How Texas can grow with grace

Hays County — with its population spread across suburbs like Buda, Wimberley and Dripping Springs — is the fastest-growing county in Texas among those with populations greater than 10,000. Photo by Madelynne Scales

Texas is often thought of in terms of its wide-open spaces and rustic sensibility, but as Bob Dylan so famously said, the times, they are a-changin’. The Lone Star State has become increasingly urbanized over the past few decades — nearly 90 percent of our 26 million people now live in a metropolitan area.

Nowhere is that more relevant than the “Texas Triangle,” the 60,000-square mile region encompassed by Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston. Three-quarters of Texans live within that urban triangle, making it one of the largest mega-regions in the United States.

Drill down even further and you find Hays County, the fastest-growing county in Texas according to a recent U.S. Census report. Its population grew 5.2 percent from 2014 to 2015. Even more striking is that the seat of Hays County, San Marcos, has seen its population jump an incredible 31 percent since 2010.

These facts aren’t just good party trivia. Understanding and responding to them is vital to ensuring communities across Hays County, and the state, continue to enjoy a high quality of life. We must rethink the way we plan for the future; growing cities need more than balance — they need the ability to navigate challenges like explosive growth, increased natural resource demand and the environmental consequences of climate change in a way that makes them stronger and safer. They need to be resilient.

Traditionally, managing cities meant growing or shrinking available resources in conjunction with the population, but that method simply isn’t as effective as it used to be. Our communities face challenges from all sides now. Navigating the increasing number and intensity of system-wide disruptions has thrown a wrench into the math of achieving balance between our population and natural resources. We're already seeing the consequences: drought, flooding, food insecurity and water contamination.

Portions of Hays County are still contending with the aftermath of one of its most recent system shocks — last year’s Memorial Day floods. The Blanco River is a vital link in a network of rivers and aquifers in the Edwards Plateau region. When that link was broken last May by unprecedented rain and flash flooding, a shockwave rippled through the community. Thirteen people died. Thousands of homes were damaged. An estimated 12,000 cypress, pecan and oak trees were uprooted.

But in a scenario that is not uncommon to Texas, the massive rainfall actually helped drag the region, and the entire state, out of a multi-year drought. Since 2000, state climatologist John-Nielsen Gammon has tracked at least four cycles of hard-hitting drought followed by massive rains. In that time, the population of Hays County has exploded, rising from a little over 99,000 people to nearly 195,000.

Our leaders must ensure that Texas' cites grow with grace and purpose. That means helping Hays County — and all flourishing urban areas — protect their residents by investing in resiliency and a higher quality of life. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Integrating green infrastructure and natural systems into long-term city planning. By creating and utilizing systems like intact freshwater wetlands and healthy green spaces, cities can get vital services such as drinking water filtration, stormwater management and flood control in a more efficient, affordable way. Trees and open green space also provide important wildlife habitats and offer a place for families, friends and neighbors to get outside and connect.
  • Restoring and protecting urban forests and grasslands throughout vital watersheds like the Blanco. Native grass and trees mitigate air pollution, filter freshwater supplies and help prevent erosion. Healthy tree canopies also help reduce street-level temperatures, an especially important factor during heat waves, which kill more people in the United States than all other natural disasters combined.
  • Recognizing the degree to which our cities are interconnected — and how management decisions in one region affect another. For example, the Blanco joins two other rivers before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico via San Antonio Bay. Keeping it healthy has important implications for people and nature.

The rapid growth seen in Hays County is happening, to various degrees, all across Texas. We have a window of time where we can think differently. How can we address today’s challenges so that Hays County and other growing areas are more resilient and people are better connected to nature? It is one of the most important responsibilities of our time, so let’s work together to get it right.

Laura Huffman

Texas director, The Nature Conservancy