The Edwards Aquifer takes hits from all sides

About a year ago, rumors circulated that developer interests would try to undermine the EAA's power. Instead of enlisting

Traffic zips past an Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone sign on southbound U.S. 281 just north of the city. In the distance, a Chevron gas station services drivers over the recharge zone. Photo by Mark Greenberg
a Bexar County legislator, who would be prone to significant pressure from his or her constituents, it was whispered that a lawmaker from outside the area would spearhead legislation.

That Texas carpetbagger turned out to be Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria, who sponsored, authored, or amended a battery of bills that chipped away at the EAA's ability to monitor and enforce water quality. Instead, Armbrister wanted to endow the TCEQ with that power.

What followed was a numerical soup of House and Senate bills and backroom wheeling and dealings. Like Chucky, the evil doll in Child's Play, the measures couldn't be killed, as Armbrister and State Representative Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) revived them in different forms, attached to various bills.

With two days left in the session, State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), slayed HB 2877 on the point that Armbrister's amendment wasn't germane to the bill. In an interview with the Current, Villarreal characterized the measure as "anti-citizen," adding that "people who don't live in the community are trying to sneak in bills that take away local control and the ability to have a local government that is responsive."

With one day left in the session, State Representative Robert Puente (D-San Antonio) armwrestled Armbrister into removing anti-EAA language from HB 3035.

What motivated Armbrister to so ferociously attack the EAA is unknown; he didn't return calls to the Current. However, his campaign contribution filings reveal that Armbrister received big dollars from those with water interests, including $1,500 from Baker Botts, a lobbying firm, who according to Texans for Public Justice, has a history of representing polluters; $1,500 from law firm Bracewell and Patterson, whose Web site touts their representation of power plants and land developers; $1,700 from the political action committee of Lumbermen's who were behind the PGA Village; $1,000 from Dow Chemical, which lies along the Guadalupe River; $1,000 each from the state's rice and dairy lobby; $500 from Winstead, Sechrest, and Minck, who were part of a Superfund workgroup that helped rewrite rules regarding Texas hazardous waste; and $1,000 from Clayton Pope, a government consultant and former Texas Water Commissioner - the Texas Water Commission is now the TCEQ.

Had Armbrister succeeded in passing anti-EAA resolution, said EAA Board member George Rice, "things will continue the way they have been. We hope to establish rules for the entire recharge zone. Under good rules, the PGA, Gunn Honda, and tax increment financing districts, (TIFs) would be non-issues. The bills would have put that in the hands of the TCEQ, which is worthless."

Critics point out that the TCEQ, which doesn't have the funding or the wherewithal to clean up Texas' rivers and streams `"Don't take me to the river, Current, January 16-22`, can't adequately monitor the Edwards Aquifer. The commission's partnership with the EPA has also jeopardized the state's water quality. According to an EPA Inspector General report, the agency's computer system that monitors pollution permits under the Clean Water Act is riddled with errors, bad data, and outdated programs. A spokesperson at the EPA's Region 6 office, which covers Texas, said the TCEQ, as do all state environmental agencies, puts its data into that flawed system as part of its monitoring plan. The TCEQ didn't return calls to the Current.

By the end of the session, one bill, HB 2130 had made it to the governor's desk; its language regulating grandfathered permit-holders over the recharge zone is ambiguous. EAA lawyers were reviewing it at press time.

But for the most part, the EAA survived the session, said board member Carol Patterson, who quoted a Texas farmer: "The Edwards bills are deader than a hammer."

Meanwhile, on the local level, Mayor Ed Garza is proposing to establish special tax districts over the recharge zone. Yet, just nine months ago, the city banned TIFs from the environmentally sensitive area. Now Garza wants to allow developers to build on top of it using taxpayer money -if they sign an environmental protection agreement with the city and SAWS.

TIFs allow developers to take taxes from city coffers to pay for infrastructure improvements - an enticing incentive if the area would not otherwise be developed. But the North Side - where city sprawl is busting its britches - has no problem attracting homes, convenience stores, and shopping centers.

A case in point: While it didn't receive TIF benefits, the PGA Village sidestepped annexation and taxes for more than a decade to receive the City's green light to build its potentially damaging project over the recharge zone. During negotiations, the PGA and its lobbyists refused to consider any location but the North Side.

Garza tried to ramrod the TIF decision through the old Council before the new - and potentially less-beholden - Council took office. But Garza was foiled again, as the outgoing Councilmembers didn't want such a controversial issue to be part of their political legacy.

Garza's enchantment with TIFs on the recharge zone is a 180-degree turn from his 2001 campaign promises. Two years ago, then-Councilman Garza told the Current that his development priorities were "areas that already have built infrastructure: roadways, utilities that are already in place."

During the same 2001 interview, Garza stated that the inner city should be revitalized, and emphasized his commitment to banning tax abatements over the recharge zone. "How do we provide the incentives to develop markets in non-traditional areas of San Antonio, inside Loop 410 and on the South and West Sides?" he said. "In my first year `on City Council`, I pushed to ban tax abatements over the Recharge Zone, period. To me, the goal - which is no development over the Recharge Zone - is something that we can't control with tax phase-ins. Do we as a city want to use an incentive to require them to do something?"

What a difference two years can make. The proposed North Rim and the PGA Villages, both slated for the recharge zone, require massive infrastructure improvements. And Garza's "ban on the recharge zone, period" sounds more like a ban, with ellipses. The aquifer is still vulnerable to local deal-making; the new Council and the EAA will have to be its watchdogs. •