A white bird flys over a lake with dense cypress trees in and around its waters.
FRESHWATER FLOWS Caddo Lake's cypress bayous provide habitat for many species while supplying fresh water. © Christopher Zebo

Stories in Texas

In the Balance: Shaping Texas' Water Future

TNC is collaborating with farmers and ranchers to find solutions to our water challenges, providing incentives in exchange for access to water rights.

Nestled between Lake O’ the Pines and Caddo Lake lies Cypress River Ranch, owned and operated by Bob and Kimmie Sanders. Here, with their son’s family, they raise red wagyu beef as a cow-calf producer. The ranch consists of 2.5 miles of river frontage on Big Cypress Bayou and a series of oxbow lakes near historic Jefferson, Texas. These unique water features are what initially drew the Sanders family to this land almost 30 years ago.

In the Balance: The Future of Texas Water (5:00) As Texas grows, securing our water future remains a critical priority for sustaining the health and resilience of our state. TNC and partners are collaborating with agricultural communities, providing incentives in exchange for access to water rights and management decisions during times of drought.

While the ranch has been a great place to raise kids—and recently grandkids—the Sanders family has experienced firsthand the ups and downs of owning working lands. The 2011 drought brought record-breaking heat to Texas with impacts that lasted for years. It led to wildfires, power outages and dangerously low water supplies, in addition to more than $7 billion in crop and livestock losses for the state's agricultural community. At one point during the drought, the Sanderses feared that they might run out of grass for their cattle. They began to explore alternative revenue streams to keep the ranch afloat.

Already, the Sanders family had worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Caddo Lake Institute and the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the water quality in the river and reintroduce native paddlefish. When these agencies suggested working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to explore the sale of water rights, a new partnership was born.

A man and a woman stand together in a field of green grass.
FAMILY RANCH Bob and Kimmie Sanders own and manage Cypress River Ranch in Jefferson, Texas. © Fauna Creative

Texas Water Trust

The Texas Water Trust was created by the 75th Texas Legislature. It aims to preserve natural and aquatic habitat for flow protection, by holding water rights that have been donated, leased or purchased.

The Sanderses agreed to sell a portion of their water rights to TNC, and in turn, we are dedicating the water right to the Texas Water Trust. This program is crucial to safeguarding the health of our rivers and streams. When Texas’ water rights system was initially created, it granted the use of water without recognizing environmental water needs. Over time, this left little to no water to support our watersheds and the fish and wildlife that depend on them. Innovative strategies like environmental water markets and water transactions, executed through the Water Trust, are helping to create incentives for conservation and redistribute conserved water to ensure enough for all of us.

Quote: Bob Sanders

We can pick up the phone and call if we have a problem or have an idea and run it by them, and that's worth a lot of money—when you can trust somebody like that for out-of-the-box ideas. Because in this business, if you make a mistake, it costs a lot of money."

Owner of Cypress River Ranch
A mosaic of green fields, forest, and river.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH Big Cypress Bayou, which flows through the Sander's ranch, is the primary source of water for Caddo Lake. © Fauna Creative
Four men walk along the edge of a riverbank lined with trees.
PARTNERS IN CONSERVATION TNC staff and partners chat with landowner Bob Sanders as they survey Cypress River Ranch. © Fauna Creative

This agreement with the Sanders family is just one example of these solutions in action. It means that in times of drought, when our natural areas need water most, TNC will redistribute water purchased from the Sanderses in order to keep a portion of the water flowing into Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake. We’ll also conduct regular scientific research on the Sanders’ ranch to assess water quantity, quality and flow level in the river.

A lake with gangly trees growing out of its blue waters.
PEOPLE AND NATURE In addition to being a popular destination for outdoor recreation, Caddo Lake is home to 190 species of trees and shrubs, 220 species of birds, 93 different fish, 46 reptiles, 22 amphibians, 47 mammals and more than 20 mussel species. © Fauna Creative

But, perhaps most importantly, this partnership has helped preserve a family legacy. One day, Bob and Kimmie hope that their son and his burgeoning family will take over the ranch. In the meantime, they want to set up an economically efficient and sustainable operation for the next generation. Working with TNC has given them additional tools and resources to better secure a successful future for their ranch. Together, this private/public collaboration is working to strike a balance between the water needs of both people and nature.

Quote: Bob Sanders

The time will come when this ranch will be passed on to the next generation, so we have to build a roadmap for sustainability and profitability. That plan needs to be simple enough—and the wise counsel around needs to be trustworthy enough—to keep this thing intact for the grandkids."

Owner of Cypress River Ranch