• Water Works

    Can a new partnership protect a water source in Texas Hill Country?
    By Matt Jenkins
    Photographs by Blake Gordon
 

T

om and Marcy Rothe ease their Ford Super Duty pickup

down a Texas ranch road under a wide mackerel sky. Both Tom’s and Marcy’s families have run cattle here on the edge of the state’s Hill Country since the late 1800s, and the ranch, studded with rock, live oak and Ashe juniper, has a rough-hewn beauty. But the past year has been tough, and a headline-making drought killed many of the oaks in the region.

“You’re seeing it as bad as it can get,” Tom says from behind the wheel.

Still, a recent spate of wet weather has brought the first hints of green, and the rain serves as a reminder that the ranch’s importance extends far beyond its boundary fences.

Although the ranch lies an hour’s drive west of San Antonio, it is a critical component of the water supply for the city and its suburbs.

That’s because the TMR Ranch sits astride part of a swath of land known by just about everybody in west-central Texas as the recharge zone. This area is what keeps the Edwards Aquifer—the underground source of drinking water for more than 2 million people living in San Antonio and the surrounding region—from running dry. Rain falling across some 4,400 square miles, primarily in the Hill Country, drains toward the recharge zone, where cracks, fissures and sinkholes funnel water down into a 500-foot-thick, 3,600-square-mile honeycombed karst limestone aquifer lying just below the surface.

Not far from the TMR Ranch, an epic spot called the Seco Sinkhole can swallow so much water in a big rainstorm that it turns into a giant whirlpool. “It’s scary,” says Tom. “You get up close to it, and you think, ‘Man, it could just suck me right in.’”

Once the water swirls into the aquifer, it slowly flows south and east through faults and fractures toward San Antonio. There it fills people’s taps, waters gardens and feeds the Comal and San Marcos springs. Those springs, in turn, feed the Guadalupe River, which provides critical flows of fresh water into San Antonio Bay, a vital wintering spot for endangered whooping cranes and other birds on the Gulf Coast.

The water in the aquifer is so pure that rather than having to run it through an expensive water-treatment system, as most cities do, San Antonio simply gives it a shot of chlorine before piping it into homes. But the very characteristics that make the Edwards Aquifer a natural reservoir also make it extremely vulnerable to contamination. Development pressure on the outskirts of San Antonio has threatened to destroy the natural permeability of the landscape—reducing the amount of land available to catch rain and recharge the aquifer, and increasing the volume of pollutants.

Since 1999, The Nature Conservancy has been helping the city of San Antonio broker a series of deals to protect the area’s ranches and ultimately safeguard the source and quality of the water in the aquifer. Facing droughts and a rapidly growing population (San Antonio is now the seventh-largest city in the United States), voters agreed to tax themselves to try to protect their constrained source of water dozens of miles away.

“Conservation can be a hard sell in the Lone Star State,” says Laura Huffman, the Conservancy’s state director in Texas. “But Texans ‚Ä®ultimately understand just how vital water is. Nowhere is that more apparent than in San Antonio.”
The city worked out a strategy with the Conservancy to negotiate conservation easements—under which ranchers are given a payment in exchange for a binding agreement never to subdivide and develop their properties—to protect the recharge zone while keeping land in private hands.

The Rothes began considering a conservation easement on their ranch about five years ago. An easement would have brought welcome cash, but it also would have prohibited any future development on the property, reducing the value of the land by an estimated 40 percent. It was a big choice to make.

“It was not a snap decision. We looked at it for two or three years,” says Marcy. “We had too many unanswered questions in our minds about what we wanted to do with the ranch.”

But in 2010, they decided to put 2,000 acres under easement. In doing so, they joined more than two dozen other ranch owners in a program that has now protected nearly 100,000 acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge zone, funded by more than a million people in the San Antonio area who depend on the aquifer’s water. They are united by the recognition that a healthy recharge zone is a natural water-quality protection system that can’t be fixed if it’s ever cut up and developed.

“If you screw that up,” says Jeff Francell, the Conservancy’s Texas land protection director, “you lose it for all time.”

One afternoon, Geary Schindel and Marcus Gary, two geologists with the scuffed-up look of people who spend a fair amount of time underground, drive out to the north side of San Antonio. Along the way, they point out the aquifer’s hidden geography: a cave in the middle of someone’s front yard, a set of small fissures tucked inconspicuously in the grassy islands of a Lowe’s parking lot and a particularly impressive sinkhole, containing the entrance to the Genesis Cave, on the sprawling church campus of a local televangelist.

Schindel is the chief technical officer for the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which is responsible for protecting water quality across eight counties near San Antonio; Gary is its senior hydrogeologist. The two men have an appointment with a homeowner named Rick Thompson, who happens to have a sinkhole in his backyard. After they pull into Thompson’s driveway, the geologists dig climbing gear out of their vehicles and follow him through a tangle of vegetation to the edge of a dry creek bed. They stop there and appraise a gaping crevasse.

“Looks like a hole in the ground,” Schindel says, and then quickly adds: “A very nice hole in the ground.”

There aren’t many aquifers that a person can crawl right into, but the Edwards is one of them. Schindel and Gary tie off a rope to a stout cottonwood, pull on their climbing harnesses and disappear over the lip of the sinkhole.

“Don’t get stuck,” Thompson calls after them.
For San Antonians, the aquifer’s importance is a deep-rooted part of the common consciousness. On Interstate 35, just a mile from the Alamo, an electronic signboard broadcasts the current aquifer level to commuters, a reminder that every drop they use is one less for everyone tomorrow. The city has managed to drive down water use to impressively low levels, but there’s another, eternal challenge: keeping the water clean.

The same permeability that allows the Edwards and other karst aquifers to recharge so quickly also provides direct pathways for contaminants—everything from dog droppings to industrial chemicals like “methyl ethyl double-death,” as Schindel puts it. “They’re extremely susceptible to contamination,” he says.

One of the biggest threats to water quality is suburban sprawl in the recharge zone. All that paved area can greatly increase the amount of pollution that percolates into the aquifer—pollutants that can get pumped straight back up into San Antonians’ faucets. Back in the 1990s, San Antonio began a serious growth spurt, and developers started snapping up land along the city’s northern edge, in the middle of the recharge zone, clearing the brush from it, and covering it with houses and malls.

It didn’t take long to recognize that runaway development would greatly increase the risk that water going into the aquifer would be contaminated. Dirty water could, of course, always be cleaned in a water-treatment plant before it was delivered to people’s homes. But such plants cost hundreds of millions of dollars, says Scott Halty, the San Antonio Water System’s director of resource protection and compliance.

“If you can just remove the risk altogether,” Halty says, “that’s the best way to protect the aquifer.”

Conservation work in Texas has always been a delicate proposition: Roughly 95 percent of the land in the state is privately owned, and there has always been a strong property-rights bent to the collective thinking here. That attitude only hardened in the 1990s when a series of legal battles to protect endangered species put tight limits on the amount of water landowners could take from the Edwards Aquifer. As a result, regulatory control over private property is an unpopular concept in the region.

Eighty miles north of San Antonio, the city of Austin fought to restrict land use in the area that feeds water to the city’s famed Barton Springs, only to face a backlash that ran all the way to the state legislature. In 1998, the city changed tack and began purchasing conservation easements on critical lands in the Barton Springs recharge zone. That was exactly the kind of carrots-over-sticks approach that the Conservancy is known for, and Austin turned to the organization for help in brokering acquisitions.

Jeff Francell, who leads the Conservancy’s Texas land-acquisition efforts, helped the city of Austin negotiate those easements. “This was the Conservancy at its best,” he says: “‘Let’s not fight about it; let’s just buy it.’”

At roughly the same time, the San Antonio Water System was beginning its own program to protect the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. It, too, turned to the Conservancy for help. Eventually, the city signed a contract with the Conservancy under which Francell—whose family has run a ranch in far-west Texas since the 1920s—became a key broker between the city of San Antonio and landowners.
San Antonio’s program got a huge boost in 2000 when city voters approved a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase that raised $38 million to protect critical land in the recharge zone on the city’s fringes.

The city had rapidly expanded into the seventh-largest city in the nation, and a growing number of people in San Antonio had begun to worry about development along the recharge zone and other threats to their drinking water.

The public funding provided a stream of money for conservation—money that the city wouldn’t have to spend on expensive infrastructure projects like water-treatment plants.
“I think San Antonio realized how much its economy—and really, its life—was dependent on clean water coming out of the ground,” says Francell. “And the dirtier the water going into the aquifer is, the more money they have to spend treating it.”

By prohibiting future development on the property, the program brought other fringe conservation benefits as well, including safeguarding important habitat for golden-cheeked warblers and Mexican free-tailed bats. “From our perspective,” says Francell, “there are lots of reasons to protect the Hill Country, and water’s just one of them.”
To better focus the money, San Antonio developed a computer model to identify properties that most effectively recharged the aquifer. The city also created a scientific evaluation team to further refine the model’s results and a conservation advisory board to prioritize where to spend the money. The Conservancy helped inform the city’s efforts.

“The Conservancy brought two really important things to the table,” says Conservancy state director Huffman: “a very sophisticated approach to working with landowners on structuring the transactions, and credible science that showed where to make those investments.”

The money generated by the sales tax hike was used to buy and put easements on about 6,500 acres of land between 2000 and 2005. There was a significant restriction, however. The sales tax money could be spent only within Bexar County, which immediately surrounds San Antonio. But nearly 70 percent of the aquifer’s recharge zone lies outside Bexar County.

“We were talking about a tiny, tiny percentage of the watershed, and the really important part was much farther west,” Francell says.In 2005, San Antonio voters agreed to renew the one-eighth-cent tax, raising another $90 million. This time, thanks to changes in state law, the money could now be spent to buy easements on ranches in counties to the west of San Antonio. Focusing on easements offered a cheaper way to halt development than purchasing land outright. And being able to work in the rural counties that lie over the recharge zone west of San Antonio promised to make the taxpayer dollars go even further. As Francell puts it, “The farther west you go—the farther out from San Antonio—the cheaper it gets, and the bigger the ranches are.”

Seventy miles west of San Antonio, the Annandale Ranch, dotted with live oaks, pecans and cypress trees, sprawls along the Frio River. Like the Rothes’ TMR Ranch, it sits on the edge of the Hill Country. And it was also, until recently, at risk of being built over with luxury houses.
Just upstream is the resort town of Concan, which has seen a surge of housing and golf course construction. The ranch seemed a likely next target. “When you’ve got a pretty river like the Frio running right through the middle of your ranch,” says Francell, “you’ve potentially got a very valuable subdivision.”

But the ranch is also hydrologically important. The river, shaded by cypress trees, is dry much of the time. But when it’s wet, the river and the surrounding ranchlands play an important part in funneling water down into the aquifer.

“It’s smack in the heart of the recharge zone,” says Francell.

Bill Cofer has run the Annandale ranch since 1973. His great-great-grandfather operated a silver mine in Taxco, Mexico, until he was run out of the country by Pancho Villa. He began putting together the ranch here in the 1880s, and the land has passed down through the generations. But in the mid-1990s, on the heels of a drought and saddled with debt, the Cofers were forced to sell off a section of the ranch.

The incident sparked deep soul-searching in the family. “Nobody ever wanted to see it sell,” says Cofer. “We all grew up with it. And we saw all the other places around us breaking up and being fragmented.”

In 1999, the San Antonio Water System, the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the Conservancy bought a 3,058-acre easement on the property. The Cofers subsequently donated and sold two more easements so that today, 11,600 acres—nearly the entire ranch—is under easement.

For the family, selling a conservation easement on the ranch offered a way to keep from having to sell any more of the actual ranchland itself. The city’s water utility paid a fee to the Cofers to retire their right to subdivide the land into housing units, and they could also write off the loss in value to their property against their federal taxes over six years—a huge benefit for ranchers working to make a living on the land.

Later, to generate more interest for this kind of conservation deal, the city and its water utility could point to the Annandale Ranch as a model of how easements worked. “The Annandale Ranch was kind of a test case,” says Francell. “It was the model for what ultimately ended up happening.”

Still, easement deals were viewed with a lingering wariness by many landowners because they restrict land use. “When we started this process,” Cofer says, “all our neighbors thought we’d lost our minds.”

Rancher Tom Rothe watched closely as the Conservancy and city officials approached landowners in the area about selling easements on their properties. The easements would prohibit development of the property or conversion to farmland. And to prevent overgrazing, and thereby limit erosion on the ranch, ranchers are required to submit a yearly grazing plan for approval from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“It was kind of new ground for everybody,” says Rothe. “Giving up an interest in your land is a big deal. There were many landowners that said not ‘no’ but ‘hell, no, I don’t want anybody saying anything about my property.’”

But over the past decade, positive examples like the Annandale Ranch have helped temper landowners’ attitudes toward the concept of easements. Many local ranchers have begun to recognize that by selling off their development rights through conservation easements, they can receive money that will provide the kind of financial stability it takes to keep their ranches intact.
“They’re selling off their development rights, and getting paid for that,” says Becky Flack, the Conservancy’s Southern Edwards Aquifer Project director. “But they actually hold on to the property—they still maintain the right to sell it in the future.”

Grant Ellis, who manages special projects for San Antonio’s aquifer-protection program, says that many of the ranchers are multigenerational landowners who don’t have any interest in developing their properties right now. “But they don’t know down the road what their options are going to be,” he says. “We’re giving them an option right now—and something that, 10 years ago, wasn’t on the table.”

Tom Rothe, for his part, has become a big advocate of the easement program—so much so that when he and Marcy finally decided to sell an easement on the TMR Ranch, they donated a portion of the easement’s value. Rothe has since been influential in getting other ranchers to consider the program. Today, the TMR Ranch forms the core of a 6,000-acre knot of protected properties. Neighbors who own an additional 1,100 acres are themselves considering selling easements, which would then form a continuous link with 3,000 acres that already have easements on them.

“We’ve got two daughters, and we think that having it to where you can ride over the whole ranch—a couple of thousand acres—and see it just like we did 50 years ago is pretty neat,” says Tom Rothe. “That long-range thinking is what I try to sell to people. What’s it going to be like three generations from now? We’ve got this tract of land that will not be developed, and it’s going to be open space when our kids are old.”

Today, a broad swath of natural land that covers nearly 125,000 acres has been protected. “When you can see you’ve taken this out of development, and you can see this kind of protection [of] a big recharging point,” says Scott Halty of the San Antonio Water System, “that’s just really fantastic.” And, he adds, “people are just coming out of the woodwork to be a part of the program.”

There’s more money on the way. In 2010, San Antonio voters once more renewed the one-eighth-cent sales tax, which will raise another $90 million over the next five years. Francell, working with the city of San Antonio, is preparing to buy a new round of conservation easements this year, which could protect well over 200,000 acres of land in total.

“With another round or two of this funding, they’ll have protected their aquifer,” says Francell. “This program will let them secure, for a relatively cheap cost, the core of their water supply, forever.”

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"I think San Antonio realized how much its economy—and really, its life—was dependent on clean water coming out of the ground. And the dirtier the water going into the aquifer is, the more money they have to spend treating it."

Jeff Francell, lead on the Conservancy’s Texas land-acquisition efforts