Population Growth And Sprawl In Texas

How an Exploding Population Consumes Natural Habitat and Agricultural Land in the Lone Star State

"I got the ramblin’ fever, said goodbye to ma and pa Crossed that ol’ red river and this is what I saw I saw miles and miles of Texas"

– Asleep At The Wheel

Most outsiders look at the Lone Star State and see what the Asleep At The Wheel band saw in its classic hit: an unending expanse of just “miles and miles of Texas,” vast open spaces which can appear to the uninformed as suggesting the state has room for continued rapid population growth from other states and other nations for many decades to come. Indeed, America’s second largest land-mass state (after Alaska) still has enough physical room for populations of whole countries to move here. But after adding its 30 millionth resident in 2022, Texas has already run out of sustainable  ecological room, our study explains.
  • The bio-regions of the western two-thirds of the state are mostly semi-arid and arid-desert lands with water resources incapable of supporting urban concentrations.
  • The decades-long tidal wave of human migration into Texas has crashed down mainly on the wetter eastern third, particularly inside and near the Dallas-San Antonio-Houston “Urban Triangle.”  Besides the increased congestion’s deterioration of human quality of life there, some experts conclude that the surviving “biocapacity” of the eastern bio-regions already is too small to sustainably handle the current size of the population.

  • The threat of environmental crisis is made even worse as the overall square mileage of eastern Texas ecosystems continues to rapidly shrink under unrelenting construction and other development to accommodate millions upon millions of additional newcomers from other states and nations.

The Losses & Their Causes

Our study examines the most recent 35 years of federal government data on the explosive human expansion in Texas.

  • Over the full period (1982-2017), Texas lost more than 6,600 additional square miles of natural habitat and agricultural land to provide for housing, commerce, jobs, education, health care, transportation, recreation, waste disposal, and other human needs for the state’s growing population.
  • The pace of loss has remained rapid during the last of this data period (between 2002 and 2017), with more than 2,600 square miles of rural land cleared, scraped, and paved for development.

This massive scale of losses was not due to the stereotype of the Texas culture demanding excessive elbow room for its individualistic citizens. The average Texan actually requires a little less developed land per person than the average American nationwide.

  • All developed land in Texas, divided by the number of residents, was about 0.340 acre (about one-third of an acre) per Texan.
  • The per capita developed land for all Americans was 0.356 acre.

In the most recent 15 years of government data, we find a seven percent reduction in developed land for the average Texan.

Yet, during that same period, overall developed areas expanded by 21 percent. beyond the what they already covered in Texas in 2002, sprawling ever further out across the countryside, converting precious farmland and natural habitat into asphalt, concrete, buildings, and artificial landscaping.

The amount of developed land per Texan shrank  but the number of Texans grew rapidly. The conservation value of the decline in “per capita” land consumption (minus 7%) was negated by much larger growth in the number of “capitas” (plus 30%).

In 1982, the state’s bio-systems were supporting 15.3 million residents. Over the next 20 years, another 6 million people. were added to Texas, overwhelmingly because of migration from other countries and states.

And between 2002 and 2017 – the end of the government’s latest land-loss data – the population that had to be supported by the state’s bio-systems grew by yet another 6 million people. to a total of more than 28 million – on its way to more than 30 million today.

As in all our national, regional and state sprawl studies since 2000, we calculated the role of population growth in the loss of natural habitat and agricultural land in Texas. We found that:

  • Over the 35-year data period, Texas population growth was responsible for more than twice as much loss of rural land than all other factors combined (those other factors contribute to changes in per capita development). We found that 4,637 square miles of loss was related to population growth, and 1,997 square miles of loss was related to per capita development growth.
  • The role of population growth has been even more pronounced in the most recent 15 years of the data, accounting for almost three times as much development of rural land as all other factors: 1,910 square miles of loss was related to population growth, and 706 square miles was related to growth in per capita development.

(Why is any of the state’s loss related to per capita development between 2002 and 2017 when the overall developed land per Texas resident actually declined in that period?  We explain how our methodology first calculates the ratio for each county – a number of which did experience per capita development growth. We then average all the countyratios, which presents a different state ratio than looking simply at overall statewide numbers.)

Massive habitat loss like that in Texas is not some kind of secondary regional and global environmental issue; it may be the most critical environmental issue. According to the World Wildlife Fund, habitat loss poses the single greatest threat to endangered species around the world. Endangered species are those rare plants or animals that, if recent trends continue, will likely become extinct within the foreseeable future, barring heroic measures to save them.

A frightening example is the plummeting size of bird populations, many of which depend on Texas wetlands in their migrations. In North America, scientists estimate that the size of the flocks has dwindled by approximately three billion birds since 1970, a decline of around 30 percent. fn28

The long Texas population boom has made the state a perennial leader in the loss of habitat needed for regional and global environmental health.  For instance, between 2002 and 2012, Texas lost more than twice as much habitat and farmland to sprawl as the second worst state, Florida.

If the pace of population and urban expansion continues, many species will cease to exist in Texas (and anywhere for some), joining a long list of former natural residents. The rapidly developing North Central Texas region, for example, used to be home to the plains bison, red and gray wolves, black and grizzly bears, passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker, and pronghorn antelope. But over the last century and a half, each of those has become either extinct, federally-designated as threatened/endangered, or extirpated (eliminated) from North Central Texas. They are/were all animals that need large habitat expanses which are no longer available.

Source: Gould, F. W., Hoffman, G. O., and Rechenthin, C. A. 1960. Vegetational areas of Texas,. Map compiled by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

This trend is continuing and even accelerating at present, as the Texas population grows rapidly; cities expand outward and even rural areas become more populous, filling up with houses and crisscrossed by more and more roads. This process is especially evident along the I-35 corridor in the heart of the Blackland Prairie and Cross Timbers regions.

  • Historically the Blackland Prairie ecological area – virgin tallgrass prairie – extended across 10.6 million acres. Conservative estimates are that only 200,000 acres remain.
  • The Cross Timbers ecological area once covered 17.9 million acres. Within this ecoregion, some counties have experienced more than 200 percent population growth just since 1970.

Responding With More Dense Living?

Some people alarmed by how population growth results in so much destruction of natural habitat have suggested that further damage could be alleviated by requiring that housing and all other needs for future additional residents take place within existing urban/suburban boundaries. The idea is that moving most Texans toward New York City-style, high-rise-density living might enable the continued flow of migrants from other states and nations to occur without further destruction of the state’s ecosystems.

Is there political will for such a solution? Polling conducted for this study found 42% of “likely voters” in Texas said they favor changing “zoning and other regulations to funnel more current and future residents into apartments and condo buildings instead of single-family houses with yards” (49% said they opposed it).

However, the polling failed to find much interest in voters wanting to live in more density themselves. A much larger percentage were Texans who said they would prefer to live in less-dense localities than where they currently live.

  • While 27% of Texans currently live in a “major city,” only 17% said that is where they prefer to live.
  • Even the suburbs (currently with 34% of the poll respondents) would lose people if they could live where they prefer (30% chose “suburbs”).
  • The majority of Texans said they prefer to live (in order) in a rural area, a small city, or a town.

Informed that Texas demographers project that the state’s population is on pace to grow by another 14 million by 2060, only 21% of Texans said they expect their governments to be able to accommodate the extra traffic without more congestion than already experienced on the state’s streets and roads. Nearly three-quarters (73%) said traffic would “become much worse.” By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, they said the population increase would be negative for the state.

Even if Texans were much more inclined toward New York City-style living, the idea that more density in itself can be a solution to habitat loss disregards the essential understanding of the “ecological footprint.” If all new population could somehow be added to cities without the cities expanding over any new ground, each additional Texas resident still adds another ecological footprint beyond an urban area’s boundaries.

All human beings and every American – even those who are conscientious and profess to be conservationists or environmentally aware – inexorably impose certain demands (or what ecologists call a “load”) on the land and resources of the biosphere through consumption and waste production and emissions (including carbon dioxide). The mere act of living with the comforts and conveniences of the modern world necessarily incurs environmental impacts, which can be reduced or mitigated through better technologies and more environmentally enlightened behaviors and virtues, but never entirely eliminated. No amount of wishful thinking or technical wizardry will ever erase our ecological footprint completely.

The 0.340-acre of urban land developed for the average Texas resident does not include relatively unpopulated rural lands – cropland, pasture, rangeland,  forests, reservoirs, and mines – that furnish crucial raw materials and products used by every consumer/resident, namely for food, fiber, fuels, water, energy, metals, and minerals. Nor does the per capita 0.340-acre include the forestlands needed to absorb each Texas resident’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion to produce electricity and propel their vehicles.

That total ecological footprint for the average American entails approximately 20 acres per person, according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN).

The land inside Texas boundaries does not – and cannot – sustainably provide for all those current needs of its 30 million residents. The GFN calculates that the current population of Texans greatly exceeds the “biocapacity” of the state’s ecologically productive lands that have not been plowed under and paved over.

According to the GFN, Texas suffers a large “ecological deficit.”  That  deficit occurs when the Ecological Footprint of a given population exceeds the “biocapacity” (ecologically productive lands capable of large-scale photosynthesis) of the area available to that population. Texas meets its needs by importing biocapacity through trade from elsewhere, by “liquidating” the state’s ecological assets in ways that cannot be sustained, and by emitting CO2 waste into the atmosphere that cannot be absorbed by the state’s eco-systems. (In contrast, an “ecological reserve” exists when the biocapacity of a region exceeds its population’s Ecological Footprint.)

In 2015, GFN calculated that the per capita Ecological Footprint of Texans was 18.5 global acres while the biocapacity of Texas lands was only 6.7 global acres per resident. That left a net ecological deficit of 11.8 acres on average for each Texan. Texas is not alone in exceeding natural limits. Most states are ecologically over-populated, but Texas is among the highest.

Responding By Limiting Population Growth

If Texans won’t try to mitigate the habitat loss of population growth through density mandates, how do they feel about continuing the ecosystem losses?

The survey for this study found high intensity for preservation. Two-thirds (67%) said it is “very important” to them to “preserve Texas’ woodlands, natural wetlands, rivers, grasslands, and mountains.”  Only 6% said it is not very, or not at all, important to them. (The rest said “somewhat important.”)

Texans also like to personally encounter these assets. The majority (54%) said it is “very important” that they “can easily get to natural areas and open space.” Only 9% said it isn’t very, or not at all, important.  One of the direct human problems of urban sprawl is that the natural areas that are destroyed tend to be the ones closest to where people live, the area residents previously enjoyed before the chain saws and bulldozers came.

So, it may not be surprising that most Texans don’t want to divert scarce water resources to accommodate additional populations from other states and nations.

  • Only 20% supported diverting water from streams to handle the population growth; 69% said the water should be “kept in streams to support forested wildlife habitats, fish and birds.”
  • 25% supported diverting water from agriculture to provide for new residents; 57% opposed the diversion.

The options in the survey that received the highest support for preserving habitat and farmland were about limiting future population growth.

  • Four out of five Texans said their state’s pace of population growth should be slowed (46%) or ended (37%). Only 13% said they wanted the population growth to continue at recent levels. 

Because births per woman have to be over 2.1 to drive long-term population growth, the Texas birth rate of around 1.8 per woman is not a long-term factor in causing the state’s population growth. The net in-migration of people from other states and other nations, plus net births over deaths once they arrive, are the overwhelming factors of Texas population growth. 

One major cause of rapid growth in an urban area’s population is the result of enticing residents to relocate from elsewhere. Local and state governments can and do create many incentives that encourage people to move into a particular urban area. These include aggressive campaigns to persuade industries and corporations to move their factories, offices, headquarters, and jobs from another location, public subsidies for the infrastructure that supports businesses, tax breaks, expansion of water service and sewage lines into new areas, new housing developments and new residents, and general public relations that increase the attractiveness and “business friendliness” of a city to outsiders and the business community. Even without trying, a city can attract new residents just by maintaining amenities, good schools, low crime rates, pleasant parks, and a high quality of life, especially if the nation’s population is growing significantly, as continues to be the case today.

Texans apparently would like to see a change in the pro-growth philosophy of Texas governments, based on survey results.

  • 46% of Texans supported local and state Texas governments making it “more difficult for people to move to Texas from other states by restricting development;” 37% opposed that option.

U.S. population growth in recent decades has been driven primarily by migration from other countries (and the net births over deaths of those who come).  Over the last two decades,  authorized permanent migration has averaged around a million a year, with illegal migration varying from a few hundred thousand a year to more than a million. The survey found that the majority of Texans prefer less immigration.

  • 57% of Texans supported the federal government reducing “annual immigration to slow down Texas population growth;”  28% supported keeping immigration at its current level, and 8% supported increasing annual immigration.

Whether future generations of Texans will ever experience a large part of the remaining natural topography, ecosystems, flora and fauna of the 2020s is primarily in the hands of today’s leaders and voters. Texans can slow down habitat degradation somewhat by individually and voluntarily adopting less impactful lifestyles. But it appears that the destruction of hundreds of square miles of Texas ecosystems for urban development each decade can only be significantly mitigated by greatly restraining Texas population growth or by forcing Texans to live in ever-increasing density, or some combination of both. 

To refuse to choose an action option in the present is to make a choice against protecting “miles and miles of Texas” ecosystems and their non-human inhabitants for decades and generations of Texans to come.