Protecting the Texas Hill Country Rainwater Refinery
By Rachael Lindsey
I like to think I was born a wildlife biologist. I grew up roaming the hills and hollers of Tennessee and Kentucky. Escaping into the woods after school, I tracked deer & rabbits, captured snakes & lizards, and searched streambeds for arrowheads. I dreamed of living wild, a dream I still chase today.
Earth Day feels like it should be a celebration for me – an annual culmination of my life’s work protecting these wild spaces we humans need to survive. Instead of celebrating, I spend Earth Day reflecting. On Earth Day in 1998, my best friend (and father) unexpectedly passed away. His death left a gaping hole in my heart and catalyzed me to carpe diem while I am still here dreaming.
This year I’m reflecting on my fifteen years in Hill Country paradise. Home to unparalleled beauty, exceptional biodiversity, and headwaters of 16* critical Texas rivers, I’ve borne witness to this iconic, essential landscape’s fragmentation and development in the name of progress and unfettered human population growth. Wild recharge lands for the Edwards Aquifer have transitioned to quarter acre subdivisions full of roads, rooftops, and manicured monoculture lawns. Jacobs Well and other iconic gushing springs have stopped flowing due to groundwater withdrawals and drought. Our clean, spring-fed streams have been contaminated with our wastewater, stormwater, and dangerous chemicals. Our fragile caves and sinkholes are riddled with potentially explosive pipelines carrying toxic fossil fuels. Our biodiversity is in a freefall decline, starting with insects, the basis of the entire food chain. Our once ancient forests are almost eradicated, replaced with brushy regrowth and patchy rangelands.
We are currently experiencing crisis in each extreme weather event – a harbinger of our future if we do not act now to protect and steward our wild lands to maintain the magnificent, fragile, essential ecology that beckoned all of us to live here. We can no longer snooze this alarm! We have great opportunity to protect our Hill Country, beginning with the foundation of our ecology – our forests.
Prior to European settlement (in the 1700’s), our Hill Country was dominated with a diversity of trees. The Balcones Escarpment (the fault zone that defines the southern and eastern edges of the Edwards Plateau and roughly follows I-35 from Waco through Austin to San Antonio) was described as an old growth, closed canopy forest so thick explorers could only navigate a few miles a day. If we were able to view the Hill Country hundreds of years ago, we would see an island of forest in a sea of grass.
Early settlers opportunistically harvested the ancient “cedar” trees, using them for naturally waterproofed and rot-resistant cabins, railroad ties, fenceposts and firewood. (“Cedar” is a colloquial name for our native tree, Ashe juniper, Juniperus ashei. I find it’s easier to love with the juniper name). Vast expanses of land were cleared for agriculture including crops and livestock. Goats and sheep were introduced to much success, and our Hill Country landscape was maintained as rangeland through cedar chopping, fire, and grazing.
Though these early settlers did not have foresight for our fragile ecology, we have the benefit of hindsight. William Bray noted in 1904 that forested areas of the Balcones Escarpment maintained deep, rich soils while areas that were cut and burned lost soils in our torrential rains. As settlers clearcut and burned the Texas Hill Country, the landscape experienced massive soil erosion accompanied by losses to rainwater recharge. Forests take hundreds of years to reestablish and many of our forests had been clearcut for a second time by the early 1900’s.
Our forests act as a “biotic pump”, creating frequent precipitation cycles by maintaining high humidity & cooler temperatures while simultaneously drawing moist air inland from the Gulf. Our Ashe juniper tree is uniquely positioned, through dense, evergreen leaf mass and abundant penetrating roots, to maintain humidity in the atmosphere and infiltrate rainwater into our soils and aquifer. Our juniper trees are pioneers of the forest, establishing a foothold even in the harshest conditions where they create rich soil through abundant annual leaf deposition, shade the ground from intense summer sun, create and infiltrate moisture to seedlings, protect soils and seedlings from torrential rains, create abundant food for wildlife (their “blueberries” are actually cones that are utilized by a wide variety of wildlife), sequester carbon dioxide, provide endangered species habitat, and possibly provide fungal-resistance to sensitive species like madrones and oaks (still under investigation).
Our Hill Country functions as a rainwater refinery: attracting, filtering, pumping, and recharging water throughout the system. The Hill Country water cycle is founded in our forests, where moisture is attracted and recycled for consistent rainfall. Rain falling onto the closed canopy accumulates on leaves before dripping into rich, organic soils that are capable of absorbing vast quantities of moisture. Leaves and soil transpire and evaporate moisture back into the atmosphere to contribute to ongoing rainstorms. Excess moisture in soil is infiltrated following plant roots and filtered through our limestone geology before reaching our aquifers for storage. Aquifers pump water back to the surface through springs and seeps, maintaining river flow with pure, clean, abundant spring water. As they flow to the Gulf, these streams evaporate some water back into the atmospheric cycle, immerse banks and vegetation with moisture, and recharge the aquifer with water through karst features such as fissures, sinkholes, and caves.
The best time to grow our Hill Country forests would have been 120 years ago, when William Bray was first recognizing the cascading ecologic harm caused by denuding our landscape. The second-best time is now. Not only will growing Hill Country forests provide us with perpetually flowing springs and streams, clean air, abundant soils, and biodiversity, they represent a unique opportunity to embrace an ecotourism economy, improve our mental health, and increase environmental inclusivity of historically marginalized populations.
Forests for our future are an investment and a legacy. We can invest personally in the long-term viability of our sensitive, resource-rich Hill Country ecosystem. Our abundant resources are ours to protect – or destroy. In the words of my first favorite poet, Dr. Suess, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
- O'Donnell, Lisa. (2019). HISTORICAL ECOLOGY OF THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY.
- Balcones Canyonlands Preserve Forest Hydration https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3sH-x-ImmA
- BCP Forest Restoration Series https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLUg_t5WZwkb9qp7xVtgbtD2JMqS8D8ko5 Bray, William. 1904.
- The Timber of the Edwards Plateau of Texas; Its Relation to Climate, Water Supply, and Soil. U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Forestry – Bulletin No 49. https://books.google.com/books?id=dD8DAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false