there is conducive — or as aligned with our principles and growth — as possible,” he said. Nirenberg added that he likes the idea of the city and SAWS taking further steps to protect this area as well, as was discussed by the utility’s board in February.

Within this vein, the trustees also discussed the city’s new growth management policy, which was approved by the City Council at the end of August. The policy will streamline and formalize the process of approving Public Improvement Districts, known as PIDs, and Municipal Utility Districts, or MUDs.

These “special districts,” as trustees called them Tuesday, are financing tools that can be used by property owners to provide the infrastructure necessary for development.

The new policy specifies that the city and SAWS should explore policy for development agreements if SAWS enters into a utility service agreement — an agreement to provide service — outside SAWS’ service area. SAWS trustees and staff both seemed very open to the idea.

“We’ve asked staff to do several things for us as we consider this growth policy,” chairwoman Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison said. “We asked for increased stakeholder outreach; we asked for a financial analysis to understand the costs associated with considering these boundary changes; and we also asked staff to make sure we were in alignment with the city’s growth policy. It’s of the utmost importance to protect our resources and our customers.”

Environmentalists were on board with SAWS’ service area changes. Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said she’s been asking SAWS to move out of the Comal County area for a while and was glad to see they will now also be evaluating possible utility service agreements on a case-by-case basis.

“All in all, am pleased at the way the SAWS staff and board handled this,” Peace told the San Antonio Report. “Since SAWS is the agency delegated for enforcement of San Antonio’s water quality regulations, it is good to see that SAWS — through today’s decisions — has accorded themselves more leeway in protecting our Edwards Aquifer water resources.”

Alan Montemayor, chairman of the Alamo Sierra Club, said he has mixed emotions about the changes although he agreed with Peace that moving out of the Comal County area is to the benefit of SAWS. Montemayor addressed the trustees prior to the start of the meeting, asking them to limit dense development over the aquifer recharge zone as they consider the city’s new growth policy.

Beymer told reporters following the board meeting that SAWS will now submit a formal request to change its service area, which will go before the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The PUC has the right to approve or deny the request, she said.

“We understand the process — now that PUC has taken over from [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] — is far more rigorous,” she said. “So we’ll see what requirements they put on us.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...