Spills and Sprawl: The Edwards Aquifer Comes Under Increasing Threats

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By Robert Rivard

The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, the protective limestone mantle over the region’s primary source of drinking water for 1.7 million people, is at greater risk than ever before, although no official is putting it that bluntly. Once contaminated, there is no going back, no quick fix.

A private contractor’s accidental damage of a pipe near Bandera Road and the Wurzbach Parkway on Tuesday resulted in a spill of 100,000 gallons of untreated waste into Huebner Creek.

Few people vote in elections for seats on the board of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, or closely follow its activities, but the special water district is one of the most important governmental entities in our lives. It’s mission of water and aquifer stewardship encompasses, 8,800 square miles of South and Central Texas spread over eight counties.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.

The Huebner Creek spill received scant news coverage in the grand scheme of things, although spills within the SAWS jurisdiction are occurring at a rate of 40 per month, albeit not on the same scale as Tuesday’s massive discharge. One San Antonio Water Systems executive told me last year that SAWS needs $1 billion in capital to modernize the aging sewage pipelines that cover the recharge zone like lattice-work and are highly susceptible to breaks during drought, floods and development-related accidents. Yet even now, four days after the accident, the SAWS website contains only a days-old, three-paragraph disclosure announcing the spill.

The state’s environmental watchdog agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has nothing under its “Hot Topics” and “News Releases” categories on its home page about the spill, although there is ample coverage of the state agency’s continuing battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its efforts to make Texas and its reluctant Republican leadership enforce federal environmental protections laws.

SAWS doesn’t have $1 billion to address worsening sewage spills or anything close it, and there is no plan on the horizon to address and resolve this pressing infrastructure problem. Along with the sewage spills, there is the growing evidence of man-made pollutants showing up at aquifer monitoring wells.

A plume of tetrachloroethene, a widely used dry-cleaning solvent and metal degreaser, has made its way into the Edwards water table on the city’s Northside, although SAWS officials still do not know the source. It does raise the issue of whether it’s time for the City of San Antonio to consider an ordinance requiring dry cleaners and other commercial users to switch from the use of toxic solvents to more environmentally friendly processes. Some dry cleaners, including Clothesline Cleaners (which has advertised on The Rivard Report), openly market the fact they do not use chemical solvents.

The Edwards Recharge Zone collects water than then flows into the underground aquifer.

The Edwards Recharge Zone collects water than then flows into the underground aquifer.

You can read much more on this topic in an in-depth story published last Sunday in the Express-News, written by Colin McDonald, the only journalist in this city who focuses full-time on water issues, including the aquifer, rivers, creeks and other important environmental elements in the region. McDonald’s story, while highlighting the growing challenge of managing suburban population growth and pollutants in the water table, centered on a tax-supported initiative to protect undeveloped lands over the recharge zone from being purchased by developers.

The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program was approved by voters in 2005 during the second term administration of Mayor Ed Garza. Voters renewed the program in a second vote in 2010. McDonald’s story reported that $135 million has been allocated to date to buy protective easements over 90,000 acres. Another $90 million is being spent on the next phase. Coupled with other state and environmental programs, 120,000 acres, or 15%, of the recharge zone, has thus been protected from development. By 2016 that total could grow to more than 200,000 acres.

It’s a progressive program, but in the opinion of many, it’s too little, too late, and coming at a cost to taxpayers that could have been avoided. A companion piece on The Rivard Report today by Lanny Sinkin, executive director of Solar San Antonio and an ardent environmentalist, began as an email sent to Michael Burke, founder and chairman of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, who shared it with The Rivard Report. (Full disclosure: I’ve moderated a number of Forum events on energy and natural resources, and am participating in planning for an October Forum program focusing on water issues prior to the January session of the Texas Legislature.)

Others, including myself, believe it’s proven to be a highly effective program that is preserving land, protecting ground water and slowing the otherwise inevitable march of sprawl-like development. Taxpayers are coming to understand such sprawl, coupled with low development fees that fall far short of covering infrastructure costs, carries an extremely high, after-the-fact price tag. Highways, public safety, and public works investments outside the core city have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade in the city’s effort to keep up with development.

The Edwards Aquifer is the primary water source for a growing population of more than 1.7 million people.

The Edwards Aquifer is the primary water source for a growing population of more than 1.7 million people.

As protection of the Edwards Aquifer becomes an increasingly challenging proposition, even with land protection programs, SAWS faces other major challenges that are not being widely discussed or debated. Those include:

  1. Meeting the future water needs of San Antonio, which will require the purchase of significant water supplies from other sources and rate increases to fund those programs.
  2. Evidence suggests San Antonio does not conserve water as effectively as advertised, and there is now a likelihood SAWS will not meet its SA2020 goals if it keeps current policies in place.
  3. Current rate structures do not allow SAWS to raise the necessary capital to aggressively expand brackish water desalination, or address its growing infrastructure costs, a situation made more challenging by the demise of BexarMet and the transfer of its customer base to SAWS.

I will explore these challenges in a second part to this article on The Rivard Report tomorrow, “Cheap Water: End of an Era?”

 Maps courtesy of Edwards Aquifer Authority

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


7 thoughts on “Spills and Sprawl: The Edwards Aquifer Comes Under Increasing Threats

  1. Wonderful summation of why you shouldn’t build your outhouse next to your well. The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance is currently engaged in a comprehensive study of the impacts of sewage on the Edwards Aquifer. Our preliminary research shows that within the recharge zone there were 83 spills ranging from 5 to 150,000 gallons per spill from 2004 to 2012. 81 of these spills occurred between 2008 and 2012. Spills within the recharge zone totaled 809,000 gallons. (This figure does not include the most recent spill at Heubner Creek.) The recharge zone contains the highest median spill volume of all spills recorded by TCEQ region 13, at 825 gallons. That we have allowed over 2.5 acre feet of raw sewage to be released on the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone could be construed as gross mismanagement of this resource. We hope that communities that have not developed the Edwards Recharge Zone as intensiviely as has San Antonio will take note of the perils of doing so.
    thank you for a good report!

  2. Thank you for a terrific article – it’s amazing how little attention this issue draws from media, agencies and our elected officials. The thought of 2.5 acre feet of sewage over the aquifer (see Annalisa’s comment) is beyond scary and is probably an underestimate of the crap that is actually going down…

  3. I wonder how much of the proposed purchase of 120,000 acres of conservation land will be in Bexar Co. and have development potential? I bet nothing. I bet all the money goes to purchase non threatened properties far away from Bexar Co. I live in a Bexar Co. watershed that has the highest measured rain water capture to recharge acre feet/sq. mile ratio in the Edward’s Trinity and nothing has been protected by conservation funding that is up stream of the areas that are responsible for the vast majority of recharge for this watershed. I hope I am wrong. Sooner or later TCEQ will win and this watershed will be gone.

  4. This is an excellent report and reflects how complacent the public becomes in the absence of (1) agressive water quality campaigns by vigilant non-public-agency groups regarding a particular issue, event, or ballot initiative and/or (2) an urgent mindset of the public agencies responsible for water quality and availability, and associated communication and public education programs.

    Two things come to mind:

    1) I know low-cost water is a competitive edge for attracting new companies in the interest of economic development, but somewhere along the line we’re going to have to pay for inevitable infrastructure upgrading and ongoing water development. If we reasonably increased rates to create a rate-increase-funded reserve large enough so some can be used for immediately needed repairs/upgraded replacement/water development and some can be invested to increase the reserve, we would be better situated to handle near-term future repairs/replacements/water development and begin a long-term replacement plan and perhaps accelerate the current water development plan. This would avoid or at least mitigate a financial crisis that could require an unplanned, drastic rate increase, a bond issue, or undermine SAWS overal financial condition and credit rating. (I don’t know the exact relationship between San Antonio public agencies’ credit rating and that of the city. I may be incorrect, but I believe bond issue capacity of public agencies and the city are pooled, so any bond issue by an agency reduces the size of city-sponsored issues, and vice versa.)In the long run, realistic rates can maintain comparatively low rates because source water quality could be protected agressively, minimizing water treatment requirements and associated costs.

    2) I am concerned that regardless of San Antonio’s admirable water conservation efforts to date, which, as you point out could stand enhancing, the city avoids discussions of the city’s ultimate water-use limit, even in light of current plans to develop additional water sources. Of course, economic development parties and current businesses–especially development companies–would be uncomfortable with such discussions, but we can’t turn a blind eye. On one level, we’ve seen that “binding” agreements for new water sources can be broken, diminishing our anticipated water capacity. But the litigation to protect the water rights in other agreements will be expensive, and, in the distant future, perhaps unenforcible because our success in keeping the rights might ultimately deprive other growing communities from minimum drinking water needs and perhaps agricultural water if those food producers are deemed essential for the welfare of Texas or the nation. I just can’t help to believe that acquired water rights will become precariously insecure. I know future water wars have been predicted for a long time, but I believe our LCRA experience is a harbinger that the future is approaching. I am not a no-growth advocate. I am, however, an advocate of making sound, hard and social science-based decisions about how much growth San Antonio’s critical resources can accommodate within the context of ensuring sufficient water for all of Texas… and then, all of the U.S…. and beyond, depending on water transport technology. Who knows? It may surprisingly turn out that water from the Great Lakes may become the most sustainable reality that was predicted 30 years ago, enabling San Antonio to grow to the optimal size that provides economic prosperity for all residents, without denying neighboring communities the same right.

    • June 17, 2012

      You make some great points especially about “ how much growth S.A’.s critical resources can accommodate” but I am still trying to grasp how “growth” will produce prosperity for all. It seems that the “growth” pitch which is always heavily pedaled buy politicians and their developer and banker puppet masters as the Holy Grail of prosperity to me seems like a horribly inadequate solution for producing the optimal living environment for a society as a whole.

      The thought of building a world based on perpetual growth as the only possible solution for creating prosperity seems ignorantly reckless in the light of mathematical impossibility since we are running out of planet because we are fish gutting it’s resources without any consideration of the day that will come when the laws of nature, physics and mathematics come to collect, also considering we have the current growth model as test simulation for future growth that has left us trillions of dollars in debt and on the edge on collapse may hint that there may be some possible flaws in relying on” more of the same” perpetual growth plan for prosperity.

      It seems possible we have a human behavior problem in that we have designed our world to provide the optimal living environment for businesses that cannot survive without government manipulation of competitive suppression of competition and the subsidizing of top food chain business from the parasitized resources of lower food chain producers, instead of designing a world who’s governmental decision sets are motivated by non-economic driven stimulus. A government that is dominated by financially driven thought must be replaced by higher order thought that is not influenced by economic factors if we are to become a advanced society. This may only exist in a world where business does not depend on government for it to exist and at this point I realize is not achievable until we become aware of and learn to discipline the primitive cumulative mind of a society. NH

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