Water-saving program a point of contention.
Can brush control program enhance water supplies?

By Asher Price
Austin American-Statesman
July 23, 2014

A state program meant to encourage old-school range management and new-school water saving methods has become the subject of a peculiarly Texas controversy. The State Soil and Water Conservation Board will decide Monday how to disburse millions of dollars to clear brush from ranches in the name of boosting water supplies. Money has already been set aside for projects to begin this summer. A group of environmentalists, property owners and academics says the water supply enhancement program, as it’s officially known, is misguided and will lead to large-scale soil erosion and no extra water. They are opposed by some ranchers who qualify for state money to clear their land, and a private company in Fredericksburg that wants to undertake the work and capture and sell water it manages to harvest from that land. The turmoil over the program, largely out of the public eye, has turned up in written comments, obtained by the Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act. “It is my opinion that the (water supply enhancement program) as now planned would be a disaster,” J. David Bamberger, famed as a Hill Country rancher who restored springs on his property, wrote to the soil board. For decades, the clearing of invasive trees and plants has been standard practice across Texas to improve the land for livestock and other wildlife. Texas brush control grew nationally iconic with a blue-jeaned President George W. Bush’s work on his Crawford ranch. Between 2000 and 2011, the state spent $54 million to subsidize brush control on ranches. In 2011, as Texas became ensnared by drought, lawmakers ordered the soil board to make

water savings a priority as it doled out money for brush-clearing projects. The brush control project suddenly became the “water supply enhancement program,” with a biennial budget of $4.271 million and a mission to increase river water and groundwater through brush control. The only problem: Scientists now say that there is no relationship between brush control and water.

“We fundamentally disagree with the plan’s underlying tenet that brush management is a viable strategy for increasing water supplied from Texas rangelands,” Brad Wilcox, a range management scientist in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, wrote to the soil board in a June 26 letter co- signed by seven other A&M researchers. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that shrub control will NOT increase water supply in Texas. ... We believe the plan as currently designed is a poor use of taxpayer money and we recommend that it not go forward.”

That position is a shift from conventional wisdom. At least back to the 1960s, one of the justifications for taxpayers to fund brush control is that it creates more water as thirsty shrubs and trees like cedar are uprooted, said Steve Nelle, a retired range management conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, in an interview. But, he said, the new findings suggest that rather than recharging water on the land, mismanaged brush control will lead to water running off it — taking loose soil into streams as it goes. “You’re losing productivity, and drying out the land, really. Landowners would be participating in the degradation of their own land if they participated in these programs,” Nelle said. “You’d be funneling the water downstream. So

the Highland Lakes get water. You’re taking water from one part of the landscape and funneling it to where big population centers are.”

In a sense, that shifting of water is an implicit point of the program. Large-scale brush-clearing “is a cornerstone solution for water supply issues in Texas,” said Rex Isom, executive director of the state soil board.

One of the projects is in the watershed of the Pedernales River, which feeds Lake Travis — one of Central Texas’ two major reservoirs. “We want to be a natural bridge between the urban and rural areas” on water, said John Brocksch, CEO of the Aquifer Group, a Fredericksburg company that’s starting a 1,500- acre, brush-clearing water enhancement project in the next few weeks on two ranches in the Uvalde area. Landowners working with the Aquifer Group will receive nearly $300,000 in taxpayer money this year to subsidize the brush control work.

The change by the lawmakers in 2011 opened the soil board up to partnerships with companies trying to find solutions to — and profits in — regional water problems.

“We’re not talking about denuding the land; we’re talking about clearing invasive species that soak up a lot of water,” said Brocksch, who hails from a ranching and construction family and who described his work “brush sculpting.” “It’s very cheap water for the state,” he said. “Once you clear that brush, you keep it off, it generates more water, and the cost of water goes down.”

The company builds earthen dams to divert as much as 2,000 acre-feet of water after a single rainfall, which can then be pumped into aquifers or man-made storage facilities, thus creating what the company calls “marketable groundwater rights.”

An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water used by three average Austin households in a year. “Aquifer Group’s enhancements help to restore the landscape to its previous natural state,” the company says on its website.

The company has cultivated important allies. As early as 2004, Aquifer Group officers met with members of the state Senate and House natural resources committees. In 2007, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson hosted dozens of legislative staffers for a presentation of the company’s work. The company lists Russ Johnson, a prominent Austin water attorney, as an advisor.

Some ranchers, who get the money, support the water supply enhancement program. Joe Maley, a former longtime official with the Texas Farm Bureau, says that without clearing brush, it takes 20 to 30 acres to support a single cow. Cleared, 10 acres can support a cow. “Brush clearing may or may not be financially feasible for a rancher if he pays for it all out of his pocket,” said Maley, who has served as a paid consultant to the Aquifer Group.

In a comment submitted to the state soil board, Nelle, the former federal official, dismissed that argument: “Landowners in general, even the most honest, conservative and upright landowners, are not likely to advocate for the elimination of a program that has paid them large sums of money to do brush control.” 

A state program meant to encourage old-school range management and new-school water saving methods has become the subject of a peculiarly Texas controversy. The State Soil and Water Conservation Board will decide Monday how to disburse millions of dollars to clear brush from ranches in the name of boosting water supplies. Money has already been set aside for projects to begin this summer. A group of environmentalists, property owners and academics says the water supply enhancement program, as it’s officially known, is misguided and will lead to large-scale soil erosion and no extra water. They are opposed by some ranchers who qualify for state money to clear their land, and a private company in Fredericksburg that wants to undertake the work and capture and sell water it manages to harvest from that land. The turmoil over the program, largely out of the public eye, has turned up in written comments, obtained by the Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act. “It is my opinion that the (water supply enhancement program) as now planned would be a disaster,” J. David Bamberger, famed as a Hill Country rancher who restored springs on his property, wrote to the soil board. For decades, the clearing of invasive trees and plants has been standard practice across Texas to improve the land for livestock and other wildlife. Texas brush control grew nationally iconic with a blue-jeaned President George W. Bush’s work on his Crawford ranch. Between 2000 and 2011, the state spent $54 million to subsidize brush control on ranches. In 2011, as Texas became ensnared by drought, lawmakers ordered the soil board to make

water savings a priority as it doled out money for brush-clearing projects. The brush control project suddenly became the “water supply enhancement program,” with a biennial budget of $4.271 million and a mission to increase river water and groundwater through brush control. The only problem: Scientists now say that there is no relationship between brush control and water.

“We fundamentally disagree with the plan’s underlying tenet that brush management is a viable strategy for increasing water supplied from Texas rangelands,” Brad Wilcox, a range management scientist at Texas A&M University, wrote to the soil board in a June 26 letter co- signed by seven other A&M researchers. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that shrub control will NOT increase water supply in Texas. ... We believe the plan as currently designed is a poor use of taxpayer money and we recommend that it not go forward.”

That position is a shift from conventional wisdom. At least back to the 1960s, one of the justifications for taxpayers to fund brush control is that it creates more water as thirsty shrubs and trees like cedar are uprooted, said Steve Nelle, a retired range management conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, in an interview. But, he said, the new findings suggest that rather than recharging water on the land, mismanaged brush control will lead to water running off it — taking loose soil into streams as it goes. “You’re losing productivity, and drying out the land, really. Landowners would be participating in the degradation of their own land if they participated in these programs,” Nelle said. “You’d be funneling the water downstream. So the Highland Lakes get water. You’re taking water from one part of the landscape and funneling it to where big population centers are.”

In a sense, that shifting of water is an implicit point of the program. Large-scale brush-clearing “is a cornerstone solution for water supply issues in Texas,” said Rex Isom, executive director of the state soil board.

One of the projects is in the watershed of the Pedernales River, which feeds Lake Travis — one of Central Texas’ two major reservoirs. “We want to be a natural bridge between the urban and rural areas” on water, said John Brocksch, CEO of the Aquifer Group, a Fredericksburg company that’s starting a 1,500- acre, brush-clearing water enhancement project in the next few weeks on two ranches in the Uvalde area. Landowners working with the Aquifer Group will receive nearly $300,000 in taxpayer money this year to subsidize the brush control work.

The change by the lawmakers in 2011 opened the soil board up to partnerships with companies trying to find solutions to — and profits in — regional water problems.

“We’re not talking about denuding the land; we’re talking about clearing invasive species that soak up a lot of water,” said Brocksch, who hails from a ranching and construction family and who described his work “brush sculpting.” “It’s very cheap water for the state,” he said. “Once you clear that brush, you keep it off, it generates more water, and the cost of water goes down.”

The company builds earthen dams to divert as much as 2,000 acre-feet of water after a single rainfall, which can then be pumped into aquifers or man-made storage facilities, thus creating what the company calls “marketable groundwater rights.”

An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water used by three average Austin households in a year. “Aquifer Group’s enhancements help to restore the landscape to its previous natural state,” the company says on its website.

The company has cultivated important allies. As early as 2004, Aquifer Group officers met with members of the state Senate and House natural resources committees. In 2007, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson hosted dozens of legislative staffers for a presentation of the company’s work. The company lists Russ Johnson, a prominent Austin water attorney, as an advisor.

Some ranchers, who get the money, support the water supply enhancement program. Joe Maley, a former longtime official with the Texas Farm Bureau, says that without clearing brush, it takes 20 to 30 acres to support a single cow. Cleared, 10 acres can support a cow. “Brush clearing may or may not be financially feasible for a rancher if he pays for it all out of his pocket,” said Maley, who has served as a paid consultant to the Aquifer Group.

In a comment submitted to the state soil board, Nelle, the former federal official, dismissed that argument: “Landowners in general, even the most honest, conservative and upright landowners, are not likely to advocate for the elimination of a program that has paid them large sums of money to do brush control.” 

Dr. Bradford Wilcox 
Professor
bwilcox@tamu.edu
(979) 458-1899