State of the Hill Country
The Texas Hill Country is at a crossroads, facing tremendous threats.
The Texas Hill Country encompasses more than 11 million acres in 18 counties in Central Texas, including the rapidly growing cities of San Antonio and Austin, as well as extensive rural areas. Booming population growth and sprawling development, groundwater overuse, changing climate patterns leading to increasingly extreme droughts and floods, and a unique set of regulatory challenges threaten the very natural resources that define this region.
The window of opportunity to protect and sustain the Texas Hill Country’s treasures will likely close within our generation. Understanding how to balance development and conservation will be key to our collective future. Without collaboration, we will not keep pace with the loss of open space, the threats to water resources and other challenges facing our region.
State of the Hill Country: 8 Conservation and Growth Metrics for a Region at a Crossroads
This project defines and calculates eight metrics for tracking trends related to changes in the natural resources of the Texas Hill Country. Dozens of organizations — nonprofits, government agencies, academic institutions and aligned private businesses — endeavor to protect the land, water and sky of this unique region. The metrics defined here will support these entities as they work individually and collectively through the Network to both tell the story of the need for conservation and preserve the natural resources and heritage of the Texas Hill Country.
A recently released report from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (THCCN) sets a baseline for eight key metrics to examine the current state of conservation and growth in the Hill Country.
“This report makes it perfectly clear—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,” warns Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance Executive Director and Chair for the THCCN
Rapid increases in populations outside of existing municipal areas, coupled with a lack of county land use tools, have resulted in land fragmentation, loss of ecological connectivity and function, and incompatible land uses—ultimately bringing negative impacts on water quality and quantity, biodiversity, and night sky visibility.
Conserved natural areas, working farms and ranches, and public lands cleanse and store the Hill Country’s water supply and provide wildlife habitat while preserving space for residents and visitors. Less than 5% of the Hill Country has been conserved to date.
Developed lands are characterized by impervious cover, which increases runoff, decreases infiltration, increases contamination, and drives flash flooding. To maintain functioning ecosystems, we need to conserve land at least as fast as it is developed. Currently, an average of 7% of the Hill Country is developed, with much higher percentages in some counties.
The Hill Country is home to the most pristine waterways of any region in the state, but they are increasingly under threat from the discharge of treated wastewater from the region’s growing population. These pristine streams support the region’s vibrant tourism and recreation-based economies and contribute known value to the lands that surround them, both public and private.
A growing population is placing increased demands on our limited water supply with some areas using an unsustainable amount of water. A better understanding of demand and consumption trends will help inform strategies to maintain clean water supply for wildlife, plants, agricultural lands, and all Hill Country residents.
Spring flow from aquifers to surface water provides critical baseflow for Hill Country streams and is necessary to sustain the unique flora and fauna of the Hill Country and recreational activities like fishing and swimming. An increase in water demand and a changing climate is placing pressure on this finite but critical resource.
Naturally dark skies are vital for the region’s quality of life, local economies, and wildlife but are at risk due to increased development. Night sky friendly outdoor lighting benefits residents, wildlife and tourism.
The region has seen tremendous support for public funding of land conservation, but it is not keeping pace with our region’s rise in gross domestic product (GDP). Hill Country organizations can use this data to advocate for conservation funding that increases proportionally to economic growth.
Together, We Have Solutions
Since 2017 dozens of organizations across the Hill Country have been working together as part of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (the Network), a voluntary partnership focused on deepening existing collaborations and supporting new ones for increased conservation results. These metrics amplify the work that Network partners are already doing and provide quantitative evaluations of the progress of cross-organization efforts to help inform future strategy. The metrics in this report are built on a strong foundation of theory, methods and best practices.
This report was brought to you through the efforts of a broad coalition of partners. Learn more about our collaboration through the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.
Media Briefing & Webinar
The Texas Hill Country Conservation Network and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation recently convened a special briefing on the newly released State of the Hill Country Report. During the event we shared key takeaways from the report, heard from community leaders on impacts to urban and rural communities, and gave participants a chance to participate in a Q&A session. Speakers included:
- Dr. Emily Warren Armitano, Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
- Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance
- Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation
- Lon Shell, Hays County Commissioner Precinct 3
- Carmen Llanes Pulido, Go Austin/Vamos Austin!
Dive Into the Metrics
This spring, members of the Network are diving in deep on each metric to show how they apply to individual Hill Country communities. All of the following editorials are available for republishing, with credit to authors and the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network. Please share widely with your readers and friends.
We live in a remarkable place with beautiful resources, wonderful people, and amazing opportunities. People want to live here. They want to experience the quality of life that our region provides. They want to swim in the rivers and creeks, take in the views from the hilltops, and breathe clean air—and at the same time, have access to good jobs, affordable homes, low taxes, and a safe place to raise families.
Unfortunately, without careful attention, this growth will negatively affect all the things we cherish and that drew us to this region in the first place.
Protecting the night sky is not just about the stars, as magnificent as the sight of them might be.
In Hays County, the fastest growing county in Texas and in the country for that matter, we’re working to counteract the conventional view that more people and more buildings automatically means more light and more light pollution.
What makes the Texas Hill Country unique? In my mind, it comes down to one thing: groundwater. It is impossible to overstate the importance of groundwater to this precious region, because without it, the Hill Country would not be the region we know and love.
Fighting to protect water quality in Texas Hill Country waterways is nothing new. I had the privilege to watch, learn from, and help my parents back in the early 1980s as they raised awareness and organized opposition to keep wastewater out of the Nueces River.
Water is an integral part of the Hill Country fabric, and it is embodied in the rivers and springs that make this region special. It is also the single most limiting factor in the Hill Country. The region’s population is growing rapidly and, according to a comprehensive new study from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network, there simply isn’t enough water available from traditional sources to match current consumption patterns. We need to urgently rethink how we capture water—and how we consume it.
After visiting Gruene recently and encountering the explosion of new housing developments along the old rural roads leading to downtown, I was further disheartened to read that 252 duplex units on 22 acres are “coming soon.” I was left wondering how much more pressure can Gruene, New Braunfels, and all of the Texas Hill Country withstand before significant cracks begin to emerge—compromising their value forever.
Anyone who is familiar with the natural areas of the Texas Hill Country will attest to their beauty and wondrous nature. Crystal clear spring-fed streams, steep canyons and bluffs, majestic forests, and wildflower-laden savannas dotted with oak trees are common sites in this region.
These lands boast long and distinctive histories, beginning with Indigenous peoples living off the land and its abundant wildlife and establishing sacred sites at the springs.
As the new State of the Hill Country Report illustrates, the Hill Country population has increased by 50% since 1990, with most of this growth occurring along the I-35 corridor. The fastest growing counties are Hays County with 195% growth, and both Comal and Kendall Counties with 176% growth. These are three of the five fastest growing counties in the entire United States.
In Kendall County, the City of Boerne has enacted an award-winning Unified Development Code to address the negative impacts of development on the natural environment.