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Bringing Back the Blanco

Residents, experts face challenges to restore the river after historic 2015 floods.

By Robert Currie
 

There are folks living along the banks of the Blanco River who can still hear that sound when they close their eyes and let their minds drift back to the 2015 Memorial Day weekend. It was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. It resonated in their bones.

A rumbling wall of water, unseen in the middle of the night, rose 20 feet in one hour, reaching a record 44.9 feet at its peak. At 1 a.m. Sunday, the normally placid Blanco nearly equaled the flow of the mighty Mississippi as it flows through St. Louis. It was the worst Blanco flood in recorded history, a monster that swept away 12 people, hundreds of homes and several bridges and low-water crossings — causing more than $100 million in damage to the tiny Hill Country hamlet of Wimberley and its neighbors.

As residents from San Marcos to Wimberley to Blanco emerged at dawn to check on the receding waters that Sunday morning, they faced a shocking sight, never seen before. The iconic, majestic cypress trees that once lined the riverbanks — some more than two centuries old — were missing limbs, cracked in half or worse … just gone. The Texas A&M Forest Service estimates the total number of cypress and other tree species damaged or destroyed in the flood at almost 12,000 trees.

“Cypress is what everybody loves about Hill Country creeks and rivers,” says retired biologist and range conservationist Steve Nelle. “Those old, big trees — they’re rigid, not flexible. You get that kind of water with floating logs hitting against a gigantic, massive tree, and it’s going to go over.”

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Bill Johnson's Halifax Ranch island area before the flood damage.

Volunteers Mobilize

Among the first to take action was Gary Weeks, a Wimberley furniture maker with a natural attachment to trees, especially cypress. Weeks had first admired the massive roots and towering canopies while fishing on Hill Country streams during his college years at the University of Texas.

Four days after the flood, Weeks called in Paul Johnson from the Texas A&M Forest Service to advise riverside homeowners how to protect the surviving trees from overzealous cleanup efforts and to prevent damage from using heavy equipment along water-logged riparian areas. (The riparian zone is the narrow strip of land along streams and rivers.)

Weeks and one of his employees, Will Rothelle, created a Facebook page called “Blanco River Valley Restoration Project” to collect information and offer advice. They recruited certified arborist Mark Lundy, a lifelong Wimberley resident, to produce online informational videos.

“In our rush to recovery, we’ll do too much too soon when very often the very best thing we can do is nothing,” Lundy says. “We’ve had people running chainsaws and hauling material out of the river valley that could very much be of use to us as organic material for the establishment of new plants and trees.”

Unfortunately, many property owners just couldn’t stand looking at the jumbled mess of flood debris piled up between their homes and the riverbank. Many damaged trees that could have survived, if left alone, were cut down and hauled away. Giant piles of vegetation were set ablaze, adding a smoky haze to the post-apocalyptic scenery and leaving behind charred, sterile earth.

One place where that didn’t happen was on Montesino Ranch, situated near a stretch of the Blanco River known as Little Arkansas. Volunteers from the Eyes of the San Marcos River, a nearby nonprofit group, sent volunteers to help clean up flood debris. Instead of hauling and burning, they used downed trunks and limbs to create contour berms along the sloped banks. The goal is to trap and build soil deposits from future rain runoff. It’s paying off this year as native grasses and plants are already taking hold in the new soil building up behind the berms. Manager Pam Mitchell is sharing extra organic materials with some landowners who originally removed debris to help them build their own protective erosion barriers.

Over the past year, several organizations, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Nature Conservancy, Hill Country Alliance, Hays County Master Naturalists and others, have presented a series of workshops for river property owners to explore how to continue the process of recovery that started almost immediately after the May flood.

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Bill Johnson's Halifax Ranch island area after the flood damage.

Not an Isolated Event

Halloween 2015 brought another flood, bringing to three the number of major floods on the Blanco in just three years. Media reports were calling the May flood a “once-in-a-thousand-years” event; the October event was called a 500-year flood. Noted hydrologist Raymond Slade disagrees, calling the Memorial weekend flood a 200-year event — an unsettling thought for people still living along the Blanco.

Since the latest deluge, donated trees have been planted by two nonprofit organizations — Retreet and TreeFolks — that have also been planting trees in Bastrop since the 2011 wildfires there. Dallas-based Retreet began last January, planting trees for 37 homeowners. It plans to return periodically to plant more. Austin-based TreeFolks anticipates planting 700,000 trees over the next four years for an estimated 400 property owners under a plan overseen and partially paid for by Hays County.

The Texas A&M Forest Service, however, estimates that only around half of those transplanted cypress and other trees will survive, so it could take many decades for the riparian areas to be fully restored. The massive roots of damaged and dying cypress trees, which normally hold together the Blanco riverbanks like rebar in concrete, will continue to decompose and disappear.

The bank erosion that has resulted from repeated recent flood events is sure to worsen. The river channel will widen, exposing bare limestone that will resist the growth of new riparian grasses and shrubs that normally act as a nursery for young native trees like sycamore, pecan, cedar elm and, of course, cypress.

Two property owners who received trees from Retreet, Charles Creswell and Suzanne Davis, saw their riverbanks scoured away and worry about the survival of their newly installed trees. Both also live on stretches of the Blanco that had been extensively landscaped like urban yards.

As Davis, a retired schoolteacher from Houston, looks upstream from the deck of her newly renovated ’60s-style brick home, she can see the concrete slab that used to support her neighbors’ now-missing house. The vista also displays a long stretch of St. Augustine grass lawns sprawling across one property after another.

“People who have bought riverside and creekside property — they naturally want to enjoy it,” Nelle explains. “Many times they want to make it look like their backyard.”

When Davis and her husband, Edward, bought their river house in 2011, she joined the Hays County Master Naturalists organization, where she learned about the importance of allowing natural growth along streams and rivers.

“If this were natural, it would be all tall grasses that, when the water came, could slow the water down for flood control, ideally,” she says. “Then it would hold the water so that it could be kept here instead of going to the Gulf.”

Nelle ponders the effect of mowing and manicuring these riverside properties along the Blanco.

“If it were just one or two locations along every mile, it wouldn’t really hurt,” Nelle says. “But when it becomes property after property after property, mile after mile, it has a cumulative effect allowing that water to speed up. It’s more erosive. It has more energy. And it probably does more damage.”

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Wimberley resident Gary Weeks examines some young cypress trees growing along the Blanco River.

Something Has To Change

About 20 miles upstream from the Davis property, Creswell, a retired Austin attorney, is in the midst of a philosophical conversion about what used to be his urban lawn stretching from house to river.

“We don’t have to manicure all our lawns so they look like golf courses,” he says. “This isn’t a golf course. This is a wild, natural river that we’re blessed to have. And it’s not just our river, it’s everybody’s river for generations into the future.”

Creswell points to the cedar elm, Texas ash and chinquapin oak planted on his property by Retreet and to Lundy’s efforts to rebuild the eroded bank with fallen tree trunks and flood debris. It’s the start of an effort to bring back the natural riparian buffer against future floods.

The reality, though, is probably that it will be a long time before the Blanco River looks and functions the way it did before 2015.

Weeks paddles other Hill Country rivers, especially the Pedernales, where he has noticed a dearth of mature cypress trees and almost no younger ones.

“One evening I met a man who had grown up along the Pedernales, and I asked him about that,” Weeks recalls. “He said: ‘We had a big flood here after the long drought of the ’50s. It took out all the cypress, and they’ve never come back.’ That stuck with me. I’ve looked along the Pedernales and others for young cypress, and there aren’t many.”

Weeks noticed that where livestock were allowed access to the river and where property owners cut down the dense, brushy vegetation, there was no place for young trees to grow up, protected from floods and from being eaten by deer, wild hogs and even beavers.

“It seems that humans now can assist in the cypress coming back along the Blanco by understanding that livestock and lawnmowers are going to eliminate them,” Weeks says. “They need brushy, thick places to get started.”

There’s something to be said for having the dense, overgrown look in the riparian zone.

“That’s natural,” says Nelle. “That’s the way a river is supposed to look. And so, when we trespass into the river’s territory, into the floodplain, into the riparian area with the landscapes and the park look and the manicured backyard look, we’re going against nature. We’re going against what’s natural.”

TPWD provided property owners along the Blanco with about 15,000 grasses, sedges and other riparian plants to help hold in the banks with massive root systems, providing protection for those new trees as they grow into maturity.

“The May 2015 Blanco flood completely altered the landscape,” says TPWD conservation ecologist Ryan McGillicuddy. “The question is, how to get things back to the way they were. We have faith in landowners in doing the right thing.”

That is exactly what property owners like Suzanne Davis and Charles Creswell and others say they intend to do.

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