2022  ·  Groundwater Management, Land Conservation, Stewardship, Legal/Policy

Water and Equity in the Texas Hill Country

Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, Texas Hill Country Conservation Network

The Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (THCCN) was created to coordinate a conservation partnership organization to scale up the impact of conservation-focused organizations in the region. The partnership understands that in order to achieve their respective missions, they need to create a culture of inclusion and equity by actively seeking input and participation from all stakeholder communities, particularly those communities comprised of underserved or at-risk populations. The project goal is to provide a baseline, holistic understanding of where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental justice (EJ) issues intersect with water issues and challenges within the Hill Country. Below is a list of key findings and action items stemming from this research project organized by the report’s three sections:

Demographics in the Hill Country

    • A series of historical events played an important role in the current demographic makeup of the Hill Country. Development and shifting of Communities At-Risk (see note for definition at end of Executive Summary) were not random but instead were influenced by historic drivers, such as key pieces of legislation and changing workforce opportunities.
    • In review of Hill Country demographics, Communities At-Risk are primarily found in urban areas where greater employment opportunities also are located. In contrast, rural Texas Hill Country demographics are predominantly white and older populations. The predominant community of color in the Hill Country is Latino followed by African American.
    • Action: Programming and engagement strategies of Communities At-Risk should consider location, cultural relevancy, and the predominant communities being served. For location, the nexus of data for Communities At-Risk and water challenges can serve to address water equity challenges and opportunities for meaningful community engagement. The term water challenges is used in this report as an umbrella term to encompass the water issues described in data sets and mapping outputs from web tool.
    • Action: With respect to history, we continue to shape the Hill Country with current collective decisions – strategic and purposeful planning may be beneficial, as history often repeats itself. THCCN programming and engagement strategies should identify complementary actions driven by network organization missions to facilitate opportunities of water equity engagement.
    • Population density, age, and race and ethnicity (as variables) are expressed primarily at a regional scale (urban and rural), where urban areas are characterized by diverse, younger and higher density population groups, and rural areas are characterized by less diverse (primarily white), older and lower density populations.
    • In contrast, poverty, income, unemployment, labor, and education (as variables) are expressed at a local scale, meaning zip codes or neighborhoods define a given area. In Bexar County, for example, these variables are expressed within the county locally compared to more regional differences. This is not surprising given drivers in vulnerability indices described in the report are framed by these factors, resulting in the demographic makeup of the Hill Country.
    • Action: Communities At-Risk are locally distributed and not random within urban areas. Within rural areas, zones of Latino prevalence are small compared to land mass. Mapping of Communities At-Risk is helpful for THCCN and other water programming and engagement efforts for serving underserved communities.
    • Action: Language can be an important barrier to water resources for Communities At-Risk, particularly for safety (flooding and drought). Preference for Spanish materials manifested as low in rural areas compared to other parts of the state. This may be associated with preferences in receiving information or that pockets of Latino community respondents were too small in rural areas to influence overall survey results. Some bilingual programming efforts may be beneficial.
    • Hill Country rural landowners are primarily non-Hispanic white, male and older, reflective of rural communities. Policymaker structure also is reflective of their county population with respect to race, age, and ethnicity, similar to rural and urban counties, with some exceptions.
    • Action: Because pockets of Communities At-Risk are small in number in rural areas, they may not be well represented in policy-maker structure. THCCN program and engagement strategies might include:
      • Strategic and meaningful, compensated, long-term, targeted training, involving high contact hours, particularly for water leadership positions and for rural county leadership positions, as these involve complex systems, unique community cultures and specific processes and skills.
      • Long-term mentorship and supportive personal networks within professional settings – assign several individuals that are a match for recruits to create a safe environment where there is freedom to ask questions, push boundaries and gain experience, to fall and learn without fear in a supportive work family, and to receive redirection and responsibilities with expectations for success, not a lowering of standards.
    • Action: There was congruence between models of Communities At-Risk where each of the three approaches validated one another. A shortcoming of many of these modelling approaches is that they may not specifically include water challenges in a more comprehensive fashion, thus, integrating location of Communities At-Risk and explicit water challenges as was conducted in this study would aid THCCN programming and engagement efforts. Further mapping at higher or more local resolutions may be beneficial in future efforts.

Water Characteristics in the Hill Country

    • Pressure and demand for water resources will only continue to increase in the coming years for the state in both urban and rural areas. It will be a significant social, economic and demographic issue, defined by specific parameters such as water supply, water quality, flood risk, affordability and accessibility.
    • Not surprisingly, the majority of water challenges are concentrated in and around urban centers, and they overlap with Communities At-Risk identified in key areas within the Hill Country (south San Antonio, south Austin, and Uvalde, among other cities.).
    • Action: Development of a water equityscape demonstrates the overlap with vulnerable community indices and water challenges. Data suggest that Communities At-Risk are exposed to these challenges in some cases at a disproportionate rate. THCCN can use this approach to identifying high-priority areas in programming and engagement efforts. Further mapping at higher or more local resolutions may be beneficial in future efforts.

Water Survey in the Hill Country

    • Most communities and respondents had personal experiences with either flood and/or drought. Drought and overall water availability weighed heavily on Hill Country survey respondents’ minds, yet they also felt current water dependability and affordability were good or satisfactory, suggesting water futures may be more of the driver for the concern.
    • Dependency on groundwater is high (50-60%), placing great pressure on Hill Country water sources and posing significant challenges moving forward, which were validated by expressed respondent concerns. Regarding groundwater wells, well management, and the role of managers, there was a heavy emphasis on well responsibility at the hands of both groundwater conservation districts and well owners.
    • With respect to dependability and access, people felt they have dependable water sources and quality, yet there is a real concern that these may not be a reality in the future. Also, once safety has been breached, it might take some community members a long time to trust their water source again, thereby, increasing their cost of water.
    • Respondents felt opportunities to recreate existed in the Hill Country, although policymakers felt water users had more time to recreate than was their reality. Improving recreation access, making it easier for people to recreate may be beneficial along with addressing other barriers such as time to recreate.
    • There was a preference for in-person and community meetings with respect to information sharing and access. Written media also was a preferred source but not to the same degree as the former items.
    • There appears to be communication among water professionals, water providers, and water leaders; however, increasing and/or maintaining communication with water users would be helpful.