The San Antonio Water System could feasibly purchase land to protect the Edwards Aquifer at about half the pace the City does today if it were to take over the program, utility officials said at a meeting Tuesday. 

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente shared preliminary numbers at the municipally owned water and sewer utility’s January meeting. Puente charted a potential path forward for taking over the City’s program to protect sensitive land around its main drinking water supply. 

The briefing came as a result of San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s push to have SAWS administer the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, through which the City preserves land over and upstream of the water-bearing limestone rock layer that serves as the main water source for the San Antonio area. 

To fund the program, Puente told board members that some of the money SAWS is providing to the City could be used to fund the EAPP. Last year, the City increased SAWS’ contribution to its coffers from 2.7 percent to 4 percent. If that amount was reduced to 3.75 percent, it could over a five-year period generate $11.5 million that could be used for aquifer protection, Puente said. 

That funding could then be leveraged to borrow money to finance the purchase of land over the aquifer. Including cash and financing, SAWS could contribute $52 million over five years to purchase land outright or pay for conservation easements that permanently block the land from being developed. 

Puente described this proposal as “the funding option that has gotten the most consideration.” Several SAWS trustees referred to it as a “straw man,” a strong indication that the details could change in the months ahead as SAWS trustees vet the idea. 

The $52 million over five years is a little more than half of what’s going towards aquifer protection under the current system, funded by a one-eighth-cent portion of local sales tax. In 2015, San Antonio voters approved the collection of $100 million in sales taxes for the EAPP. 

At the meeting, SAWS trustee Pat Merritt asked what effect the proposal would have on SAWS customers’ monthly bills. Puente said SAWS can absorb the EAPP without raising rates to pay for it over the next two or so years, but that would likely change.  

“It won’t affect rates in the immediate future,” Puente replied, but “whenever you have that [cash] outlay, rates will eventually catch up.”

At the meeting, every SAWS trustee questioned Puente about details of the program. Utility officials are expected to discuss the issue again in February. No vote has been scheduled yet on whether SAWS will take over the program, though officials say a vote could come as soon as February or March. 

“We’ll keep everyone posted and be as transparent as we can be,” said SAWS Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr.

Nirenberg is pushing for a shift in the sales tax that currently funds the aquifer program to VIA Metropolitan Transit to support more frequent and reliable bus service. Nirenberg, a member of the SAWS board in his official capacity, has said the utility is the only entity that can continue the aquifer protection program. The shift in focus to SAWS comes after the San Antonio River Authority voted against pursuing a tax that could have helped fund parts of the EAPP. 

Nirenberg has proposed using SAWS revenue and borrowing to pay for a slower-paced version of the EAPP, using a target of preserving 56,000 additional acres. That would take the amount of protected land on the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zone from 239,000 acres to 295,000 acres. 

That acreage comes from an estimate of how much land over the aquifer needs to be preserved to meet San Antonio’s average annual water demand through 2070. The land already preserved includes 160,000 acres through the EAPP and another 79,000 acres protected from development via other means. Those other means include the U.S. Army’s Camp Bullis, Government Canyon State Natural Area, and other properties SAWS has purchased in the past. 

Since 2000, funds for that preservation has come from the one-eighth-cent portion of local sales tax on purchases within San Antonio city limits. Four times over the past 20 years, San Antonio voters have elected to tax themselves to pay for the aquifer and a network of linear trails, approving $325 million in aquifer taxes alone. 

Nirenberg wants to see that sales tax shifted to improve San Antonio’s public transit. The mayor sees improved funding for mass transportation as the best way to reign in sprawl, fight poverty, reduce the amount of paved surfaces over the local watershed, improve local air quality, and make progress on the City’s climate goals.

“We are trying to achieve collective goals, and some of those have been known for a long time,” Nirenberg said at the meeting. “I’m looking forward to the discussion. The only thing we know for sure is that we aren’t going to achieve our goals collectively if we resign to our status quo.”

At the meeting, SAWS trustee Pat Jasso asked why the City couldn’t absorb funding for the EAPP, rather than SAWS. 

“That’s a question for our mayor and for our [City] Council,” Puente said. 

Any shift of the sales tax, or a renewal of the EAPP as it currently stands, would need the approval of voters in November.

“We have a lot of questions,” Guerra said.  “We are looking at this very seriously.”

SAWS trustee David McGee called Puente’s presentation “a good start.” He asked about the origins of the 56,000-acre estimate and said he wants to understand more clearly how much land over the aquifer needs to be protected. 

“We want to know when we’re going to be done,” McGee said. “When do we accomplish our goal? I think all of us support the idea of protecting the aquifer and doing our jobs, not just for our citizens now, but in future generations. [The aquifer is] quite a gift.”

SAWS trustee Amy Hardberger echoed McGee’s questions. 

“There’s a part of me that hates the word ‘done’ when we think about aquifer protection,” Hardberger said at the meeting. “But in reality, there are both physical limits when you think about the amount of development that’s happened, and also realistic limits. We don’t really want to buy forever.”

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