Saving Land, Saving Water
Cities purchase land in the long-term fight to preserve aquifers.
By Wendee Holtcamp
As I approach the R-44, helicopter blades slowly whirring overhead, I think, “I’m not so sure about this thing.” I’ve come to Government Canyon State Natural Area, an 11,576-acre landscape on the western edge of San Antonio, to learn about the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, through which the city’s residents earmarked sales tax to preserve vast swaths of natural lands that help ensure healthy drinking water in the aquifer below.
Pilot Mike Luigs, a laid-back conservation real estate specialist, beckons me and my two teenagers. He’s smiling as if my life isn’t about to end, here and now, and my chest tightens, not at all matching the perfect spring day, all sunshine and blue sky and light breeze. “The weather couldn’t be more perfect for this,” says Luigs, who wants to show us what can’t be seen by foot. “You’ll love it.”
Encouraged by my son overcoming his own fear, nudging me, “I want to go,” we climb in, latch the doors, buckle our belts and place our earphones on. My daughter clings to the seat, I make the sign of the cross, and in two seconds flat we’re hovering, then rising higher. The limestone cliffs of Government Canyon stand out whitish-gray against the evergreen of ashe juniper trees and the still-bare deciduous trees. Signs of humanity appear in miniature from above — cars, roads, houses, swimming pools. As soon as we rise above the ground, the tension eases and my kids’ smiles tell me they’re having a blast.
Luigs points out my window. I can clearly see the Edwards Plateau — looking like a giant topographic map — rising abruptly some 1,200 feet from the pancake-flat South Texas coastal plain. “That, right there, is the recharge zone,” he says. I’ve heard “recharge zone” umpteen times, but only from the air did I fully understand how it was the geological uplift at the Balcones Fault, formed at the convergence of these two regions, which created thousands of caves, sinkholes, cracks and other karst features, where, in some places, the earth just opens up. And water pours in, refilling the 8,000-square-mile Edwards Aquifer — a reservoir in “Swiss cheese-like” limestone merely 500 feet underground — and providing millions of Texans with water.
“In San Antonio we like to say, ‘Water is life,’” says Deirdre Hisler, Government Canyon superintendent. “We ‘get’ water in San Antonio. For years they [the city] had a bad rap, but now they’re one of the nation’s leaders in how we manage our water.” Through education efforts and use restrictions, the city reduced water consumption from 225 gallons per person per day in the 1980s to around 130 gallons per person per day today — with nearly a half-million more people.
San Antonio has grown from a small Texas town to the nation’s seventh-largest city, and continues to grow into the open space around it. “We have to ensure that with all the development going on that we set aside lands so we can continue to replenish that aquifer,” says Hisler.
For all the talk of the Edwards Aquifer’s water, it has one rather large disadvantage. During rainfall, water enters it directly through these cracks and caves, rather than trickling through a gravelly or sandy layer that would filter out pollutants. This presents a problem. People not only need the aquifer to stay full, they also need the water to stay pure. And though San Antonians have come to understand the need for conservation, there remains the problem of water quality. “Anytime you put development in, you start looking at oil spilling into caves. You’ve got all the fertilizer [and chemicals] people put on their lawns,” Hisler says.
As we fly toward the north end of the city, over ranches, suburbs and rock quarries, Luigs tells me he’s alarmed by the ongoing loss of large properties. This inspired him to focus his business on buying land specifically for conservation easements. The easements are legal contracts with permanent restrictions — namely preventing subdivision of the land and most types of development — while allowing an owner to live there, ranch, hunt and do other low-impact activities. They provide a federal tax write-off, but not a reduction in state property taxes. Most folks understand that preserving land in the sensitive recharge zone equals a healthy aquifer. But how? Land isn’t cheap, and not all landowners want to voluntarily place an easement on their property, or buy land with easements.
In the early 1990s, that quandary led a group of women to gather around the dining room table of “Mother of Aquifer Protection” Fay Sinkin to strategize. Their grass-roots leadership helped form a partnership between TPWD, the federal government, the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the San Antonio Water System to buy and manage the initial 4,717 acres that created Government Canyon SNA in 1993, as well as later acquisitions added to it.
They were just getting started. With a shoestring budget and no initial support from the business community, they got Proposition 3 on the ballot in 2000 to increase San Antonio’s sales tax by one-eighth of a cent to raise as much as $45 million to buy lands in the recharge zone, including public parkland. With a lot of passion, bumper stickers and radio ads, Prop. 3 passed, funding the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.
Since Hisler was named superintendent, she has helped cobble together several additional parcels around Government Canyon, with little money spent by TPWD. “We’ve been able to leverage, leverage, leverage,” she says.
Hisler has facilitated partnerships with local and federal governments, nonprofit groups and private donors. In 2009, the city donated 2,962 acres to TPWD, purchased through the program, and today, the state natural area stands at 11,576 acres.
After the proposition passed, the city’s Conservation Advisory Board — which Hisler chairs — worked with a scientific advisory team to identify prime properties. The scientific model mainly used hydrogeology, but also above-ground ecosystem quality. This region is prime nesting ground for federally endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos — but the proposition’s language prevented that from being a motivation for selecting land. The original funds were used to purchase properties outright.
In 2005, residents passed Proposition 1, which continued the sales tax distribution up to $90 million, with one change — it allowed the city to preserve land just for aquifer protection rather than parkland. Scientific modeling led the city to focus on neighboring Medina and Uvalde counties. The aquifer flows west to east, and 70 percent of its water enters in these counties. Plus, land there sells for less.
Since the city had limited staff, and rural landowners sometimes have negative views of the “big city,” the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land and Green Spaces Alliance acted as “boots on the ground,” explains Jeff Francell of the Nature Conservancy. “We identified prospective properties, met with landowners, talked to them about what the program was, negotiated conservation easements, did appraisals and put properties under contract.”
You’d think it would be easy, since landowners were being offered cash. In San Antonio and Austin, which has a similar program, certain landowners can get cash to place conservation easements on their property. But the advocates competed against development dollars and lack of knowledge about the program.
Over the past 10 years, they have protected some 96,800 acres, which equals 12 percent of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, and there’s not enough money for all the landowners who now want to participate. With the money nearly spent, the city plans to ask voters to extend the sales tax distribution this November.
We fly back to Government Canyon, alive and well, and meet Hisler for a hike down the Joe Johnston Route through the canyon. Golden-cheeked warbler males have just arrived from their wintering grounds, ready to help build nests from the peeling bark of cedars. Besides protecting the recharge zone and providing endangered species habitat, Government Canyon has mountain bike and hiking trails, and eventually will have low-impact campsites. Pets are restricted.
While San Antonio realized the importance of protecting the recharge zone, Austin started similar efforts in the 1980s, and passed its first bond to protect properties for this purpose in 1998. It’s generosity that makes the concept work. “The real story is the landowners,” says Francell. “To accept money, in exchange for permanently restricting development, benefits water quality and also their family heritage. It’s going to have public benefits for Texas now and down the road.”
In February, the 2,254-acre Dahlstrom Ranch became the latest conservation easement sale in Hays County for the price of $9.9 million — far under the land’s value of $30 million. Jack Dahlstrom Jr. shows me around the ranch along with Julie Jenkins, educator for the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. We drive through mucky mud from recent rains, stopping at various points on the ranch, including Hobbit Hole and Possumhaw sinkhole. Some 365,000 gallons of water enter the aquifer through the sinkhole every year.
Jenkins pulls out a map. “All these yellow dots are caves or features, something that’s taking water into the aquifer,” Jenkins says. Dots are all over it. “This entire ranch is very significant to recharge for the Barton Springs segment.”
The Edwards is a massive aquifer with a geological barrier dividing it into segments, San Antonio to the south and Barton Springs to the northeast.
“I feel very at peace out here,” says Jenkins. “You can just walk out here, sit under a tree, take your mind off the stresses of everyday. And that’s what I got from Gay Dahlstrom about what she wants.”
If Jack’s mom, Gay, hadn’t chosen to preserve the land, it could easily have gone the way of his uncle’s neighboring property — which became rock quarries and the Ruby Estates subdivision.
“It was my mother’s wish to preserve the land,” says Dahlstrom. “She wanted to give back to the community, and conservation was a tool by which to get it preserved.”
The Dahlstroms plan to open a 350-acre public park with educational facilities — one of the first of its kind on private land — and they’re moving toward ecotourism on the rest of the land. “We’re going from being consumptive to nonconsumptive,” explains Dahlstrom. The ranch already offers hunting leases for exotic game, like blackbuck and axis deer, and the family plans to open an eco-lodge and develop opportunities for outdoor adventure camps, church retreats and conferences. Dahlstrom’s own daughter and nephew have an interest in working on the ranch in the future.
It calls to mind something Hisler said as we’d walked the paths of Government Canyon, farther west but in the same recharge zone. Every property the city wants to work with, the board votes on.
“When their property’s up to final vote, you see three generations of family members coming up. I can barely talk,” she says, moved. “This is conservation at its best. Keeping ranching heritage alive in Texas. Teaching your kids the value of conservation and protecting a natural resource. It doesn’t get better than that.”