Commentary: We're out of excuses; it's time to secure Texas Hill Country's fragile water resources

Here’s something we don’t get to say very often: It’s been a promising month for water in the Hill Country.

With record sprawl pushing ever westward from I-35 and climate change threatening an age of Texan megadroughts, the water future of the Hill Country has looked increasingly fragile. Yet this month’s passage of a bipartisan infrastructure package with $55 billion directed toward the water sector — combined with the development of major new water reuse planning resources directed specifically at Hill Country communities — is a historic opportunity for the region. We need to capitalize on it.

Water is the lifeblood of the Hill Country. Thirteen Texas Rivers have their headwaters in the region, and for centuries the residents and stewards of these lands have recognized the critical importance of protecting water quality and quantity for future generations.

Home to three of the five fastest-growing counties — Hays, Comal and Kendall — in the nation, the Hill Country is changing at an almost incomprehensible pace. Business-as-usual development practices place increasing pressure on water supplies. Dramatic swings in water and water availability only compound that pressure.

A majority of Hill Country growth is occurring in unincorporated areas. Development in these areas corresponds to an increase in water wells — or straws in the aquifer. In addition, wastewater created by new development is often directly discharged into nearby creeks. Increased sprawl also means land that once captured water is now paved over, diverting water elsewhere and significantly increasing the intensity of flooding events throughout the region.

Despite this grim picture, we now have solutions at hand. Not only does the federal infrastructure package promise a possible major injection of funds for cash-strapped municipalities, new approaches to integrated water management — particularly the increasingly popular One Water method — offer a viable way to balance development with protecting our overburdened water and landscapes.

One Water strategies include reusing water to expand existing water supplies; collecting, treating and managing water close to its source; and pursuing all opportunities to minimize overall water footprint. These strategies do not have to cost more than traditional development, especially considering the long-term cost savings from improved water and wastewater service. These approaches also bring an array of additional benefits, such as greatly reducing environmental degradation from wastewater discharge into streams.

Some of these strategies are already employed in individual building projects in the region. Blue Hole Primary School in Wimberley harvests rainwater, captures A/C condensate and reuses on-site water to offset nonpotable water needs like toilet flushing and irrigation. In doing so, the school saves Wimberley ISD between $30,000 and $50,000 a year compared to a traditionally built school.

The new Credit Human headquarters near the Pearl in San Antonio also makes extensive use of rainwater harvesting, HVAC condensate collection and connections to San Antonio’s recycled water system. These innovations combine to reduce the site’s need for potable water by an astonishing 97 percent compared to a traditional building.

These isolated projects deserve more praise, but we need to scale up this effort considerably to make a difference in the region’s water outlook as a whole.

Again, this month has brought some hope. A coalition of regional conservation organizations recently released a major new toolkit for Hill Country communities to make use of the latest planning, engineering and funding resources related to One Water development. Combined with recent studies on the viability of using property assessed clean energy, or PACE, financing to fund water reuse projects in Texas, communities and developers have a vast wealth of resources available to scale up water reuse.

We’re out of excuses. Developers and policymakers must get on board. Building as we’ve always done will destroy the Hill Country.

Resources to make the switch are now readily available, making the case clear both for our economic and ecological future. It’s past time we lighten our water footprint on the hills so many of us call home.

Jennifer Walker is deputy director of the Texas Coast and Water Program at the National Wildlife Federation. Sydney Beckner is water program manager for Hill Country Alliance.

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