City Council unanimously approved a more than $7.6 million payment to various property owners Thursday for a conservation easement on 2,830 acres of undeveloped land in Medina and Bandera counties.
The acreage, known as the Middle Verde Ranch, is situated over the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone and was acquired with voter-approved sales tax dollars as part of the City's Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP). This is the 70th conservation easement purchased with money collected from the 2010 one-eighth sales tax and the last large piece of land the City will acquire with those funds, said Parks and Recreation Director Xavier Urrutia.
Preserving the parcel – preventing development – will provide high water quality and quantity benefits because it hosts several features that allow water to seep into the Edwards Aquifer, according to a geological assessment conducted by the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
Middle Verde Ranch's size and proximity to land already acquired by San Antonio make the purchase demonstrative of the EAPP's shifting strategy to "be more selective," Urrutia said. "Contiguous protection over the watershed makes a bigger impact."
EAPP and City staff have already identified potential properties for the 2015 allocation which totaled $100 million: $90 million for land acquisition over the recharge zone and $10 million toward the recharge zone watershed and water management projects.
"We're fine tuning the methodology [of how the City selects parcels]," Urrutia said. "There's no break in the work we're doing."
The EAPP was initiated in 2000 and has received consistent, strong support from voters ever since. So far the program has protected about 146,000 acres in the Edwards Aquifer contributing and recharge zones.
Land in San Antonio and even Bexar County is hard to come by, Urrutia said, which is why the 204-acre Classen-Steubing family property near Stone Oak was such a find. The City purchased most of the land for conservation in June 2016 and the remaining approximately 40 acres will be purchased and developed into sports fields if the 2017 bond package is approved this May. The family plans on developing the rest of its adjacent land.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) lauded the work done to secure that park in his district, but he said constituents question the logic behind San Antonio protecting land outside of the city and county limits. Some, he said, are skeptical that the land would ever be developed anyway.
"There just isn't that much recharge zone in [Bexar] County," said Francine Romero, who chairs the Conservation Advisory Board, the nine-member committee tasked with recommending land acquisition and other EAPP activities to City Council.
What citizens need to know is that the watershed flows west to east, from Uvalde and Medina counties to Bexar County, Romero explained, and this region is growing fast. An estimated 1 million people are expected to move to the San Antonio area by 2040, and surrounding counties also are anticipating growth.
"You can see the ranches getting broken up," she said, as more people want to purchase land and build vacation homes.
A lot of land near Loop 1604 was once thought of as "too far out there" for developers, Krier agreed.
The City dedicated time and resources over the past decades to reduce its dependence on the Edwards Aquifer by diversifying its source portfolio and encouraging water conservation, but the aquifer is still the main source of water for San Antonio.
Major projects like the recently-opened desalination plant and coming 142-mile Vista Ridge water pipeline are expected to reduce this dependency, Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) said, but "it's incredibly important for people to understand that we continue to be extremely aggressive with protecting the aquifer."