the new/old Aquarena in Texas Highways magazine

My story on the restoration of Aquarena in San Marcos to its natural state.

By Joe Nick Patoski

The high temperature had just peaked at 103. A historic drought gripped the entire state. But conditions couldn’t have been more perfect as I followed four other kayakers tooling around Spring Lake in San Marcos one summer evening last year. Seventy-degree spring-fed water provided all the natural air-conditioning we could want. A full moon rising above the trees illuminated the setting. As daylight faded, we paddled around a hidden bend where the limbs of trees hugging the shoreline sagged with dozens of white egrets.

As dusk turned into dark, we gazed through the clear glass at the bottom of our kayaks and followed the lights held by several scuba divers who glided around some of the 200 springs bubbling up from the Edwards Aquifer that comprise San Marcos Springs, the second largest artesian springs complex in the western United States.

Topher Sipes, the environmental interpreter guiding us around crystal-clear Spring Lake, led us to the headwaters, then back toward our put-in point, following the divers’ lights at the lake bottom, before pausing over two gray metal structures submerged below.

“That’s the original Submarine Theatre,” he said, pointing underwater.

Our voices, previously hushed and soft-spoken, turned loud and animated.

“That’s it!”

“Glurpo the Clown!”

“The mermaids drinking soda!”

“Ralph the Swimming Pig!”

Down below, the ruins of the amusement park attraction—the arena of Aquarena Springs—rusted in peace.

In a single glance, modern ecotourists gazed upon one of the touchstones of Texas’ very first ecotourist attraction.

From its beginnings in 1928, when San Marcos settler Arthur Rogers first built an inn on the banks of the San Marcos River, Aquarena grew to become one of the most popular amusement parks in Texas. By the early 1970s, Aquarena’s delights had expanded to include glass-bottom boat rides, a show in the Submarine Underwater Theatre starring a diving pig and mermaids called Aquamaids, a Swiss Sky Ride gondola lift, the 220-foot-tall Sky Spiral observation tower, and an Old West town called Texana Village with resident dancing chickens and a hoops-shooting rabbit. The attractions were built on, under, and around the main attraction, San Marcos Springs, renamed Aquarena Springs.

Glass-bottom kayaks are available for guided tours of Spring Lake. Because Aquarena is environmentally sensitive, no outside boats are allowed.

Glass-bottom kayaks are available for guided tours of Spring Lake. Because Aquarena is environmentally sensitive, no outside boats are allowed.
As a youngster, I came for the swimming pig and the mermaids. But I never forgot the water. Its clarity was unlike any water I’d seen before. I wanted to jump in. That encounter inspired a lifelong fascination with springs, aquifers, and Texas rivers and streams, especially those in the Hill Country, where I now live.

In 1994, Texas State University purchased the park, surrounding land, and springs, and within a few years, Aquarena Springs ceased operations as a theme park. Swimming pigs were no match for bigger attractions at giant theme parks such as Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Sea World,
and the university planned to refocus the park’s mission on environmental education. But the water continued to bubble up from the bottom of Spring Lake, of course, and glass-bottom boat tours still enthralled visitors.

Eighteen years after Texas State assumed ownership, Aquarena is a whole new experience.

The buildings that contained the entrance, gift shop, restaurant, and Texana Village have been leveled, and nonnative and invasive plants such as Chinese tallow, elephant ears, hydrilla, and water hyacinths are being removed. Hiking trails have been added around the lake to complement the existing wetlands boardwalk. Glass-bottom kayaks have joined the five vintage glass-bottom boats, two of which are now solar-powered, for viewing of the springs in the lake. In addition to the new hiking trails and the existing wetlands trail, several miles of hiking trails crisscross 251 acres of a joint city/county park on the hillside directly above the lake. Views of the topography here vividly illustrate the Balcones Fault, the rise above the coastal prairie where the Hill Country begins.
Aquarena Center

Aquarena Center is part of Texas State University, at 951 Aquarena Springs Dr. in San Marcos. Call 512/245-7570.

Fans of the old Aquarena Springs theme park can revisit the park’s glory days with the DVD Aquarena Springs and Ralph the Swimming Pig: The Docu-
mentary of a Texas Treasure, which was produced by Bob Phillips, the son of Gene Phillips, Aquarena Springs’ longtime manager. The documentary features footage of Ralph doing his swine dive, Glurpo the Clown, the famous Aquamaids, and other attractions, interspersed with interviews of former Aquarena employees. See www.aquarenaandralph.com.

In 2009, author Doni Weber, a granddaughter of Aquarena Springs pioneer Paul Rogers, published the book Aquarena Springs as part of Arcadia Press’ Images of America series. See www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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Waymore’s Museum and Drive-Thru Liquor, Littlefield, Texas

Part five of the stories behind the story of my West Texas Music drive, one of 18 drives featured in Texas Monthly’s Drive issue, June 2012


Driving highway 84 from Clovis, thoughts turned to the Crickets’ old game of Beat the Clock – pounding the hundred miles of two-lane blacktop from Lubbock to Clovis in less than hour, so they could arrive before they left, courtesy of changing time zones from Central to Mountain. For the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone pulling it off, especially making it through Muleshoe unscathed. In case local teenagers still try this trick, I was glad the highway was four-lane mostly-divided highway now. This stretch is mostly irrigated farmland – cotton and soybeans, mostly – evidenced by the giant sprinkler systems that bring water from the Ogallala Aquifer deep below the ground to feed the crops, with grain elevators, water towers, and stadium lights rising from the flat horizon.

Then there’s the billboard, bigger than life. The next town may look like all the other towns from the road, but the large sign suggests different – Littlefield is hometown of Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly protege, Nashville Rebel, Willie Nelson partner, Country music outlaw, the baddest of the badasses.

How can one not turn and follow directions to Waylon Jennings Boulevard, leading to one of the coolest, most unusual music museums in the world?

Waymore’s was James Jennings’ Exxon service station for “30 some odd years” before he switched from gas to booze in 2008 and started adding display cases of Waylon memorabilia. W’s first guitar, letters to his family, and the handwritten backstage pass for his mother and father would have been the highlights if James hadn’t shown up. The engaging, self-deprecating “ol’ redneck” is without a doubt one of his big brother’s most entertaining boosters and a joy to hang around. He fills in the blanks when there’s questions about young Waylon and tells pretty good stories about all the folks who’ve dropped by.

Donations accepted and recommended.
E. Waylon Jennings Blvd (FM 54) @ Hall Ave., 806 385 5561, 385 0054
Open 10-9 Mon-Sat. Donations accepted

Farther south on Hall Street is the municipal Waylon Jennings RV Park. Parking and camping are complimentary.

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Drive, he said

This is a sneak peek of the two drives I did for the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine. It’s the Drive drive, done for no other reason than the pleasure of driving. and the West Texas Music drive (below). and I’ll post extended stories about each stop on the WT music drive – the Bob Wills Museum in Turkey, the Woody Guthrie Folk Center in Pampa, Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico, Waymore’s Museum and Drive-Thru Liquor in Littlefield, and the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, as well as content about South Plains College in Levelland, the most musical school in Texas – in the coming days.

What’s especially cool about this issue is the cover shot of FM 2810, aka Pinto Canyon Rd., southwest of Marfa down to the Rio Grande, which I wrote about in 1997 for TexMo as My Favorite Road in Texas. Except for all the motion-detector sensors and the Border Patrol guys who greet you as soon as you hit the pavement, it’s still a pretty great road.

Here’s the start of the Drive drive –
The 
“Drive” 
Drive

By Joe Nick Patoski

ROUTE: West of Ozona to Sanderson
DISTANCE: 85 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 3
WHAT TO READ: James H. Evans’s Crazy From the Heat

A drive whose sole purpose is to experience the simple pleasure of being behind the wheel has a few requirements. The route must lead west, because that’s the story of Texas and America. The road must be off the beaten path and as free from traffic as possible. And the driver must have an open mind and an eye for discovery.

That’s why my favorite drive in Texas begins 23 miles west of Ozona, dipping south from Interstate 10, where the speed limit is 80 miles an hour but the landscape is so vast I feel like I’m hardly moving. Buttes and outcroppings covered with oak, mesquite, and prickly pear are interrupted by green river …

THE WEST TEXAS MUSIC DRIVE

ROUTE: Turkey to Lubbock 
(the long way)
DISTANCE: 366 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 13
WHAT TO LISTEN TO: Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be the Day and 
Waylon Jennings’s Ol’ Waylon

West Texas is the Texas of wide-open spaces, but it is also the Texas of music giants, starting in the Rolling Plains in the heart of red-dirt ranching country, not far from the 6666 and the Matador. The landscape is sparsely populated and visually powerful, and the sky is so big that only the most creative imagination can fill up the canvas. That was the case with James Robert Wills, who came from a farming family near Turkey and went on to become the King of Western Swing. That point is driven home at the Bob Wills Museum at the old Turkey grade school, where his life is recounted in phases through storyboards, photographs, and album covers.

Heading north from Turkey, …

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Spend a week in Far West Texas writing with Joe Nick

July 22-27 I’ll teach a seminar at Sul Ross University in Alpine in Far West Texas “Writing With A Sense of Place.” The seminar, part of the summer writing retreat sponsored by the Writers League of Texas, will cover basics of writing with the emphasis on place, including field trips, talks with locals, and writing drills.

The weather in Alpine in late July is about as good as it gets in Texas this time of year – warm days with highs in the upper 80s to low 90s, nights cool enough to sleep with the windows open, and afternoon rainstorm – this is the peak of the “monsoon” season in Far West Texas.
512-499-8914
wlt@writersleague.org
For more info, contact Jennifer Ziegler at the Writers League

Click here for details

Students will take advantage of the unique landscape of Far West Texas and its distinctive people to provide context to their writing. Field research and independent investigation will be part of the course assignment, along with more traditional classroom instruction, discussion, writing drills, and exchange of ideas.

No matter what you write or how well or why you do it, this class aims to improve your existing skills and broaden your writing scope.

JOE NICK PATOSKI is in his fourth decade writing about Texas and Texans. He has authored and co-authored biographies on Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan, both published by Little, Brown and Company and the coffeetable books Texas Mountains, Texas Coast, and Big Bend National Park all published by the University of Texas Press. He spent 18 years as a staff writer for Texas Monthly and more recently has written for the Texas Observer, National Geographic, No Depression, People magazine, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Field & Stream, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Big Bend Sentinel, Southwest Spirit, American Way, the Austin Chronicle, Harp, and TimeOut New York, and other publications. He also contributed an essay to the photo book Conjunto by John Dyer, also published by University of Texas Press.

In 2003-4, he recorded the oral histories of B.B. King, Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson, Tejano superstar Little Joe Hernandez, and 15 other subjects for the Voice of Civil Rights oral history project, some of which appeared in the book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder by Juan Williams, published by Sterling, and rode on the The Voices of Civil Rights bus tour, a 70 day journey across the nation where personal oral histories on civil rights were collected for the Library of Congress. In 2008 his biography of Willie Nelson was published by Little, Brown & Company. An avid swimmer and kayaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Texas Hill Country.

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Could Texas Go It Alone? from NPR’s All Things Considered

National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett did a piece on Friday pondering What If Texas Seceded from the United States?

I was one of those playing along. Adelante Los Vaqueros!

Lone Star State Of Mind: Could Texas Go It Alone?

by John Burnett
Listen to the Story

All Things Considered
[8 min 54 sec]

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Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
Steve Dunwell/Getty Images

Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
text size A A A
March 30, 2012

It’s a popular idea in Texas that the Lone Star State — once an independent republic — could break away and go it alone. A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted that if Washington didn’t stop meddling in his state, independence might be an option. In his brief run for the White House, he insisted that nearly anything the feds do, the states — and Texas in particular — could do better.

So we’re putting Perry’s suggestions to the test — NPR is liberating Texas. We asked scholars, business leaders, diplomats, journalists and regular folk to help us imagine an independent Texas based on current issues before the state. (Though, to be clear, no one quoted here actually favors secession.)

We begin our exercise in Austin, capital of the new Republic of Texas, where the Independence Day party raged until dawn to the music of Austin’s own Asleep at the Wheel. Lead singer Ray Benson announced to the crowd, “We have severed the ties with the United States of America. Texas is free!” and the masses roared in response.

The former state has reinvented itself as a sort of Lone Star Singapore, with low taxes, free trade and minimal regulation. It enters the community of nations as the world’s 15th-largest economy, with vast oil and gas reserves, busy international ports, an independent power grid and a laissez-faire attitude about making money.

Texas Is ‘Open For Business’

The Texas Association of Business advertises the new nation’s economic potential with a radio ad that declares, “Texas: Now it is a whole other country — and it’s open for business … C’mon over. Be part of our vibrant free-market nation.”
Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.
Enlarge John Burnett/NPR

Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.

“What we have been able to do since we threw off the yoke of the federal government is create a country that has the assets necessary to build an incredible empire,” says Bill Hammond, the association’s president.

Imagine airports without the Transportation Security Administration; gun sales without the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; land development without the Endangered Species Act; new congressional districts without the Voting Rights Act; and a new guest-worker program without Washington gridlock over immigration reform.

Indeed, new immigration laws sailed through the Texas Congress. Immigrant workers are now legally crossing the border to frame houses, mow lawns and clean hotel rooms.

“We now have a safe and secure guest-worker program that allows immigrants to come and go as the jobs ebb and flow, and fill the jobs that Texans are unwilling to do,” Hammond says.

The new normal is a leaner government that bears little resemblance to the full-service nation it left behind. The Tea Party faithful who embraced nationhood early on say it’s a lot better than being beholden to Chinese bankers.

“What is the Republic of Texas charged with actually doing? [It’s] charged with defense, charged with education, charged with a few things that you have to do, and the rest is wide open,” says Felicia Cravens, a high school drama teacher active in the Houston Tea Party movement. “Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.”

Under statehood, the U.S. government contributed 60 percent of all Texas aid to the poor. In an independent republic, federal benefits like food stamps, free school lunches and unemployment compensation would disappear, according to two Dallas Tea Party leaders.

Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.

– Felicia Cravens, Texas high school teacher

“The nation of Texas is a living experiment into what we call the empowerment society. It is no longer a caretaker society,” says Ken Emanuelson, founder of the Grassroots Texans Network.

Texas Tea Party member Katrina Pierson adds, “There’s a safety net that’s always been out there. We don’t have that anymore. You will be a productive member of society and our environment doesn’t allow for people to not be productive.”

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson imagines that low-wage Texas would become a new magnet for assembly plants that might have considered setting up shop in Mexico or Malaysia.

“Since Texas has become independent, we are surprised — and some are pleased — to see that maquiladora [or foreign-owned] plants are springing up on the south side of the Red River and on the Sabine [River],” Jillson says. “The American South is complaining because some plants are moving to Texas.”

With independence, the epic battles between the state of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency would finally be over. The state sued the EPA repeatedly for telling Texas how to run its refineries and coal-fired power plants. Business experts say the new republic would rely on voluntary pollution controls with minimal oversight — a boon to the industrial sector. But how would that go over with residents of refinery towns who have to breathe the air where they live?

“I am very, very skeptical that the nation of Texas will do a good job at protecting the health and safety of the people, because the EPA is no longer in the equation,” says Hilton Kelley, founder and director of the Community Empowerment and Development Association in Port Arthur. “It’s all about petroleum; it’s all about money.”

‘Peeling Back The Onion’ Of Texan Independence

As an independent country, Texas’s red granite capitol building would no longer fly the American flag, only the Lone Star. The new nationalism that breaks out inside the new government would soon be tempered by an independence hangover.

“Every day we’re peeling back the onion and finding another level of complexity that I don’t think anybody initially anticipated,” says Harvey Kronberg, longtime editor and publisher of the Texas political newsletter Quorum Report.

According to Kronberg, a modern sovereign nation requires more — not less — government than a state would. Consider all the new departments it would need to monitor things like foreign affairs, aviation and nuclear regulation. And then there are all the expenses Washington used to take care of — things like maintaining interstate highways, inspecting meat and checking passports.

“Reality is beginning to stagger the folks in the [capitol] building,” Kronberg says.

Public education is a good example. In 2011, the Texas state Legislature slashed billions of dollars from school systems at a time when Texas was already 43rd among the states in per pupil spending and dead last in the number of adults who completed high school.

Steve Murdock, the former Texas state demographer and current director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, expects that things would not improve under the budget of a struggling infant nation.

“For Texas to be the competitive nation that we would all wish it would be, it has to make major improvements in education,” Murdock says, “because right now it’s falling short.”

Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski sits on a bench in downtown Austin, ruminating on the hassles of self-rule.

“You can’t get in the car and go to New Orleans [and] be there in six hours anymore,” he says. “Listen, have you been to the Louisiana checkpoint in Vinton? They’re extracting some kind of revenge, the way they treat us as Third World citizens.”

Patoski imagines losing a number of friends to the post-secession “Texodus,” when U.S. citizens fled Texas for the Upper 48 states. He says he’s rooting for the republic, but he’s anxious for its future.
Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.
Enlarge Getty Images

Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.

“I’m still proud to be a Texan,” he says, “but I wish they would’ve thought this through before they jumped and cut the cord.”

Step 1: Don’t Go To War With Oklahoma

During the state’s first run as a republic, from 1836 to 1845, Texas established diplomatic relations with England, France, the Netherlands and the United States. Today, the modern nation of Texas would find even more countries eager to build embassies in Austin, says Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, a New York firm that advises fledgling nations.

“Because of Texas’ wealth — [it’s the] 15th-largest economy in the world — [foreign nations] do not want to have bad relations with Texas,” Ross says. “There are many countries, China for instance, that want to preserve their ability to access countries with major oil and gas reserves, so Texas fit into that.”

Unlike the first republic, a modern nation of Texas needs to have positions on things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“But what was interesting was that Texas’ positions were often quite different from the remaining United States,” Ross says.

What would Texas’s foreign policy entail? Country singer and humorist Kinky Friedman imagines what he would do as the Texas secretary of foreign affairs.

“I think the first thing we would do is go to the Third World countries and teach the women how to grow big hair and give the men Rick Perry wigs,” he says. “I will keep us out of war with Oklahoma. And one of the first countries we’ll open free trade with is Cuba. We will be opening cigar stores all over Texas. We’re not supporting their economy; we’re burning their fields.”

From Texas To La Republica De Tejas

Texas might see itself as culturally akin to its former fatherland, but as time goes on, the nation’s destiny would be determined by its genetic ties to the south. If current demographic growth continues, Texas will become majority Hispanic within a generation. The prospect of Texas as the newest Latin American nation amuses Austin cultural marketing consultant Mando Rayo.

“Texas becomes La Republica de Tejas,” Rayo says. “The panhandle city of Amarillo becomes Amarillo, and our national pride, the Dallas Vaqueros, win the Super Bowl.”

But would the U.S. let Texas go or would there be a constitutional standoff and opposition from the remaining united states? University of Texas, Austin, presidential scholar H.W. Brands doesn’t anticipate a painful separation.

“The Texans were all set for a fight,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe they were a little bit surprised — maybe they were miffed — that much of the rest of the country said, ‘Well we’ve had enough of the Texans, let ’em go. We’ll be better off without ’em.’ ”

The premise of an independent Texas isn’t actually all that popular in the Lone Star State. Last year, Public Policy Polling asked Texans if they favored secession, and fewer than 1 in 5 were for it. As for the 18 percent that said yes — they can just consider our simulation food for thought.

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Courts and Regulators thwart water planning

Texas is the only Western state to continue to uphold Rule of Capture, regarding groundwater as a property right – for now, at least, until somebody gets hurt or a region goes dry. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said the court wouldn’t let that happen, but the ruling passed down this week essentially thwarts any statewide planning to conserve water.

Texas Supreme Court ruling on groundwater a victory for property owners
Posted Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 13 Comments Print Reprints
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Topics: State Supreme Courts, Texas Judicial System, Texas Supreme Court, Texas, Texas Cities

Tags: Lone Star Chapter, landmark cases, San Antonio

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By Bill Hanna

billhanna@star-telegram.com

In a landmark ruling that could affect the use and control of groundwater in Texas, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that property owners have a vested interest in the water under their land.

The case, Edwards Aquifer Authority vs. Day, challenged the San Antonio-area aquifer authority’s right to issue an irrigation permit that limited how much water two farmers could use on their property.

Landowner groups such as the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association hailed the ruling, saying it means property owners now know that they will have a reliable source of water.

“We think this is a clear-cut victory for property owners,” said Joe Parker, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. “This gives us a clear direction both now and in the future.”

But environmental groups such as the Sierra Club criticized the decision and said it could undermine the state’s system of groundwater districts and lead to more litigation.

“The state Supreme Court has reached an unwarranted legal determination in saying that a landowner owns the groundwater in place beneath his or her property rather than holding that a landowner has only the right to capture that groundwater subject to other important public policy purposes,” said Ken Kramer, president of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“The court has done a huge disservice to everyone who has been working for proper management of the groundwater resources needed for our state’s people and our environment,” Kramer added.

Tom Mason of the Austin law firm Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody said the ruling is likely to lead to more litigation.

“Landowners with wells may be encouraged by this and want to challenge groundwater district regulations, particularly in the Edwards Aquifer Authority,” he said. And as the courts consider the implications of the ruling, groundwater districts “may be a little less inclined to regulate as vigorously as before,” Mason said.

The case dates to 1996 when two farmers, Burrell Day, who has died, and Joel McDaniel sought a permit to pump from the Edwards Aquifer to grow crops south of San Antonio.

But the two farmers could not show “historical use,” which is how permits are issued. Instead of granting them the 700 acre-feet of water, the permit gave them rights to 14 acre-feet.

The farmers argued that the water authority deprived them of their property without compensation.

The court ruled that employing historical use as standard for issuing permits deviates from the rules of the Texas Water Code.

“The Court reasons that groundwater in place is owned by the landowner on the basis of oil and gas law,” says the opinion, written by Justice Nathan Hecht.

The case has been closely watched in Central Texas, especially in San Antonio, where groundwater is the primary water source. But it could also affect areas including Parker, Wise and Johnson counties, where many homeowners rely on groundwater.

The cattle raisers say they still support groundwater districts and don’t believe that this ruling will change how groundwater is managed.

“All along, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers have said groundwater districts play a very important role managing the state’s groundwater,” said Parker, the group’s president, who lives in Byers near Wichita Falls.

“We believe in local control and that the local water conservation district should be making those decisions and not somebody at the state, or heaven forbid, the federal level,” Parker said.

But the Sierra Club’s Kramer said the Edwards Aquifer Authority came into existence because of a Sierra Club lawsuit, and he did not rule out a federal legal challenge, especially if the ruling prevents limits on groundwater use.
This report includes material from The Texas Tribune.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/02/24/3761508/texas-supreme-court-ruling-on.html#storylink=cpy

and in my little corner of the world, the Texas Water Development Board is OK with drawing down groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer another 30 ft, which will effectively cause Jacob’s Well to run dry (which it never had done until 2000) and leave Blue Hole, the recently opened city-county natural swimming park, high and dry, thus ruining Wimberley’s two greatest natural assets.

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Pleasures of the High Rhine: A Texas Singer in Exile book review

Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.

I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.

He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.

Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.

Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.

But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.

The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.

He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.

His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.

He gets it.

Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.

The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.

Available through mytexasmusic.com

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Texas High School Football: More Than the Game (the book)

The exhibit that I curated for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum – Texas High School Football: More Than The Game comes down after Sunday. It’s been a great experience all the way to the end. This week, I guided the great sportswriter Jim Dent (The Junction Boys, Twelve Mighty Orphans, Courage Beyond the Game), Ken Herrington, an Eight Man player for Woodson, along with his family, and Coach Butch Ford of the Celina Bobcats and his wife, among other. Ken, who lives in Graham,had a stroke not too long ago, and as his wife and daughters explained, his life was saved by quick action from their neighbors, Brad McCoy and his Colt.

For every story told in the exhibit, I learned ten new stories. Everyone has at least one, when it comes to Texas High School Football. As sad as I am to see the exhibit close, I’m thrilled that the exhibit catalog which was put together by my sister, Christina Patoski, in conjunction with Pentagram Design and under the good graces of the Reilly Family Foundation, will remain in print, distributed by University of Texas Press. If you got to experience the exhibit, I hope you enjoyed it. If you missed it, all I can say is, you really missed it.

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Joe Nick’s Dallas Cowboys history book coming soon

Well, 2011 turned out to be an exceptionally average year for the Dallas Cowboys football club, wrapping up with an 8-8 average in a season marked by no less than four games that Dallas blew going into the fourth quarter.

(poster from the Dallas Observer)

The lousy performance will not stop publication of my next book, an unauthorized history of the Dallas Cowboys, which is scheduled for fall release by my publisher, Little, Brown.

The whole story is told, going back to 1842 when John Neely Bryan established the town site, pausing in 1952 to assess the unsuccessful season of the NFL’s Dallas Texans, who became the Baltimore Colts the next year, and pausing again in 1960 when the NFL Dallas Cowboys debuted, along with the American Football League’s Dallas Texans, all the way to the here and now.

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