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In San Antonio, an Unusual Focus on Land Conservation

Despite tough economic times, San Antonio is continuing an unusual and aggressive program to protect its aquifer, by using public money to purchase land or easements to prevent development in critical areas.

A conservation easement on this approximately 2,000-acre ranch in
Medina County is part of San Antonio's aggressive aquifer-protection

HONDO — From Marcy G. Rothe’s hillside home, she can see oaks and grasses and a creek bed spread out, looking much the same as when her grandfather first arrived here in the 1920s. In June, she sold a conservation easement on her land to the city of San Antonio to prevent development that would harm the aquifer below — and also to ensure that the nearly 2,000 acres of land remained undisturbed for her descendants.

“What our grandfather began, we would like to see continue as a ranching heritage,” she said, gazing at the landscape from her deck.

Rothe’s land is part of an aggressive and unusual program by San Antonio to protect its aquifer. The Edwards Aquifer is the city’s main source of water and covers a vast underground terrain. Three times in the last 11 years, city voters have approved the use of public money to purchase land or easements over the aquifer. 

So far, about $135 million has been spent to protect close to 97,000 acres. More easements will be bought starting this fall, with the help of $90 million in additional financing that voters handily approved in November, despite the tough economic conditions.

Virtually no other city in Texas, except green-minded Austin, has committed substantial money toward land conservation, environmentalists say. That is partly because few big cities rely so heavily on a single aquifer. Dallas, for example, gets its water mainly from reservoirs, and Houston draws from a combination of surface and underground sources. 

In the Austin area, public money has helped preserve nearly 45,000 acres, said Valarie Bristol, president of the Travis Audubon Society. The aim is to protect endangered species like the golden-cheeked warbler and also to preserve the Austin portion of the Edwards Aquifer, including Barton Springs.

The focus of the San Antonio program has changed over the years. In 2000, when voters approved the first batch of aquifer-conservation money (which is financed by one-eighth of a cent from the city sales tax), the city used it to purchase land in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, and turn it into public natural areas. But as land prices rose and officials looked toward conserving lands farther away, the city decided to focus less on purchasing land outright and more on buying easements in the aquifer’s “recharge zone,” which includes a number of surrounding counties. 

Rothe’s property, for example, lies in Medina County and is roughly 50 miles from San Antonio. So far, according to Kristyl Smith, who until recently served as the special projects manager for San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and now consults for the program, nearly 18 percent of the portion of the aquifer’s recharge zone that affects San Antonio has been conserved.

Easements are supposed to enact permanent restrictions on property, and each one is structured differently. Rebecca Flack, a Bandera-based representative of the Nature Conservancy, which facilitated Rothe’s deal, said the easements generally prevent any ranches smaller than 1,000 acres from being subdivided. 

Ranches larger than that, like Rothe's, might be allowed to break into one or more divisions. Hunting and fishing are permitted, as is traditional ranching. (Rothe and her husband keep cattle.) But the number of water wells is limited, as is the amount of “impervious cover,” like roads and houses.

The default easement also aims to prevent oil and gas drilling, to the extent possible in a state where surface rights and mineral rights often have different owners. But the easements alone will not fend off state projects, like transmission lines, that are backed by eminent domain authority.

The city generally pays $800 to $1,200 per acre for an easement, depending on the appraised value, according to the Nature Conservancy. Rothe said her deal fell within that range, though she declined to offer specifics.

By preventing developments like subdivisions, the easements prevent items like pesticides used in yards or parks from sinking into the aquifer, said Gregory Ellis, a former general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, an agency charged with managing and protecting the aquifer, though it is not in charge of the conservation program. Smith, the conservation program consultant, said that in the last funding round, more ranchers wanted to sell easements to San Antonio than the city was able to accommodate.

The conservation program has won support from the business community, which sees water security as vital to development.

“It sounds very touchy-feely, but at the end of the day, if we don’t have water, then it’s like a plant — our community withers and goes away,” said Richard Perez, the president and chief executive of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. 

He noted, however, that San Antonio also hopes to eventually diversify its water supply — with, for example, a proposed desalination plant drawing from the brackish water in a nearby aquifer called the Carrizo-Wilcox.

But Bob Martin, president of the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association of Bexar County, expressed concern about San Antonio taxpayers’ money going toward the purchases of land or easements in other counties. “The burden is falling on Bexar County residents only,” he said.

San Antonio’s program is being expanded at a time when national and state budget troubles have cut into land conservation, said Kate Vickery, outreach coordinator for the Texas Land Conservancy, a land-trust group.

“Our situation in Texas is particularly challenging,” she said in an e-mail. “Ninety-five percent of our land is privately owned, but the state has invested exactly $0 in strategic land conservation efforts.”

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