Land for water

The city is asking voters to send more money to a little-known program that protects Barton Springs.

On a warm August morning, I stand in the dry bed of Onion Creek in Hays County and watch as Kevin Thuesen lowers himself into a hole in the earth. I pay attention when he stresses having three points of contact at all times because I’ll soon be following him into this small cave. Thuesen, a land manager for Austin Water Utility who loves to tell jokes and talk hydrology, has invited me along for a day of spelunking and hiking to illustrate the somewhat counterintuitive concept behind the utility’s Wat­er Quality Protection Lands – namely that Barton Springs, 20 miles away, depends on these city-owned properties full of caves, pores, and conduits. “What you put in here,” he says, “is what you get out in Barton Springs.”

The city created the little-known WQPL program 20 years ago with the passage of a $65 million bond that was used to buy land above the segment of the Edwards Aquifer that flows to Barton Springs. With four additional voter-approved bonds totaling more than $155 million, the program now preserves and manages almost 30,000 wild acres, in both Hays and Travis counties, for the purpose of sending more water and higher-quality water to Austin’s most beloved natural feature. By keeping this land undeveloped, the city aims to reduce the amount of impervious cover that blocks connections to the aquifer and to decrease pesticides, petroleum and automobile runoff, and other pollutants entering the aquifer. And, this November, the city will ask for another $72 million to spend on acquiring new land before it’s consumed by the inevitable force of sprawl.

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