With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Katherine Romans is the executive director for the Hill Country Alliance. She has led the organization's landowner outreach program for more than two years and also serves on the board of the Hill Country Land Trust. You can learn more here.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the Hill Country when it comes to water resources?
Katherine Romans: The Hill Country is really a region of extremes, where it goes from serious droughts to catastrophic flooding in an incredibly short period of time. We’re also seeing increased population growth; it’s projected to double over the next 35 years or so. The biggest challenge is going to be keeping people aware of the limitations of water resources. It’s easy to engage the public on water management when we’re in the midst of a multi-year drought. But keeping folks engaged when lakes are full presents bigger challenges.
Trib+Water: How do you engage the public in your work?
Romans: The Hill Country Alliance works on a very local scale, reaching out to individuals, homeowners and business owners. We also work regionally to bring conservation organizations together to raise awareness more broadly. The future of Hill Country will depend on forward-thinking decision making at the the local, regional and statewide levels.
We get the public involved in a number of ways. We host our Texas Water Symposium, which is a partnership between the Hill Country Alliance and several Hill Country universities. We host Rainwater Revival each fall and it brings homeowners and rainwater harvesting professionals together. As part of the event, we raise money for school rainwater harvesting fundraising grant programs. That’s a great way to educate school-aged children. The best way to change behaviors and practices and homes is to get school kids to educate their parents about water conservation.
Trib+Water: What are challenges with water conservation?
Romans: A big challenge for the Hill Country Alliance and the region in general is instilling that awareness that water resources in Hill Country are limited and we need to treat those as something precious that needs to be guarded.
Trib+Water: What are some possible solutions, looking forward?
Romans: I always point to the small changes that add up to significant water savings. Water conservation is a big piece of the solution. Central Texans still use about 50-60 percent of potable water on their gardens and lawns. Using alternative water sources, including rainwater harvesting, is an easy solution.
We work with a range of people, from those who are very informed about innovative water technology like rainwater harvesting to those who have never heard of that as option. Rainwater harvesting is becoming more and more common in the Hill Country, particularly as we see new developments coming in, that are looking for ways to minimize their impact on groundwater and surface water resources.
Trib+Water: What exactly is rainwater harvesting?
Romans: Rainwater harvesting is an age-old technology of capturing rainwater off of the rooftops of existing homes and buildings. Across Hill Country, landowners are using this to water their gardens. We’re increasingly seeing homes that have rainwater harvesting systems large enough to supply all water needed for in-home use. If you have the right size rainwater harvesting system you can secure a water supply, even in times of drought.
Trib+Water: Can you speak to the scale of rainwater harvesting in Hill Country?
Romans: Rainwater harvesting is increasingly common in Hill Country, but there are not great figures out there on what percentage of homes are reliant on it as a main source of water. But we are seeing cities and even counties incentivizing rainwater harvesting systems through rebate programs and financial incentives.
Trib+Water: What costs are associated with rainwater harvesting?
Romans: Just as you would have costs to drill a well, there are those initial installation costs for creating a rainwater harvesting system. But often times, people find the water quality of rainwater is higher and the sustainability of the water is greater so it ends up being worth the investment in the long run.
Trib+Water: What are some of the innovative conversations happening in the Hill Country around water?
Romans: There’s a great amount of research going on to better understand the connection between groundwater and surface water in Hill Country. A lot of this work is driven by The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. That’s going to be critical in raising the public's awareness of interconnectedness of those two resources.
One innovative conversation happening is driven by the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, which has initiated a campaign called “No Land No Water,” that addresses the importance of protecting open spaces for maintaining water resources.
An often overlooked piece of the water puzzle is how we protect our open spaces, working ranch lands and unpaved areas. Those provide an incredible soft infrastructure in their ability to slow, spread and sink rainwater.
The fundamental goal is to maintain healthy landscapes that can capture and retain rainwater, so that we can recharge our aquifers, feed our creeks, rivers and lakes and really hold water on the land.
Trib+Water: What do you suggest lawmakers do with regards to water conservation and resources?
Romans: This session, we’re keeping a close eye out for bills with an impact on Hill Country and its water resources. It’s a little early to say what water bills will be on top but one bill we are supportive of was introduced by (state) Rep. Jason Isaac and would allow county appraisal districts the ability to give a tax abatement for the increase in property values when a person or business installs a rainwater harvesting system.
We’re also really excited about the funding for the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program. That’s a program run through Texas Parks and Wildlife, which provides resources to permanently protect open spaces and working ranch lands.
Trib+Water: Why are water resources in Hill Country important?
Romans: I always like to say the heart of Texas beats in the Hill Country and that is more true of water than any other issue. There are 13 rivers with their headwaters in the Hill Country that feed not only the farms and ranches in the rural portions of region but also sustain the millions of residents of Austin, San Antonio and the I-35 corridor, and downstream residents. Environmental flows that sustain the bays and estuaries of the Gulf Coast also originate in Hill Country.