With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Blair Calvert Fitzsimons serves as chief executive officer of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), a statewide nonprofit organization. TALT works to conserve the heritage of rural lands and stewardship that makes Texas unique. Under Fitzsimons’ leadership, TALT has partnered with landowners throughout the state to permanently protect from development a quarter-million acres. These lands provide water, wide-open space and scenic views so critical to the quality of life in Texas.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What is the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and why is it important for water resources?
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Blair Fitzsimons: The Texas Agricultural Land Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works to conserve Texas working lands, rural lands that provide essential benefits like our water. It’s critical that we conserve these lands — we’ve got 142 million acres of privately owned land in Texas — so when it does rain, that rain falls predominately on privately owned, privately managed lands. So we partner with landowners to foster good stewardship that perpetuates the conservation of those privately owned lands.
Trib+Water: You mentioned rainfall, but what are some of the other connections between conserving undeveloped land and conserving water resources?
Fitzsimons: Our aquifers. Our rivers. Springs. Most of our major water features are found on privately owned land. There’s a wonderful book called the Springs of Texas and you go through that, the majority of those are on private lands. We don’t have it in our coffers — nor do I think we want to — to buy up all these springs. So it’s important that we find financial incentives for the landowners to continue to manage and take care of these resources.
Trib+Water: How much water are talking about here?
Fitzsimons: You’ve hit on an issue that is hard to define. It’s very difficult to say if we protect a million acres, we’re going to get x additional feet of water. But if we protect those areas that provide the recharge for our aquifers, or provide the springs that feed our rivers, we’re not going to lose those resources. What is the cost of replacing that water once it’s gone? This is a very different discussion than the whole water yield, how much additional water are we going to get by building a reservoir or a desalination plant. This is protecting what we have and the cost benefit analysis of what will it cost us if we lose it. So it’s more of a hold what you got strategy.
Trib+Water: What are the barriers to conserving undeveloped land in Texas? What can be done about that in the future?
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Fitzsimons: The biggest barrier is we don’t have sources of funding to protect the land. … The tool that we use is the perpetual conservation easement. So we enter into an agreement with the landowner where they continue farming or ranching or managing that property the way they have, but they agree not to develop it, not to pave it, not to put in a shopping center or a residential subdivision.
And in exchange for doing that, they get compensated, typically by selling that conservation easement. They get compensated for the value of restricting development. And we don’t have in Texas a robust source of funding to do that. Other states, like Colorado, use Lottery money. Florida uses some real estate transfer tax money. And we don’t have that here. If we’re going to have a meaningful land conservation program, we really need to have some sort of statewide funding.
Trib+Water: Could you tell me about pending legislation on the issue?
Fitzsimons: We don’t have any pending legislation but the Speaker of the House has put on the interim committee charge for House Natural Resources to look at the issue of incentivizing the conservation of private working lands in order to protect our water resources. And as part of that charge, to look at a program called the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, which is housed at the General Land Office. This program was put in place by the Legislature back in 2005 for this specific purpose of protecting rural lands for certain natural resource public policy priorities. At the time, we did not know what those were going to be.
Now, we’ve got a real water crisis. We’ve come a long way in this state. We’ve got a state water plan that’s working its way through the review process. We’ve got a system of prioritizing projects. But nowhere in that discussion are we talking about the role of the 142 million acres of privately owned lands and how they can augment this other good work that’s being done. So it’s really shortsighted not to be looking at private lands conservation as a strategy.
I’ll give you an example. … New York City was mandated by the EPA to build a water filtration plant that was going to cost upwards of six, seven billion dollars. And they didn’t have that money so they went to upstate New York and they bought conservation easements on dairy farms to protect their source of drinking water that comes from the highland lakes. And they spent a couple hundred million dollars instead of six or seven billion and achieved the purpose. And that’s the sort of analysis that we need to do in Texas, really look at our private lands as an opportunity to meet some of our water needs.