Making the connection: Watersheds and our water supplies

Record rainfall in Llano and Burnet counties in the Texas Hill Country cause major flooding in Marble Falls on Oct. 16, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding Central Texas faced a few weeks ago broke records and serve as an important reminder about the connection between land and water.

After experiencing one of the wettest Septembers on the state’s record, followed by catastrophic flooding from the Llano River, Lake Travis — designed to hold back floodwaters for the City of Austin and its downstream communities — reached its highest level since 1997, forcing the Lower Colorado River Authority to open four floodgates at Mansfield Dam. 

The resulting floodwater, filled with mud and debris, overwhelmed water treatment plants and prompted Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water alert on October 22 for the first time in its history.

These events shed light on an easily forgotten fact: The quality of our water supply is inextricably linked to the health of our watersheds.

Everyone lives in a watershed — an area of land that drains to a single body of water, such as a creek, a river or a lake. Watersheds provide a number of critical functions, from supplying drinking water to supporting ecosystems for plants and animals while affording opportunities for recreation and the enjoyment of nature.

Over 2 million people live in the Colorado River watershed, and many of the communities within it depend on the river for their municipal water. The Concho, San Saba, Llano, James and Pedernales rivers all empty into the Colorado; it’s its total watershed area covers an impressive 15 percent of Texas.

The quality of water depends on us. Everything we do on the land affects the water in our rivers and streams. When water runs over the land, it carries fertilizers, loose soil, litter and other pollutants with it. Since we all share the same water, it’s everyone’s job to keep it clean. When we take care to keep our rivers clean and healthy, we are taking care of ourselves and all living things with which we share this essential resource.

As Central Texas faces unprecedented growth and sprawling development, we must balance growth with the preservation of resources vital to continued prosperity by prioritizing lands for conservation based on water, cultural and ecological considerations.

While we cannot prevent floods and droughts, we can actively collaborate across the public and private sectors to manage Texas’ water resources for the health of our communities, the vitality of our commerce and culture and the sustainability of our environment.

We must take a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary approach to achieve a prosperous future for water systems in the region, conducting research on our Hill Country watersheds to better understand the interaction of aquifers, springs and rivers. Further understanding their interactions will facilitate informed decision-making about water and its use.

However, empowering local communities and individuals to determine the future quality of their waterway and watersheds is perhaps the most important endeavor. Communities can protect and steward their water and natural resources by developing watershed protection plans — locally-driven strategies that address specific water quality issues identified in a particular watershed.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, usually provide funding and technical assistance to support the development and implementation of watershed protection plans that prevent or manage nonpoint source pollution.

Programs like the Texas Stream Team bring together community members, students, educators, academic researchers and environmental professionals to conduct scientific research and promote environmental stewardship. Texas Stream Team is the longest-running and one of the most successful citizen science programs in the state.

Since 1991, the program has trained over 10,000 citizen scientists to collect water quality data and monitor some 500 sites along 83,000 miles of Texas waterways. This data supports academic research and protection efforts and acts as an early warning system that alerts water management organizations of threats to water quality.

No one organization can tackle our region’s water issues alone. Collaboration is the key to keeping pace with increasing threats to our water resources and challenges facing our region. That’s why, in early 2018, a coalition of over 20 organizations and agencies joined together to form the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network and advance the shared goals of conservation and sustainable growth in the Texas Hill Country.

In July 2018, the network was awarded a $5.15 million pledge to provide funding for private land stewardship and long-term conservation of sensitive agricultural lands across the Blanco, Middle Colorado and Llano River basins.

As we experience more frequent and more intense weather extremes, we must work together on a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to understand how Hill Country watersheds function and how they will function as more people move to the region. We all have a stake in this.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Anna Huff

Communications manager, Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, Texas State University