Mar 8, 2022 - News

Population growth challenges Texas' Hill Country

A subdivision under construction in the Texas Hill Country.
Development underway in the Big Sky Ranch subdivision in Dripping Springs in December. Photo: Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK

Booming population growth, coupled with changing climate patterns, unslakable groundwater thirst and political challenges, leave the Texas Hill Country newly vulnerable.

Driving the news: A recently released report from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network reveals a region facing profound threats to its future.

  • The network is a partnership of dozens of organizations working across an 18-county region of Central Texas to protect waterways, vistas and wildlife.

What they're saying: "The Hill Country's breathtaking vistas, natural spaces, clear waters, abundant wildlife, starry night skies, and small-town charms must not be taken for granted," says Katherine Romans, chair of the conservation network. "The choices we collectively make now will determine whether the region and its inhabitants survive and thrive, or whether we willfully live beyond the means and carrying capacity of this place we call home."

What they found: Less than 5% of Hill Country land has been set aside for conservation as ranches are broken up and transformed into sprawling subdivisions.

  • Creeks key to the region's recreational economy are under siege from a proliferation of sewage-treatment plants.
  • Dark skies, vital for the region's quality of life, local tourism economies and wildlife, are slowly brightening.

Between the lines: The Texas Legislature, known for its friendliness toward the real estate industry, regularly rebuffs proposals to give more authority to county governments to regulate land development.

  • Tensions between environmental groups have long pointed at questions about how aggressively to fight development. Still, Austin's Save Our Springs Alliance executive director Bill Bunch told Axios the group hadn't signed the network's resolution only as "a result of unintended inaction and not disagreement."

Why it matters: ​​What happens in the Hill Country has consequences for Austin.

  • Hill Country groundwater, for example, is the source of Austin's beloved Barton Springs.
  • And Hill Country land management practice figures into Austin flooding.
  • "A funnel cloud in Driftwood, Texas dumps rain, and when that flows downriver, that becomes catastrophic to us downstream," Carmen Llanes Pulido, director of Go Austin/Vamos Austin, a member of the network, said, referring to record floods in recent years in southeast Austin.

What's next: "The window of opportunity to protect and sustain the Hill Country's natural treasures will likely close within our generation," Jennifer Walker, a deputy director at the National Wildlife Federation and vice chair of the network, said. "Understanding how to balance development and conservation in service of these goals is key to that sustainability."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Austin's Save our Springs Alliance has not signed the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network's resolution, but does not attribute this decision to tensions with other environmental groups.

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