News : Fighting the good water fight

The Edwards Aquifer Authority moves from quantity to quality

Sound like déjà vu? We reported in these pages last week `“Pushing Water Through a Maze,” June 14-20, 2006` that the city of San Antonio was considering an ordinance to limit impervious cover over portions of the Edwards Aquifer. The EAA is thinking about doing much the same thing, but on a grander scale, over the entire Recharge Zone.

A state-created agency that has spent the last decade working on regulating water drawn from the Edwards Aquifer, the EAA is now floating new ideas about the water going into it. The authority could decide as early as next month whether to move forward on a “concept memorandum” it has developed over the last year that would place regulations on man-made structures that cover the aquifer’s Recharge Zone.

Spurred on by groundwater hydrologist and EAA board member George Rice, the authority is poised to take a leading role in the preservation of water quality if it approves the concept memo. At a recent board meeting, some members were quite vocal in their support for moving forward with stricter regulations to protect the aquifer’s water, which more than 1.7 million people in the region depend on.

National studies have shown that impervious ground cover — rooftops, driveways, parking lots, and other structures that keep rainwater from seeping into the soil — degrades water quality when it exceeds more than 15 to 20 percent. The proposed regulations would limit impervious cover to 20 percent for any new development over the aquifer’s Recharge Zone, which stretches from west of Uvalde County to eastern Hays County.

But other board members have expressed concern that the EAA could be going down a road that would likely lead to its demise — or at least substantial changes in state law that would take away the agency’s authority to regulate water quality. “There’s concern about a backlash against that — either through lawsuits or through legislative action,” says Robert Potts, the EAA’s general manager. The Texas Legislature created the EAA back in 1993, and it has the power to change the scope of the agency’s mission, Potts said. “`The Legislature` could take it away. They could change our act to say you can’t work on water-quality issues, for instance.”

And the EAA could face lawsuits from developers and others who say new regulations would devalue their property. The City of San Antonio shares the same concerns about potential lawsuits.

Over the past several years, Potts said, several bills aimed at dismantling cities’ (and other agencies’) rights to control water quality have narrowly failed in the Lege.

Back in ’95, a new law was created to protect the rights of property owners. Known as the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act, it basically keeps local governments from negatively affecting property value through legislation or ordinance. Sounds like a good plan, until you start juxtaposing it against the need for water quality. That law has been the proverbial thorn in the saddle for SA-area agencies that want to protect the aquifer. The City is debating whether updating its water-quality ordinance would devalue property by more than 25 percent (the threshold for the property-rights preservation act). And some members of the EAA share those same concerns.

One board member boiled it down to this: “We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t.” The EAA is going to hear it from the environmentalists if it doesn’t fight for water quality, and if it does pass water-quality regulations, it’ll likely face a tough time from developers and some lawmakers.

“We’ve really got to buckle down and wear a badge of courage,” says EAA District 7 Representative Johnny Rodriguez Jr. “We’re going to sustain heat from all levels In my opinion, it’s right to protect this aquifer.”

Robert Potts, the EAA’s general manager, said there’s consensus among the board that better protection is needed, but the debate begins with how to implement that protection. Some members believe it would behoove the EAA to work with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — which already has a set of rules on the book protecting water quality in the Edwards — rather than duplicating water-protection regulations over the aquifer.

“The board does want to do more for water quality, but aside from the political element, I think there’s a legitimate debate on what’s the most cost-effective way of doing it,” Potts says. “So they’re going to be looking at the cost of developing a whole water-quality program around our rules versus the cost of working with another agency — combining forces and helping them. Really, you’ve got a public-policy issue here. Is it better to have two agencies with parallel rules, or is it better to have two agencies work together to enforce one set of rules?”


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