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When the Rain Ends

How the removal of water-guzzling brush from rural areas can help big cities prepare for the next drought.

By Larry D. Hodge

It's mid-August, and I'm standing in a pasture on the Rosa Ranch in Blanco County. It should be sere and hot and thoroughly unpleasant this time of year. Instead, it's green and lush. For the first time in my life, trees on the verge of fall still look fresh, not tired, dusty and droopy. Creeks in the sandy granite regions of the Hill Country are flowing. In August.

Texas. Is. Wet. Wetter than I've seen it in more than three-score years.

I spent my childhood on a sandy-land sharecropper farm in Central Texas, wearing flour-sack shirts and holey jeans and shoes during the drought of the 1950s. Only memories - of parents worn down by worry and water trucks filling up on the square in Elgin to haul precious fluid to West Texas towns with no water - keep me from feeling foolish about being here in the middle of one of the wettest years on record to write a story about how land managers can cope with drought.

Make no mistake. The old adage may be that the only things you can be sure of are death and taxes, but anyone who's spent his life in Texas knows there's a third certainty: drought. Texas is awash in water in late 2007, but ranchers and farmers know: The next drought begins the day the rain ends.

The drought of the 1950s spurred Texans to do what some future environmental historian may label shortsighted: Instead of looking for ways to make the land better able to withstand drought and sustain them in dry times, Texans built reservoirs - a quick fix for a long-term problem. This was the latest chapter in a story that began when Europeans arrived and began to suppress fire, overgraze rangeland and disrupt an ecosystem that had developed over millennia.

Ironically, Texans built those reservoirs without realizing that a fundamental ecological shift had reached its zenith during the 1950s drought - a shift that made the very reservoirs built to deal with water shortages less able to do so. During the first half of the 20th century, the process of converting grass-covered savannas to brush-covered rangeland peaked. Seventy-five million acres, or about 80 percent, of Texas rangeland had been invaded by noxious brush (juniper, mesquite, prickly pear, salt cedar) and weeds. Land that had, when covered with grass, absorbed 80 to 90 percent of rainfall was now robbed of 75 to 80 percent by trees and brush. Springs and streams ceased to flow, and thirsty reservoirs failed to receive the expected runoff.

We used the land hard because we could get away with it without having to make too many inconvenient sacrifices. We still can - at least for now, as long as it rains when and where we need it to. The summers of 2005 and 2006 were the latest examples of dodging the bullet. As lakes in even normally wet East Texas ebbed, Texans began to face the unpleasant fact that they might have to change their wasteful ways. Texas faced a serious water crisis.

And then it rained.
And rained, and rained.
Lakes that had been empty filled. Some overflowed.
And we went back to using water like it would never run out.

The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that brush in Texas uses about 10 million acre-feet of water annually. In comparison, total human use in the state amounts to about 15 million acre-feet. The obvious answer to the state's water supply problems, at least in part, is to transfer water use from brush to people, but that is no simple task.

Somewhere around 95 percent of the land in Texas is privately owned. Solving the problem of public water supply inevitably means working with private landowners, if for no other reason than the fact that most rain falls on land privately rather than publicly owned.

Brush control is not the answer to everyone's water problem, but for some people it is the only answer. Mort Mertz and his son Michael ranch around San Angelo in the Concho River watershed on land that has been in the family for three generations. Mort saw brush invade their land, and he's now seeing the results of removing that brush. "Brush became a problem after World War II," he says. "After we started clearing brush, creeks started running that had not flowed in the last 25 years."

"If you don't have something sucking water out of the soil, where can it go except into the water table?" asks Michael Mertz. "We want to improve our property, and at the same time we are benefiting wildlife habitat. I don't mind spending the money if my land grows more forage and has water. Brush removal helps increase the water supply for people in cities, and that's a major plus."

Jimmy and Nancy Powell also ranch near San Angelo, and like the Mertzes they see brush removal as benefiting not only their land but also thousands of people who will never set foot on the place. Powell laces his conversation with factoids that convince listeners he's studied the problem from every angle. "I've calculated that with 18 inches of rainfall, and all the land in the Concho watershed in grasses, that would produce enough water to fill an 11,000-acre lake 60 feet deep every year - and that's enough to meet the water needs of San Angelo," he says.

"There is no immediate payback for brush control," Powell adds. "In 10 to 12 years you will, if you maintain the land properly and keep the brush off, have an immense return. But you have to maintain an investment program and have good grazing rotation to keep the grasses."

Powell sees brush control in a historical context. "We have a different set of problems than early settlers had," he points out. "They had to tame a wild country. Our problem is to deal with the changes to the landscape that followed settlement, such as overgrazing and brush encroachment. It is our obligation to find a way to solve the problem."

On the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau, in the Hill Country, finding a way to solve the problem is made more difficult by fragmentation of land into smaller and smaller pieces. It seems that everyone wants their own piece of the Hill Country, and with raw land prices approaching $5,000 an acre, large tracts get chopped up and sold piecemeal. Leonard Hilliard and his wife, Kathy, bucked that trend by buying three pieces of adjoining property near Fredericksburg, but they are the exception.

"Everybody wants a piece of the Hill Country, and they are loving it to death," says Tom Hammer, who's spent 20 years in the Hill Country with NRCS. "Fortunately, people like Hilliard want to keep the land the way it is or improve it. They want to see the place the way it looked when the first settlers came here."

"In the 1800s soldiers traveling across this country to Fort McKavett described a vast grassland with scattered live oaks and running creeks, and that's what we're trying to get back to," Powell says as he shows us Pecan Creek, a tributary to the South Concho that now flows year-round for the first time in a quarter-century. Monarch butterflies flit across the creek on their way south for the winter, a wild turkey takes wing from a tree at water's edge, and minnows dart across the concrete slab of a low-water crossing. Without the water, none of this would happen. Without brush removal, the water would not be here.

Idyllic as the scene is, the water is only passing through on its way to a lake, where it will nurture a complex web of life before becoming someone's morning cup of coffee in San Angelo. Water, indeed, is the stuff that life is made of. It is also the tie that binds the lives of city dwellers to the lives of those who tend the land.

Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation, wrote: "The practices we now call conservation are, to a large extent, local alleviations of biotic pain. They are necessary, but they must not be confused with cures. The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born."

In the six decades since Leopold wrote those words, that science has been born, it's being practiced in Texas, and the next drought, when it comes, will be less severe, at least for some, because of it.

Working with ranchers are a host of resource and conservation specialists at a variety of levels of government - the land health practitioners Leopold foretold. "When we brush sculpt a place, we maintain wildlife corridors and recharge streams and aquifers," says C.A. Cowsert, NRCS district conservationist in Johnson City. "When you get more grass cover, the rainfall is filtered. You don't get as much runoff, and what does run off is good, clear water."

Grass roots delve deep into the soil, holding it in place and providing a pathway for water to percolate deep into the earth. Flood events become less frequent and less severe. Equally dramatic is what happens in the unseen underground. "The water level in some of our wells rose 80 feet, even before the rains in 2007," says Todd Bannert, ranch foreman for Jimmy Powell.

Vaden Aldridge, NRCS district conservationist in Eldorado, gets excited when he sees native grasses coming back to a pasture after it's been cleared. "The seeds are there, they just need an opportunity to breathe," he says, pointing out little bluestem, vine mesquite, Halls panicum, sideoats grama and other grasses in one of the Mertz pastures. "It opens up a whole new world when you take the brush off."

Educating landowners to what the possibilities are is a big job of the modern conservation scientist - some things have not changed since Aldo Leopold's day. "The daily challenge for us is, ranchers say, 'It's green out there, I'm going to buy some more cows,'" says George Clendenin, NRCS conservationist in San Angelo. "We really need to educate them so the next time it's green, they can make an informed decision. They need to have a grazing plan and stock conservatively to prepare for the next drought.

"By making healthy upland areas, you are also making healthy riparian areas," Clendenin continues. "In the past we did not put a lot of emphasis on riparian areas, but now we understand their importance, and they are as big a part of a management plan as upland areas."

Through the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, NRCS helps landowners establish buffer zones. Brush is not cleared from these streamside areas, and they must be protected from grazing for 10 to 15 years, but they can be used for recreation and hunting. "Selective brush clearing as part of an overall plan is important. While it may be beneficial to selectively clear upland sites, it is equally beneficial to selectively leave brushy motts and wooded sites along creeks and draws," Clendenin points out.

Ryland Howard and his mother, Edith Boulware, manage the Head of the River Ranch near Christoval, and they have established riparian buffers along a mile and a half of the South Concho River. "It took a lot of our land out of grazing, but our philosophy has always been to take care of the land and preserve the springs that are there," he explains. "There is no question that removing water-using brush results in more aquifer recharge and stronger stream flow."

"All these programs are totally voluntary," points out Melony Sikes, an NRCS program manager in San Angelo whose passion is managing riparian areas. "Ranchers are not doing it for financial gain - they're doing it because it's good for the resource. The offsite benefits to the public are tremendous, and there is nothing prettier than a pasture full of grass that comes right up to a flowing creek."

Calvin Hartmann, his wife, Sonja, and his sister, Sally, operate the Rosa Ranch, a 3,000-acre jewel of a place near Johnson City. Buffalo Spring spurts from the base of a cliff on the place, feeding Buffalo Creek, a major tributary of the Pedernales River, part of the Colorado River system that supplies water to Austin and other cities. Hartmann, who is retired, spends his days pushing brush and caring for the 130 or so cows on the ranch. "My dad had a ranch, and managing the land was something we always did," he says. "We tried to help the wildlife by providing more food for them. I'm convinced that brush control helps streams flow. I've cleared 500 acres the last three years, and Buffalo Spring is really flowing. It never stopped during the last two dry summers."

Tropical Storm Erin is dumping heavy rain on us as we sit on the porch of the century-old ranch house, pounding on its tin roof. I ask Hartmann why he works so hard to send water down the Pedernales to people who will never know he's alive. He ponders for a bit before answering, as if embarrassed by what he's about to say. His answer, when it comes, gives me hope that Texas will solve its water problems: "I just love the land."

Maybe I'm a hopeless romantic, but I really do believe that love will conquer all - even cedar, mesquite, salt cedar and prickly pear.

Details

  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (www.nrcs.usda.gov/)
  • Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (www.tsswcb.state.tx.us/brushcontrol)
  • Lower Colorado River Authority (www.lcra.org/community/conservation/creekside.html)
  • Upper Colorado River Authority (www.ucratx.org/)
  • Texas Water Matters Project (www.texaswatermatters.org/)

Brush Strokes

Not all brush is created equal, nor will clearing brush yield the same benefits in all parts of the state. Brush removal generally yields the greatest benefits where Ashe juniper ("cedar") is thickest, soils are thin and underlain by porous rock and rainfall is at least 18 inches per year. That pretty much describes much of the Edwards Plateau and West Texas, and that's where brush control efforts in Texas are concentrated.

In addition to using water itself - a 10-foot mesquite tree can use up to 20 gallons per day, a salt cedar even more - brush traps much water before it ever reaches the ground, allowing it to evaporate. Leaf litter beneath brush keeps more water from entering the soil. Cedar traps an average of 73 percent of the rain that falls; live oaks 46 percent; grass 14 percent. Put another way, cedar allows only 27 percent of rainfall to be put to use, while grass makes 86 percent available to grow plants, recharge aquifers and keep streams, springs and faucets flowing.

A study conducted by the Upper Colorado River Authority on the effects of brush removal on water yield of the North Concho watershed concluded that removing 95 percent of the brush in the watershed would result in an additional 33,515 acre-feet of water supply - more than the city of San Angelo uses annually.

Ranchers who clear brush can be reimbursed for up to half the cost through various state and federal programs, and some river authorities also offer financial aid. Costs for brush removal range from about $90 to as high as $175 per acre, so the investment for ranchers can be considerable and take years to recover. Their payoff comes in reduced feeding costs and increased grazing capacity - stocking rates can double on cleared land because it produces more grass. Many ranchers remove only a third to half of the brush, leaving the rest for wildlife habitat.

"Brush control is not a permanent fix," notes Vaden Aldridge, NRCS district conservationist in Eldorado. "It's a control measure, not an eradication program. You have to stay on top of it each year." Once brush has been cleared, periodic prescribed burns take care of most regrowth. "Proper grazing management (proper livestock stocking rates with planned pasture deferments) along with continuous retreatment are the keys for maintaining healthy rangelands and improving groundwater and surface water resources," Aldridge says. "Poor range management following brush control can offset the work that has been done. Improving herbaceous cover and maintaining that cover is the key."

Brush removal is expensive, but it is the most cost-effective way to increase water supply. Melissa Grote, a conservation planner for the Pedernales Soil and Water Conservation District, cites figures from a study done by the Lower Colorado River Authority in 2000.

"The average cost to yield water by brush control in the Pedernales watershed is $16.41 per acre-foot," she says. "The cost per acre-foot of constructing and operating an aquifer storage and recovery system is $839." In most West Texas watersheds, the cost of additional water from brush control runs from $40 to $100 per acre-foot. At the high end of that range, that's only $0.0003 per gallon.

Benjamin Franklin said, "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water." The Texans who came before us built a great civilization based on cheap and plentiful water. What happens next is up to us.

"Unlike most other states, we control our own destiny when it comes to the future of water in Texas," says former TPWD executive director Robert L. Cook. "For all practical purposes, the following rivers and their tributaries start in Texas and flow totally through Texas to reach the Gulf of Mexico: the Devils, the Nueces, the Frio, the Sabinal, the Guadalupe, the Blanco, the San Antonio, the Lavaca, the Navidad, the Concho, the San Saba, the Llano, the Colorado, the Brazos, the Trinity, the Sulphur, the Neches and the Sabine. These are our rivers - the lifeblood of Texas - our water supply. If they get messed up or abused, it is our own fault. If they are well-managed and conserved, and if they continue to supply our vast state with an abundance of fresh, clean water for centuries to come, it will be because we made the decisions and took the actions necessary to ensure their continued health and productivity.

"We cannot control when, where or how much it rains. However, we can stop wasting water, we can protect our water supply and we can provide for our state's future water needs if we will properly manage the rangelands and the wildlife habitat of Texas. We can do it. Get involved."

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