Fate of natural Texas rests on landowners and smart conservation

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Fate of natural Texas rests on landowners and smart conservation

Greg Harman
San Antonio Current
March 28, 2012

You don’t need to ride our highways or jockey for parking at our many strip malls to know San Antonio has been growing. Thanks to unique geology and a history of policy failures, evidence of that growth is in our water. Spilled motor oils, lawn fertilizers, agricultural pesticides, dry-cleaning chemicals: these are the increasingly prevalent markers of urban development tracked by John Hoyt as he oversees sampling of the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio’s main drinking water source. Over the years, Hoyt, assistant general manager for aquifer management at the Edwards Aquifer Authority, has seen his share of contaminating spills. Generally, he says, San Antonio has “been lucky.” Yet two toxic hotspots of suspended solvents from defunct dry-cleaning operations — one in Leon Springs, one in Uvalde County — serve as harbingers of what is possible.

To get ahead of luck and really protect the Edwards, however, means controlling what happens on the surface. That’s led to painful head-on collisions with powerful developers and their obedient politicians. Susan Hughes, vice chair of the EAA’s board of directors, laments that most of the property in Bexar County sitting over the recharge zone — a porous slice of geology crossing from western Kinney County all the way to the north of San Marcos that allows the aquifer to rapidly replenish itself with every shower — has already been grandfathered to allow for development. Attempts to limit how many roads, parking lots, and rooftops go up through impervious-cover limits have floundered partially for that reason. “So much of that land is already platted if it isn’t already built,” she said. “The best thing we can do is try to limit it in other ways.”

While all-too-predictable septic spills, such as San Antonio Water System’s 84,500-gallon recharge whoopsie earlier in the month, suggest the EAA’s work is, if not one of futility, one involving intense frustration. “There aren’t any perfect answers. It just makes you want to tear your hair out,” Hughes confesses.

Yet one area in which the EAA and the City of San Antonio have excelled has been in preserving large tracks of land over the recharge by purchasing them outright, as was the case with Government Canyon and other city parks on the city’s west and northwest sides with voter-supported Prop 3 a decade ago. Recently emphasis has shifted to partnerships with large landowners through paid conservation easements that keep large swathes of land in tact while allowing for continued farming and ranching. To date, $135 million in voter-approved funds have been spent protecting 96,797 acres in Bexar, Medina, and Uvalde counties. While the agreements limit how property is used, rules typically reflect how landowners use their property anyway, said developer Bobby Moore of the Moore Land Company. Moore purchased a 584-acre ranch in Medina County in 2006 that turned out to be so incredibly rich in aquifer recharge features that he quickly put it under an easement. “In my mind as a person, and in my conscience, I decided this was the way to do it,” he said. Under the program, which pays landowners about $1,000 per acre, road construction is limited, toxic chemicals forbidden, and Moore’s parcel may only be split once for two homesites. “That’s kind of like requiring you to do what 98 percent of people do anyway,” he said.

To generate a new round of interest in the program as officials tee up another $90 million infusion for this fall, the San Antonio River Authority held an open house last week for curious landowners.

At least one landowner seemed disappointed to hear that the easements keeps minerals — should they be found — in the ground. But the fractured limestone formations that is the recharge zone have little chance of holding oil and gas anyway. “It’s more probable,” said Grant Ellis, special projects manager of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, “that water is where the value of your land is.”

That’s true for the state as a whole.

“Our economy cannot function if we don’t have enough water,” reminds Lori Olson, executive director of the Texas Land Trust Council.

With a fast doubling population, Texas’ formerly open land is fast fracturing into suburbs from the Red River to the Rio Grande. And Texas doesn’t have much land reserved to the air, purify the water, or allow wild creatures room to roam. Less than 4 percent of the state is protected for wilderness and water. And that puts the ball squarely in the landowner’s court. “It all kind of goes back to responsibility and being willing to take a hard look at the impact of the decisions you make,” Hughes said, “being willing to stick your neck out and say, ‘I’m going to rule in favor of sustainability and the long-term health of our region and wanting to live here for a long, long time.'”

Fueled by our vulnerabilities and informed by past mistakes, San Antonio today has a model program supported repeatedly by local voters. Will property owners continue to step up to make it work?