Councilwoman Sandoval wants aquifer protection amendment considered for city charter

District 7 Councilwoman wants commitment to protecting Edwards Aquifer, with flexibility to determine how

SAN ANTONIO – It lies under San Antonians' feet, and now District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval wants the Edwards Aquifer put into the city charter.

In a memo to Mayor Ron Nirenberg dated Nov. 10, Sandoval asks that when it reconvenes, the Charter Review Commission consider an amendment to commit to protecting the Edwards Aquifer - the city’s primary source of drinking water - “while giving City Council the flexibility to determine how best to do so.”

There is a plan in place to continue funding the popular Edwards Aquifer Protection Program through the next decade, but actually following through on the funding plan - or renewing it - will fall upon future city councils, who might decide it’s not a priority anymore. Putting aquifer protection into the city charter, though, which outlines the duties and powers of different city departments, would ensure there’s something to replace the program in the future, Sandoval said.

There was still concern about, ‘Well, what happens if it goes away,' or really 'what happens in 10 years?’” Sandoval said. “I won’t be on the council in 10 years. Ron Nirenberg won’t be the mayor in 10 years. And I think to do right by our citizens, and by the aquifer, we want to ensure it’s sort of enshrined that that’s one of our responsibilities.”

The EAPP is used to buy properties and conservation easements over the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zone, preventing any future development that could affect the quality or quantity of water in the aquifer. So far, the EAPP has been able to protect more than 160,300 acres - primarily in Bexar, Medina and Uvalde counties.

Since voters first approved it in 2000, a 1/8 cent sales tax has been the primary funding source for the EAPP. However, voters approved new uses for the tax in the Nov. 3 election. So that funding source will expire sometime in 2021, when it hits a voter-approved limit, though city staff estimate the program will still have $20 million at that point that it hasn’t spent.

In preparation for the expected reallocation of the sales tax, the city council approved a plan in September to continue funding the EAPP starting in FY 2023 after the sales tax dollars run out. The $100 million replacement funding plan would rely mostly on borrowing money over the course of 10 years.

Funding the EAPP has been a thorny issue, with supporters concerned that any changes could affect its ability to protect the aquifer.

Francine Romero, chairwoman of the Conservation Advisory Board, which helps guide the city’s management of the EAPP, was supportive of the new funding plan. She also supports Sandoval’s proposal of institutionalizing aquifer protection in the charter.

“That would get rid of all our concerns that council actually could vote to revoke that particular policy,” Romero said.

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, who had opposed changing the funding source for the EAPP in the first place, was also supportive of the idea - though skeptical about what it would actually guarantee.

“Just because it’s in the charter doesn’t necessarily mean that future city councils or this city council would fund it,” Perry said.

Though city council could place a proposed charter amendment onto the ballot, based on the Charter Review Commission’s recommendations, voters would be the ones to ultimately approve or reject it.

Charter amendment elections may only be held every two years. The last election was Nov. 6, 2018 when voters approved two of three amendments pushed by the fire union.

In a statement to KSAT Tuesday, Nirenberg did not appear to commit to having the commission consider Sandoval’s request.

“We were planning to reconvene this spring, but those plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of San Antonio remains committed to protecting our most valuable source of drinking water. We are still focused on combatting the spread of the coronavirus in our community," the statement reads.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.