Photo: Michelle Michel
A Collective Impact Approach to Conservation
The Texas Hill Country is at a crossroads. This iconic region, home to the headwaters of 13 of Texas’ rivers, sustains life from the rural backroads of the Texas hinterlands through the rapidly growing cities of the I-35 corridor, to the bays and estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico. Sprawling development, climate change, and booming population growth threaten the complete depletion and degradation of these critical resources.
The Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (THCCN) was created as a direct response to these threats, with a mission to significantly scale up the impact of conservation-focused organizations working throughout the Hill Country.
Specific goals of the network include:
- Permanently protecting 100,000 acres of open space
- Passing strategic county and city bonds totaling $400M for land conservation
- Developing a Hill Country-wide watershed conservation plan
- Securing investments in green infrastructure in all 18 Hill Country counties
Areas of Focus
The Hill Country faces a perfect storm of pressures on the land – high and increasing rates of land fragmentation and land sale values coupled with a rapidly growing regional population. Without a significant increase in land conservation, the Hill Country is at risk of losing much of its scenic beauty and rural character – from the urbanization of heritage agricultural and ranch lands, declining spring flows due to ever-expanding impervious cover, and deteriorating water quality from reduced natural stormwater filtration. Substantial land conservation progress is needed over the next 5-10 years before development pressures overwhelm the affordability and prevalence of conservation opportunities.
Network organizations collaborate to create a regional conservation plan and prioritize the most strategic parcels, streamline information sharing, increase landowner outreach and education, seek collaborative opportunities to attract government and philanthropic resources to the region, and advocate for local and county bond initiatives and other programs to support open space preservation and land conservation.
Ensuring freshwater flows in Hill Country springs and rivers is key to preserving the natural systems and the economy of the region and beyond, as Hill Country rivers flow down to the Texas coast, estuaries, and fisheries. Surface water and groundwater are inextricably connected in the Hill Country due to the unique features of our karst aquifers. As a result, freshwater stewardship needs to focus on both reducing demand for groundwater and surface water resources, and ensuring adequate protection of aquifer recharge capacities. Progress in these areas will be important to hedge against natural fluctuations in rainfall, periodic drought conditions, and impacts from climate change.
Additionally, as development in the Hill Country increases, pressure on water quality in rivers, creeks, and lakes also grows. One persistent question for growing Hill Country communities involves wastewater management. Historically rural communities are often dependent on decentralized wastewater treatment through septic systems. As time passes and these communities grow, poorly maintained or leaking systems can adversely impact water quality and become inadequate for the needs of a larger population. As a result, larger communities find directly discharging treated wastewater effluent into nearby rivers and creeks to be most cost-effective; however, these discharges can profoundly alter pristine water quality in ways that affect fish and wildlife populations, encourage algal blooms, and negatively impact human health and recreation in the long run. Alternative approaches to wastewater management – such as permitted land application – can reduce these long-term costs which arise from altered water chemistry.
Hill Country water quality is also affected by stormwater run-off, which carries contaminants and nutrients into surface waters. Riparian buffers with native vegetation and natural debris provide habitat for wildlife while also helping to filter out these pollutants before they enter surface waters. Additionally, these riparian buffers help reduce impacts to residents during devastating flooding – such as the 2015 Memorial Day flood along the Blanco River in Wimberley – by slowing down cresting waters.
Network organizations work collaboratively to research, compile, and communicate credible information on the scientific, health, environmental, and economic dimensions of various options for managing wastewater, support the adoption and implementation of “One Water” policy in both urban and rural settings throughout the Hill Country, educate and support landowners on riparian restoration, and conduct research to improve understanding of groundwater and surface water interactions in the Hill Country.
If we are to rise to the challenges facing the Hill Country, public awareness of and support for conservation is vital to scaling conservation activity in the region. This awareness and support can accelerate adoption of private landowner stewardship practices, as well as support for local and state policies and investments (e.g., bond issues) that support conservation. Making clear connections to the economic health of communities in the Hill Country will also be important to securing the necessary support to conserve land and water at the scale required to meet the needs of the Hill Country. The Network is well situated to collectively communicate to a wide constituency and help build support for a conservation ethic throughout the region.
More resources are needed to scale-up conservation in the Hill Country. As a private lands state, market-based approaches must be pursued to enable permanent land protection. Even donated conservation easements require funding to mitigate transaction costs and to fund stewardship activities. In addition, many private landowners and rural communities lack sufficient resources to implement conservation measures or programs. Smart philanthropic, public, and private investments can offset these costs and catalyze co-investment and leverage other resources, and the Network aims to lead the way in marshalling and strategically deploying these investments.
While like-minded environmental organizations coming together to form the Network is a significant step towards meeting the conservation challenges facing the Hill Country, long-term success will require building strong and durable partnerships that engage diverse stakeholders in common cause. The Network will strive to strategically engage key constituencies such as businesses, local and county government officials and agencies, and private landowners, among other groups, in order to build the conservation movement in the region and effectively scale-up land and water conservation in the Hill Country.
The Network is governed by a Steering Committee, which represents 10 organizations, academic institutions, and businesses from across the region. Collectively, Steering Committee members bring a wealth of experience and expertise in land and water conservation to the Network’s collaborative efforts. The Hill Country Alliance serves as the backbone organization for the Network.
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