In May 2013, Aquifer advocates and bat lovers joined forces to express concerns about a new subdivision on the Recharge Zone that is also adjacent to Bracken Cave, home of the world’s largest population of Mexican free-tailed bats.
San Antonio developer Brad Galo of Galo Properties has plans to build 3,800 homes on 1,500 acres in a new subdivision called Crescent Hills, and next door is the 697-acre Bracken Bat Cave Preserve, a place of unique ecological importance that is owned by Bat Conservation International. More than 10 million bats live in Bracken Cave from March to October and emerge each night to hunt in a dazzling display that appears as a cloud on weather radar. They consume about 100 tons of insects each night, and their nightly emergence is regarded as one of the great wildlife spectacles in the world.
In an email to supporters, Bracken Cave Coordinator Fran Hutchins listed concerns about putting thousands in people in contact with the bats, security threats to the cave and preserve, high-density development over the Recharge Zone, and destruction of Golden-cheeked warbler habitat and sensitive aquifer features.
In a posting on batcon.org, BCI Executive Director Andrew Walker said the biggest threat to the bats is that “Should some poor child or adult come into contact with a sick bat or a pet that picked up a sick bat and contract rabies, it won’t matter that the bats have been there for 10,000 years. There will be a growing call for the city health department to deal with this “threat to public safety.”
There was much discussion and confusion about what development rules apply to the new subdivision, which is located in Comal county but within San Antonio’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Under San Antonio’s water quality ordinance, impervious cover in a Recharge Zone development may be limited to as little as 15%. It doesn’t seem possible to put in that many homes on 1,500 acres and still comply with San Antonio’s rules.
San Antonio’s Current magazine reported that bat conservationists said they were getting conflicting signals regarding whether San Antonio’s rules apply and who has jurisdiction. BCI conservation director Mylea Bayless said “We’ve been amazed by the Texas two-step we’re getting. Comal county is telling us they don’t have jurisdiction over what happens there, while the City of San Antonio has told us that it’s not in their purview to make these decisions.”
The Current also reported that John Jacks with the City’s Development Services Department indicated that San Antonio and Comal county have an inter-local agreement that pushes responsibility to the City if a development has average lot sizes less than 0.4 acres. “Anything above that is Comal County’s responsibility,” Jacks said.
There was also scrutiny of an action the San Antonio Water System Board of Trustees took in March to approve sewer and water hookups, and one board member asked that SAWS rescind the vote. Although Board members were told the responsibility for water and sewer belonged to SAWS, legislation sponsored by Jeff Wentworth and passed in 2009 created the Comal County Water Improvement District No. 1 and directed Comal county to create its own water and wastewater facilities. In a letter to the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, SAWS Board Trustee Sam Luna said “Based on this disclosure, there is no need to provide SAWS water into Comal County."
In any case, Aquifer advocates and bat lovers were planning a show of force at the May 29 City Council meeting, where Walker said they hoped to convince city leaders that “Mr. Galo’s proposed subdivision is an incompatible use that is sure to put people and bats in potential conflict, to the harm of both."
At the May 29 Council meeting, several hundred citizens packed the room and 34 spoke against the Crescent Hills development. No one spoke in favor.
Groundwater hydrologist George Rice, who served on the EAA Board and has spent 20 years studying contaminants in the Edwards, said "One thing is clear - development in the Recharge Zone results in degradation of water quality. But if development is less than 15% then damage to the water quality is greatly reduced."
Others aired their concerns about Golden-cheeked warblers, trees, and the potential for large numbers of people to come into contact with the bats. Bat Conservation International executive director Andrew Walker noted the proposed development is directly in the flight path of the emerging bats and they will be attracted to lights, pools, and buildings.
Attorney Jim Cannizzo, who handles legal matters for the Army's Camp Bullis, said he was concerned about the development's proximity to the newly established Cibolo Bluffs Forest Preserve. The Preserve was created in 2011 to provide habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler and free up the entire 28,000 acre Camp Bullis installation for military training. To purchase the 1,244 acre Preserve, Bexar county contributed $5 million and the Army $2 million, and Camp Bullis got 1,234 Golden-cheeked warbler mitigation credits. Mr. Cannizzo said that earlier this year he received a letter from developer Brad Galo providing assurances the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be consulted before any development started, but has since learned that clearing has started without Fish and Wildlife involvement. Even so, he said that conflict is not the way and expressed hopes that a win-win solution could be found, possibly using a combination of money from the Army, Bexar county, and Aquifer protection funds.
In early May attention turned to Senate Bill 1919, the companion to House Bill 3087 mentioned in the news item below this one. The text of the two bills is nearly identical: it would require landowner consent or condemnation if more 55% of a property is required to be left natural or undeveloped (the House Bill drew the line at 50%). A May 8 hearing was canceled when Senate Affairs committee chair Leticia Van de Putte could not attend due to a family emergency. Observers noted that passage of either bill in the remaining days of the 2013 Legislative seemed dim.
Texas columnist Rick Casey, who has been around as long as anybody, noted there seems to be a long-standing tradition in the Texas Legislature: “If you want to pass a bill that would curtail the ability of the people in Austin or San Antonio to place environmental regulations on developers, you get a legislator from somewhere else in the state to carry the bill.” For example, previous attempts at legislation to undermine regulations to limit development over the Edwards Aquifer were carried by Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston.
Casey said the reason is simple: “For at least 40 years, voters here have demonstrated they want to protect the aquifer from the danger of pollution that could come from massive development over areas north and west of the city” where water recharges the Aquifer.
In the early 1970s, residents were staunchly opposed to Ranch Town, a huge development proposed for the Recharge Zone near Helotes, and just a few years later they voted to overturn the City Council’s approval of a “supermall” over the Recharge Zone at Hwy. 281 and Loop 1604. They have also voted repeatedly to tax themselves to buy sensitive land for Aquifer protection (see the page on Edwards water quality for the full history).
And so it was a surprise when this year’s attempt at limiting Aquifer protection regulations was introduced by Sen. Donna Campbell, whose district includes much of north San Antonio, New Braunfels, and San Marcos. Casey reported that Campbell’s press secretary Jon Oliver conceded she had received “some pushback” on her bill. The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance said scores of its members, which include more than a few tea party types that are a major source of votes for Campbell, contacted Campbell’s office in opposition. GEAA director Annalisa Peace said many of her organization’s tea party members expressed confidence that Campbell would never sponsor such a bill. “Clean water”, Casey said, “seems to be a non-partisan issue.”
Casey noted that Campbell moved from Columbus to New Braunfels to run for the Senate and concluded “She has a lot to learn about folks in these parts.”
Aquifer watchdogs were busy on social media over the weekend in anticipation of a scheduled April 22 hearing on Senate Bill 3087, which would make Aquifer protection more difficult by requiring condemnation of land if more than 50% of a property is required to be left in a natural or undeveloped state. San Antonio’s current Aquifer Protection Ordinance limits recharge zone development to 15% in most cases.
The Bill says that a conservation easement would be created when any law, rule, policy, ordinance, or regulation is applied that has the effect of requiring more than 50% of a tract remain undeveloped. And it would require that such an easement could only be established by consent of the landowner or by exercising the power of eminent domain.
After an outpouring of calls and emails to representatives in the Texas House expressing opposition to the Bill, no action was taken in the committee hearing that day, and my report from the floor was that it was ‘shelved indefinitely.”
On April 12 paperwork was completed to add 461 acres to Government Canyon State Natural Area, bringing the size of the aquifer protection reserve to 9,082 acres. The deal with property owner Steve Lowder had been in the works for two years and its feasibility was greatly enhanced when Mr. Lowder agreed to sell his property for 25% below its appraised value.
In the summer of 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded a $1.6 million grant for acquisition of the site, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department committed another $300,000. The remaining $7 million came from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, which is funded by a voter-approved sales tax of 1/8 cent.
Mr. Lowder originally owned 957 acres and had plans to build hundreds of luxury homes. He sold 75 acres when the Shops at La Cantera were to be built and land was needed to mitigate the destruction of habitat at that location. He then sold another 421 acres in a deal funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the city, and SAWS.
Noting that the land would now be preserved in perpetuity for his grandkids, Mr. Lowder said the deal is “a win-win for everybody.”
On March 28, the Edwards Aquifer Authority declared Stage 5 drought restrictions for the Uvalde Pool, requiring users to reduce their authorized annual pumping by 44%. These are the most severe cutbacks ever imposed for the western Edwards area and were triggered when the 10-day average of the J-27 monitoring well in Uvalde fell below the threshold of 840’. Residents and businesses who receive their water from a water utility in the area were encouraged to contact their provider directly to find out how Stage 5 reductions may affect them.
In January of 2013, two boys exploring the construction site of a new residential development near Hwy. 281 and Loop 1604 discovered a 450-foot long cave that experts say may be the 5th largest in Bexar county. With large stalactites and numerous other types of formations, it rivals the natural beauty of show caves in the area like Natural Bridge Caverns. It was named Rock Dove Cave.
Aquifer advocates became alarmed after obtaining pictures of what they said was a large new sewer line transecting the roof of the cave. They claimed it would eventually leak, releasing raw sewage into the Edwards Aquifer. While the route of the new sewer line on plan drawings did indeed pass through the cave, the developer said it had already revised plans for sewer line to miss the cave and the pipe had only been put there to block an entrance and keep people out.
On March 14, in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance asked the developer be required to remove all existing fill material and pipes. GEAA recommended the cave be thoroughly mapped by experienced geologists, and that sewer lines and trenching be moved to avoid the cave (see the GEAA letter).
As the site is outside the city limits, none of San Antonio’s aquifer protection ordinances apply, and the city can only comment on any remedies that might be proposed or approved by the TCEQ.
The situation pointed up the lack of any institutional or regulatory framework that can effectively and proactively protect Edwards Aquifer water quality. For a thorough examination of Edwards water quality issues and the impediments to effective controls, see the Laws and Regulations page.
On February 14 at 8:45 am, notice was filed in the Federal Register regarding the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's long-awaited final decision on the application by regional partners for an Incidental Take Permit.
Such permits are allowed under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act and authorize permittees to "take" endangered species while conducting otherwise lawful activities. In this way, permit holders can proceed with activities such as construction or other economic development that may result in the "incidental" taking of a listed species. Preparation of a Habitat Conservation Plan is part of the permitting process.
Responsibility for preparing a plan and applying for a permit was given to the Edwards Aquifer Authority when it was created by the Texas Legislature in 1993, but the EAA was never able to come up with a plan that could gain regional support and pass federal muster.
So in 2007, the Texas Legislature directed the Edwards Aquifer Authority and other state and municipal water agencies to participate in a collaborative, consensus-based stakeholder process to finally develop a plan to protect the federally-listed species dependent on the Edwards Aquifer. This was known as the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP).
The idea was that if you take a bunch of people who have never agreed on anything and lock them in a room together for four years, they will become friends. Or at least learn to get along.
In 2011, after much wrangling, the EARIP group reached a consensus about the elements and financing for a plan, and their application was submitted on January 5, 2012.
The Fish & Wildlife Service’s February 14 decision was to issue a 15-year incidental take permit to the EARIP for implementation of the Service’s preferred EARIP plan.
The preferred and approved plan includes a number of measures to maintain or manage springflow, including Critical Period Management pumping restrictions, use of SAWS’ Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recharge facility to meet water demand that offsets reduced pumping from the Edwards Aquifer near the springs during drought, a Voluntary Irrigation Suspension Program that provides economic incentives to reduce pumping for irrigated agriculture during drought conditions, and a Regional Water Conservation Program. The approved plan also provides for habitat restoration and management measures that minimize and mitigate impacts from the potential incidental take. Download the final EARIP plan here.
While many regional entities and interested citizens participated in the plan’s development, the applicants and permit holders are the cities of New Braunfels and San Marcos, the San Antonio Water System, Texas State University, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
SAWS President/CEO Robert R. Puente remarked "Twenty years ago, a federal judge was on the verge of taking over the Edwards Aquifer. With this Plan, municipal, agricultural and environmental uses of the Edwards Aquifer are balanced, and we have certainty in our current and future water supply from the Edwards." Puente helped author the legislative bill that prescribed the EARIP in 2007.
On February 7, the San Antonio City Council approved new drought restrictions, to be effective February 18. See them here. Highlights of the new rules include:
Those with irrigation systems will need to adjust controllers for the new watering times in drought Stages 2 through 4.
On January 25 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the availability of a draft Economic Analysis for the proposed listing of four central Texas salamanders in Bell, Travis and Williamson counties. The report quantifies the economic impacts of conservation efforts on development, water management activities, transportation projects, utility projects, mining and livestock grazing. The analysis estimates the total present value impacts anticipated to result from the critical habitat designation for the four salamanders are approximately $29 million over 23 years. For complete details and to download the analysis itself, see the Barton Springs page.
On January 18 the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung reported the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) is planning a two-year project to canvass water wells in Comal county.
The initiative is designed to ensure Edwards Aquifer water wells in Comal county are properly constructed and registered, and are not posing a threat of contamination to the groundwater supply.
The EAA’s database currently shows about 4,000 well records in Comal county, and the agency said it expects to find another 2,000.
Ron Vaughn, EAA’s director of aquifer protection, said the EAA will contact known well owners to schedule site visits for inspections. It will also make efforts to find unregistered or abandoned wells, and keep an eye out for wells being to used to make unauthorized withdrawals of Edwards water.