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A 240-mile job



Two seats open on SARA Board for February 5 election

The next time you stroll the River Walk or drive over the San Antonio River in Falls City, remember that the San Antonio River Authority is responsible for the care and feeding of the 240-mile waterway.

On February 5, voters will have the opportunity to elect two Bexar County at-large seats to the San Antonio River Authority board of directors, which oversees projects such as flood-map development, the San Antonio River Improvement Project, and the proposed Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project. Candidates include incumbent Sally Buchanan, Edward (Sonny) Collins III, Hector Morales, Louis Podesta, David Wagner, and Ben F. Youngblood III.

SARA is responsible for the health of the San Antonio River, including water quality, flood control, wastewater management, and park services. Its authority stretches along the river and its tributaries, which wind through Bexar, Goliad, Karnes, and Wilson counties before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Today creeks are little more than concrete
ditches filled with dead tires and any
garbage that gets caught there during a flood."

— Hector Morales

The 12-member board has a large stake in setting policy for SARA; its responsibilities include hiring the general manager, setting the tax rate, approving the annual budget, and managing real-estate transactions and bids for projects and programs. Board members serve six-year terms; elections are held every two years.

San Antonio is the state's only river authority that elects officials to its board. It is also the only one that generates funding through property tax rather than utility customers. The SARA property tax is currently set at 1.64 cents per $100 valuation, and is capped at two cents.

So, who are the candidates?

Buchanan, who also serves on the board of the San Antonio River Foundation, says she's hoping to see long-term improvement projects through to completion. "But I also want to watch our water quality," she says. "We're seeing species of fish in the river that we hadn't seen in a long time. We'd like to use this river for recreation, so people can boat safely, and it would be lovely to have people swim in it."

She has supported the environmental and feasibility studies on the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project and is reserving judgment until they are completed. "Water quantity is a hard problem for San Antonio, but we also need to think about the environment."

The LGWSP is a partnership between SAWS, SARA, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which proposes to collect water from the point where the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers converge in the Gulf Coast Aquifer System near the Gulf Coast, and pump it to the Bexar County area through a pipeline. It is expected to provide up to 31 billion gallons of water per year for the SARA and GBRA service areas. The project is slated for completion in 2012, and is estimated to cost between $683 million and $785 million.

Collins says he believes the LGWSP, if it proves to be environmentally sound, is the best solution on the table. "Another option is the `Edwards` Recharge Project, but that's still only theory. We could pay millions of dollars to attempt a recharge, and have no more water."

A retired businessman, Collins says he would also support the LGWSP because "if desalination becomes possible, you'd already have the pipeline in place to get saltwater from the gulf and pump it back up here."

Youngblood, a private-practice business attorney who has served on SAWS' Citizens Advisory Panel and its Rate Structure Committee, would like SARA to explore less expensive alternatives before committing to the LGWSP, and he's also concerned about affecting ecosystems downstream.

"One thing they're looking at down at the coast is how much freshwater the blue crabs need to reproduce," he says. "They constitute almost the entire diet of the whooping crane. So what happens to the crane populations if the regular flows of the river are interrupted?"

Wagner, a UTSA civil-engineering student, would like SARA to focus on smaller-scale, community projects that could be implemented more quickly and inexpensively. He is interested in community reservoirs that would capture and treat stormwater runoff, which could then be used to "irrigate gardens, parks, playgrounds, or even to create small economic centers like the River Walk," he says. "So you would control flooding, improve the quality and quantity of water and, at the same time, improve the neighborhood."

Podesta, a business consultant, says his "sole issue is flood control." He would like the River Authority to aggressively pursue changes in the city's development codes.

"We have these huge swaths of concrete, and every time it rains it floods. It causes economic damage and, more importantly, human damage: Every police officer is out chasing wrecks because there is water everywhere."

Morales, a semi-retired civil engineer who worked at Fort Sam's wastewater plant for more than 20 years, is most interested in returning creeks to their natural state.

"Today they are little more than concrete ditches filled with dead tires and any garbage that gets caught there during a flood," he says. "It may be impossible to make them look like they did 15 years ago, but maybe we can make them a little more natural, so the crawdads and the white cranes come back."

By Susan Pagani

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