By Robert Rivard

The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, the protective limestone mantle over the region’s primary source of drinking water for 1.7 million people, is at greater risk than ever before, although no official is putting it that bluntly. Once contaminated, there is no going back, no quick fix.

A private contractor’s accidental damage of a pipe near Bandera Road and the Wurzbach Parkway on Tuesday resulted in a spill of 100,000 gallons of untreated waste into Huebner Creek.

Few people vote in elections for seats on the board of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, or closely follow its activities, but the special water district is one of the most important governmental entities in our lives. It’s mission of water and aquifer stewardship encompasses, 8,800 square miles of South and Central Texas spread over eight counties.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.
The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.

The Huebner Creek spill received scant news coverage in the grand scheme of things, although spills within the SAWS jurisdiction are occurring at a rate of 40 per month, albeit not on the same scale as Tuesday’s massive discharge. One San Antonio Water Systems executive told me last year that SAWS needs $1 billion in capital to modernize the aging sewage pipelines that cover the recharge zone like lattice-work and are highly susceptible to breaks during drought, floods and development-related accidents. Yet even now, four days after the accident, the SAWS website contains only a days-old, three-paragraph disclosure announcing the spill.

The state’s environmental watchdog agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has nothing under its “Hot Topics” and “News Releases” categories on its home page about the spill, although there is ample coverage of the state agency’s continuing battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its efforts to make Texas and its reluctant Republican leadership enforce federal environmental protections laws.

SAWS doesn’t have $1 billion to address worsening sewage spills or anything close it, and there is no plan on the horizon to address and resolve this pressing infrastructure problem. Along with the sewage spills, there is the growing evidence of man-made pollutants showing up at aquifer monitoring wells.

A plume of tetrachloroethene, a widely used dry-cleaning solvent and metal degreaser, has made its way into the Edwards water table on the city’s Northside, although SAWS officials still do not know the source. It does raise the issue of whether it’s time for the City of San Antonio to consider an ordinance requiring dry cleaners and other commercial users to switch from the use of toxic solvents to more environmentally friendly processes. Some dry cleaners, including Clothesline Cleaners (which has advertised on The Rivard Report), openly market the fact they do not use chemical solvents.

The Edwards Recharge Zone collects water than then flows into the underground aquifer.
The Edwards Recharge Zone collects water than then flows into the underground aquifer.

You can read much more on this topic in an in-depth story published last Sunday in the Express-News, written by Colin McDonald, the only journalist in this city who focuses full-time on water issues, including the aquifer, rivers, creeks and other important environmental elements in the region. McDonald’s story, while highlighting the growing challenge of managing suburban population growth and pollutants in the water table, centered on a tax-supported initiative to protect undeveloped lands over the recharge zone from being purchased by developers.

The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program was approved by voters in 2005 during the second term administration of Mayor Ed Garza. Voters renewed the program in a second vote in 2010. McDonald’s story reported that $135 million has been allocated to date to buy protective easements over 90,000 acres. Another $90 million is being spent on the next phase. Coupled with other state and environmental programs, 120,000 acres, or 15%, of the recharge zone, has thus been protected from development. By 2016 that total could grow to more than 200,000 acres.

It’s a progressive program, but in the opinion of many, it’s too little, too late, and coming at a cost to taxpayers that could have been avoided. A companion piece on The Rivard Report today by Lanny Sinkin, executive director of Solar San Antonio and an ardent environmentalist, began as an email sent to Michael Burke, founder and chairman of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, who shared it with The Rivard Report. (Full disclosure: I’ve moderated a number of Forum events on energy and natural resources, and am participating in planning for an October Forum program focusing on water issues prior to the January session of the Texas Legislature.)

Others, including myself, believe it’s proven to be a highly effective program that is preserving land, protecting ground water and slowing the otherwise inevitable march of sprawl-like development. Taxpayers are coming to understand such sprawl, coupled with low development fees that fall far short of covering infrastructure costs, carries an extremely high, after-the-fact price tag. Highways, public safety, and public works investments outside the core city have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade in the city’s effort to keep up with development.

The Edwards Aquifer is the primary water source for a growing population of more than 1.7 million people.
The Edwards Aquifer is the primary water source for a growing population of more than 1.7 million people.

As protection of the Edwards Aquifer becomes an increasingly challenging proposition, even with land protection programs, SAWS faces other major challenges that are not being widely discussed or debated. Those include:

  1. Meeting the future water needs of San Antonio, which will require the purchase of significant water supplies from other sources and rate increases to fund those programs.
  2. Evidence suggests San Antonio does not conserve water as effectively as advertised, and there is now a likelihood SAWS will not meet its SA2020 goals if it keeps current policies in place.
  3. Current rate structures do not allow SAWS to raise the necessary capital to aggressively expand brackish water desalination, or address its growing infrastructure costs, a situation made more challenging by the demise of BexarMet and the transfer of its customer base to SAWS.

I will explore these challenges in a second part to this article on The Rivard Report tomorrow, “Cheap Water: End of an Era?”

 Maps courtesy of Edwards Aquifer Authority

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.