The conversation about the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) on Tuesday would have been very different had it happened 20 years ago. San Antonio, Uvalde, New Braunfels, and other cities were in the midst of a fierce water war in the early ’90s that had regional representatives at each others’ proverbial throats.

The fight is faded, but is not forgotten in 2016.

Hundreds of attendees packed the Pearl Stable for Water Forum VII: A Legacy – Edwards Aquifer Authority at 20 Years that featured speakers and panels that commemorated the people involved in the EAA’s past and future. The journey to water security in South Texas, one of the fastest growing regions in the county, is far from over and the EAA may become a model for how groundwater is regulated across the nation.

But there is one, major sticking point for that latter point, said panelist State Rep. Tracy King (D-80), who serves on the Edwards Aquifer Legislative Oversight Committee. The Edwards Aquifer is so plentiful and recharges water so fast, “I don’t think that’s an apples to apples comparison” to aquifers in Texas or the country.

King joined State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), outgoing State Rep. Doug Miller (R-73), EAA Board Chair Luana Buckner, and EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz for the panel discussion. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard served as moderator.

It’s no wonder San Antonio relied on it as its sole source of water for so long, King said later, “who would blame them?”

Rep. Tracy King, Uvalde, speaks about legislative interactions with the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
State Rep. Tracy King (R-80) speaks about legislative interactions with the Edwards Aquifer Authority. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The Sierra Club’s lawsuit and federal judge’s order to figure out how to protect endangered species that lived in the aquifer’s spring forced the region to diversify its water supply and begin conservation programs.

“We wouldn’t have done it unless we were forced to do it,” Rivard said.

The concept of regional water management was new to people and municipalities, but “back in late ’80s, early ’90s everybody wanted to solve this issue,” Buckner said.

Yet, Miller said, there was too much “indifference” to the downstream or aquifer-wide effects of over-pumping. “We were acting like we weren’t connected.”

Now the EAA, after legal and board election battles, is moving toward a path of becoming more focused on water quality in the aquifer in addition to maintaining quantity.

“Without good, quality water in the Edwards, quantity means nothing,” Ruiz said.

The EAA also is trying to combat the negative connotations that come along with being a “regulator,” so it’s looking into approaches that avoid more rules and fines and instead incentivizes aquifer protection, Ruiz said. He said the 1/8-cent tax that feeds the City’s recharge zone land acquisition program is an example of “win-win” initiatives that benefit land owners, the aquifer, and taxpayers.

Sen. Menéndez cautioned against complete avoidance of regulation.

“A carrot is always better than the stick, but we have to protect water quality,” he said. Sometimes a stick is warranted.

Both Menéndez and Miller expect to see water management issues come up in the next legislative session, but what that will look like is yet to be determined.

Some legislators have suggested that aquifer management should be more uniform across the state or that water be bought and sold more like oil or other commodities.

Suzanne Scott Wins Water for Life Award

SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott reacts to being awarded the Water for Life Award.
SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott reacts to being awarded the Water for Life Award. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Before the panel began, San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott was honored with the 2016 Water for Life Award for her dedicated service to major and minor water initiatives managed by the River Authority including educational and outreach programming, watershed awareness, and the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, which broke ground last month.

“Suzanne is one of the unsung heroes in city leadership, but I guess after today you’re not unsung anymore,” said Rivard, noting that without the ecological and recreational restoration of the Mission Reach, the World Heritage designation of the Spanish-colonial Missions may not have been realized.

Scott, who is the first woman to receive the award, used her opportunity on stage to thank her team and to call attention to the continued protection of water resources.

“They were here before we were here,” Scott said. “It’s important to not only where we’ve been but where we’re going.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org