A small crowd sipped sangria and craft beers and nibbled on pastrami at Salt & Time on last Thursday. Rather than your typical hipster confab, this was an event marking the official announcement of a new conservation initiative, Land for Water, from the Austin-based Texas Land Conservancy. The 30-year-old organization works to conserve natural areas in Texas, as CultureMap previously reported.
Land for Water is a science-based effort on the part of the organization to be more proactive, says Mark Steinbach, TLC executive director. “We have been driven more by chance than anything else. We decided to use a scientific methodology to focus our efforts on priority lands. Rather than just wait for the phone to ring, we looked at a combination of where land is being threatened and where there are opportunities, centered around key watersheds or river systems.” A watershed represents all the land that drains into a particular river.
Using Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, the organization analyzed data on water resources, scenic views, geology, plant communities, elevation, and precipitation levels, layering each of those into a high-tech composite map. This work identified six key watersheds, areas with irreplaceable natural resources facing serious threats. The key locales — the Lower Brazos, Lower Trinity, Neches, Llano, Pedernales and Medina Rivers — include more than 27 million acres.
Protecting the land in a watershed protects the quantity and quality of the water. “The greatest conservation challenge facing Texas is the demand for water by a growing population,” Steinbach says, noting that the Texas population is expected to increase 82 percent between now and 2060. That’s a lot of thirsty lawns. It’s also a lot of new development. In the past ten years alone, Texas lost 3 million acres of undeveloped agricultural land to development.
Development also leads to pollution. A typical city block generates five times more runoff than a natural area of the same size. Runoff carries fertilizers, pesticides, oil and other chemicals, contributing to degradation of streams, rivers and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. That comes back to haunt all of us in various ways, including decreased recreational opportunities, poorer water quality, and decreased productivity in commercial fisheries.
It is substantially less expensive, Steinbach points out, to protect water quality at its source than to treat polluted water. In fact, a study conducted by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association found that every 10 percent increase in natural cover in a water source area decreases municipal water costs by 20 percent. It’s hard to argue with a return on investment like that.
Austinites are probably most familiar with one of the priority watersheds, the Pedernales River. Running 125 miles, it passes through seven counties, draining 815,363 acres. Species of concern in this watershed include the golden-cheeked warbler, black-capped vireo, mountain plover, Llano pocket gopher, plains striped skunk, Guadalupe bass, Blanco River Springs salamander and cave myotis bat.
The river eventually empties into the Colorado River, which flows right through Austin, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities and, of course, our drinking water. Only 69,254 of the watershed’s acres are protected, mostly in LBJ National Historical Park and Pedernales Falls State Park.
In fact, only 3 million acres of land are protected in all of Texas. That figure includes land trusts as well as state and local parks, which aren’t always largely undeveloped.
TLC hopes to secure conservation easements on as much of the identified priority lands as possible. These easements are voluntary, negotiated agreements between TLC and the owners, who retain the right to conduct low-impact activities such as agriculture and hunting on the land and even to build houses, within reason. Easements protect the property from large-scale or intensive development, Steinbach explains, or from being sold off in small pieces.
Conservation easements are still unfamiliar to most people, so education will be a big part of the Land for Water effort. The organization needs to education landowners, but also the general public. “It’s hard to quantify these non-market benefits such as clean water running off into streams, control of soil erosion, open views, better air quality, and wildlife habitat,” Steinbach says. “But these all contribute to our health and overall enjoyment of the outdoors.”
TLC's priority is to protect 1 percent of these watersheds, which equates to 270,000 acres of land across Texas. The organization is hoping Texans will step up to the plate to help it achieve this goal. Because everyone likes clean water. After all, you can’t make sangria and beer without it.