As water supplies become more valuable, conservationists say proper habitat management is an important way to improve them in urban areas, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has begun an effort it calls Rural Land-Urban Water to promote the connection to urban audiences, funded through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
“We can’t make it rain in Texas when and where it’s needed,” state conservationist Don Gohmert said. “But conservation measures on the state’s vast rural lands can increase the amount, and improve the quality, of water available to Texas cities.”
In the long run, as cities grow and political power grows farther removed from the soil, the effort is partly a survival measure for the NRCS itself, which splits the cost of conservation work with landowners for habitat management.
Staffing in Texas for the NRCS has halved since the 1960s as the economy has shifted away from the land. In 1962, the agency had 1,521 employees in Texas, but now there are only 747.
“Support of our agency comes from all taxpayers, and most of them are not farmers or ranchers,” Gohmert said. “Most wonder why they would pay for something on private land. When private land is managed properly, it accrues environmental benefits that urban folks may not understand.”
He said proper range management prevents sediment from muddying up waterways, for example, and cuts down on allergens in the air. Brush removal, particularly cedar, means more grass cover, less water run-off, and more rainfall infiltration. And that all adds up to better wildlife habitat and increased groundwater resources.
The work is not exclusively on private land. The federal agency is teaming with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as well as several river authorities and other agencies to determine how clearance on the Honey Creek State Natural Area north of San Antonio affects watersheds in the Hill Country.
Many landowners don’t want cedar, but the kind of heavy-duty brush control work that requires heavy machinery has long been out of reach for many landowners until now.
“For poor families, the land had to pay the price,” said Kirby Hohenberger, a cowboy-hatted, white-mustachioed man who runs a company doing work on the Reagor land. “Unless a Houston doctor or lawyer lived here, who made money somewhere else, the family doesn’t have money to clear the land.”
According to figures from the NRCS, brush management in Central Texas costs roughly $200 per acre and native grass planting costs another $120 per acre. Then you’ve got fencing, a practice that helps ranchers move livestock in a manner that resembles the grazing patterns of buffalo and elk herds, which costs about $2 a foot. Then add pipelines to ship water and promote even livestock distributions at a cost of about $1.75 a foot. But wait, there’s more! A 2,000 gallon livestock water trough, which improves water quality in lakes and streams, goes for a cool $1,200. And let’s not forget vegetative buffers along waterways at a cost $370 per acre. As the saying goes, it ain’t cheap.
And a little confusing, especially when some research suggest cedar helps prevent global warming? But too little cedar is something that we don’t have to worry about, especially with the plant’s rapid growth rate and knack for invading open areas.
When a landowner enters into an EQIP contract with the NRCS, he or she is responsible for 40 percent of the cost and the federal government will pay 60 percent, according to the agency. The conservation service spent $64 million in Texas on the incentive program in 2009.