San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Metro and State News Page 01B
Edwards fees may rise
Publication Date : November 23, 2007
The cost to build on sensitive areas of the Edwards Aquifer, especially the contributing zone, could rise as state officials propose raising fees to review developer plans for keeping pollutants under control.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is proposing to raise the fees for the first time since 1997 after the Legislature authorized the changes earlier this year.

The proposal would drastically increase fees for building on the aquifer's contributing zone, the up-slope areas that drain to the recharge zone. Rather than the current flat fee of $250 to review pollution-control plans for plats of any size, the fees would be based on acreage as they are with pollution-control plans for building on the recharge zone.

That could raise the top fee to $10,000.

Those who build on the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 1.7 million people in Central Texas, for years have had to pay fees ranging up to $5,000 for the state agency to review their plans for preventing their development from adding pollutants to runoff water that enters the aquifer.

The proposed rule changes would increase the number of acreage categories from nine to 13 and apply them to both the recharge zone and the contributing zone. The minimum fee would be raised from $250 to $650, while the maximum fee would go from $5,000 to $10,000.

"The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance is delighted," said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the coalition, whose 40 member groups seek to protect the aquifer and the Hill Country ecosystem.

"It's so good that they're raising the fees for developing on the contributing zone, because in so many cases something could be half a mile from the recharge zone and not regulated," Peace said.

The money raised by the higher fees would be used to pay for four more employees to review plans and monitor the structures -- primarily sedimentation ponds -- for compliance, as well as for additional monitoring of surface water, storm water and groundwater quality, officials said.

"The increased amount of regulated activity in the Edwards Aquifer region, especially the contributing zone, has necessitated the need to hire additional staff to keep up with the workload of plan reviews and compliance monitoring," John Sadlier, the agency's deputy director of compliance and enforcement, said in a memorandum to TCEQ commissioners last month.

The commission already has hired the employees, two each for the Austin and San Antonio regional offices, said Lisa Wheeler, spokeswoman for the agency. She said fees assessed for the agency's Edwards Aquifer program now total about $1 million a year.

The two offices each year together receive between 750 and 800 Edwards pollution abatement plans for review and approval in the eight-county Edwards Aquifer region stretching from Kinney County to Williamson County, officials said.

Although the contributing zone generally is farther from downtown San Antonio than the recharge zone and consequently more rural and less densely populated, development has been moving out into that area rapidly.

The state agency has been understaffed for years, Peace said. "It's really important to make sure that these structures they're putting in to mitigate pollution are actually doing so."

A public hearing on the proposed fee revisions is scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 10 at TCEQ's Austin headquarters at 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E, Room 201S.

The comment period closes Jan. 7.