A water race

It's not sexy, but the EAA Board contest is important

You have to look for it, even exercise a little patience, but toward the bottom of the second page of the election ballot is the line for the Edwards Aquifer Authority Board race.

Although the contests for president, Congress, Texas legislature, constables, and judges are higher profile, it is no small feat to elect those who can affect policy concerning the quality and quantity of San Antonio's water supply.

The EAA is the regulatory agency charged with protecting water quality and quantity in an eight-county region. The board works with staff and the general manager in that task.

In mid-October EAA hired a new general manager, Robert Potts, who is responsible for interacting with the board to dovetail science with public policy; the EAA also must prepare for a new and undoubtedly controversial legislative session, a follow-up to the shenanigans of 2003, when Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria tried to arm wrestle power away from the EAA and give it to the state; and the City is grappling with issues of vested rights (also known as grandfathering), that can allow development, despite more recent and restrictive ordinances, over the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

Against this backdrop, two-time incumbent Susan Hughes, a member of the Bexar Audubon Society, is running against political impresario and community organizer Gilbert Gallego, for District 6, which covers eastern and southern San Antonio and Bexar County.

Gallego said that the Habitat Conservation Plan is a central issue of the campaign. Hughes supports the measure, which helps endangered species survive during drought conditions when water demand is high, but supply is low. Gallego opposes the plan, claiming the cost of implementing it will increase water bills for SAWS and Bexar Met's ratepayers. "Even a small increase will cripple people," he said. "We need to look at other alternatives."

However, Rick Illgner, the EAA's program manager of groundwater management strategies, said the cost of the plan - $9 million over 50 years - will add "pennies" to ratepayers' water bills. U.S. Fish & Wildlife must approve the plan before the EAA can implement it.

"We want to protect all the non-human elements of the region. I'm excited about this," Hughes said.

Current: Given the troubles of the 2003 session, how do you plan to effectively deal with the legislature next year?

SH: The overwhelming response was we do have a role to play and that we should be involved in interpreting consistent water rules across the region. So people will know what the rules are, rather than every entity having separate rules. We should work with the TCEQ and SAWS to enforce those. The legislation couldn't be more clear that we have the power to do so.

GG:: I'm a person who can build consensus. The EAA should have authority; they're policymakers. I understand the legislature has their way of doing things, but we need to see what the solutions are so we can work together.

One of the EAA's responsibilities is to protect water quality, including protecting the recharge zone. Yet we still have development over the area. Do we need better laws or better enforcement?

SH: It's a matter of building consensus. We have a situation where we have a lot of properties that are grandfathered, and we have to deal with those vested rights and try to find a way to create incentives `to protecting the zone`. My intention is to continue to work as much as possible with the development community and see where we can find common ground. I continue to be heartened with our original experience with Proposition 3. The environmental, conservation, and development communities came together and said, 'Yes this is a solution.' Now we need to get Prop 3 passed again in May.

GG:: We have to look at what developers are building, and we always have to protect the aquifer. If they're going to develop, you have to make sure it's in the best possible way, and one that's going to create jobs.

Currently, there are two tangential issues that could affect the recharge zone: the VIA ballot initiative, which calls for one road project to be built over the recharge zone, and CPS' transmission line route, some of which runs over the zone and Prop 3 land. Where do you stand on these issues?

SH: I haven't focused on the VIA measure; I'm still undecided. Intellectually, I understand both arguments. Certainly I don't want to see large building projects over the recharge zone, and I wish I could see into the future and say, 'This is going to enable us to selectively build better highway features in those areas.' I don't think realistically that we'll have no building in those areas.

I think CPS developed a process to determine the route of these transmission lines, and it was very well-founded. We're talking about building infrastructure in areas that are already seeing development. We cannot realistically say you can't put a transmission line out there; it's too late for that. How do we do this the best possible way? If that route hurts Government Canyon and has a large impact on parkland and endangered species, I think the process should have selected a less impacted route.

GG:: I oppose both.

With regards to water quantity issues, SAWS has floated several projects with the Lower Colorado River Authority and Guadalupe Blanco River Authority to import water, not necessarily of the Edwards' quality, using pipelines. What is the most prudent path to ensure San Antonio's water supply?

SH: Whatever strategy we choose for our water supply, the Edwards Aquifer is going to be the cornerstone. It is most important and environmentally responsible to protect it, as it would be impossible to replace that source. If we had to build water treatment plants and water infrastructure, the expense necessary would be huge. We are seeing nasty things showing up in trace amounts already - benzene and volatile organic compounds. SAWS has a very aGG:ressive program for development, and the larger, more elaborate projects will undergo a great deal of scrutiny. You can't judge the impact of a pipeline until you know where it's going to go.

We're looking at recharge and recirculation; I think the jury is still out on whether it's an alternative until we've done studies. My objective is to get the studies done and get the data to evaluate all projects on scientific knowledge rather than on personal opinion.

GG:: The city is growing and stressing the aquifer. I would be open to other options. People tend to use more water than necessary. We have to find the best option out there. I would have to study them and weigh the facts.

By Lisa Sorg

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