Grand challenges for Water, Texas

In 1928, an oil company laid a pipeline from New Mexico to the Houston Ship Channel to carry crude from the field to the refineries along the coast. The route of the line brought it across Gillespie County, Texas where the Pedernales River begins about an hour and a half from Austin. 

At that time, in order to traverse the county, the pipeline builders negotiated with a total of 12 landowners.  In 2012, the line was removed from the ground and repurposed to meet the dramatically expanded oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford Shale. This time, 84 years later, the company dealt with more than 2,000 landowners in order to traverse the same terrain.

There could be no better evidence that the landscape of Texas is fragmenting at an alarming rate, and that fragmentation today is the most serious terrestrial environmental problem that Texans face. 

This fragmentation of the land is driven by the fact that, when Texas was admitted to the United States, unlike all the other western states, the former Republic of Texas retained its public lands and promptly sold them off to build the Texas State Capitol in Austin, endow its educational institutions, and more.

Today, as a result, more than 95 percent of the Texas landscape is privately owned and, though generally well managed, is being broken up right before our eyes. Texas, due to its burgeoning economic and population growth, is losing rural and agricultural lands faster than any other state: more than two million acres between 1997 and 2007 alone.

This inexorable disintegration of large family lands in Texas not only threatens most of our wildlife habitat, native forests, and other landscapes, it threatens our water supply as well. Virtually all of our watersheds, recharge areas, and other features that make the hydrologic system work in the state are on private property, and as those properties break up for other purposes, such as subdivisions, highways, and economic development, the system Texas depends on for its water is increasingly at risk.

Over the past several decades, land fragmentation in some of our state’s most picturesque landscapes (such as the Texas Hill Country) has resulted in more wells in the ground—and an exponential use of our limited groundwater supply. And it does not appear to be slowing down.

In the face of disquieting trend, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has taken the lead to explore and address what we might call the “land and water nexus.” 

In partnership with the Meadows Center on Water and the Environment at Texas State University, the Mitchell Foundation has addressed this nexus on two principal fronts. 

First, focusing initially on the Texas Hill Country and the Pedernales Watershed, with funding from the Mitchell Foundation, the Meadows Center has launched a massive data collection effort to fill missing information gaps for both groundwater and surface water in the Basin. 

Much of the data that has been the basis of management practices currently in-place in the Pedernales watershed was collected in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus the Meadows Center has initiated collecting up-to-date information about water quantity and quality, interactions between surface and groundwater, and other hydrogeographic characteristics.  

The results of the project will be an analysis of the new data and localized management recommendations for long-term sustainability of water in the Pedernales. 

To date, the Meadows Center has conducted desktop research and created an in-depth GIS about the watershed. In July and August 2015, it will conduct an intensive environmental inventory at 935 sites in the watershed. Later this summer, the Meadows Center will also conduct intensive water quality testing at 100 selected sites. The Meadows Center anticipates that it will finalize the project in September 2015.

On the second front, the Mitchell Foundation and the Meadows Center launched an innovative project known as Water Grand Challenges which brought a group of influential and very diverse group of stakeholders together over two years to grapple with urgent issues outside the normal envelope of water policy makers, including land fragmentation. 

In large part as a result of the Water Grand Challenges Initiative and in partnership with groups including the American Farmland Trust and the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus ordered an interim study on the issue which helped make the case for the Legislature to establish The Texas Farm and Ranchlands Conservation Council in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and provide it with seed funding to begin purchasing the development rights from owners of important landscapes. This will allow them to avoid fragmentation brought about by estate taxes and other pressures and to remain on the land as its stewards.

Soon the Mitchell Foundation will launch another bold initiative to develop a strategy for its proposed land conservation program, a new program that its leadership expects to be transformational, one that will bring land conservation to the forefront of public discourse in Texas so that it becomes an integral part of the vision for the state’s future.

Both the quality of life for future generations of Texans and sufficient supplies of water for the environment and continued economic growth will depend on this vision.


Andrew Sansom, Ph.D is research professor of geography and executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. Andy is one of Texas’s leading conservationists. He is the former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and executive director of the Texas Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. For more information, visit or follow Twitter @MeadowsC4Water.


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.  

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