Protecting the Hill Country’s Resources

Photo courtesy of Hill Country Alliance The Hill Country Alliance’s outreach covers a lot of ground in a region encompassing 17 counties, 11.4 million acres, and more than 3 million people. It’s an outreach that honors the special beauty of the Hill Country — a magical, mystical place, says HCA Executive Director Christy Muse. But the preservation of this special beauty for future generations requires the kind of long-range planning that pays extra heed to land conservation in connection to water availability. Muse explains: “In all of our water discussions, there’s very little attention being paid to the land, and everything that happens on the land has everything to do with the water.”

Photo courtesy of Hill Country Alliance
The Hill Country Alliance’s outreach covers a lot of ground in a region encompassing 17 counties, 11.4 million acres, and more than 3 million people. It’s an outreach that honors the special beauty of the Hill Country — a magical, mystical place, says HCA Executive Director Christy Muse, shown above. But the preservation of this special beauty for future generations requires long-range planning that connects land and water conservation.

I’m looking forward to attending the Hill Country Alliance’s Annual Leadership Summit tomorrow, Sept. 24, in Fredericksburg (http://www.hillcountryalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Summit-Flyer-2015.pdf). The summit — titled “A Vision for the Hill Country” — is placing a sharp focus on the region’s most critical resources: water and land.

The Hill Country Alliance’s outreach covers a lot of ground in a region encompassing 17 counties, 11.4 million acres and more than 3 million people. It’s an outreach that honors the special beauty of the Hill Country — a magical, mystical place, says HCA Executive Director Christy Muse.

But the Hill Country’s natural resources are under attack, Muse notes, threatened by prolific population growth and a lack of oversight for development outside city limits. Most alarmingly, the aquifer recharge zones and spring-fed streams and rivers that make up the region’s diverse water-supply system can accommodate only so many drinking straws before they run dry.

The fragmentation of rural land into smaller chunks for residential and commercial development puts more pressure on a water system repeatedly, and historically, stressed by drought. Something has to give. So Muse and a broad-based team of experts are asking residents, new and established alike, to give more than they take: to understand the limitations of the region’s water resources and to grasp the connection between the pumping of groundwater and the lowering of the underground water table.

In a recent conversation, Muse explained how she’s framing the main issues: “Everyone in the Hill Country ultimately wants prosperity and quality of life for future generations,” she says. “No one would argue about that.”

But Muse says concerns about water threaten that future in many ways. In conversations about water — the availability of water, the price of water, the quality of water — Muse is noting a glaring omission. “There’s very little attention being paid to the land, and everything that happens on the land has everything to do with the water,” she says. “The water’s the burning issue.”

To that end, Muse envisions a regional land-use plan that features large areas of protected land, such as heritage ranches, with a passenger rail transit system enhancing the vibrancy of tourist locales such as Fredericksburg and Kerrville.

“If you think outside the box,” Muse says, “there’s so much possible.”

Good land planning, Muse continues, necessitates innovative thinking that places less stress on the land, thereby protecting water resources. It involves developing away from sensitive river, or riparian, areas. It means developing in a low-impact manner that doesn’t require massive infrastructure, such as mazes of new roads and big pipelines. It involves creative strategies such as rainwater harvesting and the use of gray water (reusable wastewater) on lawns.

Cover_Oct15_smallIt means growing drought-resistant native plants — see my related story about native plant guru Bill Neiman and his family’s Native American Seed farm operation in the October 2015 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. And I share a little more of Neiman’s vision in my blog post “A Native Plant Paradigm Shift” (https://thelightoftheroad.com/2015/09/23/a-native-plant-paradigm-shift/).

The ultimate idea, Muse says, is to take a holistic view of the entire Hill Country region and the links between the natural systems in place.

In terms of development, “What I really oppose is just letting whatever happen, happen, with an attitude of ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do about that,’ ” says Muse, who grew up in Riverside, Illinois, a planned, walkable community of open green spaces designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “That’s unacceptable. There are things we can do. We have a responsibility.”

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