Sunday, March 20, 2011

San Antonio Takes Lead in Land Conservation

According to Kate Galbraith writing in the March 17, 2011 New York Times:

... Marcy G. Rothe’s easement is part of an aggressive and unusual program by San Antonio to protect its main source of water, the Edwards Aquifer, which covers a vast underground area. Three times in the last 11 years, city voters have approved the use of public money to buy 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 money 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....

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

Ranches larger than that, like Mrs. Rothe’s, might be allowed to break into one or more divisions. Hunting and fishing are permitted, as is traditional ranching.... 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, according to the Nature Conservancy. Mrs. 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 and parks from sinking into the aquifer
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,” Mr. Martin said.

The conservation program has won support from San Antonio’s 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.

Mr. Perez noted, however, that San Antonio also hoped to diversify its water supply — with, for example, a proposed desalination plant drawing from the brackish water in the nearby Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.

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.

by Kate Galbraith
The New York Times

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