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State of the Hill Country looks at effects of population boom

2022 State of the Hill Country report

The Texas Hill Country Conservation Network’s State of the Hill Country Report identified eight issues, or metrics, impacting the region. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Population in the Texas Hill Country is expected to double within the next 30-35 years with most of the newcomers settling into unincorporated areas, according to to a recent report by the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network

The report looks at eight key metrics identified by the collaborative network, including community (unincorporated population), conserved land, developed land, pristine streams, water consumption, spring flow, night skies, and public investment in land conservation.

“The purpose of this project was really to establish a shared baseline for gauging the impact of our work and telling the story of change in the Texas Hill Country,” said Katherine Roman, chair of the network and executive director of the Texas Hill Country Alliance.

The Conservation Network began about five years ago as a collaboration among several organizations, groups, and individuals joining forces to look at issues impacting the Texas Hill Country. 

During a webinar on March 7, Romans explained that this report would be a recurring effort to continue to gauge the changes to the Hill Country as well as monitor the network’s efforts.

The report was the effort of about a dozen organizations taking a look at an 18-county region of the Texas Hill Country, which includes the Highland Lakes.

“This is the first story that underpins all of the others that follow in the metrics report,” Romans said.

According to the report, the Texas Hill Country population is approximately 3.8 million people, an increase of 50 percent over the past two decades. Within those 18 counties, most of the growth is coming along the Interstate 35 corridor, but the pressure is felt beyond that stretch, including in Burnet, Blanco, and Llano counties, which are “also experiencing very high levels of population growth.”

Burnet County’s population grew by 109 percent from 1990-2020; Blanco County 104 percent; and Llano County 76 percent.

All the recent population growth and new residents mean more pressure on resources, Romans said, such as water use and wastewater treatment. 

“There are a myriad of challenges associated with (unincorporated population growth),” she added.

One of the key struggles are coming up with the tools to plan and manage such growth. Romans said Texas is the only state that doesn’t give counties the ability to plan and manage development in unincorporated areas. 

Another big issue is the demand on water resources. Jennifer Walker, vice chair of the network, pointed out that per-capita water consumption varies widely across the Texas Hill Country. The demand often outruns the supply, despite efforts by some communities to conserve water or become more efficient with the resource.

“(Water consumption) increasingly exceeds what is available from traditional surface and groundwater supplies,” Walker said.

Along with conservation and efficiency efforts, she added that the region should consider non-traditional sources of water such as rainwater, A/C condensation, and re-use of treated wastewater. The current level of water use across the region, Walker said, threatens aquifers and ecosystems.

“However, this is not an impossible problem to solve,” she added. “There are solutions available.”

She pointed out that learning from communities and cities that have developed good water conservation and efficiency practices is a good start. Other concepts included integrated water management strategies, or One Water.

While this initial report highlighted a number of challenges the region faces due to the growing population, Texas Hill Country Conservation Network officials emphasized that it’s not all doom and gloom. 

“There is real risk that is highlighted in this report that if we continue in a business-as-usual development pattern, we are at risk of doing irreparable harm to the natural resources and the character of the Hill Country and the future of our economies, of our environment, of the quality of life that will all enjoy in Central Texas,” Romans said. “But, what I love about what we also highlighted is that there is a better way forward. There are creative solutions out there. There are ideas that really catalyze when we come together like the efforts of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.”

For more information on the network, its efforts, or to see the complete report, visit its website