Wringing water from rocks at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Johnson City

SENIOR WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN

Blanco County landowner J. David Bamberger squeezes thousands of gallons of water every 24 hours out of the rocks of the Texas Hill Country, supplying the Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Johnson City with more than enough pristine water for five families and a steady stream of ranch visitors. Photo by Mark Stracke

This is a story about water and how one man squeezed it from the rocks of a bone-dry Central Texas ranch. Once choked by cedar, the Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Johnson City now produces thousands of gallons of water a day, which more than adequately meets the needs of five families, fills a lake, and provides for a vast array of wildlife that have returned to this once-desolate piece of property.

The success story of how J. David Bamberger, now 91, reclaimed 5,500 acres of what he called the worst piece of land in Blanco County has been told by National Geographic, Texas Monthly, and numerous other media over the years. No one tells it better than Bamberger himself, a natural entertainer and an enthusiastic nature lover.

“I preach the gospel of conservation,” Bamberger said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m not a biologist. I’m just a guy who loves nature so much I preach about it.”

Bamberger began his career as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman from Ohio, a job he held for 17 years. He then went into business with a friend selling fried chicken in a small restaurant across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio. That grew into Church’s Fried Chicken, which eventually opened 1,600 outlets across the United States. Bamberger sold the business and turned his full attention to the ranch, which he purchased in 1969.

Fifty years later, the land has become a shining example of best practices. His team of experts and volunteers teaches workshops to landowners in hopes they will implement similar programs on their own properties. Visiting schoolchildren are awed by the simple yet dramatic demonstrations of how the system works. Through partnerships with universities, Bamberger has brought in professors and other experts to help with the recovery and record his progress.

Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve

A predominant feature of Hill Country geology, underground honeycomb limestone fills up with water like a sponge. When overfull, water seeps out through the earth as a spring. Photo by Mark Stracke

“We are working to make this land look like it did 250 years ago,” Bamberger said. “Texas landowners didn’t do a good job of taking care of the land. When you overgraze, cease having fire, when you put too many goats, sheep, horses, cattle on the land, they not only eat everything, but their hoof actions compound the problem and cut out the grass.”

Cedar begins to take over, shading the land so grasses die off. Rain evaporates off the top of cedar needles instead of soaking into the earth.

When Bamberger purchased the 5,500-acre ranch, he hired a man to drill for water. After seven dry wells, the driller told Bamberger he hit a hollow space in the ground that was at least 40 feet deep. He called it an underground cave. That’s when Bamberger began his quest for squeezing water out of rock.

“We, with nature’s help, have taken it back to the natural state,” he said. “We have water now, and that water is here because of what you’re looking at: grass, grass, grass.”

The process began by removing a good deal of cedar and planting a variety of natural grasses in its place.

“We don’t teach everyone to get rid of all their cedar,” he noted. “It’s natural. It belongs here. The cedar just escaped the canyons because of overgrazing. It’s just that simple.”

Also simple is how he found and corralled the water. Within 2½ years of replacing cedar with grass, water began to seep from the ground, eventually turning into springs. Bamberger and his team of volunteers, both amateur and expert, tracked the small steams to their origins, discovering most came from hilltops at the 125-foot level. Geologists call these hills “perched aquifers.”

Perched aquifers are hills with a thin layer of top soil covering honeycombed limestone. Without grasses growing on the hills, rainwater washes off the top soil and evaporates before it can percolate into the earth. Bamberger adapted the next part of his plan straight from the Phoenicians 5,000 years ago.

Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve

As the underground aquifer fills, water seeps from the limestone, forming springs. Armed with picks, volunteers carved out a rough drainage system that guides any runoff into a concrete catchment at the bottom of the hill. Water builds up in the catchment, capturing soil and rocks not stopped by the berms. Photo by Mark Stracke

He, his staff, and volunteers built horizontal stone berms along the hillside. The berms slowed the flow of rainwater, giving it time to seep into the ground and fill up the holes in the honeycombed rock. The berms also caught the top soil, keeping it from washing away. Over time, grass began to grow along the berms, further aiding percolation.

“That cave underground, it filled up, and when it got full, it had to go somewhere,” Bamberger said.

It came out in springs that were guided by man-made paths through the rock into casements Bamberger and his team built near the bottom of the hill. From there, it fed into aqueducts and pipes and then into reservoir tanks and Madrone Lake. Yes, a tree-lined pristine lake complete with fish has formed on property once dry as a bone.

“What’s coming out of here is the same water we drink,” Bamberger said. “We get thousands of gallons every 24 hours. While we’re sleeping, the water is still seeping.”

Not every piece of land in Texas has a perched aquifer. The Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve happens to have several that have so far created 11 springs, at least two of which continue to produce water even during a drought. The same principles used here, however, can be used to pull water from rocks on any property, Bamberger said. Again, it all goes back to grass.

“It’s the greatest conservation tool ever created,” he said.

Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve

Water from springs created by Bamberger’s conservation efforts are reserved in large tanks holding 47,000 gallons and in Madrone Lake. On what was once dry, parched land, 11 springs now produce thousands of gallons of water every 24 hours. Photo by Mark Stracke

With the grass comes more water, and with grass and water come wildlife. A bird count on the property 50 years ago recorded 48 species on the ranch. The latest count is 219 species making their homes in the 6,000 trees Bamberger has planted over the years. Many of those trees now tower over the lake, grasses, and streams, adding color and essential habitat for foxes, rabbits, wild hogs, deer, and other wildlife.

The hogs and deer bring in hunters, who once shunned the place. The largest white-tailed deer harvested in the early 1970s weighed no more than 55 pounds. Last year, the smallest was 120 pounds and the largest 175. Hog hunters vie for weekend hunts through the late summer months, part of the population-control element essential to maintaining a balanced ecosystem at the ranch. This and more, including a human-constructed bat cave, are all part of the story of how the dedicated team at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve has reclaimed the land by squeezing water out of rocks.

While this is an epic and miraculous tale with a beginning and a middle, it is a tale with no end, which is all part of Bamberger’s grand plan. He has been donating the land piece by piece over the years to a foundation that will continue after he is long gone.

“I wanted to do something with this piece of land that makes a legitimate contribution to society as a whole,” Bamberger said. “The land will never be different. It will exist into perpetuity. That’s what I want to be my legacy.”

Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve is located at 2341 Blue Ridge Drive in Johnson City. To find out about volunteer opportunities or make reservations for a tour or workshop, visit bambergerranch.org or call 830-868-2630. You can become part of the neverending story of how to squeeze water out of the rocks of Central Texas.

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