San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Metro and State News Page 01B
Will Legislature finally feel heat on Edwards Aquifer pollution?
Publication Date : February 6, 2007
Let's face it: Mount Helotes grew as big as it did because there wasn't much to prevent it.
Water quality protection proposals have been kicking around since we learned that the Edwards doesn't filter recharge water like other aquifers. What flows into it flows out of 1.7 million people's faucets.

We could have minimized potential hazards long ago, with simple, common-sense rules.

"The best practices are to keep hazardous materials out of the recharge zone," says Annalisa Peace, director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a coalition of 36 groups from throughout the Edwards region.

But instead, we perpetuated the fantasy that the Edwards is so big that the solution to pollution would be dilution.

Water quality regulations were kept minimal and enforcement lax and fragmented.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, for example, has only one regulation, which bans new underground storage tanks and requires that existing underground tanks be made safer.

EAA has considered wider regulations dealing with specific substances and activities, but they have never been approved.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has other regulations, but it is seriously understaffed and is often outgunned by entities it tries to regulate. Currently, a new business is only required to file a "pollution abatement plan" with TCEQ -- that is almost always approved -- that outlines how it will deal with contamination after it has polluted the aquifer.

Perhaps the best and most encompassing regulations are those in San Antonio's Unified Development Code that prohibit specific businesses that routinely use hazardous materials or that have a high potential to contaminate the aquifer.

But these only apply over recharge areas inside the city limits, a tiny part of the recharge and contributing zone.

Now, the Helotes mulch fire has state and local officials in a quandary. If left to burn itself out, it could spew bits of ash and other particulate matter into the air for a year or more. And even the most careful efforts to extinguish the burning mound more quickly risk contaminating parts of the aquifer.

With the Legislature now in session, will legislation finally be enacted to minimize potential for contaminating this incredible resource that has made San Antonio what it is today?

Two San Antonio legislators appointed to important committees are cautiously optimistic.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, a freshman, was named to the Senate Natural Resources Committee and the Edwards Aquifer Oversight Committee. He also inherited a political hot potato since the fire is in his district.

"It's unfortunate that it takes an event like this to get the attention of the Legislature as a whole," he says. "But the Helotes fire is a top issue statewide; people realize this could be a problem in their backyards."

Rep. Robert Puente, now chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is more cautious. Since 2003, he has been trying to pass legislation to authorize the EAA to "adopt and enforce rules to protect the quality of the water in the aquifer" and have "rules regarding the control of fires in the recharge zone in consultation with fire departments and fire marshals with jurisdiction over the recharge zone to protect the water quality."

"I tried last session to be more specific," Puente says, but the bill still died. He'll try again this session, he says, "but the language will have to be crafted real narrowly for it to get to my committee because there are also Land and Resource Management and Environmental Regulations (Committees), and potentially those bills could go to those committees."

A big problem, he says, is that in the Legislature, "property rights are sacrosanct."

Nevertheless, our children and grandchildren will never forgive us for letting property rights trump public health.

To contact Carlos Guerra,

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