Report finds Hill Country is suffering from the demands of rapid growth

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022 by Jo Clifton

The wide open spaces, wildflower landscapes, starry night skies, and charms of country living have all led to unprecedented population growth in the Texas Hill Country. This growth, and the growth that will inevitably follow, has brought the region to a crossroads, according to a new report of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.

The network is a partnership of dozens of organizations from an 18-county region of central Texas. They work to maximize the 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 be able to keep pace with the loss of open space, threats to water resources and other challenges facing our region.”

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

Katherine Romans, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance, told webinar attendees that not only has the Hill Country experienced unprecedented growth, but experts predict the population will double in the next 30 to 35 years. Growth and the accompanying need for new amenities such as schools and roads are threatening wildlife habitat and family ranches and placing increasing demands on aquifers. Texas is losing 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, deputy director of the National Wildlife Federation and vice president of the conservation network, said population growth is increasing demand for additional water resources. The report outlines differences in water usage across various parts of the Hill Country, with residents of Granite Shoals using just 66 gallons per day and residents of Travis County Utility District 4 using an average of 783 gallons per day, according to 2018 data.

“With the prospect of future population expansion, the current over-allocation of water rights and the need to maintain the flow of streams and rivers, we need to consider how more of the Hill Country can meet the standards of cities too. varied as Granite Shoals, Kyle and San Antonio,” the report states.

Walker said the report makes it clear that we have a responsibility to reduce water use for the benefit of the region. “The good news is that we have tools to reduce water consumption through water conservation and water efficiency. These tools are well known and used with great success in cities like San Antonio. One of these tools is the A body of wateran integrated approach to the management of all types of water, including drinking water, storm water, wastewater and gray water.

The report notes that “Even communities that add lots of new housing within city limits to meet growing demand are unable to stem growth in unincorporated areas.”

For example, Boerne, which is in Kendall County, “has more than quadrupled its population since 1990, from 4,274 to 19,066 people. Despite this impressive effort to house a growing population within the city limits, the county’s unincorporated areas grew 176%, 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 counties in Texas, has almost no planning authority from the land use to help guide and thoughtfully manage growth.

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell represents the western part of Hays County, one of the areas most affected by growth. He said one way to measure population growth in Hays County is to look at the growth in real estate appraisals. In 2010, all properties on the county’s tax roll were valued at approximately $10 billion, and in 2020 that figure has risen to $20 billion. “So for the most part, I like to think Hays County doubled” during that time.

Hays County experienced a severe drought during the 2010-2012 period. If it happened again, he said, “I think we would have emergencies, all over western Hays County, with respect to the water supply. This is one of the things that is now extremely important to me. Not only does groundwater supply flow to our rivers and streams, but it also supplies water to our homes and businesses. And if we can’t find ways to better manage that, along with that growth, I can see some really tough times ahead when we hit the next drought, which we all know will eventually happen.

“Water quality is also another stress we’re seeing because of this demand,” Shell continued. “We saw water treatment issues, discharges into rivers and streams. We will continue to see this as we grow. He said he was proud that the One Water plan had been implement 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 neighborhoods in southeast Austin during a period of heavy rain, it’s not a creek, it’s a river, she said. His organization has joined environmental groups in seeking policies that will help neighborhoods that, although not close to Hill Country habitat, are still heavily impacted by Hill Country’s environmental changes.

Photo courtesy of hill country state report.

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