What Texas Hill Country Water Threats Mean for Wildlife

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

This month marks one year since the publication of a UT study cautioning the Texas Hill Country community about rapid population growth and decreasing water resources. The study forecasts not only issues for the human population but also the wildlife that sings, slithers and swims throughout the diverse Hill Country. 

The study cited two main issues threatening wildlife: urbanization and water depletion. Study authors said that these problems could contribute to massive habitat loss and water changes. 

“The overarching issue is the Austin suburbanization on the countryside [which is] causing ‘willy-nilly’ planning of housing and resources,” said Meg Merritt, coauthor and UT architecture lecturer. “In terms of wildlife, they will suffer anytime suburbanization occurs. This is a very common story —
worldwide even.”

An estimated 88 total endangered species live in the Hill Country, which includes 17 counties in Central Texas. The Hill Country Alliance protects species including the Texas blind salamander, freshwater mussels and the golden-cheeked warbler bird. 

Rufus Stephens, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist, said that when a population grows and construction increases, water cannot re-enter the ground. According to the Hill Country Alliance 2017 State Water Plan, municipal water needs will double by 2030.

“With an increased population comes increased use of water and land. When we have suburban type land situations there is a lot of impact on the water system because there is increased runoff and less infiltration,” Stephens said.

Additionally, water pollution is created when runoff water mixes with fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals. According to the study, regular floods throughout the area increase the amount of polluted material entering natural bodies of water. 

This increased runoff means a trashy day for animals like the freshwater mussel, which requires clean water to survive. This species was declared 70 percent extinct or endangered as of last year by Project Passenger Pigeon. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, mussels act as natural filters and are major food sources for raccoons, egrets and some fish. 

“Some of the issues we have with mussels has to do with barriers that are built like dams. This alters the water conditions which doesn’t allow them to complete their lifecycle,” said Nate Smith, a research biologist at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. 

Smith added that fishermen aren’t allowed to harvest any endangered species in the Hill Country, and companies must account for the species in an area before building a dam.

While land animals are only indirectly affected by water loss compared to aquatic species, they still must compete for living space, Stephens said. According to the study, a little over three million residents currently live in the Hill Country but this number is expected to double by 2050. Stephens said one consequence of continued development is land fragmentation, or the breakup of large expanses of land into smaller districts. 

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, farmers and ranchers can boost productivity by sharing a piece of land, but this produces less open space. Land fragmentation limits hunting territory for carnivorous animals such as wolves, which significantly decreases their ability to survive. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, gray wolves originally occupied two-thirds of Texas, but because of land fragmentation and other factors, not one wolf remains in the state today. 

The study includes initiatives to develop walkable towns, better public transportation and land management practices. These initiatives, which the authors of the study hope are completed within five years, aim to reduce the negative environmental effects on water and wildlife.