Globally, one in nine people do not have access to clean and safe water. San Antonio is in a unique position to change that. Not by sharing our water, but sharing our knowledge of conservation. Around the world, San Antonio is considered a model for water conservation, according to Laura Huffman, Texas Director of The Nature Conservancy.
Most San Antonians know that most of our water comes from the Edwards Aquifer, and most are aware of how vital it is to our quality of life. In a poll conducted in January of this year by the Conservancy, nearly 95% of San Antonians said that protecting drinking water was very important. The understanding in our community about the importance of the Edwards Aquifer means that we are willing to take the necessary measures to continue to protect it. In the same poll, 80% said they’d likely vote in favor of the ballot measure renewing an existing sales tax to fund watershed protection, and a proposition to fund continuing expansion of the city's creekway hike and bike trails.
Voters are at the polls now: Early voting continues through May 5. The Edwards Aquifer Protection Venue Project is Proposition No. 1, and extension of the Howard Peak Greenway Trails System is Proposition 2. Election Day is May 9. Click here for voting details.
The strategy for conservation in Texas has three pillars: first, securing fresh water; second, coastal resilience because with more frequent storms and drought, the need to maintain the health of fresh water inflows is critical; third, the improvement of air quality. Ultimately, the strategy is simple: invest in nature to sustain a supply of clean water, clean oceans, and clean air, and use scientific evidence to support the practices, said Dr. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the The nature Conservancy.
Kareiva and Huffman spoke during the 2015 San Antonio Conservation Luncheon at the Pearl Stable on Thursday. Huffman said the cheapest, most effective way to provide clean drinking water is to focus on conservation. That is, protecting what we already have is the most cost-effective option. While there has been much talk of desalination – 20 years ago Californians were talking about it to escape a severe drought – and that is a technology being pursued, it’s extremely expensive and requires expending energy resources we may not have. While it’s a long-term possibility, in the meantime, conserving the water we do have will be the key to continued access to safe water.
Despite the potential to politicize the environmental movement, the desire to protect the environment is non-partisan. Indeed, Texas voters have approved $27 million over the last 20 years for the state water plan. And while the Greenpeace-type activists of the world create the emotional energy which prompts many to respond, we also need organizations like The Nature Conservancy who can “inhabit the space” where the marriage of evidence-based practices of conservation and business strategies occurs. Among the many partners with whom the Conservancy collaborates throughout the world are corporations like Dow Chemical, for which they have been criticized. But Kareiva said that ultimately big corporations don’t want to harm the environment – even if their goals are profit, they need to protect it as well. Collaboration, communication, and education are keys to The Nature Conservancy’s long-term success.
In Texas, property rights reign supreme. Yet, the Nature Conservancy has relied on conservation easements to preserve critical natural spaces. An easement places a restriction on the property, which means that the landowner agrees to sell or donate the property and its use is limited based on those restrictions. It’s not a stretch to imagine that property owners wouldn’t take kindly to easements. So how does The Nature Conservancy convince landowners to do this? Again, they use science to educate the population on the importance of protection. Coming up with the money is a critical component as well.
For example, The Nature Conservancy recently teamed up with Bat Conservation International, the City of San Antonio, and other entities to raise $20.5 million to purchase land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and under the Hill Country flight path of Bracken Cave's 15-20 million bats. The purchase prevented the Crescent Hills development of 4,500-unit housing project and protected the world's largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats.
(Read More: City Acts to Protect Bracken Cave’s Bat Colony)
The Edwards Aquifer is critical to maintaining the water supply of this extremely fast growing population. By relying on scientific studies, the Conservancy can determine which areas are most critical and focus their attention there, while allowing development in other areas. For the most part, this collaborative and cooperative effort means that the landowners have a stake in the conservation efforts and are willing to support it.
Again, this is why San Antonio has been a global model for water conservation in this drought stricken land. Driving up Highway 281, it’s easy for nature lovers to wonder about the “damage to the watershed,” but Hoffman assured that, as far as it concerns the Edwards Aquifer, development has occurred in a balanced, cautious manner. San Antonio is one of the fastest growing communities in Texas and the nation. There will always be a need to balance growth with sustainability.
Community support is critical, so apart from landowners in the watershed regions, getting people to understand the importance of conservation is a key to success. In San Antonio, election results in two weeks will finalize the story, but so far, residents are supportive of aquifer protections. Education programs in schools have helped to create a new generation of conservationists: my third grader can tell you all about our water resources.
In other states, The Nature Conservancy has established the LEAF program, which hires student interns, mostly of lower socio-economic status, from inner city high schools to work for The Nature Conservancy. These kids learn the science of conservation, but they also learn how to apply it to practice. More than one-third of these students go on to major in science in college and become life-long conservationists. Significantly, not only did the program change the lives of these urban teens, but it changed the attitudes of the Conservancy's staff; they began to realize that conservation wasn’t “just about elephants on the Serengeti but about experiencing nature in the city,” Kareiva said.
A room with a view, in the city.
From my desk in my urban Southtown home, I could look out a window at mature pecan trees, assorted flowers, birds, squirrels and other creatures. But recently I moved my desk to an interior hallway against a wall. Since then, I’ve had difficulty working at my desk and keep moving to other places near a window. I couldn’t explain it, but Dr. Kareiva did: we humans need nature.
In a study conducted by Greg Bratman at Stanford University, researchers found that when participants took a walk in a nature preserve, their cognitive abilities improved dramatically compared to a similar walk in an urban setting. Trees, greenery, and birds all had an impact on their creativity, increased memory, and even their ability to solve math problems. San Antonio’s Museum and Mission reaches of the San Antonio River and the many greenway trails provide such an environment.
Considering an earlier study showing a relationship between green spaces and test outcomes, Heather Tallis of The Nature Conservancy is piloting a study in California schools to determine whether greenspaces have an impact on learning. Students in Texas have just finished their STAAR exams, and perhaps schools need to re-consider nature in their design plans and incorporate The Nature Conservancy into their classrooms.
*Featured/top image: (From left) Texas Director of The Nature Conservancy Laura Huffman, Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Bat Conservation International Bracken Cave Preserve Director Fran Hutchins pose for a photo at the mouth of the cave. Photo by Jonathan Alonzo, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.