Drought, growth and the future of the Hill Country

Emily R. Warren Armitano and Katherine Romans

On Thursday, June 9, the North Llano River stopped flowing. On August 4, the US Drought Monitor showed that 80% of Texas Hill Country was in exceptional drought. The Pedernales, Guadalupe, and Frio rivers are dry, and many other rivers in Texas are heading toward zero flow.

Ranchers and farmers have been warned – prepare to stop irrigation to save water for key downstream water rights holders. The springs that keep Hill Country pools full and cool on hot summer days are disappearing.

We’ve seen this kind of drought before, especially in the Hill Country. In 2011 we saw 100 days without rain and temperatures over 100 degrees. During the record drought of the 1950s, rainfall across most of Texas was 50 to 70 percent below average.

So what makes 2022 different from the 1950s? Simply put, more people – 3 million more of us are turning on the taps, swimming in the creeks, building homes and living in central Texas. Two million additional inhabitants will arrive in the next 20 years.

A recent report commissioned by the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network revealed the impacts of booming growth on the Hill Country. The data is a wake-up call for anyone who appreciates this region of 11 million acres, 12 rivers, 1,100 springs, thousands of creeks and endless starry skies. Business as usual development puts increased pressure on limited water supplies and makes it harder for our springs and rivers to recover from drought conditions.

Growth brings challenges and opportunities. Our work puts us in conversation with thousands of people who live in the Hill Country and benefit from its natural resources every year. They understand the need to grow while balancing development and conservation.

We find hope in the collaborative work of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network and its nearly 50 conservation-focused organizations, businesses, universities, and government organizations. Together, we are tackling the biggest challenges highlighted in the State of the Hills Report.

The best way to protect water resources is to protect the land where the water comes from. Rural land helps slow down and store rainfall. As of 2021, five percent of Hill Country land is permanently protected for conservation, while nearly seven percent is developed. As prices per acre rise and cities expand outward, permanent land protection becomes more costly and elusive.

We need more investment in land conservation. Despite skyrocketing economic growth, funding for conservation in our region has stagnated. While our GDP reaches $300 billion a year, conservation investments have sat idle at around $1.2 billion in total over the past 30 years.

We need to use water more wisely. Some communities in and around Austin use over 800 gallons of water per person per day. During the summer months, much of our drinking water is sprayed onto water-thirsty lawns.

The cheapest available water is what we already have, so let’s focus on strategies and technologies centered around water collection, storage, reuse and conservation. We have great examples of these technologies, including the Blue Hole Elementary School in Wimberley and a state-of-the-art facility the City of Austin unveiled this summer.

Let’s keep our cleanest waters clean. The Hill Country has more miles of pristine waterways than any other region in the state. And yet we see more and more developers wanting to put treated wastewater into these pristine waterways where even the smallest levels of nitrogen and phosphorus would harm the ecosystem. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must recognize the unique fragility of these pristine waterways and take action to protect them.

And finally, Hill Country counties need more county tools to thoughtfully plan and guide the growth we are experiencing. Heads of state must accept this need in fast-growing regions where significant natural assets are under threat and take action in the 2023 legislative session.

If there’s one good thing that can come from dryness, it’s action. We can all do something to keep our water supplies safe for people, the economy and the environment. Will you join us? Our springs, rivers, children and grandchildren depend on you.

Armitano is head of the water and land conservation program at the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. Romans is executive director of the Hill Country Alliance and president of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.

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