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News : Pushing water through a maze 

Navigating SA’s aquifer proposals in its twists and turns

The quality of water in San Antonio and how to keep it from deteriorating is an ever-flowing issue around here, and the city is once again revamping an ordinance to protect the Edwards Aquifer. The process has been a long one; reviews were commissioned, recommendations were made. But it all comes down to two polarized camps — environmentalists and developers — who have fought the whole way like Montagues and Capulets, minus the teenage love story. And there’s still no agreement in sight.

At a recent Zoning Commission meeting, the San Antonio Water System presented its recommendations for an update to the City’s water ordinance. The proposal, which tries to bridge the gap between the two factions, recommends that tiered impervious-cover limits be reduced over the aquifer’s Recharge Zone. That means fewer rooftops, parking lots, streets, driveways, and anything else that won’t allow water to seep into the ground. The proposal would extend these adjustments to cover the nearby Contributing Zone, too. Developers are asking that the ordinance not be changed.

“We do not agree that additional impervious-cover limitations are required,” says Phil Crane, president of the Real Estate Council of San Antonio. “Water quality in SAWS’ wells remains high after over 20 years of development ... We have good limits, and we have good ways of keeping the water clean.”

Crane also says the move to apply impervious-cover restrictions to the Contributing Zone, where water gathers and flows toward the Recharge Zone, doesn’t have “any scientific or technical data to justify it.”

Continuing the use of water-quality basins, designed to filter debris from storm water before releasing it into creeks and streams, is better than placing restrictions on developers, Crane says.

George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist in the environmentalist camp, says more restrictions are needed. “We disagree with the heavy reliance on water-quality basins,” he says. “I think experience shows that sometimes water-quality basins work, and sometimes they don’t. And what do you do when they don’t work? That can be quite a problem.”

The latest red-tape-lined process started back in 2002, when then-Mayor Ed Garza formed an ad-hoc committee to revise a water-quality ordinance written in 1994. The group — comprised of more than a dozen community members representing developers, environmentalists, and others — had to reach a consensus before recommending updates to City Council. Almost immediately, the committee faced a slew of setbacks, including the arrest of its original chairman, then-City Councilman John Sanders, who eventually pleaded guilty to bribery charges on an unrelated matter. The committee also went on sabbatical when the 2003 Texas Legislature discussed limiting cities’ ability to control water quality. Eventually, Mayor Phil Hardberger got the ball rolling again, asking Councilman Art Hall to chair the committee and help finish what it had started.

The committee was still too fractured to come up with any recommendations. So, Hall dismissed the members and said he would write the report himself. Current regulations allow 65 percent of a commercial property over the Recharge Zone to be covered by an impervious surface. Multi-family developments can cover 50 percent and single-family zoned property can have up to 30 percent impervious cover. But new recommendations call for a reduction to 50, 40, and 20 percent, respectively. SAWS and Hall threw in some other recommendations, such as allowing developers to trade up for more impervious cover by setting aside green space within the same watershed.

But don’t look for changes anytime soon. Next month, the City’s planning and zoning commissions will hold public hearings on the proposal, and the City Council won’t take up the issue until August. Hall says he suspects the council will ask that studies — specifically “takings assessments” — be done to determine whether the more stringent ordinance would decrease the fair-market value of affected properties by 25 percent or more. If it does, SA could find itself in some hot water, thanks to the state’s Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act, which basically keeps governments from negatively affecting property value through legislation or ordinance.

“The question is, if whatever we pass reduces anybody’s property values by more than 25 percent, then we’ve got to pay compensation or something along those lines,” Hall says. “So the bigger question for the Council is going to be: What will the takings assessment say, and then, what do we want to do based on that?”

And that’s a recipe for a Shakespearian family feud.

“Any time you’re reducing the usage of a piece of property, you’ve got property rights versus the environmental folks,” Hall said. “If we go from 60 percent of impervious cover to 50, that’s acreage they can’t build on.”

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