After historic floods, Blanco River reforestation program kicks off

November 12, 2016

The Blanco River “is one of our greatest assets in our entire county and certainly in Central Texas,” Conley said. “We really felt like we had an obligation to the generations coming after us to do everything we can to restore that river.”

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WIMBERLEY —

Wimberley resident Kassidy Eck has hardly been able to bear returning to the Blanco River after the massive destruction caused by the 2015 Memorial Day weekend flood.

“It just breaks my heart seeing all the trees not being there,” the 21-year-old said.

But on Saturday, she pulled on her black, ankle-high cowboy boots and braved it in the name of healing and rebirth.

Eck and about 50 other volunteers, some from as far as Pflugerville, gathered Saturday at Texas State University Camp to dig into the drought-ravaged river banks and plant new trees.

The event kicked off the Blanco River Reforestation program, an initiative led by environmental nonprofit TreeFolks with the goal of planting about 300,000 seedlings at private properties along the river over the next three to four years.

As many as 12,000 trees were damaged or destroyed in the 2015 Memorial Day weekend flooding between Blanco and San Marcos, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The flood killed 12 people along the Blanco River, wiped out or damaged all but one river crossing in Hays County and caused millions of dollars of damage.

Riverside trees perform important functions, said Matt Mears, TreeFolks’ reforestation manager, including cleaning the water, slowing down flooding, providing wildlife habitat, improving air quality and adding aesthetic beauty.

“What we want to do is mimic the river’s natural ability to recover,” Mears said. “Rivers have a really amazing ability to recover after major floods like this.”

TreeFolks will be planting many small seedlings of a variety of native trees and shrubs, including bald cypress, roughleaf dogwood, redbud and sycamores.

Mears said the group has found planting seedlings is better than larger trees because they establish stronger roots at a young age. It also lets them plant more than they expect to live, increasing the chance for a healthy density of trees surviving.

Most of TreeFolks’ work until recently had been delivering trees to Austin homeowners. But after the Bastrop fires in 2011, Mears said the group turned its focus to creating this model for a reforestation program.

The goal of that program was to plant at least 2 million pine trees, and in February, the organization will plant its 2 millionth pine in Bastrop County, Mears said.

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said it was this experience that attracted the county to TreeFolks. In September 2015, commissioners approved a $176,645 contract with the Austin-based organization to develop the program. TreeFolks also received a $94,000 grant from Impact Austin for the Hays County project.

The Blanco River “is one of our greatest assets in our entire county and certainly in Central Texas,” Conley said. “We really felt like we had an obligation to the generations coming after us to do everything we can to restore that river.”

During the planning process for the Blanco River restoration program this summer, Mears said staffers met with almost 100 landowners to assess needs. Mears called it an “emotional experience.”

“People experienced some really profound loss. It’s something that we hear about a lot. Not only possessions, they lost people they love,” Mears said. “Amidst all that, we hear one consistent thing, and that’s that the loss of the trees … took a big impact on the people.”

Chris Walsh, unit director of Wimberley’s H-E-B and one of many H-E-B volunteers who came out Saturday, said he’d helped families move out and back into homes. Replanting felt like bringing it “full circle,” he said.

“We helped the community, and now it’s time to help the nature,” Walsh said. “This is not just helping us, but it’s my kids’ kids and down the road.”

While TreeFolks can’t make the clock tick faster, Mears said he assured landowners that the recovery process happens faster and more visibly than people think, which he said he experienced during the Bastrop post-fire restoration.

“Forests do take a long time to mature, but the signs of recovery are already showing,” he said.

Being part of a recovery effort is a healing process of its own, Eck said.

“That is what helps me cope to think, ‘Well, it will be back,’” Eck said. “Give it time. It will be back.”

Beside her, a small seedling peeked its leafy arms above the earth.

How to get help

Private landowners who live along the Blanco River can apply for free tree planting services by filling out an application online at treefolks.org (or by mail, if requested over the phone at 512-443-5323 or by email at blancoriver@treefolks.org).

The applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Once accepted, TreeFolks calls to set up a consultation. So far, more than 250 applications have been received.

Pd Pol. Adv by the Will Conley Campaign