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Life wasn’t always so easy at Southall. The land had suffered for many years through the effects of extreme weather cycles, compounded by overgrazing and poor farming practices, but the earth is mercifully resilient.
A railroad once ran through this farm, and the creeks were channelized for efficiency of crossings and track maintenance. Williamson County’s limestone karst is blessed with an abundance of natural springs, and water is a blessing until it becomes a curse. Nature creates rambling creeks with meanders and pools, ripples and runs. Channelized ditches lose their flow, and dry up until the next major rain forces the water from the banks and out into the fields, where the soil is further eroded. Heavy runoff from the hills can cause massive damage.
Dr. Wayne Dorband is a nationally renowned hydrology and environmental risk manager out of the Denver area, which is flash flood country. He recognized a dream scenario at Southall, where water could not only be directed down from the ridges, but also captured and redistributed in a sophisticated, yet ecologically sound, way. He also saw an opportunity to restore Polk Creek and its tributary that transect the property in a way that draws even more water from the underground springs, ensuring year-round flow and enhancing the natural diversity for both beauty and function.
“Streams naturally meander according to the topography, the soils they’re encountering, the slope of the banks,” Dorband says. “That is, until they’re modified. We believe that by managing the water, they will return to their natural courses, creating more water features that will increase ecological diversity and more ways for guests to interact with the stream, whether that’s wading or fishing or just enjoying the beauty.”
Dorband says that creeks respond to abuse by going underground – and the creeks at Southall were no exception. According to the historical record and conversations with neighbors, both Polk Creek and its tributary here have always dried up after the spring rains. Yet they run year-round now, thanks to the careful planning and implementation of thoughtful hydrology systems.
Every drop of water at Southall has a purpose – all of the natural flow, as well as the rain off of the roofs and parking lots, is being captured and directed. The lake serves as not only a great place to catch fish, but also as a reservoir for irrigation that includes plenty of capacity for heavy rain events. What would have previously become flood waters can now be directed in a smarter way, mitigating the potential damage.
Up on the cedar-dominated ridge that separates the two creeks on the east side of the farm, non-native plant species are being replaced with a diversity of natives that better protect against erosion and create wildlife habitat. Swales have been created to direct the flow down the hills and into a wetland area, which ultimately feeds back to the lake. All along the streams, invasive privet and honeysuckle are being replaced with native grasses that self-seed and colonize: river oats, wool grass, fox sedge and little blue stem, among others.
Water filtered through the wetland and back into the lake can then be recirculated to the apple orchard, where the terraced hillside prevents it running right back down the hill. All of this effort becomes highly significant over time: less municipal water usage, more wildlife and a cooler, cleaner environment to enjoy.
As the effects of the management practices have begun to take hold, the springs have come back above ground, and are again giving the farm the water it needs to sustain the healthy ecosystem.
“It’s a joy to see this property functioning as nature intended, with some sensitive support from mankind,” Dorband says. “When you can conserve and reuse water, it’s not only sustainable from a utility standpoint, but it has all of these other ecological benefits. Guests are able to see it, enjoy it and be inspired by it. That’s a powerful thing, and a point of pride for all of us at Southall.”