Reforestation Experts Help Restore a Wild Blanco River
By Austin Price
Photography By Austin Price
Each week, Ina Alexatos drives throughout Wimberley in a Subaru Forester with the words Trees for the Blanco printed across the side. She visits riverside landowners one by one to consult them on letting their banks go wild. She then stakes orange flags to mark where a variety of trees — bald cypress, sycamore, pecan — will be planted by volunteers, private contractors or Texas Conservation Corps.
Alexatos works as the reforestation coordinator on the Blanco River for Austin-based nonprofit TreeFolks. Last year, TreeFolks consulted 75 landowners and planted trees on their stretches of river. This year, Alexatos and her team will visit 75 more, and so on for however many years it takes to consult all landowners who have reached out for their services. So far, 270 landowners have applied.
Ultimately, landowners choose how to manage their own land. But in recent years, between flash floods and wildfires, many Texans have become more acquainted with how nature may force them to adapt and how groups like TreeFolks can step in to help.
And if slow flux doesn’t send the message, natural disasters may hold more sway.
For a quarter-century, John Davison has watched over his quiet stretch of the Blanco. The former architect designed and built a weekend house for him and his wife — a place to watch the grasses grow and the water flow on. His favorite neighbors are a pair of red-shouldered hawks and a colony of martins.
When his wife passed away in 2011, a retired Davison moved out to his river home full time. Every day since, he walks his black lab Zeva down the rutted path through tall grasses to the riverbank, where he often submerges himself in the clear, emerald waters of the river he loves.
On May 23, 2015 — Memorial Day weekend — Davison watched from above as the river took away his life as he knew it. He sat hunched in his attic as a flash flood rose to the rafters and stripped his home to nothing but its two-by-four structure.
“I literally lost everything,” he said. “Except this property and my sanity. And I almost lost that.”
The infamous Memorial Day weekend flood of 2015 changed Wimberley and its people. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. Twelve people lost their lives. The river seemed to betray those who populated its cypress-shaded banks, which also changed. The flood deforested much of the riverside — uprooting iconic bald cypresses, pecans, sycamores and leaving behind mangled earth and debris. In a single night, it seemed that the ideal Hill Country riverside house with its shaded and manicured riverbank had met its match: a riparian environment in flux.
Suzanne Davis ventures a guess that not many people in the area know what ‘riparian’ means. A Wimberley landowner and a certified Texas Master Naturalist, she has taken it upon herself to teach them, though not without educating herself first.
Before the flood, Davis’s property looked like many others along the river: close-cropped St. Augustine grass beneath a bald cypress canopy. The flood changed all that.
“It truly looked like a bomb went off,” she said.
Her house had flooded, all of her cypresses were gone, and ten to fifteen feet of her land had broken off and washed away downstream. She and her husband felt prepared to tackle the necessary repairs to their house. But the damage to her land was daunting.
“We had never been through anything like this,” she said, “where the land was destroyed.”
At that time, as a master naturalist trainee she had already attended a few seminars put on by Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service concerning riparian — or riverside ecosystem — restoration. The idea is that a diversity of tall grasses such as switchgrass, cattail and many others, which grow naturally along rivers, hold the soil in place, provide nutrients and habitat for fish and other wildlife and protect water quality. Inversely, mown lawns offer little back to the river in terms of soil protection or water filtration.
If the people of Wimberley want to see their trees grow back, they need to start by allowing their riparian grasses to grow.
Even before the flood in 2015, Texas Parks and Wildlife had preached the benefits of riparian buffer zones along the Blanco and other Texas rivers for years. With 15 major rivers and 3,700 streams, Texas contains nearly 200,000 miles of riparian area in need of conservation or management. Because much of that riverbank land is privately owned, riparian restoration and management ultimately falls on Texan landowners.
Ryan McGillicuddy, a conservation ecologist with the Inland Fisheries Division of Parks and Wildlife, works with landowners along the Blanco River to teach best riparian management practices. A big part of his job includes reaching out to private landowners about letting their riverbank go wild, in part to restore the shrunken habitat of the Guadalupe bass. A few weeks after the flood, McGillicuddy saw a shift in the interest landowners had for riparian management — not necessarily to help Texas’s state fish, but to restore the part of their land that had been violently taken away.
“All of a sudden, I didn’t have to work as hard to find the landowners who were interested in restoring property,” said McGillicuddy. In many ways, the Blanco River flood had attuned riverside residents’ attentions toward how to best care for their riverbank and, by extension, the river and its inhabitants.
Since 2015, other agencies have joined Parks and Wildlife on the Blanco River to not only teach riparian restoration but also replace some of the iconic bald cypress and other trees that were lost. After the floods, officials of Hays County approached TreeFolks to respond to its deforested riverbanks the way the nonprofit approached Bastrop a few years earlier following the 2011 wildfires, when Bastrop County lost much of the beloved region-specific loblolly pine. By 2015, TreeFolks was well on its way to planting two million loblollies on private land where that tree had been decimated.
With a river ecology at stake, the approach is more holistic than simply planting trees. With support from Hays County and grants from HEB, Impact Austin and the Burdine Johnson Foundation, TreeFolks called for applications from landowners to help restore their riparian area and replant trees — at no cost to the landowner.
“What they do with their land is totally up to them. It’s their land,” said Matt Mears, reforestation manager of TreeFolks. “But our goal is to change the culture along the river to one where having a more natural forest is the norm and having a mowed lawn is less the norm.”
Steven Boyd, a weekender from Houston who owns a piece of property on the river, has become a convert of proper riverside management. “After the flood we realized the importance of a riparian environment down there,” he said. “We were ignorant to the fact before that.”
Boyd still mows his lawn up by the house, as do many landowners. But down by the river he has let the wild take back its riverbank, particularly where TreeFolks has planted trees. He has also since volunteered to plant trees on other landowners’ property.
Even a master naturalist such as Davis has had to make adjustments to the way she views her land: “It reminds you that you’re not in control of nature, that you need to be very flexible in your attitude toward it and that you need to join hands with it and not fight it.”
Davis has seen this attitude catch on in Wimberley and plans to start a landowner networking group where people can meet up for coffee and discuss how to best manage their river or creekside riparian areas.
“These are our little successes,” said Alexatos, pointing out plots of land from the new Fischer Store Road Bridge where the old one had been destroyed by the flood. Much of the riverbank in sight looks wild and gnarly — with deep green grasses growing thick against the crystal clear river. But between these areas sits a manicured lawn of five or so acres, with cropped suburban grass and bamboo hedges.
“That’s a recipe for disaster.” Alexatos said, shaking her head.
But for John Davison, his riverbank has always been his private stretch of wilderness. His riparian area grows thick with cattail. Many of his sycamores and cypress have started to grow back.
As for his destroyed home, he has learned to adapt. He spends every day on his deck — still attached to the gutted house he never got around to completely rebuilding. He has converted his garage into a comfortably insulated apartment for him and Zeva and plans to renovate his former house into a guest room and office, when he gets around to it.
In the meantime, he appreciates the silence and solitude of the private Blanco — as opposed to the “hot dog derby and beer can parade” of the nearby Guadalupe.
“I’m the luckiest unlucky person in the world,” he said. “I’m just a steward of this land. Hopefully, after me someone else will come along and take care of it as well, or better.”