Permanently protecting large areas of undeveloped land in the Edwards Aquifer watershed is a critical element in the overall plan to prevent pollution of the Edwards Aquifer and its Great Springs. In addition to preserving water quality, permanent land protection also preserves wildlife habitats, rural characteristics, scenic landscapes and helps prevent downstream flooding and erosion.
Land may be permanently protected as either public park or preserve lands or as private ranch lands placed under a conservation easement that restricts development. SOS Alliance is currently working to expand both both private and public preserve lands, as described in more detail below.
Sadly, here in the heart of Texas, we're all fenced in. By that we mean that Texas generally, and Central Texas specifically, comes up short on access to public lands for recreation. Compared to cities that the Austin Chamber of Commerce views as Austin's "competitors," Austin ranks dead last in outdoor recreation lands per capita accessible to the general public within 100 miles (or close enough to reach for a day hike or weekend camping trip). You may click here for a full report.
This shortfall could and should be made up by buying lands that can both provide outdoor recreational opportunities and preserve critical watershed lands. Such purchases can be made with city, county, state and federal funds earmarked for parks, watershed protection, wildlife refuges or similar purposes.
Progress has been made. Austin voters approved $65 million in bonds for watershed preserve acquisition in 1998. Those funds have been used to secure 15,000 acres of land for permanent protection, a great first step. Some of the land was acquired fee simple and is owned by the City of Austin and designated as Watershed Protection lands. Other land has been preserved through conservation easements, where land owners retain title and ownership of their property but give up rights to develop their land beyond what is needed for their immediate family.
We support more land acquisition through bond issuances or other creative techniques. Voters in San Antonio have added a quarter cent to their sales tax to fund land preservation for the Recharge Zone in the San Antonio segment of the Edwards Aquifer. SOS Alliance is currently working actively with other groups in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance to encourage San Antonio to extend this tax into the future and to seek matching state and federal funds for Edwards Aquifer watershed preserve acquisition.
There is a significant amount of land in the Hill Country that is owned by folks not interested in subdividing and developing. Some traditional ranchers remain and new "weekend ranchers" enjoy the rural character and scenic beauty of the Hill Country. By cooperating with these landowners, we can help assure that these lands stay protected--through formal conservation easements or otherwise.
A development trend that hasn't yet caught on in Texas is "conservation development." This is way for private developers to make a profit developing land while protecting the bulk of the land through deed restrictions and easements. Developers doing conservation development leave very small building footprints, often creating nature preserves with hiking and biking trails that appeal to the market and enhance the value of home sites in the development. A homebuyer may only purchase a few acres but is buying into a larger preservation area.
While there are no hard and fast rules, true conservation development for the Hill Country consists of extremely low-density (i.e. one house per forty acres or lower density) development that preserves the rural character of the land, preserves scenic vistas, protects rare plant and animal habitats, relies on rainwater harvesting, and does not depend central water or sewer or road expansions.
Conservation development is an exciting way for the private business community to invest in the Edwards Aquifer watershed while respecting our community's value for clean water and rural preservation. Conservation development can play a huge role in prevention of new infrastructure expenditures that cost taxpayers millions of dollars since low density development does not require central water and wastewater lines.
One example of conservation development in Central Texas is called the Preserve at Walnut Springs in Johnson City, Texas. The 2,000 acre ranch features a 1,500+ acre nature preserve. Homesites are on 5-7 acres with even smaller building envelopes. (Note: the SOS Alliance does not endorse all of the details of this project, but offers it as an example of the general concept of conservation development.)
In California, a developer in control of a 20,000 acre ranch outside Carmel set aside 18,000 acres for a preserve and only subdivided 350 lots. There are many other examples from the West Coast and Rocky Mountain regions where "conservation development" is now a widespread practice.
If you are interested in conservation ranching or conservation development, please contact Bill at Save Our Springs Alliance.
The Land Trust Alliance has a wealth of information on conservation easements and how landowners can benefit from conserving their land permanently.