Cities Spend Millions On Land to Protect Water
Purchases Near Aquifers Aim to Safeguard Runoff; Some Developers Object
By JIM CARLTON
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 4, 2006; Page B6
AUSTIN, Texas — Environmentalists have been fighting for years to corral urban sprawl. Now they have a new ally: local governments that want to lock up undeveloped property to safeguard the drinking water that runs through it. Here in central Texas, the cities of Austin and San Antonio are racing to buy open space that lies over a giant underground water supply called the Edwards Aquifer. The municipalities are spending millions of dollars and provoking the ire of some developers and businesses that object to the idea of off-limits land and the taxpayer burden.
The land acquisitions in Texas have taken on urgency because the unique geology of the Edwards Aquifer makes it more susceptible to contamination. In most aquifers, soils are so dense that it can take years for rainwater runoff to reach wells. But the Edwards Aquifer is made mainly of porous limestone, geologists say, allowing runoff to race into surface springs and rivers in as little as a few days.
Local governments across the U.S. are buying undeveloped land to help protect municipal water sources. Thousands of acres have been bought up in the rugged Texas Hill Country, such as Barton Creek, shown here, outside Austin. Too much development of parking lots and homes could cause rainwater to run off even faster, making it harder to capture in reservoirs, say water officials. The aquifer also could become contaminated from lawn fertilizers, motor oil and other pollutants that get washed into the ground when it rains.
“If you keep building over the aquifer, you are increasing the pollution and also the chances of having a catastrophic spill,” says Robert Potts, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority in San Antonio.
San Antonio, with a population of about 1.2 million, gets almost all of its drinking water from the Edwards Aquifer, while Austin, with about 700,000 people, gets about 5% of its water supply from it. Engineers estimate the aquifer holds between 25 million and 55 million acre feet of accessible water, or a more than 100-year supply for San Antonio alone. (An acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons.)
Since 2000, San Antonio has spent almost $45 million to purchase about 7,000 acres of land situated in the rugged Texas Hill Country, which is undergoing a building boom. Voters in San Antonio voted last May to raise $90 million in taxes to acquire rights to thousands more acres in the area.
In Austin, city officials have raised about $80 million in bonds since 1998 to lock up 20,000 acres. Austin officials say they may ask voters next year to approve as much as $100 million in bonds to add to the open space buffer. The same trend is happening elsewhere. Since 1985, the state of Massachusetts has spent about $120 million to buy about 20,000 acres of land around two reservoirs that supply water to greater Boston. New York City has spent about $170 million since 1997 to purchase some 70,000 acres abutting streams and rivers in the Catskills that feed into city-owned reservoirs. And in 2002, voters in Dakota County, Minn., approved a $20 million bond to preserve 10,000 acres of open space to protect the waterways there.
Many cities are finding it is cheaper to buy land to help keep water supplies clean than to build expensive treatment plants. In 1997, New York received a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency stating it wouldn’t have to build a water filtration plant — estimated to cost as much as $8 billion — if it bought undeveloped land around the city’s main source of drinking water in the Catskills. The state of Massachusetts obtained a similar waiver in 1998. “We’re not there to stop all development, but just to protect the most sensitive lands,” says Dave Tobias, director of land acquisition for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
But such land-buying plans can be controversial. In the early 1990s, dozens of small towns in the Catskills fought New York’s goal of acquiring more than 200,000 acres in the region because they were concerned land values would be depressed if so much property was taken out of circulation. A group called the Coalition of Watershed Towns lobbied against New York’s request to buy land instead of building a treatment plant. The group dropped its objections only after New York agreed to seek out willing land sellers, rather than grabbing properties using its power of eminent domain.
In Austin and San Antonio, the land-buying programs also have come under fire. The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, for example, opposed a measure last May to continue a special 1/8th-cent sales tax passed in 2000 for aquifer protection, arguing, in part, the land program there was too ambiguous. Some builders and property-rights advocates also complain the programs needlessly limit land supply.
“It’s like writing a blank check for additional property to be taken out of circulation,” says Michael Moore, president of Ironstone Development LLC, a development firm in San Antonio. Mr. Moore adds builders already use techniques to safeguard the aquifer, such as putting in catch basins to filter rainwater that runs off a subdivision.
But many other real-estate executives are supportive of the programs, saying they rely on willing sellers who are offered market prices for their land. “This is far superior to the alternative, which is the practice of regulatory taking of land,” says Norman Dugas, a San Antonio builder and board member of the Greater San Antonio Builders Association.
The campaign to conserve land atop the aquifer began in Austin in the early 1990s. At the time, a group of environmental activists organized an effort to slow development over a part of the aquifer called Barton Springs, a popular recreation area and an important source of drinking water.
In 1992, Austin voters approved an ordinance known as Save Our Springs, which allocated some $40 million in bonds to establish conservation preserves on more than 5,000 acres in the watershed. In 1998, voters agreed to spend an additional $65 million in bonds to buy more land atop the aquifer in deals that were largely negotiated by the Nature Conservancy of Texas, Trust for Public Land and other conservation groups. An additional $13.4 million in bonds was approved in 2000 to buy 5,000 acres.
Austin set up conservation easements, which prohibit large developments, on a dozen properties including a 7,000-acre property known as Shield Ranch. In 1998, the city paid the ranch’s owner, Bob Ayres, and his mother and sister, about $6 million not to develop 1,700 acres of the property. The family ultimately donated most of the remaining land as a conservation easement.
Mr. Ayres says the family could have gotten about $10 million for the ranch from a real-estate developer. But he says the conservation deal fit in with their desire to preserve the land in the same natural state as when their family purchased it in 1938. “We didn’t want to see it covered up with subdivisions and strip malls,” says the 47-year-old Mr. Ayres, who manages the ranch.
Still, the land purchases are drops in the bucket compared with the amount of property that remains unencumbered. Conservation groups estimate as much as 500,000 acres of land over the 11 million-acre Edwards Aquifer should be protected from development, but Austin and San Antonio so far have bought a total of about 30,000 acres. “If we can get some of the critical tracts that are targeted for near-term development, we can slow down the pace of development,” says Colin Clark, spokesman for Save Our Springs Alliance, an environmental group in Austin.