Saving water, preserving land
San Antonio Express-News
June 5, 2012
Saving water, preserving land
San Antonio Express-News
June 5, 2012
CONCAN — Levels of a colorless solvent that the Environmental Protection Agency links to liver damage and possibly cancer recently spiked in a monitoring well of the Edwards Aquifer on San Antonio’s North Side.
San Antonio’s only defense against this and other pollution reaching its production wells is dilution from the clean water flowing into the aquifer from the rural land west of the city.
To ensure that there is clean water entering the aquifer, the city’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program is about to spend an additional $90 million from a voter-approved one-eighth-cent sales tax to buy conservation easements over the a
quifer’s recharge zone. So far, the program has spent $135 million from the tax, protecting more than 90,000 acres.
Through the easements, landowners are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for giving up their rights to subdivide and develop their land.
So far, more than 120,000 acres, 15 percent of the recharge zone, have been protected, mostly via easements, with money from the sales tax, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, San Antonio Water System, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and work by the Nature Conservancy and Green Spaces Alliance.
In three to four years, the city hopes to protect an additional 90,000 acres.
The easements are slowing the trend of the subdivision of Hill Country ranches. The concept is also starting to reunite under one management plan some of the original ranches that once measured in the tens of thousands of acres but have since been divided into tracts of a few hundred acres.
While the program is one of the most ambitious in the country, it is not known if it will be enough to maintain the Edwards’ ability to dilute the expected increase in pollution as San Antonio and surrounding suburban cities expand.
Trace levels of tetrachloroethene, a dry-cleaning solvent, are common across North Bexar County. But at monitoring well AY-68-29-418, which taps into the Edwards just north of Blossom Park, southeast of the Loop 1604-U.S. 281 interchange, much higher levels spiked in January to less than half a part per billion shy of violating federal drinking water standards. The Edwards Aquifer Authority started an investigation but has not found the source or cause.
If the concentration increases and reaches one of the San Antonio Water System’s production wells, the utility said it would most likely have to shut down that well and increase the flow from others to make up the difference.
The city does not currently have the means to treat polluted water at any of its Edwards wells, according to Scott Halty, director of resource protection at SAWS.
Dry cleaners are not the only source of pollution in the Edwards. From trace levels of pesticides and herbicides showing up in the San Marcos and Comal springs, to chlorinated solvents from a Superfund site in Leon Valley seeping into the groundwater, pollutants from agriculture, industry, sewage systems and lawns are now found in Edwards water.
Some, such as DDT, which was banned in 1972, are most likely left over from decades past. Others, such as the fuel additive and carcinogen benzene, are likely recent additions from spilled fuel or leaking underground storage tanks, according to the EAA.
For that agency, one of the biggest concerns is how much pollution the Edwards can take and still provide water that meets all drinking water standards.
The water under some areas, such as the Superfund site or near an industrial laundry building in Uvalde that burned in 1979, is already unusable and will likely violate drinking water standards for decades to come. But in comparison with the entire aquifer, areas with such problems are a small portion.
Geary Schindel, chief technical officer at the EAA, wonders what would happen if a big-box store burned.
“It has every one of these contaminants in bulk,” he said.
If a Home Depot or Wal-Mart over the recharge zone were to catch fire and then be doused by firefighters, he said, the water and all the pollutants would flow directly into the aquifer. It would render even more of the Edwards unusable.
Todd Figg‘s 542 acres in the middle of Uvalde County, 22 miles outside Sabinal, will never have a big-box store. He sold the right to subdivide his land or have it developed to San Antonio for $726,452. All his neighbors did the same and created a 12,000-acre private preserve.
“What this does is basically make this into a park that will be here forever,” he said.
Blanco Creek cuts through these properties, exposing the limestone of the Edwards Aquifer, which looks like sun-baked Swiss cheese.
Springs pop up at the base of the rolling hills, and the creek repeatedly vanishes and reappears as it makes its way south.
Most of the water will enter the aquifer. Some will eventually reappear in household taps across San Antonio. Much of the remainder will flow out of the San Marcos and Comal springs, more than 150 miles to the east.
Known for his margaritas and hospitality, Figg was central in organizing that first block of landowners along Blanco Creek in 2005.
Before selling an easement to his land, Figg estimated that land was worth $1.5 million. But he could make only as much as $11,000 a year by selling deer hunting leases and running cattle.
It was hard to justify such a small return. It was the same for his neighbors, and he and his wife watched as their neighbors subdivided their land to help pay their mortgages or settle family disputes. The end results were always the same: more homes built along the creek.
Now, further subdividing of their neighbors’ ranches will all but stop because those neighbors have all sold conservation easements.
In this round of San Antonio purchasing easements, the neighbors of those neighbors are lining up to see if they can sell their development rights. If San Antonio approves this second batch of easements along Blanco Creek, more than 18,000 acres will be protected.
San Antonio usually pays between $800 and $1,300 an acre for a conservation easement, said Grant Ellis, program director of the aquifer protection program.
“Who would have thought 50 years ago that recharge would be valuable?” said John McNair, who hopes to sell a conservation easement on his family’s 782-acre ranch, which is down the road from the Figgs’.
McNair, 29, hopes to use the money from the conservation easement to start a farming operation, possibly an olive orchard, on his family’s land and then start buying back the land sold off by his parents’ generation.
“That was what was important to my grandparents, and that is what is important to me,” he said. Much of the land along Blanco Creek that the city is looking at used to belong to the McNair family, which has been in the valley for more than five generations.
He and the Figgs share the mentality that property is more important than money.
“Our intent is not to leave our kids rich,” Figg said. “Our goal is to leave them land.”
Even if his daughters can’t hold on to the property or decide to sell, Figg knows that at least the next owner will not be able to subdivide it.
It will allow Figg to sleep a little better at night, but it is still not a guaranteed solution to San Antonio’s problem of pollution entering the aquifer.
“You still have the large urban areas, and they will continue to expand,” said George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist who served on the EAA board for eight years.
“These programs will decrease the amount of damage we will see in the future, but we are increasing the urbanization. So the absolute amount of damage we will see in the future will increase, it just won’t be as bad as it could be.”
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