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San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Metro and State News Page 01B
New park-and-ride facility could send pollutants into aquifer
Publication Date : November 29, 2007
Every week, the San Antonio City Council considers requests for zoning changes and variances, often from developers. And every week, neighbors and others often show up to oppose such changes, arguing that rules should be respected.
But today, the council will consider a truly unusual request. And Elyzabeth Earnley of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas will be there to oppose a zoning change for 20 acres of wooded land at the corner of U.S. 281 and Marshall Road.

"Both the San Antonio Water System and the U.S. Geological Survey say this location is extremely permeable; one of the most porous parts of the Edwards Aquifer," she says.

But what makes this zoning case so unusual is who is asking for it and for what reason.

"It's the city of San Antonio that is asking for the change," Earnley explains, so that the VIA Metropolitan Transit can build its sixth -- and largest -- transit park-and-ride facility over one of the most vulnerable areas of the recharge zone.

Unlike other aquifers, the Edwards does not filter the water that recharges it. Until now, we haven't needed plants to treat our water because nature delivers heavy rainfalls that recharge one of the world's largest karst aquifers, giving us bottled-quality water out of faucets.

As the recharge zone has been developed, some aquifer protections have been established. Current zoning for these 20 acres, for example, limits impervious cover to 15 percent. But if this change is granted, that will rise to 65 percent, which experts say is dangerous.

"It is well established that once impervious cover exceeds 15 percent, contaminant concentrations in surface water increase rapidly," says hydrologist George Rice. "And on the recharge zone, that surface water recharges the aquifer."

Oil, grease and metals -- including lead and arsenic -- and industrial solvents used for degreasing are often found in parking lots, Rice says. But a study of an Austin creek bounded by parking lots also found "polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in high concentrations in the runoff from parking lots," Rice adds, "especially in the runoff of parking lots sealed with products derived from coal tar."

And several PAHs, he points out, are suspected carcinogens.

In a memo to the Zoning Commission, SAWS staff presented powerful arguments for denying the change, noting that USGS found the area to be protected only by very thin layers of soil, that it has "rock outcrop exposures" and probably has caves.

SAWS staff also expressed "general concerns" about "improper use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers needed for landscape maintenance" and "the build-up of hydrocarbons and other pollutants that are then carried off in the first flush of storm water run-off."

Then the SAWS honchos recommended approval of the zoning change -- if proper precautions and storm-water containment plans are developed.

So what? ask the opponents.

"We're opposed to this park-and-ride because regardless of what kind of catchments they have, they can't control 100 percent of (the storm water run-off)," says Gregory Snow of the Northwind Property Owners Association, all of whose members rely on their own water wells.

"We know how it rains and floods in San Antonio, and there will be times when (the runoff) will carry those petrochemicals downhill into the surrounding area and Northwind Estates."

"This is a continuation of bad city policy," adds Annalisa Peace of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. "The city allowed high-density development over the recharge zone for years, so now they need a park-and-ride to help with the traffic. But are we going to further pollute the aquifer to make up for the mistakes we already made?

"We can't treat this as if it's any other piece of land. It's not. It is a very, very sensitive area."

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.