Keeping our Water Healthy: New Easements to Protect Edwards Aquifer
Over the next few months, San Antonio City Council will begin considering recommendations from the Conservation Advisory Board (CAB), signaling the commencement of the current round of the $90 million sales-tax-funded, voter-approved Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.
The mechanics of the program have evolved somewhat since its inception over ten years ago, but the essence remains consistent—utilize an acquisition mechanism to maintain land over the Aquifer Recharge Zone in a relatively undeveloped state, thereby protecting our primary water source. Citizens are on board with the effort, having supported this .08% sales tax supplement three times (2000, 2005, 2010), all by comfortable margins. But, the innovative nature of this particular program, beginning to garner nationwide attention, may not be fully appreciated.
With Council consideration pending, this is an appropriate time to provide an overview of the aquifer’s program. After all, CAB (comprised of representatives from various city/regional entities) will generally be recommending the expenditure of millions of dollars per purchase. In almost all cases this will not be to purchase the land outright, but for a conservation easement – typically on a large ranch in Uvalde or Medina County (although purchases in Bexar may also materialize).
This means that, in perpetuity, no matter who purchases or inherits that land, it must remain in virtually the same condition as on the day the purchase is made. This is of crucial significance to San Antonians. Uvalde and Medina counties may seem far off, but they contain most of the Recharge Zone that channels water to our City.
In short, water that rains and flows across these properties makes its way underground through sinkholes, caves and faults, and then proceeds to our local collection points in the Edwards Aquifer Artesian Zone in Bexar County. By securing that natural process against the threat of development and impervious cover, the City’s supply is protected.
Two key aspects of these acquisitions are how the properties are chosen, and the basis for their easement price. Let’s begin with the second, since it is a simple calculation. All properties have a fair market appraisal value, the likely price the land would draw under current conditions with no additional encumbrance. From that amount is subtracted the fair market value of the land with the easement—how much it would likely be worth to buyers with the stipulation of no further development. The price the City offers is the difference between the two. Let’s take as an example a 4,300 acre Uvalde County ranch easement purchased in 2008. Fair market value for this ranch was $8.6 million; with the easement, $4.95 million. The difference, and what the City paid, was the market driven price of the easement itself, $3.65 million.
The process by which properties are selected is necessarily more complicated. But, it too eliminates a great deal of the subjectivity common to public acquisitions. CAB utilizes a Land Acquisition Team (comprised of the land trusts Green Spaces Alliance and The Nature Conservancy) to help identify properties systematically.
They are guided primarily by a sophisticated, data-rich model constructed by a Scientific Evaluation Team (SET), a group of local experts in fields such as hydrology, geology, and biology. This model ranked over 96,000 parcels in the broad recharge zone area utilizing weighted layers of variables to evaluate the geology and biology of each site, employing data collected down to the one meter scale.
Properties that score highest possess the features that indicate strongest recharge function. Size and adjacency to already protected land are also included in the calculation of rankings.
While all targeted properties are independently important for recharge, their value is frequently augmented by this adjacency factor, as it facilitates the connection of previously acquired easement properties. For example, the CAB is currently considering the addition of properties into the Program which could result in a 24,000 acre contiguous block of Northeastern Uvalde County being protected. This sort of “bundling” multiplies the value of individual properties by conserving entire watersheds, areas of land that water flows across toward its drainage point.
As the merit of future easement acquisitions are inextricably linked to earlier acquisitions, I now turn to the history of this program. Its accomplishments so far are easy to sum up—$135 million spent to preserve 97,000 acres. Again looking just at the three county Recharge Zone that conducts flow to our City (see map above), this represents an astonishing 20% protected, at $1,400.00 per acre average price. But, these figures do not impart the entire story, since an important evolution occurred in the transition from the 2000 version of the Program (appearing on the ballot as Proposition Three, comprising both Aquifer protection and the Linear Creekways program) to the 2005 and 2010 versions (Proposition One).
When the program began, per state law sales tax funds could be utilized only to purchase land outright, and only in Bexar County. Accolades are due to former District 8 Councilwoman Bonnie Conner who pioneered this original effort and dared to think big, with even the initial ballot measure dedicating $45 million to the goal.
But Conner did not stop there. She and other key players recognized that conservation easements would not just be cheaper, but far easier to administer than fee simple acquisitions, since they required only monitoring, not the management that comes with ownership. And, they knew that enabling purchases to the west would be more effective than a sole focus on Bexar. Thus, they succeeded in lobbying for the necessary changes to Section 334.001 of the Texas Local Government Code in 2003. They also thought even bigger, with the 2005 and 2010 versions each providing $90 million. With the legal change and the larger pot of funds, significant swaths of crucial recharge land were secured efficiently, with easements in the 2005 round averaging $1,103 in Medina County and $1,014 in Uvalde.
Inevitably the question arises of how things might have been different if only we had started this program earlier, and purchased land within the City and County while we still could. Certainly, with such funds available, some construction over our local recharge zone might have been prevented. And, since the land would have been purchased at market value, the resistance and legal battles that tend to accompany preservation by regulatory means would have been avoided. Still, it is important to remember that the greater part of the Recharge Zone sits outside of our own County. And, within our City/County, only that fraction of development that occurred on Recharge Zone land could conceivably have been prevented by purchases from this Program. (Only about 10% of Bexar County is comprised of Recharge Zone.) Furthermore, the high land prices in Bexar County would have limited these purchases, a fact just as true now as it was in the 1990s.
Today, while we continue to seek suitable land within or near the City, the most effective expenditures tend to be in the western counties. Portentously, they are now facing the same development pressures that Bexar has already experienced, with population estimated to grow by 63% in Medina and 22% in Uvalde by 2050. While the imminent development of a particular parcel is one factor the SET model cannot capture, the CAB considers it seriously.
In short, the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program will keep us from looking back twenty years from now to ask why we did not protect those crucial counties while we still could.
As we move forward with this round of the Program, San Antonio serves as an exemplar. Other municipalities nationwide are beginning to utilize acquisition strategies to achieve preservation goals, but their efforts are more modest both in terms of funds allocated and program focus. For example, Travis County has initiated an $8.3 million bond financed program, but the target of purchases is more loosely focused on open space in general. While this sort of approach is typical, it lacks the unambiguous goal and sharply defined criteria of our own effort. Those features, in conjunction with the impressive evidence of success—the protected land bank compiled so far—push our Program to gold standard status. None of this would have happened without citizens willing to believe in this idea.
Click here for Romero’s powerpoint presentation about the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.
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Dr. Francine Sanders Romero is the current chair of the Conservation Advisory Board, as well as the vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Board. She served on the City Planning Commission from 2004-2008. Dr. Romero is the Associate Dean of UTSA’s College of Public Policy, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Riverside, and is the author of numerous books and articles on public policy and American government.