Carlos Guerra: Are SAWS' development policies riding on a wave of change?

Web Posted: 03/26/2008 10:22 PM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

Some requests filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by the San Antonio Water System set off alarms among those familiar with state water policies and TCEQ-speak.

A State Office of Administrative Hearings order issued Tuesday indicates that important changes may be made to city development policies.

SAWS requested "certificates of convenience and necessity" for three areas in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction that, if granted, would make SAWS the exclusive water and sewer services provider there.

They are needed, some SAWS officials said, to keep less-reliable providers out of sensitive recharge and contributing zones.

Officials of Grey Forest and several of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance member groups disagreed. If sewer and water service is widely available over sensitive areas, SAWS will be obligated to provide hook-ups to anyone that requests them. The CCNs will invite dense development that may endanger our primary water source.

Not all land can be developed, nor can it all be developed equally. For development, it must be accessible to vehicles and have energy connections. But availability of drinking water and sewer services determines a development's density. Rooftops follow asphalt, but dense development follows water and sewer mains.

For centuries, San Antonio's mild climate and plentiful water made us a magnet for escapees of less-hospitable areas. While the city was still small and surrounded by miles and miles of little more than miles and miles, hodge-podge growth was tolerable, if not particularly smart.

But as the nation's seventh-largest city, surrounded by smaller communities that want to stay small, poorly planned growth is no longer an option.

After all, we are reliant on the Edwards Aquifers, which can be easily contaminated because it filters nothing. Since SAWS has never needed any, it has no purification plants. Major contamination might require SAWS to hurriedly spend billions to build up to a dozen purification plants.

Opponents to SAWS' three CCN requests were quick to file protests with TCEQ. Extending water and sewer mains over sensitive areas, they said, will encourage dense development and endanger water quality.

Tuesday, the State Office of Administrative Hearings issued an order granting SAWS' "motion to (postpone) these proceedings to allow its governing body time to review policies related to its activities over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones ... ."

What does that mean?

"We're putting the issue on hold while we reconsider our policy on extending our CCNs in areas on and above the recharge zone," explained Anne Hayden, SAWS' communications manager. "We are now in discussions with the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance on the issue and with residents of the area who voiced concerns ... ."

Asked if SAWS and the city are considering revamping or strengthening local policies governing development over ecologically sensitive areas, Hayden replied: "The discussion is how can we best serve the area and best take care of the landscape and the geology."

Growth and development issues are critically important now because Bexar is already one of the nation's 10-fastest growing counties. And, between now and 2040, Texas' population will double and San Antonio will almost certainly get more than its share of that growth.

Charged with assuring the Edwards' water quality, SAWS must do whatever is needed now to keep its principal water source pristine in the future.

"We are all concerned with the quality of what is happening in and around the city," Hayden said. "It's a good idea to sit down and figure out what the best way is to intelligently move forward."

Like reining in developers?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

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