SAWS, Council Members Pump Brakes on Aquifer Protection Takeover

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Water System Board Chair Heriberto "Berto" Guerra Jr. acknowledges there are “a lot of questions that have to be answered” about a proprosal for the water utility to take over a program to protect land over the Edwards Aquifer.

San Antonio Water System officials want its customers to know that when they expressed support for the mayor’s plan to take on aquifer protection and free up funding for public transit, the operative word was “plan.” 

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at SAWS’ board meeting Tuesday the utility is the only entity that can generate revenue to conserve land over the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone without a change in state law.

Nirenberg wants to see a one-eighth-cent sales tax currently devoted to aquifer protection and greenway trails shifted to fund VIA Metropolitan Transit, currently the lowest-funded big-city transit organization in Texas. VIA also receives revenue from a half-cent of local sales tax and another one-eighth-cent from the Advanced Transportation District.

Before the City took on buying land over the Edwards Aquifer in 2000, SAWS had a similar program that led to the protection of more than 27,000 acres.

SAWS Board Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. said Tuesday that “it is the mayor’s plan and our plan to take that back over,” but added that “there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered.”

In follow-up interviews with the Rivard Report, SAWS board members said they have many questions about the proposal they need answered before the idea could even go to a vote. Also raising questions were City Council members, some of whom said they were blindsided by Nirenberg’s announcement that SAWS would take over the City’s program, whose current iteration involves $90 million in sales tax over five years. 

Nirenberg has not publicly explained key details of his proposal, including how much funding the aquifer protection program still needs. 

“We were getting those questions,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) told the Rivard Report. “And the frustrating thing was, I wasn’t able to answer those questions.”

The municipally owned water and sewer utility’s board of trustees would have to vote on any proposal to take on aquifer protection, and no vote is currently scheduled. City Council also would need to approve any future rate increases to pay for the program. Moving the sales tax to VIA also would require voter approval, with officials currently looking to put the issues on the November 2020 ballot.

In a phone interview Thursday, Guerra reiterated that the aquifer proposal is by no means a done deal. 

“We still have a lot of questions and a lot of answers to provide and a lot of discussion,” Guerra said. “If we have all the answers we need by next board meeting, we’ll vote on it, and if not, we’ll wait it out a month or so. But I want to make sure that everyone is OK with what we’re doing.”

After Tuesday’s SAWS board meeting, Pelaez and fellow council members Roberto Trevino (D1) and Clayton Perry (D10) emailed SAWS officials expressing frustration with Nirenberg’s lack of communication on the matter. Trevino said he learned of Nirenberg’s proposal through the media and said that’s been Nirenberg’s “modus operandi since winning election in 2017.”

“Good policy-making requires great communication,” Trevino wrote. “On a subject so impactful to the citizens of San Antonio, a better and more inclusive dialog must occur. Since the low bar of professional courtesy was not even met, I believe that the entirety of City Council must have an opportunity to weigh in and discuss this issue, in a public forum, and with public engagement. It is both what this Council, and our community, deserves.”

But Nirenberg told the Rivard Report his staff contacted staff from each council member’s office on Monday to tell them about what would happen at SAWS on Tuesday.

“If my colleagues are expressing frustration, I fully intend to address those concerns,” Nirenberg said via email. “The process regarding SAWS taking over the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program is in its early stages. The briefing at SAWS this week was just that. I was pleased that my fellow SAWS board members and [SAWS CEO] Robert Puente were amenable to exploring this avenue, and I look forward to a vote on it.”

SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger said she’s looking for answers on how much more land over the aquifer must be protected to safeguard San Antonio’s drinking water quality, among other details. Over 19 years, the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program has led to the expenditure of $255 million in sales tax revenue to preserve nearly 160,000 acres of land. 

“In theory, I think it probably makes sense that SAWS be in charge of it – it is in our history – but when you have a major shift like this, you want to make sure that you’re looking at it carefully,” Hardberger said. 

SAWS Trustee David McGee said the utility’s board has “reached no decision on this at all.”

“We only decided to take up the question,” McGee said. “Our singular focus on SAWS board is to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility to the customers and ratepayers of SAWS, and that’s it. We’re going to dissect the question completely.”

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