This article, written by Francine Romero, originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on September 13, 2020.
Last month, the Conservation Advisory Board, or CAB, resolved support for an alternative to the renowned Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, known as EAPP.
Up to now, the EAPP has been funded through a voter-approved sales tax used to purchase land or conservation easements over the recharge and contributing zones. Approximately $282 million has been expended to protect more than 160,000 acres from development in perpetuity. No matter what happens in the future, those easements are secure.
A portion of the $100 million approved by voters in 2015 remains to be collected and expended. But this incarnation of the program will end with those final expenditures, sometime in 2022, as City Council did not vote to put it on the ballot for reauthorization. Instead, this alternative funding source is now being considered in its place. Since it is not CAB’s role to comment on the broader political context, our discussion focused solely on ensuring the program’s continued success through extension of its current mission, funding levels and sustainability.
The draft ordinance and program agreement we reviewed retains the mission through the same watershed protection language that anchors the current program. Funds must continue to be used solely for aquifer protection through fee simple and easement purchases. The city will contract with a local government corporation (whose board consists of mayor and council) to fulfill this objective, keeping City Parks and Recreation Department staff support and CAB infrastructure in place.
While the mission remains intact, the funding level and source would change, which has caused some confusion and concern. The alternative, which commits $100 million over 10 years, has been portrayed as a 50 percent reduction from the current model of $100 million over five years. This interpretation is not entirely correct.
Although the initial 2000 authorization of EAPP was renewed three times at five-year intervals, the endpoint was always tied to a given amount of money, not a set time frame. In 2015, voters authorized collection of $100 million, however long that took, which in reality will be closer to six years. On the other hand, while this alternative’s funds are estimated to be spent over 10 years, that could be accelerated if warranted. Furthermore, even if the program had appeared on the ballot this year and was approved for another $100 million, there is no guarantee it would have appeared/been approved again, whether in 2025 or ever.
The alternative plan shifts the funding source from sales tax to debt secured by a portion of the city’s revenue payment from the San Antonio Water System. This has triggered alarm that SAWS will play a role in the program, but that simply is not the case. SAWS’ annual payment has been in place for years, serving as a revenue source for the city’s general fund. Other than continuing to have representation on CAB, SAWS will have no role in coordinating or approving expenditures, or any other aspect of the program.
A second concern is these funds could diminish or SAWS could refuse to pay. In reality, SAWS has no discretion to withhold funds, and while it is possible that nothing would be left after paying other costs, that has not occurred in the agency’s history.
Finally, and a reasonable cause for apprehension, is the sustainability of the program under the alternative mechanism. The biggest difference is that a future council could vote to end the program, whereas the current version is assured to completion upon voter approval.
A few impediments temper this new threat. Once a bond issuance occurs — for example, if the city kicks off the program in 2022 by borrowing $25 million — those funds must be spent toward the program’s objectives. Furthermore, future reductions to the overall allotment must be made in a stand-alone council vote, not simply negotiated in a budget session. A requirement for multiple public hearings prior to any such vote may be added.
Understandably, none of this may satisfy residents disappointed with the change. A significant feature of the EAPP was the bond between voters and water protection facilitated by the ballot measure, and its loss should not be minimized. Texans hold a sacred connection to their water source, in combination with a healthy dose of governmental skepticism, so the ability to safeguard the aquifer through a direct and binding vote was a perfect fit.
We all owe a debt to former Mayor Howard Peak and former Councilwoman Bonnie Conner for pioneering that mechanism. But it will soon vanish, and we must find a way to continue the effort. If approved, the new approach can be successful, but it will require public vigilance to safeguard this grand venture to protect our primary and ancient water source.
Francine Sanders Romero is the chair of the Conservation Advisory Board and the chair of the Department of Public Administration at UTSA.