Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
An expanded role for the San Antonio River Authority could mean big changes for efforts to protect the Edwards Aquifer, according to interviews with local officials. Though River Authority officials stress they don’t want to change existing programs, but rather add to and enhance them.
Aquifer protection and linear creekway trails are the two environmental policies that could see revisions as a result of a new River Authority property tax proposed last week, and many local environmentalists and trail advocates are worried that the shift could end the programs as they are today.
In follow-up interviews, City and River Authority officials described in detail how the River Authority could become more deeply involved with the two programs, as proposed at the authority’s board meeting last week. The Edwards Aquifer and greenway trails programs are currently overseen by the City and jointly funded by a 1/8-cent sales tax that expires in 2020. City leaders often cite them as San Antonio’s most popular environmental policies and examples of local problem-solving.
The River Authority’s tax proposal involves adding a property tax of 2.5 cents per $100 assessed value for property owners in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties in exchange for stepping up its work along the river basin. The tax hike would take the average Bexar County homeowner’s River Authority property tax from $38.58 to $90.48 per year, according to River Authority figures based on 2019 property values, and bring in an additional $45.2 million in revenue annually if it were in effect next year.
A sales tax to protect the Edwards Aquifer has been in place since 2000, with most of the funds going toward purchasing conservation easements on private ranch land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Uvalde and Medina counties, the source of most of the water that recharges the aquifer below San Antonio. These land purchases by the City ensure nearly 160,000 acres of land – an area about half the size of San Antonio city limits – will never be developed.
The City also has used the sales tax to build 69 miles of trails, with funding committed for another 50 miles, Parks officials said. Trail construction will hit a major milestone in 2021 with the connection of the Leon Creek Greenway with the Salado Creek Greenway trail at Eisenhower Park north of Loop 1604.
However, that sales tax could shift toward funding an expansion and modernization of the city’s transportation system, if the City makes an effort to get voters to pass a different sales tax proposition. The Rivard Report first reported in December 2018 that former Mayor Henry Cisneros proposed shifting that 1/8-cent to help fund the City’s and Bexar County’s ConnectSA proposal. Cisneros served as one of three chairs of the ConnectSA initiative. Scott mentioned the sales tax shift when she spoke to the River Authority board last week.
ConnectSA involves putting high-capacity buses in dedicated highway lanes, expanding sidewalks, and creating protected lanes for bicycles, scooters, and other short-distance transportation. San Antonio’s sales tax currently directs 3/4 of a cent towards transportation.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has strongly advocated for a modern, multimodal transportation network, said that all of these programs should be funded but avoided taking a position on whether the River Authority’s tax should be swapped for the sales tax.
“That’s been my position all along, that we find a funding mechanism for ConnectSA that doesn’t detract from the environmental mission that our community’s engaged in,” Nirenberg said.
However, an effective doubling of the River Authority’s property tax rate could prove a difficult sell with voters, especially those in downstream counties. A plurality of voters in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties would have to approve the tax, which could be on the ballot in November 2020.
“That’s a conversation we haven’t even started or considered,” Nirenberg said, when asked whether the City would help sell the idea of paying higher taxes to voters.
Both programs also have networks of supporters who are worried that changes to the programs could lead to their unraveling.
The Fate of The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program
If the current sales tax were to disappear, the River Authority couldn’t replicate the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program even if it wanted to, River Authority leaders said. State law only allows it to spend its property tax money in the four counties in its jurisdiction, as well as in parts of Medina, Bandera, Comal, and other surrounding counties that fall within the watershed of the San Antonio River.
That means the property tax funding couldn’t be used in all of Uvalde County and most of Medina County, considered the source area for San Antonio’s drinking water. Landowners in those two counties have received more from the City in exchange for not developing there than any other counties.
Of the $70 million collected so far in sales taxes for the aquifer program, $59 million has been spent, with the “lion’s share” going towards conservation easements, Parks Director Homer Garcia said. Around $30 million remains to be collected through 2021.
“I think the River Authority’s water initiative is a great idea,” said Francine Romero, chair of the Conservation Advisory Board that oversees the program. “I will probably vote for it. But it’s not in any way a substitute for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. It’s entirely different.”
River Authority leaders aren’t pitching their program as a replacement for the existing program. In interviews with the Rivard Report, River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott framed the property tax as a way to focus more funding on work the River Authority is already doing to create incentives for greener development practices.
“What we’ve been talking about is really being able to infuse funding into those water quality protections, not only in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in our watershed but into the contributing zone,” Scott said, referring to upstream land that drains water into the recharge zone.
Scott said the property tax could be used to expand the River Authority’s Watershed Wise rebate program, which offers funding to governments and businesses that add green buffers, permeable pavements, rain gardens, and other such low-impact design techniques to their buildings. River Authority officials have championed these techniques as the answer to cleaning local waterways, with a side benefit of filtering water before it enters the Edwards Aquifer.
“I don’t think the question should be is there enough land that’s protected to protect recharge,” General Manager Roland Ruiz of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which regulates pumping of the aquifer, said. “The question should be, ‘Have we done everything we could to protect water quality and quantity?’ No, we haven’t done as much as we could.”
Nirenberg described the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program as “prolific” but was hesitant to say whether the City had bought enough land to protect the water supply in the long term.
“Because it has been so prolific and we’ve been able to secure conservation easements over a huge area, one of the other considerations is … what are the other tools to prevent sprawl from hurting our water supplies?” Nirenberg said. “One of the priorities from an urban planning standpoint is to be sure we’re growing in a sustainable way in the City of San Antonio. We’ve done that through our land development plans, comprehensive master planning, and we also need to do that through other elements of urban design, such as transportation.”
Many local environmentalists and water advocates say the program should stay as it is.
“It’s a model program not just nationally but all over the world in how you pay landowners for ecosystems services,” said Annalisa Peace, director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. All of its San Antonio-based member groups unanimously have said they don’t want to see changes to the program, she said.
Combining Resources to Create a Trail Network
For linear creekway trails, the issue is much more straightforward and probably less controversial.
Scott and Garcia both told the Rivard Report that the River Authority simply could provide funding to the City to continue its trail construction work, while also building its own trails in suburban cities and unincorporated Bexar County.
“We’re not trying to duplicate, so the funding source would change and the program could continue,” Scott said.
In the Parks Department, 118 employees are involved with the greenway trails, including those working on design, acquiring land, bidding, trail stewards, and Park Police, Garcia said. So far, Parks has spent $113 million out of the $190 million that voters have approved four times since 2000. That tax will continue to be collected until early 2021.
Charles Bartlett, a 14-year member of the City’s Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board, said that many consider the River Authority and Parks Department as “the only two entities in Bexar County that wear a white hat constantly.” Still, they’d prefer that the City’s trail network stay under the Parks umbrella, he said.
“We joke and say that the Parks Department has a staff of resident miracle workers,” Bartlett said. “That’s the joke because they don’t know how to say no, and whenever we go to the Parks Department, they or somebody that they know gets the job done.”
The River Authority maintains its own parks, including the Mission Reach redevelopment of the San Antonio River and trails that connect the downtown River Walk to Spanish colonial missions on the South Side. That’s one of the examples Scott has used to say the River Authority has proven its ability to maintain parks and trails.
However, Scott told the Rivard Report that the River Authority doesn’t want to take over the City’s program, but instead build more of its own connecting trails outside of City limits so that residents in those areas paying the tax could see its benefits.
River Authority officials have said the property tax could go toward connecting trails along the San Antonio River from Brackenridge Park to its headwaters in the Olmos Basin, developing parks along the Medina River, restoring natural habitat in the Westside Creeks, and preventing sewage overflows. In downriver counties, it could mean building more parks, removing debris from the river, rehabilitating dams, and advancing better agricultural and land-use practices to keep harmful runoff out of waterways.
The River Authority’s will be soliciting feedback during the coming months about its property tax proposal after its board approved a resolution last week to explore it further. In November, its board likely will take up a non-binding resolution to go forward with a public education and input process for the ballot initiative.