On May 9, 78% of San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a re-authorization of a sales tax that generates funds for Aquifer protection and linear parks. It was first approved in 2000 and a measure to generate funds for linear parks was added in 2005. Voters re-approved both in 2010. So this marks the fourth time that San Antonians have demonstrated their commitment to protection of Edwards Aquifer water quality.
Read about the long and storied history of attempts to protect the Edwards on the Water Quality section of the Laws and Regulations page.
On May 1 the Texas Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling in the Bragg case, thereby letting it stand. The lower court ruled that a taking occurred when the Edwards Aquifer Authority limited the ability of pecan farmers Glenn and JoLynn Bragg to pump water from under their land. Although it marked the first time that a landowner in Texas had a ruling that groundwater rights were taken by a groundwater conservation district, the long term implications may be much larger for other groundwater districts than for the EAA or for the Edwards region. You can read the whole story of the Bragg case here.
On April 14, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved preliminary designs for a transformation of San Pedro Creek into a new urban amenity, hopefully to be completed in time for the city's 300th anniversary celebration in May of 2018. Since San Antonio was founded on the banks of San Pedro Creek, the project may be central to the party.
Highlights include a new ampitheater, four miles of trails, new and refurbished bridges, and artworks that weave in the colorful history of the area. Various sections will be themed to highlight the past and projected uses of each particular stretch of the Creek. County Judge Nelson Wolff said the project is a "game-changer" for downtown. Read all about the long and important history of San Pedro Springs and the Creek on the San Pedro Springs page.
I moved the discussion of this to the Trinity Aquifer page so you can read the full story in one place.
On February 25 the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association announced its formation as a non-profit corporation to protect the Edwards and Trinity Aquifers and their associated springs.
A news release said that TESPA was formed as a response to the attempt by a private company - Electro Purification - to develop and sell 5.1 million gallons per day of groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer.
TESPA board member and noted environmental attorney Jim Blackburn said:
The Day case referred to involved landowners Burrell Day and Joel McDaniel, in which the Texas Supreme Court affirmed that landowners also own groundwater and that "a landowner cannot be deprived of all beneficial use of the groundwater below his property merely because he did not use it during an historical period and supply is limited." Historic use was the basis of the allocation of Edwards Aquifer pumping rights. For more on Day and McDaniel see the Laws and Regs page.
Paul L. Rettman, one of the hydrologists who mapped the flow systems in the Edwards Aquifer, passed away on February 9 at the age of 81.
His work in the 1970s and 80s was fundamental to our understanding of how the Edwards works. Together with Ted Small and Robert MacLay, he developed much of the basic information that is still relied on today. Their work was the scientific foundation on which today's Edwards management methods are based.
Rettman started his career with the State Board of Water Engineers in the 1950s, working mainly on the Ogallala Aquifer. Since his work was intermingled with projects being done by the United States Geological Survey Water Resources Division, he transferred to that agency and moved to San Antonio as part of the group that started the USGS office in San Antonio.
He was also a valuable mentor to students and other professionals. Many remember him as an intellingent, unassuming man who treated everyone with courtesy and respect and was always willing to share his deep knowledge and experience.
On January 30 the Edwards Aquifer Authority confirmed a return to Stage 2 of its Critical Period Management Plan, which requires pumpers to cut back by 30%.
The management stages are triggered by 10-day averages of both index well levels and springflow rates, and conditions were satisfied on January 28.
Nothing changed for San Antonio residents, which had remained under the city's Stage 2 restrictions. Other cities in the region had to implement stricter measures to meet the pumping cutbacks required by EAA, but San Antonio is able to draw on multiple alternate water sources and can meet the cutbacks in Edwards pumping without imposing measures that may be required in cities that do not have other water sources.
In January, City Council members Ron Nirenberg and Ray Lopez filed a Council Consideration request that sought to extend the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and the Linear Creekway Parks Development Program, both of which are supported by a 1/8 cent sales tax. The tax is set to expire this year.
Voters previously approved the tax in 2000, 2005, and 2010 by overwhelming margins. So far, more than 130,000 acres of sensitive Edwards land has been protected through purchase or conservation easements, and about 46 miles of trails and hike and bike paths have been completed on creekways throughout the city.
Most of the protected land lies west of the city, because water flows in the Aquifer from west to east, from the major recharge areas in Medina and Uvalde counties, underneath Bexar county, then on to Comal and San Marcos springs in Comal and Hays counties.
By using a market-based approach in which willing sellers offer the development rights on their property, the Edwards program has become an international model for water quality protection.
As for the Creekways program, I have been in a helicopter flying the length of Leon Creek on a weekday afternoon and was astounded by the number of people using the trail system for walking, biking, and running.
The proposal by Nirenberg and Lopez immediately began to get some push back from Mayor Ivy Taylor and others on the Council who questioned the long-term goals of the programs and suggested at least some the money might be better spent on other community priorities such as public transit, renovation of Alamo Plaza, or even other pet projects like a new sports stadium.
Mayor Ivy Taylor said "I'm wondering if there's a way to continue to achieve the goals we've focused on with those programs and tie them in with other things we want to do in the community."
Council member Joe Krier said "The idea of buying up property in other counties, I think, at least for me and for other people that I've spoken to is an uneasy feeling."
Almost no one who has had anything to do with the Edwards Aquifer in the last 40 years liked the suggestion the tax should be allowed to expire or be revamped to provide funds for other initiatives.
In a guest column for the Rivard Report, Jim Smyle offered five reasons the Aquifer Protection Program should be extended, which included the fact that water security is a #1 priority for San Antonio, the cost efficiency of protection versus water treatment, the simplicity of the approach, the respect for private property rights the program employs, and the notion that it is a free-market solution.
The Express-News Editorial Board chimed in, saying the conservation program should be put on the May ballot and "Those who believe there are better uses for these funds can make their case to voters this election. If voters choose to reject the Edwards Aquifer protection or linear parks, then we can have a discussion about new priorities at that time."
As for when the program should end, former Mayor Phil Hardberger bluntly said "Never, probably." Long-time readers will recall that Hardberger was one of the early pioneers in Aquifer protection, serving as the lawyer for groups that opposed a massive development over the Edwards in the early 1970s (see the story on the Laws and Regulations page).
By mid-January, other community power players were throwing their support behind a straight-up ballot measure to renew the tax. In a front-page headline story on January 24, the Express-News reported Air Force Brigadier General Robert LaBrutta, commander of Joint Base San Antonio, had sent a letter supporting renewal of the program and pointing out the programs helps lessen the impact of development around Camp Bullis. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board unanimously voted to support continuation of both the Aquifer protection and linear parks program.
On January 24, the Rivard Report broke the news that voters would have a chance to continue both programs unchanged. In an email to supporters, Mayor Ivy Taylor said that if voters approve, "the Edwards Aquifer conservation easement purchase program will continue unchanged and fully funded. The creekway park development program will be accelerated. Both renewals will last for approximately five years based on projected sales tax revenue, to be collected beginning in 2016."
On January 29, City Council voted unanimously to place the sales tax renewal on the May 9 ballot.
As we focus on management of the Edwards Aquifer for the benefit of today's humans and endangered species, it is easy to overlook the long prehistory of the large Edwards springs.
For one thing, there is very little imagery to remind us of the very long and profound connection between these sites and the humans they have sustained for thousands of years. We are simply the latest in that chain of humanity.
For the descendants of native tribes, the Edwards spring sites are still sacred, places that are central to their traditions and religion.
In 2014, I commissioned artist Susan Dunis to create glimpses of these places as they may have appeared about 4,000 years ago. Working with historians, archaeologists, and hydrologists, we created a series of images that illustrate various aspects of the prehistoric cultural importance of the major Edwards springs.
All of these places have a record of human history stretching back at least 10,000 years and had great significance on many levels. For pure utility, hundreds of generations of people who visited or lived at these places hunted and gathered, built fires, cooked their foods, made tools, and carried out countless other ordinary daily-life activities.
On a social level, they were gathering places where diverse groups speaking different dialects and languages came together for feasts, special celebrations, courtship, trade, and negotiations.
On a sacred level, they were places where special rituals took place such as religious ceremonies and burial of the dead.
Why did we pick 4,000 years ago as the time to represent?
The answer lies in an ancient painting in the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas known as the White Shaman panel. Natives believe the painting depicts the fountain springs of the Edwards Aquifer as part of a sacred geography, and the panel is nothing less than the earliest map of Texas. One of its functions was serving as a guide for a sacred pilgrimage that people would endeavour to undertake at least once in their lives.
The paintings follow a family of Coahuiltecan Indians from that time period as they make this pilgrimage from spring to spring. Each painting illustrates at least one aspect of the interaction people had with these places.
We may be reminded that we are not so far removed from those ancient people as we think; we still rely on these springs for many of the same things.
The first painting in the series depicts Barton's Upper Spring, which still flows as a fountain when pressure in the Aquifer is high. For the younger persons on the voyage, this is the first fountain spring they have seen, and it elicits a sense of wonder and awe. The older travelers greet it like an old friend.
If you have seen Upper Spring flowing at fountain stage, whether just once or many times in your life, you have no doubt experienced the same feelings as those ancient persons. You are therefore bonded in spirit directly to those persons of 40 centuries ago.
Of all the springs and sites that would have been visited on the Coahuiltecan pilgrimage, the San Marcos Springs are key. This is the creation site of the Coahuiltecan Indian tribes, shown here in ceremony.
Natives explain that when they were in their pre-human spirit form, they do not really know what they looked like. After following a deer through the underworld, they took on their human form when they emerged as people from the fountain springs of San Marcos.
Today the fountains are inundated under Spring Lake, although in recent years there is increasing discussion of removing the dam and restoring the natural beauty and dignity of this place by letting the springs be fountains once more.
The native tribes still maintain their covenant with sacred sites like San Marcos through the Indigenous Cultures Institute. Visit their site to learn more about their programs and sign up for a guided tour. They will tell you more about the significance of the other sacred animals and many other elements in this painting.
In this painting, the theme is the use of the springs for everyday activity - cooking dinner. The site is still largely recognizable today, and the rock being used for cleaning a fish is still there, with traces of animal residue from thousands of cooking events still visible.
In this painting of The Blue Hole, largest of the San Antonio Springs, the theme is trade. While the ladies enjoy some cool refreshment, men are bartering for goods which were painted using excavated artifacts in the Witte Museum collection as references.
Here the theme is the use of the springs for gathering food and tools, and their use for simple pleasure and relaxation. While the younger family members take a swim in the sun-drenched springs, the men are selecting chert for point-making, collecting wild grapes, and fishing.