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Report finds Hill Country suffering the demands of rapid growth

Wednesday, March 9, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Wide open spaces, vistas of wildflowers, dark night skies full of stars, and the charms of country living have all led to unprecedented population growth in the Texas Hill Country. That growth, and the growth that will inevitably follow, have brought the region to a crossroads, according to a new report from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.

The network is a partnership of dozens of organizations from an 18-county region of Central Texas. They are working to maximize protection of the Hill Country’s natural resources, warning that the “window of opportunity to keep the Hill Country rural, natural and vibrant will likely close within our generation,” in the words of the report. “Without collaboration, we will not keep pace with the loss of open space, the threats to water resources and other challenges facing our region.”

Members of the network presented their findings at a webinar this week, focusing on threats to the landscape, rich biodiversity and unique ecological systems of the Hill Country. The report notes that population growth in unincorporated areas has led to negative impacts on water quality and quantity, biodiversity, ecological connectivity, and visibility of the night sky.

Katherine Romans, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance, told those attending the webinar that not only has the Hill Country experienced unprecedented growth, experts predict that the population will double in the next 30 to 35 years. Growth and the accompanying need for new amenities such as schools and roads threatens wildlife habitat and family ranches and puts increasing demands on aquifers. Texas is losing its habitat and family ranches at a faster rate than any other state, and the loss is greater in the Hill Country than in the rest of the state, she said.

Jennifer Walker, a deputy director at the National Wildlife Federation and vice chair of the conservation network, said population growth increases the demand for additional water resources. The report outlined the differences in water consumption in various parts of the Hill Country, with Granite Shoals residents using just 66 gallons per day and Travis County Municipal Utility District 4 residents using an average of 783 gallons per day, according to data from 2018.

“With the prospect of future population expansion, the current over-allocation of water rights and the need to keep creeks and rivers flowing, we need to figure out how more of the Hill Country can meet the standards of cities as varied as Granite Shoals, Kyle and San Antonio,” the report said.

Walker said the report makes clear that we have a responsibility to reduce water use for the good of the region. “The good news is that we have tools to reduce water use through water conservation and efficiency. These tools are well-known and being used with great success in cities like San Antonio.” One such tool is the One Water plan, an integrated approach to management of all types of water, including drinking water, stormwater, wastewater and gray water.

The report notes, “Even communities adding a lot of new housing within the city limits to keep up with growing demand are unable to stem the growth in unincorporated areas.”

For example, Boerne, which is in Kendall County, “has more than quadrupled its population since 1990, growing from 4,274 to 19,066 people. Despite this impressive effort to house a growing population in the city limits, the county’s unincorporated areas grew by 176 percent, from 9,785 to 27,000 people during the same period. While the city of Boerne is able to manage the impacts of its population surge through effective planning and development ordinances, Kendall County, like all Texas counties, has almost no land use planning authority to help guide and thoughtfully manage growth.”

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell represents the western part of Hays County, one of the areas most impacted by growth. He said one way to measure population growth in Hays County is to look at the growth in property valuations. Back in 2010, all the properties on the county tax rolls were valued at about $10 billion, and in 2020, that figure reached $20 billion. “So, for the most part, I like to think that Hays County doubled” during that time.

Hays County experienced a severe drought during the 2010-2012 time frame. Were that to happen again, he said, “I think we would have emergencies, all across western Hays County, in relation to the water supply. That’s one of the things now that’s extremely important to me. Not only does the groundwater supply flow to our rivers and our creeks, it also supplies water to our homes and our businesses. And if we can’t find ways to better manage that, along with this growth, I can see some very hard times ahead when we do reach that next drought, which we all know will eventually happen.”

“Water quality is also another stress that we’re seeing from this demand,” Shell continued. “We’ve seen water treatment issues, the discharge into rivers and creeks. We’re going to continue to see that as growth occurs.” He said he was proud that the One Water plan has been put into place by Wimberley ISD for a new school.

The final speaker, Carmen Llanes Pulido of Go Austin/Vamos Austin, noted the impact of too much water in East Austin neighborhoods. When Onion Creek reaches Southeast Austin neighborhoods during a period of heavy rain, it’s not a creek, it’s a river, she said. Her organization has joined environmental groups in seeking policies that will help neighborhoods that, while not close to Hill Country habitat, are still greatly impacted by changes in the environment of the Hill Country.

Photo courtesy of State of the Hill Country report.

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