Guad is Great

Guadalupe River
High Season: A cold Guadalupe means rapid transit. Photograph by Woody Welch

Guad is Great

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 2001

When the weather turns cold, the drunken hordes leave the lower Guadalupe, and the river is an answer to a paddler’s prayer.

Ah, the Challenge of running white-water rapids, of dipping a fly in swift streams rife with rainbow and brown trout, the exhilaration of being in a wild place when there’s a chill in the air: These are a few of my favorite things. Every summer, I pine for the Rockies or somewhere else in the great American West. But over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to wait until June or travel a thousand miles to be on a great Western river. In stead, I just wait till Labor Day has passed and head for the Lower Guadalupe. You heard me right. The same stretch of river that is notorious for drawing hundreds of thousands of tubers and floaters, especially on summer holiday weekends, becomes a wilderness experience from September to March. Gone is the horde that has given the stretch of river between Canyon Lake and New Braunfels the unsavory reputation as a floating party of drunks and litterbugs. By the autumnal equinox, everything has changed. The beer cans have been cleaned up. The few people still hanging around the river are a friendlier bunch. Wildlife comes out of hiding. And the 23 miles or so of river below Canyon Dam, ending in Gruene a couple of miles from Interstate 35, become some of the most accessible wilderness in Texas.

The recreational stretch begins just below the dam at the Horseshoe Falls fishing area. Five miles downstream is the put-in point at FM 306 for all-day paddle trips. The next nine and a half miles are prime fishing territory known as the Trophy Zone, which is stocked by a nonprofit group called Trout Unlimited and Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Trophy Zone ends at a bridge known as Second Crossing, and the river runs pretty flat for the next three miles down to First Crossing. Here begins my favorite part of the river.

My thing is kayaking, and there’s no more reliable white water in the state than the five-mile run from First Crossing down to Gruene. Five major rapids will test any paddler’s skills-whether with a canoe, a raft, or a kayak. Huaco Falls and Slumber Falls have nasty hydraulics guaranteed to tump inexperienced boaters. Slant is ideal for practicing wave surfing. Clutter requires the most technical skill; miss your slot and have a close encounter with Mr. Tree. Gruene Rapids, with a standing wave waiting to launch your boat and grab some air, offers enough tossing and turning to end a trip on an upbeat note.

The ride can be mild to wild. It all depends on how much water is being released from Canyon Dam, measured by the cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) reading at the Sattler measuring station, which is maintained by the United States Geological Survey; this number can be found on the USGS Web site, tx.water.usgs.gov. In winter the CFS tends to stay higher, meaning faster, whiter water. If the CFS is at 300, decent paddling is assured. A reading of anywhere between 500 and 800 CFS promises close to ideal conditions, with enough force and waves to make a paddle challenging. When the CFS cranks above 1,000, bigger rafts become the norm as the Guad turns into wicked big water, helmet required. The hole at Huaco swallows boats. Numerous standing waves appear in unexpected places. The take-out at Gruene becomes a very tricky proposition. The reward is a river run as wild as just about any in the beloved Rockies.

Of course, there is the chill factor to contend with, but it’s not really all that bad. Coming off the bottom of Canyon Lake, the water checks out at a bracing 54 to 60 degrees, which makes wearing a wet suit a good idea. But considering that the average high air temperature in January and February on the Guadalupe ranges from the low to mid sixties, the weather is similar to that of Idaho or Alberta around Memorial Day.

To do the run from First Crossing to Gruene, I usually park at Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river concession at Gruene that remains open year-round, and pay for a shuttle ride up to First Crossing ($10 per person, including your boat). Or I arrange shuttles with my paddling pals, paying $5 to park at Rockin ‘R’s Camp Huaco Springs upstream. For a full day’s paddle, camp or park and put in at Whitewater Sports, at the FM 306 bridge, the area known as Fifth Crossing-the larger the crossing number, the farther upstream you are. The trip is scenic but lacks the action of the stretch below First Crossing and requires portaging around a couple of small dams.

For fishing, head upstream to the Trophy Zone, a stretch of river that marks the best trout fishing in Texas. The Lower Guadalupe is the only river in the state that supports a year-round trout population-a man-made happenstance that is the result of the release of cold bottom water. After years of stocking, the Guadalupe now has the potential to mature into a world-class fishery. The state-record rainbow trout (8.24 pounds) and brown trout (7.12 pounds) came from the Lower Guad. The miracle miles are around River Road Camp, Cedar Bluff Campground, and Camp Beans, at Third Crossing. At some of these sites you have to pay to get access to the water for fishing. Most fishing is done on a catch-and-release basis, though some visitors take home their daily limit: one fish at least eighteen inches long and caught on an artificial lure. Outside the Trophy Zone, fishermen may keep five trout per day with no restrictions on size or bait.

Parks and Wildlife will stock trout in the river on December 13 and 28, January 10 and 24, and April 4 and will arrange for free access for fishing at Camp Beans, Camp Huaco Springs, and the area directly below the dam through April 2002. Trout Unlimited stocks from November to February. The organization also leases land in the Trophy Zone; to gain access to the riverbank, you must acquire a $40 Trout Unlimited membership and pay an $85 access-orientation fee. TU is the big dog on the river, politically speaking, with the legal clout and the financial muscle to get the attention of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which wants to draw more water from Canyon Lake to sell to San Antonio, a proposal that also incurred heated opposition from paddlers, recreation-oriented businesses, and Canyon Lake residents.

The Lower Guad in winter is not the exclusive off-season domain of paddlers and anglers. The winding River Road, no longer choked with traffic, actually becomes pleasant as a biking route. Campgrounds can be parklike in their solitude. The wildlife viewing is splendid. It’s a bad day on the river when I don’t see a great blue heron emerging from the brush along the riverbank to lumber through the sky. Kingfishers are almost as ubiquitous as the turtles that return to sunbathe on the rocks. Winter residents include large contingents of hawks and eagles that ride the updrafts and soar along the cliffs with the turkey buzzards. Ospreys were prevalent a couple of months ago. The Lower Guad is on a major migratory route, and I’ve had the good luck to witness massive flyovers of hummingbirds and monarch butterflies this autumn. Even if the trees have dropped their leaves, the steep canyons and sheer limestone cliffs are some of the most scenic vistas found in the Hill Country this side of Enchanted Rock. A pretty fair tradeoff, I’d say, for the occasional shiver.

Camping: At Fifth Crossing, Whitewater Sports (830-964-3800); at Third Crossing, Cedar Bluff Campground (830-964-3639), River Road Camp (830-625-5004), and Camp Beans (830-964-2484); at First Crossing, Camp Huaco Springs (call Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, 830-629-9999 or 1-800-55-FLOAT).

Outfitters and guides: Whitewater Sports and Rockin ‘R’ River Rides (see Camping, above) for parking, shuttles, guide services, and rentals of canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts; Gruene Outfitters (1629 Hunter Road, New Braunfels, 830-625-4440 or 888-477-3474) for fly-fishing gear and guide recommendations.

Fishing: Valid Texas fishing license ($19) required along with a Texas Parks and Wildlife trout stamp ($7); Trout Unlimited national and local membership required ($40), plus $85 access fee and completion of the lease orientation class; Captain Scott Graham, a past president of the Guadalupe chapter of Trout Unlimited, offers guided trips through Guadalupe and Beyond Fly Fishing Adventures (877-898-7688).


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Water Foul

Caddo Lake
It’s not just for the birds. An egret hunts on the surface of the lake.

Water Foul

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 2002

To the city of Marshall, Caddo Lake is a profit center, a reservoir from which millions of gallons can be pumped each day and put up for sale. To the people of Uncertain, Karnack, and other communities nearby, it’s an ecological jewel, a symbol of our natural heritage – and depleting it for a few quick bucks is an unforgivable affront to nature.

On a blazing hot morning in June, I got lost paddling a kayak in the swampy backwaters of Caddo Lake. This is not a difficult thing to do. The greenish-brown water is so dense that you can’t see the bottom. The surface is covered with an iridescent lime-green coating of duckweed and water lilies. The shoreline is barely discernible, and any view beyond is blotted out by an impenetrable thicket of sweet gum, ash, pine, oak, and tupelo. The heavy, dank stillness that’s a defining feature of these parts only adds to the disorienting sense that you’ve entered another world. Earlier in the day, when the British-born president of the local chamber of commerce told me with a straight face that she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a dinosaur rise up out of the murk, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Eventually, five men in a spacious pontoon boat pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift. When I saw the ice chest full of beer, sodas, and water, I hopped aboard; typical Caddo Lake hospitality, I thought. But then I found out that they had set out to find me-that they knew who I was and why I had come to this remote area of northeast Texas. I was curious about news reports of an impending threat to the wellbeing of the lake, which is the only naturally formed lake in the state and the biggest in the South. The City of Marshall, with the state’s blessing, planned to capture water from Big Cypress Bayou, the primary source of Caddo, and sell it to a willing buyer. Those plans had been thwarted by the “lake people,” an unlikely coalition of bubbas in overalls, urban dropouts, and other novice ecowarriors, but only temporarily. The threat was still real, and that’s what the men in the boat wanted to show me.

At the helm was Ken Shaw, a retired manager at International Paper who lives on the lake and sits on the board of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which maintains the markers that show the way through the network of sloughs and keeps them open. Riding shotgun was Jack Canson, a public relations consultant who spent several decades in Austin and Los Angeles before coming home to Marshall. His boyhood buddy taking photographs from the boat’s bow, Ron Munden, had recently moved back to Marshall after living in Northern California, where he designed software for the Navy. Next to Munden was Barry Benniek, a Houston native who runs the Pine Needle Lodge on the lake’s isolated northwestern shore. Manning the binoculars was Tom Walker, who grew up near the western shore and now works as a librarian at Texas State Technical College’s Marshall campus. As we puttered along in a shallow part of the lake, Walker pointed out places with colorful names Whangdoodle Pass, Death Hole, Old Folks Playground-and Shaw engaged his depth finder, calling out readings: “Four feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six feet. Four feet.” At Kitchens Creek, we cruised past two john-boats occupied by elderly black fishermen picking up bream. “By summer’s end,” Shaw said, “most of these routes will be impassable.”

Shady Glade Marina, Uncertain
A pier at Shady Glade Marina in Uncertain.

They’ll all be impassable, the men told me, if Marshall prevails. In addition to the 5 to 7 million gallons that it already draws out of the bayou daily for residential use, the city of 23,000 can, according to the permit approved by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), pipe out several million more gallons each day and sell them, even in drought conditions. Only when Caddo drops seven and a half feet below the spillway at Mooringsport, Louisiana, would an “emergency situation” be declared, at which point any water taken would have to be replaced. “By that time,” Bennick explained, “there’ll be no lake left.”

“Or alligators,” Walker chimed in. “Or snapping turtles. Or fish.”

If this has a familiar ring, it should. Across Texas, the war over water is all anyone wants to talk about these days. In El Paso and the Panhandle, water marketers like developer Woody Hunt and corporate raider Boone Pickens are plotting ways to move the suddenly precious commodity from rural areas to thirsty cities. In San Antonio golf course developments and booming bedroom communities are competing with recreational interests and small towns to the north for water from Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River. Along the border, farmers are squabbling with their counterparts in the Mexican state of Chihuahua for their fair share of water from the Rio Grande Basin. And on and on. Court dockets are backlogged with water-related suits (you might say they’re waterlogged). Candidates for high office speechify about the problem but offer no real solutions. Lobbyists stuff their pockets in anticipation of a legislative session in which water will be on the agenda yet again, one of the most serious long-term issues facing Texas and Texans.

At first glance, the Caddo conflagration looks a lot like the others. In the eyes of the state, it’s not so much an ecological jewel or a symbol of our natural heritage as a reservoir, a storage facility that can be drained at will. That mind-set explains why, although the lake belongs to all Texans, it’s perfectly legal for a city like Marshall to profit from it. But in fact, there are two things that distinguish this fight. One is the involvement of folks with pockets deep enough to make the playing field level. Chief among them is Don Henley, the drummer for the rock and roll band the Eagles, who was raised nearby, in Linden. In the past decade Henley has donated more than $1.6 million to the Caddo Lake Institute, a nascent research and educational facility, partly to pay legal fees associated with court fights on behalf of Caddo. You may remember that a few years back, Henley’s passion was saving Walden Pond, the Massachusetts stomping ground of Henry David Thoreau, from the clutches of developers. Well, his latest cause celebrity is Caddo, where he caught his first fish as a boy.

The other thing is that the locals have decided, to borrow a phrase, that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore-a point that was brought home to me after a couple of hours on the lake, when the pontoon boat docked by the grocery in the tiny town of Uncertain. Behind the counter was Betty Holder, Uncertain’s mayor, who greeted each of us with a very certain hug. The diminutive Miss Betty, an area resident for thirty years, reiterated Shaw’s calculation of how much Caddo can stand to lose. “They’ll leave us with nothing but a mud hole,” she said. “People can’t imagine Marshall being so simpleminded. The only good thing coming out of there is Highway 43.”

Betty Holder
Betty Holder, the mayor of Uncertain.

Her feistiness turned to elegance when she spoke of the lake. “We have something here. We didn’t buy it. We didn’t make it. The good Lord gave it to us. We’re just trying to take care of it, and we won’t give up. We’re going to win. When people around here band together, we pull in the same direction.”

ONCE YOU’VE SET EYES ON CADDO LAKE, IT’S DIFFICULT NOT TO GET emotional about it one way or another. No other body of water in Texas remotely resembles it. If you stand on its banks, which are lined with stately bald cypresses draped with Spanish moss, and gaze on the still water, you’ll either scream, turn around, and never come back again or you’ll get hooked for life.

By day, distant culls of Acadian flycatchers, northern parula, Prothonotary warblers, and cardinals echo through the forest along with the buzz and hum and splish and splash of the natural world, and you might spy a yellow-crowned night heron plucking its breakfast out of the water or a great blue heron lumbering in flight above the canopy like a pterodactyl. By night, bullfrogs work themselves into a whooping frenzy, almost drowning out the whir of crickets and locusts and the occasional hoot of barred owls. In the summer Neotropical songbirds are drawn to the lake; in the winter it’s wood ducks and bald eagles. Year-round, alligators, snakes, and lizards thrive here. “Remember the year when people were wondering where all of the frogs had gone?” Bennick once asked me. “We knew where they were.”

The ethereal, primordial lake of today wasn’t always thus. When the Caddoan people, a relatively sophisticated civilization that embraced farming and a highly organized, complex society. set down roots in the area 10,000 years ago, it was just a rivet No one knows for sure when the lake was formed. Indian lore speaks of a big shake from the Great Spirit, implicating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It could just as well have been the Great Red River Raft, an eighty- to one-hundred-fifty-mile logjam of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress so thick that you could literally walk across it. By 1856, the raft had backed up to the Big Cypress Bayou tributary, effectively creating Caddo Lake and making the upstream town of Jefferson Texas’ main riverport. The lake became permanent when a dam was built at its eastern end in Mooringsport, south of Shreveport, in 1914.

Ever since there was a Caddo Lake, hunting and fishing have been popular, but its recreational potential wasn’t fully realized until the state’s oldest continually operated hunting and fishing club, the Dallas Caddo Club, was established in 1906 on its southern shores. A flyin fishing resort even operated briefly in Uncertain, which was incorporated in 1961 to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. But Caddo’s popularity had already peaked; over time, jet-skiers, cigarette boats, and the high-dollar bass-fishing crowd were lured to the wider-open waters of new lakes like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and Lake 0′ the Pines. Promoters continued to hatch big ideas for Caddo, the last a half-cocked attempt ten years ago to build a barge canal. Otherwise, the lake is about as off the beaten path as you can get. In 1993 the Nature Conservancy purchased seven thousand acres on the northern banks of the lake and turned them over to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which designated them a wildlife management area.

Ed Smith
Ed Smith, the mayor of Marshall.

Most visitors today frequent the state park or the fifty or so bed-and-breakfasts around Uncertain and the neighboring town of Karnack, the birthplace of Lady Bird Johnson. They may drop a line or dip a paddle, but mostly they come to sit and contemplate in one of the most picturesque spots in Texas.

“I INHERITED THIS PROBLEM,” ED SMITH SAYS WITH A LONG SIGH. The affable mayor of Marshall, who runs a petroleum exploration company when he’s not doing the public’s business, is a fourth generation local for whom fishing in Caddo is a treasured boyhood memory. But the problem he’s referring to isn’t the city’s plans. It’s the behavior of the lake people. “I tried to work with them,” he says. “I hope the ability to reason has not gone out the window.”

As far as Smith and the city were concerned, the deal was going to be a no-brainer, an economic-development project that required little more than moving water in exchange for a big, fat check. The potential buyer came on line a year and a half ago: New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, which needed water to cool its power plant under construction near Marshall and was willing to pay $600,000 for it annually. But immediately the lake coalition attacked the deal. First it demanded a guarantee from Marshall that any water taken from Caddo during dry spells would be replaced with water from Lake 0′ the Pines. Marshall officials agreed in principle but disagreed about who would determine when water replacement should start. Then the coalition attempted to contest Marshall’s permit or, at the very least, bring the matter before a public hearing. The TNRCC shut them down on both counts-a decision that drew fire in a rare public fashion from Parks and Wildlife, who warned that drawing down lake levels would result in a severe loss of habitat in the adjacent wildlife management area. The back and forth continued until May, when Entergy executives decided they’d had enough, pulled out of the agreement with Marshall, and resolved to buy the city of Longview’s treated wastewater instead. (Even though Entergy is out of the picture, the Caddo coalition is now contesting the permit in a Travis County court.)

The turn of events greatly pleased Henley, who has been back in East Texas over the past few months tending a sick relative. “There are too many people interested in using up the lake’s resources without fully understanding, or caring about, the health of the ecosystem,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “They just take and take without putting anything back. Fortunately, true stewardship traditions exist within the lake communities. We decided to make significant investments in those communities to help them move beyond the meaningless lip service of those who say they love Caddo Lake but do nothing about the risks to it. We wanted to give the people who truly care the means to take action-to make reasonable demands on the state and federal agencies that should be intervening to reverse the lake’s decline.”

That wish is seconded by Dallas oilman Albert Huddleston, whose political leanings, it should be noted, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henley’s. A longtime contributor to Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns, Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into defending Caddo Lake. “I believe in both economic prosperity and environmental awareness,” Huddleston told me by telephone from Peru, just hours after he’d climbed down from Machu Picchu, “but sucking water out of Caddo Lake and destroying that fragile ecosystem is no different than sticking a pipe in the Alamo and selling it brick by brick.”

Albert Huddleston
Albert Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into defending Caddo Lake.

Henley’s and Huddleston’s money has bought, among other things, the expertise of Dwight Shellman, who is the founding director of the Caddo Lake Institute. Henley met the slight, 68-year-old attorney in the late eighties in Shellman’s hometown of Aspen, Colorado, where he had a reputation for bringing together apolitical factions of the community to beat back excessive urban expansion. The rock star thought Caddo could use a guy like Shellman and paid his way to Texas, where his first act, in 1993, was to negotiate the lake’s designation as a Ramsar site, the thirteenth wetlands in the U.S. said to be internationally important according to criteria adopted at a global ecological convention in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

At Shellman’s behest, the institute initially focused on education, developing wetlands science programs for the Marshall public schools as well as East Texas Baptist University and Wiley College, also in Marshall. He made headway with the colleges, using the resources of their science and biology departments for research. But the public school program was scuttled in 1998 after an instructor on a field trip realized that Marshall’s sewer main was on the verge of collapse. Instead of being rewarded for reporting her discovery to the city, she was reprimanded, and eventually she resigned and moved elsewhere to teach. “I realized then that the environmental education of teachers and students in a place like Caddo Lake was a poor investment because these were people who were ready to leave town,” Shellman says. It was then that he shifted the institute’s focus to promoting activism within the lake communities. “The people closest to the landscape are the ones who have the greatest awareness,” he says. He set out to find common ground among the institute, the Caddo Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Greater Caddo Lake Association, and the town of Uncertain and held meetings, under the fancy, official-sounding name of the Caddo Lake Ramsar Wetlands Clearinghouse, at which the locals were taught how to play the game. Judging by the outcome of the Entergy deal, it worked, and the lake people are grateful. “Dwight is a real sweetheart,” coos Robin

Holder, a burly, bearded lake guide who is married to Uncertain’s mayor.

The mayor of Marshall, not surprisingly, has a less charitable view of Shellman’s efforts. As much as Ed Smith says serenely that the city may simply find another buyer for the water, his displeasure with the other side shows. “It’s not about the power plant anymore,” Smith says. “Sometimes I think they’d like to see the bayou as a national park or a wildlife refuge. You have to question if their aim is to get Marshall out of it altogether.”

On muggy Tuesday night in August, about seventy people are congregated inside the community center in Karnack, just down the road from Uncertain, for a clearinghouse meeting. It’s TMDL Night, as in total maximum daily loads, the maximum tolerance levels of air and water pollution as allowed by the state. For three hours, the talk focuses on nutrient loads, dissolved oxygen solids, and airborne mercury contamination. Shellman, who moderates the discussion, explains that if the TNRCC would formally establish a TMDL limit for the lake, it might prevent even more pollution and maybe even speed up the lake’s recovery. But for that to happen, the TNRCC has to designate Caddo as a high priority, rather than its current medium ranking, and the Legislature would have to fund a TMDL program. The process is simple, he says. “You determine what’s contributing to the problem, find the total load, and then find the rate that it’s deposited. The goal is to restrict input from the source.” Translation: You figure out who’s polluting the lake and get them to stop.

Presentations made in the Karnack ball by Roy Darville, the chairman of the biology department at East Texas Baptist, and Henry Bradbury, a freelance environmental manager in Dallas, both members of the clearinghouse’s scientific advisory board, underscore the lake’s failing health. Five years of water-quality data indicate a severe loss of oxygen, in an area that already has a high level of acid rain-thanks to coal-fired power plants in East Texas-and the presence of mercury contamination throughout the Cypress River Basin’s food chain at levels high enough to warn pregnant women and infants against eating fish caught in the lake.

The responsibility for combating those problems, Shellman tells the group, rests with them. They appear to be happy to step up. Armed with scientific data, fluent in regulatory legalese, they discuss existing power plants in East Texas that are already polluting, how to build alliances with people on the Louisiana side of Caddo (one third of the lake’s 25,000 acres are over the border), how to make a formal presentation to the city of Marshall, and how to beef up Caddo tourism-for instance, qualifying it for a “Keep Texas Wild” specialty license plate, which at the moment features only bluebonnets and the horny toad.

The message is clear: It’s their show, not Shellman’s, Henley’s, or anyone else’s. “I’ve learned that these citizens don’t normally participate in the political process,” Shellman says. “They’re like most Texans who own property. They want to live within their boundaries and be left alone. But if you rile them up, watch out.”


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Undammed and Unforgiving

Dolan Falls - The Devils River
Dolan Falls at dusk. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

Undammed and Unforgiving

Texas Parks & Wildlife
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2002
Photography by Wyman Meinzer

You know how songs get stuck in your head?

There’s one written by the great Texas composer Billy Joe Shaver called “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time” that wouldn’t go away while I was on the Devils River. The diablo connection was probably how it burrowed into my brain in the first place, but the story line was the gnawing part. The singer blames all his troubles on Satan the first time around, but says “The second time I did it on my own.”

Billy Joe had the river and me down cold.

My first time down the Devils was easy to explain. I’d only been hearing about it for the past 30 years. It was the great, lost Hill Country river, a spring-fed jewel on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, running swift and fast through that vague badlands where Tamaulipan scrub — also known as South Texas brush country — fades into the Chihuahuan Desert, from somewhere between Ozona and Sonora down to just above Del Rio, where it dissolves into Lake Amistad. Its almost-Caribbean hue was striking, as pretty pale as a summer sky. The translucent water brimmed with smallmouth bass you could follow with your eyes, the clarity was so sharp.

The Devils lives up to its name. It is almost impossible to see, landlocked by sprawling ranches whose owners have been known to vigorously file trespassing charges and sometimes take even more extreme measures to discourage river use by outsiders. It is wild, empty country. Spotting wild turkeys is easier than spotting another human. Doing most of the floatable part of the river takes two days, requiring 15 miles of paddling on one stretch. There is no room for accidents. Rescues are out of the question. Once you get on, there is no turning back.

When I moved near the Blanco, a river that has become sacred in my life, the Devils always loomed. Half the time I’d talk to people about “my” river, the Devils came up, usually in the context of local river folks pointing out that the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas.

“And what might be the cleanest?” I’d inevitably ask, never challenging the veracity of the claim.

The Devils.

My love of the Blanco, that “cleanest” superlative, and a developing obsession in paddling down rivers, beginning in an inflatable Sevylor and presently in a Yahoo sit-on-top kayak, led to the conclusion that if I really wanted to know what everyone was talking about, I’d have to get on the Devils.

That was easier said than done. Not only is the river in a very remote, lightly populated part of the state, the environment is particularly harsh, and the flow tenuous at best. It is reputed to be a homewrecker and heartbreaker that could tear lifelong friendships asunder. Too hot to run in the summer, and too cold to endure in the winter, it is best attempted in fall or spring. If one could get on the river at all, that is.

Map - The Devils River

In a state where property owners have historically clashed with recreational river users, the Devils is arguably the most hostile. “You didn’t just risk getting shot, you might be held under fire for six hours,” one retired boater claimed, in relating what happened to him 20 years ago shortly after he put in at Baker’s Crossing and got separated from his canoe. Even touching the bank can get one arrested for trespassing. Ranchers like to invoke the Spanish Land Grant version of property rights, which accords ownership of a river to include its bottom.

Until 1988, paddling was downright impossible if you couldn’t do 25 miles in a single day. That’s the year the Finegans sold the Dolan Creek Ranch to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which designated the land as a state natural area with virtually no park infrastructure. That made it possible to run the upper 15.5-mile part of Devils from Baker’s Crossing — still a physically exhausting challenge — and legally pull out to sleep, then do 9.5 miles to the takeout, where fishing guide Gerald Bailey operates a shuttle service.

I managed to complete the run in two days, but only after hours of pulling my boat over shallow stretches, getting lost in jungles of river cane, running aground on the coarse, exceptionally abrasive limestone lurking just below the water’s surface, and paddling into relentless headwinds that kicked up waves in my face. Heeding the retired boater’s advice, on the few occasions I actually did touch a bank, it was of an island in the middle of the river. I felt a sense of satisfaction completing the journey, even while I was convinced I’d joined the silent majority whose first time on the Devils was their last. Maybe I’d run it again, I told myself, but only after an extended period of heavy rain, when the Pafford gauge was reading at least 500 cubic feet per second, twice the normal flow.

Less than six months later, I went back on my word. Somehow, my memory had erased all the nightmarish particulars of the first trip. I forgot sleeping for 12 hours straight at the end of the first day’s paddle because I was too exhausted to do anything else.

That’s the only excuse I can offer for returning to Baker’s Crossing in early March to do it again. This time, the flow is the same, give or take 20 cfs, from the previous October. And if conditions aren’t ideal, the one thing I recall from the first trip was, there is no such thing as an ideal day on the Devils. You work with what you get. At least overnight temperatures aren’t dropping into the teens, as they had two days earlier. Even Mary Hughey is reassuring. “The Devils River and kayakers get along just fine,” she tells me as she collects the camping fee from Joe Hauer and me at Baker’s Crossing. Canoes might drag the whole 15 miles down to the state natural area. But not shallow-drafting kayaks.

Hughey is the matron at Baker’s Crossing, the owner of the two-story mansion set by the banks of the tree-lined river and the surrounding campgrounds. A sweet lady who is training her 2-year-old grandson, Casey, for a career in the hospitality industry, she makes it plain to each and every boater camping out to be on the river by nine in the morning, or she’ll make darn sure they will. She gets enough heat from landowners downstream for letting people on to the river in the first place, she says, and she doesn’t need any more grief.

She also raises a warning flag. While talking about lack of rain, a common topic of conversation west of the 98th meridian, I mention the 10-year drought.

“Ten years?” she says. “It’s more like a 30-year drought. The river hasn’t really run since the ’70s.” She isn’t kidding. Thirty years ago, the headwaters of the Devils were generally recognized as being near Juno, 10 miles up the highway. These days, it barely holds a flow at Baker’s, though there is enough moving water to lull me to sleep the instant I climb into my sleeping bag.

We are on the river before eight the following morning, and reality rears its ugly head within 10 minutes, when the little riffle I ride disappears in a pool of gravel. Scrunch. I get up and pull; the first of more drags than I care to count. Somewhere in that first hour, I check the new seat I’d hooked onto my boat for back support and realize the zip pocket behind the seat is not watertight, but in fact self-baling. The topo maps I’d downloaded have turned to mush. I’ve left my river guidebooks in the car.

My first trip in October was with David Hollingsworth, who’d run the Devils before and brought along his GPS to pinpoint our location. This time, I am the experienced one, and now I have nothing — no map, no printed material, no help, since only a handful of people live along the river — nothing but my obviously defective memory. I calm down by reminding myself I’ve done this before. It is only two days. Heck, I could go without water for that long if I really had to. And we had plenty of water, trail mix and nutrition bars stuffed into our drybags. I decide doing it without any navigational aid would be liberating, with the understanding that mistakes would be unforgiven.

Hauer doesn’t believe me when I tell him it will take the full day to get down to the state natural area. Like me on any first time on a river, he keeps thinking the takeout is just around the next bend.

“Patience,” I counsel.

As long as I maintain a steady stroke, I can savor the sweet bliss of floating through a genuine wilderness practically devoid of power lines, roads or human presence — save for the occasional hunting shack. In Texas, no less. The views are sublime: a flock of mallards skittering off the water, coots diving, a killdeer swooping just above the water line, hawks surfing thermals high above, a great blue heron lumbering out of the river cane. A bass spooks from under a shallow shelf, tail flopping above the surface, startled by my intrusion. On almost every cliff overlooking the water, I see caves and overhangs, the types that provided nomadic people over the previous 6,ooo years with shelter and access to the other basic necessities of water and food nearby. There are more pictographs in the Devils, Pecos and Rio Grande watersheds than anywhere else on earth, save for the south of France.

Rushing Water - The Devils River
Rushing water on the Devils. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

My soundtrack is the steady splish-splish of every stroke, accompanied by distant squawks, chirps and screes, the occasional soft flutter of flapping wings, the intermittent whooshes of wind, and that Billy Joe Shaver song. It is a splendid river. More than once, I find myself on a tight rapid or in a gin-clear pool shaded by nearby groves of pecans and oaks, thinking I was back on the Blanco, more than 200 miles east. The cliffs, the outcroppings and the massive limestone the river cuts through brought Big Bend closer than it really is. Life is distilled to the sweet essence of river, land and sky. But I cannot get lost in the moment. After all, this is the Devils. You never know when the water will run out, or where the next crusty rock is crouching just under the surface, ready to snag an unwary boat. On some rocks, I recognize the distinctive blue streaks of my kayak, skid mark souvenirs from my first trip.

It is not difficult to focus on the dry, desiccated landscape and imagine something that during a much wetter period resembled the Hill Country. The first European to note the Devils’ existence, the Spaniard Gaspar Casta–o de Sosa, was not exactly impressed. He named it the Laxas, which translates as “feeble” or “slack.” Explorers and travelers who followed him held it in higher regard, naming it the San Pedro, and often lingering longer than planned, since it was the last rest stop before striking out west across the desert. St. Pete struck Texas Ranger Jack Hays as an uninspired name for the river when he came upon it in the 1840s, before he moved on to California. He reckoned the Devils would be a more suitable title. A military camp had been established on the river after the Mexican War. Another Texas Ranger, Capt. Pat Dolan, arrived to clear the region of outlaws in 1870, early enough to have his name attached to the falls.

That made it safe for E.K. Fawcett who, along with a group of friends, left his mark inside a cave above Dolan Falls on July 24, 1883. As the Devils’ first settler, Fawcett started grazing sheep by the falls, and others followed with goats and cattle. Eventually the grasses in the watershed were worn down to the nub, leaving rocks, prickly pear, cedar, mesquite and the occasional lechuguilla. The browsing down explained why I heard but a single calf on the trip. Not much is left for today’s livestock to eat.

Gary Garrett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who has studied the Devils extensively, confirms that the river is relatively unpolluted and undammed – less than 2 percent of all American rivers remain free of such impoundments, and the upper part of the Devils is the only free-running river left in Texas – and one of the most pristine in the southwestern United States. But he also makes clear that, like every river in Texas, the Devils has been impacted plenty. Its flow has declined steadily. Chloride, phosphate, cadmium, lead and mercury have been found in concentrations high enough to be potentially dangerous for aquatic life and human health. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, once native to the region, disappeared long ago. The smallmouth bass, which attracts fishermen from all over Texas, is an exotic introduced to the river and, with the cessation of the practice of stocking exotics in the Devils, the smallmouths are just holding on, making the practice of catch-and-release on the river crucial to their survival. Garrett suspects the smallmouth and other exotics, including carp, black bullhead and blue tilapia, maybe contributing to the threatened status 0f the native Devils River minnow.

But Garrett also gives me hope. “Stewardship is at a higher level here than on other Texas rivers, and property owners are utilizing TPWD resources to learn sound land and water management practices,” he says. The big ranches are staying big, thanks to attorneys and doctors who want to keep it that way, buying big chunks of real estate. The Nature Conservancy bought 10,000 acres within the watershed, including Dolan Falls in 1991, and has brokered sales of another 35,000 acres with conservation easements, meaning the land will remain undeveloped forever.

I arrive at the state natural area 15 minutes ahead of Hauer. Usually it’s the other way around. For all the exertion, we haven’t averaged even two miles an hour. Back home we could do twice that distance in less time. But we aren’t back home. We are on the Devils. And it has beaten us down bad. By the time Hauer crawls onto the rock shelf, he is declaring his fealty to the San Marcos River. Why come all this way to be brutalized? He is asleep before the sun goes down. I stay awake to watch the last light of day fade to dark while a couple of bats flutter erratically overhead. The last calls of a lonely mallard pierce the night. It is warm enough to sleep out without a tent, and cool enough to snuggle into a sleeping bag. I don’t care whether the wind whips up or if it drizzles before dawn. I am too wasted.

The second day begins with a short, less -than-a-mile paddle from the state natural area to the juncture where Dolan Creek, the most abundant of 32 tributaries, meets the Devils. The meager flow builds into a churning and hissing torrent, climaxing at Dolan Falls. Water gushes through four chutes carved from solid rock, adorned with maidenhair fern. I’d seen a similar setting once before, at the Narrows on the Blanco. And like the Narrows, running one of those chutes likely would have terminal results. We scout and ponder, craning our necks, and decide to portage, following the metal arrows on the rocks on the left bank.

Dolan Creek’s recharge makes the last nine miles a pleasure. Rapids carry the boats instead of stopping them. Picking a path through the reeds becomes a game of chance. Pick the right chute and get easy passage. Pick wrong, get out and drag. I even find a couple of spots where I can point my boat upstream and surf.

Although we’ve seen a scattering of trailers and cabins, one two-story structure high on a ridge above the eastern bank that looks like a hotel or a resort is the first real sign of civilization, other than all the posted No Trespassing signs. It is tobacco lawyer John Eddie Williams’ Rio Vista Ranch, I later learn.

We find Gerald Bailey’s place with no problem. His hillside home is marked by a canoe jutting into the air. Gerald is out guiding a fishing trip, his wife tells us, but Don Kelley will be over in a minute to drive us back. Don, one of the few other full-time residents of the Blue Sage subdivision, used to be a hunter and a fisherman when he first visited the Devils, but since he moved to a house overlooking the river from a high bluff, he says he’s become a naturalist out of necessity. “You can’t do much of anything if you live here, other than be a screwaround, because it’s so remote and far away from everything,” he says while he ties down our boats and loads us into his Suburban.

I happily pay Kelley $150 to shuttle us back to Baker’s once I see what passes for roads on the Blue Sage subdivision and knowing the next takeout is another 20 miles downstream on a part of the river that is more like a dammed-up lake. It takes an hour to drive the 14 miles out to U.S. Highway 277, and almost another two hours back to either the natural area or Baker’s.

We talk about wild turkeys. I’ve seen more on the Devils than anywhere in my life. We talk about how rocks seem to hold heat in this part of Texas longer than anywhere else, how untamed the river gets when it does flood, and how the same landowners with the hostile reputations are actually protecting the river and the caves and pictographs by discouraging tourists. I marvel how I hadn’t seen a piece of trash anywhere on the entire trip.

We talk about rain, and how it almost never does in these parts.

Hauer figures he left at least $100 worth of his Perception’s bottom on the caustic limestone in the river. His first time on the Devils may be his last. Me, once again I swear on a stack of Bibles that I won’t do it again until there’s been a really, really big dump in its watershed, which may not happen again in my lifetime.

Then again, that’s what I said the last time around. Before Billy Joe Shaver started rumbling around in my head.

[More about Water]

[Additional information on river laws can be found on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Website at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers]


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Texas Water Safari

Texas Water Safari: 260 miles of rowing your boat

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 27, 2003

SAN MARCOS – To finish the Texas Water Safari, you have to paddle nonstop in a canoe or kayak for 260 miles from Aquarena Center in San Marcos (where Ralph the Diving Pig once performed) down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the flagpole at Bayfront Park in Seadrift, Texas.The safari, which was run earlier this month for the 41st year, is called "The World’s Toughest Boat Race." That’s justified by the distance; the rules (you must finish in 100 hours, and team captains supplying crews can provide only water and ice); the stamina (visualize sleep deprivation); and physical demands (millions of paddle strokes).

With more than 300 people racing solo or in teams of up to six people, the safari is also the Texas equivalent of climbing Mount Everest en masse.

Those who complete the race talk in glowing terms about the murky hell, riddled with snakes, fire ants and alligators awaiting them. They speak of the "Gnarly 40" – 40 miles of tree-clogged river channel between Staples and Palmetto State Park – as if it were a ride at Schlitterbahn. They wax nostalgic recounting trips down Hallucination Alley, which is wherever you get so tired you start seeing things.

They sure aren’t in it for the money. Complete the race in 100 hours or less, and you get a patch and a plaque. Be the first across the finish line, and a crowd of maybe 60 will be cheering.

Outside the norm

The Parkers of Tyler don’t appear too outside the norm – other than Marvin Parker, 53, and his brother Charles, 50, having matching gray beards long enough to give ZZ Top a run for the razor.

Then Luke, Marvin’s 16-year-old son, breaks into a goofy grin and says it: "We’re crazy."

Luke and Marvin won the parent-child division in 2001, the first year Luke raced. Last year, they were blown out when the legendary Mynars fielded a father-son team.

"It’s mostly mental," Marvin says. "Keep your mind right, and you’ll make it."

"That’s all I heard about it when I was a kid," Luke says. "How people start hallucinating after a while. That got me worried."

Are the stories true? "Well, I saw myself one time on the banks looking at me," Luke says. "That was scary."

"I saw a solid cement wall the first year," volunteers Marvin. "I was thinking if it didn’t go away, we were going over the dam. But it went away."

A few feet from the registration table, two novices, Julie Basham of Coppell and Ann Best of Houston, sort protein powder, coffee crystals, and some strange stuff called Gu. They declare they’re up for the challenge.

"We’re both 40," says Ms. Best, a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. "I’ve always wanted to do the safari. I just needed a victim to do it with me." She found one in Ms. Basham, her kayak class teacher. In the span of a few months, Ms. Basham had divorced, lost her job and lost her father.

"He’s riding with us," says Ms. Basham, reaching into their canoe and fetching a green pill bottle from a Styrofoam holder. "This is Dad – his ashes, actually. I’m going to spread them at Seadrift. Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish."

The two women have paddled 87 miles straight, practicing for the event – long enough for Ms. Best to have seen E.T. going through Hallucination Alley. Two hundred sixty miles is another matter.

Ms. Basham calculates 78 hours to finish.

"Maybe 80," Ms. Best hedges.

"Seventy-eight hours," Ms. Basham says emphatically, splashing bottled water on Ms. Best and soaking her SpongeBob T-shirt.

Adventure in life

Since 1992, save for one year, a Mynar or three have been in the winning boat. The patriarch, Joe Mynar, 55, a stout, steely-eyed truck driver from Kopperl, owns the Texas Water Safari, having racked up 14 wins.

"There’s not much adventure in life these days," he says. "Everything’s pretty much programmed. But for a few days, it’s you, your team, your boat and the river."

This year, Joe’s son, Brian, who lives in Abbott, and Joe’s brother, Fred, who lives in San Marcos, are racing in another boat.

Joe’s crew includes John Dunn, 36, a fire ant researcher and ex-paramedic from Austin who has racked up nine wins paddling with Mr. Mynar, along with Tom Goynes, 52, of San Marcos, a seven-time safari winner, and Bucky Chatham, 60, of Seadrift, a retired shrimper with cancer.

"He had surgery in November and wants to run the safari one more time," Joe Mynar says in a low voice, out of earshot of Mr. Chatham. "We just want to make sure we get him to the finish line."

The last two times a Mynar didn’t win, John Bugge, 52, did. The plumbing contractor from Bryan holds the record for finishing the safari – 25 times. This year, he’s paddling tandem with his granddaughter, Jessica, 9, the youngest entrant in the 2003 race.

Asked to explain why she’s going, the freckle-faced brunette giggles and shrieks, "For fun!" then grabs the hand of her sister, Cecili, 3, and runs off.

"We’ve done the San Marcos River maybe four times and almost all of the Guadalupe," Mr. Bugge says. "She’s practiced running logjams, riding currents, going through stuff in the middle of the night, sleeping, eating and relieving herself. She’s already decided she wants to go solo next year." Before she goes solo, though, they’ll have to finish together this year, he says.

Mr. Bugge’s goal is 55 hours in their 21-foot hybrid boat, if all goes according to plan.

"She doesn’t believe me when I tell her how hard it’s going to be," he says. "But if she finishes, she’ll know more than most adults know."

Donna Bugge, John’s wife, admits some friends think they’re crazy for letting Jessica race. "Then again, they think we’re crazy anyhow," she says.

More intense

This year’s celebrity, Ian Adamson, 38, is a professional adventure racer from Sydney, Australia, who’s won the Eco-Challenge four times.

Paddling with his friend West Hansen, 41, a broad-shouldered barn builder from Austin, Mr. Adamson compares the safari to a single leg of an Eco-Challenge. "But this is more intense. To me, this is the best boat race I’ve ever run, starting in a clear freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast. The barbecue at the end of the race certainly is unique."

Mr. Hansen estimates 40 hours. "If we get rain, maybe 38. At least in these conditions, we shouldn’t break the boat in half again."

Again?

Nearby, Elmer Haby, 48, inspects his 10-foot Minnow kayak. The Devine resident completed the safari with a partner 18 years ago. Now he’s ready to try it alone. "I’d like to finish under 100 hours," he allows as he lights up a cigarette.

He knows his boat is not made for long distances, and his friends have been second-guessing him, saying things such as, "Are you out of your mind?"

"Probably," he says. "But I won’t know until I try."

John Mark Harras’ blue button-down Oxford shirt, rattlesnake pantyhose and straw cowboy hat stand out in the crowd. He’s a "Cowboy," one of a six-man crew known for its over-the-top behavior. Mr. Harras, 44, of Houston, bubbles enthusiasm as he recounts throwing up during races ("You just keep paddling"), getting a fishhook stuck in his ear, and seeing things in Hallucination Alley.

"I used to race with a woman," Mr. Harras says. "One year, she pointed to the riverbank and said, ‘See that giant priest up there, praying for our sins?’ I looked. It wasn’t a priest. It was a great big Quaker Oats box."

The results

Fred and Brian Mynar and their crew, dressed in matching white hats and white shirts and paddling with military precision, were the first to Seadrift, arriving in the Sunday evening twilight, 36 hours and 15 minutes after departure.

John Mark Harras and his Cowboys were second in 40 hours, 4 minutes. Bucky Chatham came home to Seadrift with Joe Mynar’s crew in 42 hours, 35 minutes.

Jessica and John Bugge made it in 51 hours and 23 minutes. Luke and Marvin Parker clocked in at 61 hours, 43 minutes. Ann Best, Julie Basham and Julie’s father’s ashes finished in 79 hours, 29 minutes. Elmer Haby dropped out before the first checkpoint at Staples Dam, 16 miles from the start.

One racer suffered a snakebite, though he didn’t realize it until 80 miles later. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia sent several to hospitals. A thunderstorm over San Antonio Bay swamped four boats. Sane or insane, most will be back in the safari race for more next year.

Because it’s there.


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A Force of Nature

Canyon Lake

Water flows through a gorge created by the force of water raging below Canyon Lake during the record 2002 flood. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

A Force of Nature – Part One

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 4, 2003

Part 1 of the Current ‘s series on the Guadalupe River.

The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Groves of inexpressible beauty are found in this vicinity. The waters of the Guadalupe are clear, crystal and so abundant that it seemed almost incredible to us that its source arose so near. It makes a delightful grove for recreation.
– Father Isidro Felix Espinosa, 1716

The Guadalupe River springs to life in western Kerr County, where the rugged, rocky Hill Country fades into the Edwards Plateau. Emerging from cracks and fissures in the sun-bleached limestone, the river’s pale blue-green waters run swift and pure as it begins its 230-mile journey across the heart of Texas to the coastal plains, San Antonio Bay, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.

The first mention of the Guadalupe in modern literature came around 1528 when the Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca tried to establish a colony near present-day Victoria. Held captive by Indians before walking across the state on his way to Mexico, de Vaca described a “river of nuts” in his writings, in recognition of the abundant pecan trees growing on its banks and in the river’s fertile bottoms. The river was formally named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in honor of the patron saint of Mexico. Referred to today as both the “Gwad-ah-loopy” or the “Gwad-a-loop,” it is neither Texas’ longest or the biggest of the state’s 15 major rivers, but rather the most quintessentially Texan.

Links to the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.

Part 1: A Force of Nature
The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Part 2: Down The Drain
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll.

Part 3: The Dead Zone
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County — at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods

Part 4: Fresh Water Fight
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy

Within the Guadalupe basin are Texas’ most prestigious summer camps for boys and girls, which have shaped and formed nature experiences for several generations of the richest and most powerful people in the state.

The basin also holds the two biggest springs in the Southwest – one of which has been continuously occupied and used by humans for at least 12,000 years, although it is more famous as the former home of Ralph the Diving Pig

The Guadalupe is also Texas’ most heavily used riverfront, drawing millions of visitors to a 25-mile stretch for the simple pleasure of floating downstream in inner tubes and more exciting thrills of rafting and kayaking.

San Antonio’s most popular lake, America’s No. 1 water park, and the Whooping Crane, the tallest bird in North America and the most celebrated endangered species this side of the grizzly bear, all lie inside the watershed.

As the water turns muddier and the flow increases downstream to the point where its riverbanks are as much as a mile wide, the river provides sustenance for a multitude of farm crops, including a substantial pecan industry, for raising livestock in what is considered the Cradle of Texas Cattle Ranching, and for hunting, fishing, and shrimping, worth tens of millions of dollars every year.

The Guadalupe also provides sustenance to millions of Texans who depend on the river for drinking water and related municipal uses.

But for all those attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe is also Texas’ most troubled river. In 2002, American Rivers, a non-profit conservation group, designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population booms, the river’s ability to sustain is no longer a given.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Guadalupe is an extremely tough river to tame. The one significant reservoir, Canyon Dam, is saddled with the impossible task of holding back floodwaters in a region known as Flashflood Alley, which registers the highest number of deaths due to flash floods in the United States and has recorded two 250-year flood events in the past five years. Even when the engineering works as intended – as did the spillway in July 2002 when lake water flowerd over the passage for the first time since the dam structures were erected in 1962 – more than $85 million in damage was done downstream. Without the dam, it would have been twice as bad. Still, the topography changes so dramatically that, often as not, by holding water behind the dam and regulating its flow, flooding lasts longer farther downstream.

More threatening is the combustible mix of historic laws, traditions, wasteful practices, a statewide and regional mandate for communities to secure sufficient water supplies through 2050, and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand already outstrips the existing supply.

“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” Mark Twain once observed. A century-and-a-half later, water has become the New Oil in Texas, a commodity meant to be moved and sold, always flowing toward money, made possible by a series of state laws passed since 1997 and an antiquated law that won’t go away.

That outmoded law is the Rule of Capture – the building block of Texas water law. Groundwater – water that lies under the ground – belongs to the owner of the property above it. In contrast, surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and bays, belong to the people of the state, a doctrine most Western states apply to both surface and groundwater. Texas is the sole Western state where Rule of Capture is still observed.

After regional infighting and several lawsuits, the Texas Legislature formed the Edwards Aquifer Authority and groundwater districts to monitor pumping as a way to prevent a property owner from draining his neighbor’s water. There are 87 conservation districts statewide, some of which have attempted to restrict water from being moved out of their jurisdiction. This prompted several bills to be filed during the 2003 legislative session that would have given the state the authority to overrule actions of local districts, negating the purpose of a district in the first place.

Beyond the boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer and local groundwater districts, pumping of groundwater has increased to the point where demand outstrips supply. Pumping in unregulated parts of Comal and Hays counties – in the Guadalupe Basin – has already exceeded sustainability, a process accelerated by an explosion of development including more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.

The Region L water district, which includes San Antonio and most of the Guadalupe River basin, has determined that for San Antonio to sustain its growth and prosper through 2050, it needs to secure 200,000 acre feet of water per year (an acre foot of water is 325,850 gallons). The planning group has set a deadline of 2010 to implement numerous strategies to satisfy municipal and industrial demands, including conservation and leasing irrigation water from farmers with Edwards Aquifer permits. That has prompted the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA), and private companies to look for more water.

Tully and Virginia Shahan

Second- and third-generation ranchers Tully Shahan and his mother Virginia Webb Shahan stand near a spring-fed stream on the family’s land in Kinney County.
(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

“The Guadalupe is where the rubber meets the road.”
– Bill West, general manager, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority

When the Edwards Aquifer Authority was being formed in 1991, Zack Davis and Tully Shahan were among the handful of Kinney County officials petitioning the EAA to leave the county out of the authority’s jurisdiction. Only 16 percent of the aquifer lies under the county, amounting to 5,000 acre feet. The EAA obliged.

Thirteen years later, Tully Shahan, now the county attorney, wishes the EAA would have turned down the county officials’ request.

That is because the EAA’s decision to accommodate the request led Davis to seek out partners to help sell his groundwater. Landowners within the EAA’s jurisdiction are limited to selling and moving no more than 50 percent of the water they use; outside the EAA’s jurisdiction, such as in Kinney County, landowners can sell and move as much water as they want.

Shahan and his wife, Darlene, who is the general manager of the recently formed Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, lead the local opposition to exporting water from the county. Without regulation, they contend, the county’s groundwater will be mined and moved to satisfy the thirsts of cities and towns elsewhere. Property owners, including Zach Davis, who are eager to lease or sell their water, will profit at the expense of everyone else, they say.

The Shahans have felt the effects of pumping groundwater. In 1963, a neighbor drilled two wells 300 yards from the Shahan ranch, producing 2,000 gallons of water per minute that irrigated onions and other produce on their neighbor’s property. “That same year, we lost six windmills and the use of 7,200 acres of land,” Tully Shahan recalls. “My dad had to move over and start drilling for more water. He had to drill 200 feet deeper. Those wells still produce water today.”

Kinney County’s water surplus, the decline of the local agricultural economy, and the county’s location beyond the EAA’s regulatory reach has made it an ideal target for groundwater marketers. At least four groups of speculators have acquired water rights in the county to mine, market, and move groundwater somewhere else, most likely to SAWS and Bexar Metropolitan Water District in San Antonio, and the cities of Eagle Pass and Laredo.

These are not just any players. Davis sought out some of the state’s biggest water industry people:

  • One consortium of investor partnerships, the Native Valley Cooperative, has extensive ties to Austin politicians, lobbyists, and real estate developers.
  • The chairman of the WaterTexas Corporation managing the alliance is former State Senator Buster Brown (D-Lake Jackson), who spearheaded the overhaul of Texas water laws that his company is now trying to exploit.
  • Another WaterTexas principal is Dan Pearson, the former executive director of the state’s environmental protection agency. He is now a lobbyist for HillCo Partners LLC, one of Austin’s most powerful lobby firms; another HillCo partner, Bill Miller, represents the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.
  • Craig Pedersen, the ex-executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, is a consultant to WaterTexas.

The Edwards Aquifer links Kinney County with the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, some 50 miles northeast, and to Comal Springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, more than 125 miles east. The aquifer’s sustaining powers are visible driving west from San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90. On both sides of the road, fields of onions, corn, sorghum, oats, wheat, cabbage, spinach, cucumbers, and pickles flourish in the hot sun. They survive the heat thanks to irrigation pivots, mechanical contraptions resembling giant grasshoppers that draw water from several hundred feet below the topsoil. Despite the desiccated landscape, there is an abundance of good groundwater below, so much that in some places, such as Zach Davis’ spring, water requires no encouragement to gush up in an artesian flow.

But the fields where the crops grow need the pumps to move water in the large volumes needed. Without the pumps and the Edwards Aquifer, Kinney County would have virtually no economy and little reason to exist.

Five years ago, the Shahans attended a Rotary Club meeting where the chairman of the Region L Planning Committee, which includes San Antonio, was speaking.

“He said people wanted to sell water outside of the county,” Darlene Shahan says.

“Including our next door neighbor,” Tully Shahan adds. “We worried we’d lose water on our land because our neighbor wanted to sell. We started going to conferences of all kinds, even environmental meetings, trying to learn about what was going on. The more we learned, the more we realized we got a problem here and it’s countywide … One landowner I went to said he was told by Zach Davis not to worry if his springs dried up because he’d be so rich, he could live anywhere.”

Tim Brown, an attorney who represents 12 water districts, reportedly told the Shahans that forming a groundwater conservation district was the only way to protect themselves.

In 1949, the Texas Legislature gave local voters the option to create groundwater conservation districts as a tool to manage groundwater pumping without having to address the Rule of Capture. Groundwater districts continue to be promoted by the Texas Water Development Board as the “preferred means” to manage groundwater locally.

Tully Shahan began organizing to create a groundwater conservation district; State Representative Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) produced a bill for Kinney County. “But when it got to the Senate Natural Resources Committee they roughed us up,” Shahan says. “[State Senator Frank] Madla [D-San Antonio] was getting pressure from Eagle Pass. They already had contracts to mine water in Kinney County.”

Guadalupe River

The Guadalupe River makes its way towards the public boat ramps and an RV park under I-35 in New Braunfels. Communities along the river depend on tourism and water recreation as a sizable part of their local economy. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Gallego informed the Shahans the bill wouldn’t get out of committee until groundwater district proponents met with representatives of the lobbying firm, HillCo Partners. The county judge, two county commissioners, the whole Fort Clark Springs Municipal Utility District board, ranchers and farmers showed up to talk to Dan Pearson and Jay Howard of HillCo Partners. “They told us they wanted us to meet with their local representatives, Zachary Davis [who also sits on the board of the groundwater district] and Jim McDaniel,” Tully Shahan recalls. “McDaniel is a pure farmer. Davis is a veterinarian who owns the hardware store. Both have artesian wells on their land. Zach turns on his well and water flows out of the ground. Zach and Jim both said, ‘We don’t want anything.'”

But during legislative committee meetings, Tully Shahan claims Zach Davis told him, “You’re never going to able to function because we’ll tie you up with lawsuits and in court, and flood you with paperwork.”

Darlene Shahan says the groundwater district lacks the resources to respond. “The board members are volunteers. Our budget is less than $68,000. We’d like to be spending that on research, but because of HillCo and the legislature’s pressure on us, we’re spending most of that on attorneys’ fees fighting the lobbyists.”

Tully Shahan contends more studies are needed to determine if Kinney County can withstand extensive pumping. “No one knows what the impact will be if 200,000 acre feet is being pumped out of the county. It’s all driven by money of course. What’s going to happen when that flow isn’t there?”

Vic Hildebrand, general manager of the neighboring Uvalde Underground Conservation District, the only district in Texas regulating four aquifers, has been watching the fight next door. He thinks the Kinney County district has been unfairly picked on.

“My deal since day one is we can give up a certain amount of water and anyone who wants to participate in the game can make money on it – I’m all for making money – but I want to know what the results of pumping will be and what protections will be in place before I give out a permit. I want San Antonio to get water. But I don’t think they should be stifling my growth at my expense.”

Hildebrand sees two sticking points: One is the pipeline and who wants to run water through it, the other is the private-public arrangement.

“We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water.”
– Darlene Shahan

“It’s the water purveyors who want to build it, not SAWS or anyone in San Antonio. The thinking is, when the pipe is built, SAWS will buy the water. That’s not how it’s done. When Disney built the park in Orlando, the first thing they did was buy all the real estate they’d ever need.

Then they announced they were building Disney World. That’s what SAWS is doing in Gonzales with the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. They’re leasing water rights first before they build a pipeline. Second, why would they want to buy water from the purveyors when they can buy or lease the water rights themselves, and control the process from the ground to the faucet?”

Darlene Shahan thought the groundwater district was the right move for Kinney County. Now she’s not so sure. “We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water,” she says with an audible sigh. “They’ve got a whole lot more money and a whole lot more influence than this little place will ever have.”

Groundwater districts, she says, are hamstrung by the Texas Legislature. “We’re prevented from treating farmers using irrigation for agriculture any differently from water exporters. If we permit a farmer five acre feet to irrigate, we can’t change the permit if he decides to sell that water to San Antonio.”

About the best the groundwater district can hope for, Darlene Shahan says, is for the Edwards Aquifer Authority to step in. “If there’s abuse, the Edwards Aquifer Authority says they’ll come in and do something about it. For me, having the EAA assist would be a blessing because we’re not financially equipped to fight the biggest water marketers in the state.”

That is unlikely because the Legislature has to approve any changes to the EAA.

Tully Shahan wants to believe landowners who want to sell their water and landowners who don’t want to sell can coexist peacefully in Kinney County. “We’re not opposed to selling water. We never have been. But let’s do it with controls where what’s taken out doesn’t exceed recharge,” he says. “We want to protect people who do want to farm here in the future. We have a rechargeable asset here that’s free. We should scale back to a level that’s rechargeable. That way, we’ll all be making money for years.”

Bob Wickman

“If we allow GBRA to destroy the Guadalupe and Canyon Lake, and all they mean for our economy, we’ll be just another dry, struggling Texas county,” says Bob Wickman, a member of the citizens’ group, Friends of Canyon Lake. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Down the Drain – Part Two

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 11, 2003

Part 2 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll
.

When Bob Wickman started to build his dream home, the 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and his wife, Nancy McDonald, 56, an advertising executive, chose a hillside site overlooking the south shore of Canyon Lake. Thirty miles north of San Antonio, it was “one of the most picturesque places they had ever seen,” Wickman says.

Less than a year after the building project was finally finished, Wickman stood in front of the picture window with the million-dollar lake view, shaking his head with disgust. It wasn’t because the lake was a muddy brown mess following rains that dumped 20 inches in less than a week, submerging docks, blotting out the shoreline, and inundating roads. It was the prospect that in the coming years, there could be no lake at all.

Wickman and four other men gathered around the table – Everett Deschner, Bob Watts, Bob Carter, and Gorman Dorsey – are members of Friends of Canyon Lake, a group claiming a membership of 3,000 that represents homeowners’ interests around the lake. The group is engaged in a Texas death match with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the agency that manages the Guadalupe basin.

The GBRA has successfully applied to the state to take twice as much water from the lake as previously allowed and sell, treat, and deliver it. Potential buyers are municipalities, businesses, and developers including the cities of Bulverde, Fair Oaks Ranch, and Boerne in western Comal County; SAWS, Bexar Met, and SARA in San Antonio – much of it outside the GBRA’s 10-county jurisdiction. Other suitors are subdivisions and golf courses in unincorporated areas of Bexar, Comal, and Kendall counties including the controversial PGA Village resort; and booming Austin suburbs including Blanco, Buda, and Kyle, the latter of which was fined $160,000 last year for overdrawing 60 million gallons beyond their authorized pumping limits from the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

While water from Canyon Lake would satisfy the demands of those growing communities and developments, Wickman and the other men think the GBRA can and will drain the lake for profit, regardless how that impacts people who live and rely on the lake. So they have challenged the GBRA – at hearings, in state court, and now in federal court.

“We’re being asked to sacrifice our future to accommodate the future growth of other communities, many of which are using golf courses to attract more residents and visitors,” Wickman said, the others nodding in agreement. “It’s as ridiculous as draining the San Antonio River Walk so Comal County can grow.”

While the men talked that morning in July 2002, water rushed over the spillway, just south of the dam, for the first time since the lake started to fill in 1964. The hydraulic torrent carved a deep gorge out of the rolling Hill Country landscape, doing 1,500 years’ worth of erosion in a matter of weeks. Horseshoe Falls directly below the dam disappeared. Farther downstream toward Gruene, through New Braunfels, and along Lake McQueeney toward Seguin, more than 400 homes were being flooded, causing more than $87 million in damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated damage to the Army’s parks, recreational facilities, and infrastructure alone was at least $12 million. Lake and river businesses would lose more than $1 million a day through the end of the season, according to the Water Oriented Recreation District that monitors business activity on the Guadalupe below the dam. Comal County lost $800,000 in sales tax revenues. Both the City of New Braunfels and Comal County were forced to make personnel cuts as a result of lost income.

The five men around Wickman’s table agreed that as bad as the flooding was, the pipeline could have more a long-term negative impact on the 34,000 people who live around the lake and the hundreds of businesses that serve them.

Since Canyon Lake was created, the GBRA has been allowed by permit to take an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the lake to service municipalities and businesses – about one-sixth of its capacity; although no more than 17,000 acre feet has been diverted in a single year. (An acre foot of water is about 325,850 gallons of water.)

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Friends of Canyon Lake formed in response to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality’s decision in 2001 to amend the GBRA’s permit and increase the allowable amount to an average 90,000 acre-feet annually and as much as 120,000 acre-feet in a given year.

The increase reflects the GBRA’s rising profile as a water purveyor competing with other river authorities, public entities, and private businesses to move water to where there is demand for it. With no budgetary support from the state or other government bodies, the GBRA depends on capturing, distributing, and selling surface water, which is theoretically owned by the people of Texas.

But not everyone is buying in. Although Friends of Canyon Lake have been consistently vocal, even supporters such as the Comal County Commissioners Court howled, as they did in August 2002 when the locations of the three pipeline intakes in the lake were announced. The lowest intake is to be sited at 810 feet above sea level, just 16 feet above the historic riverbed. “No water intakes should be allowed below 850 feet,” County Judge Danny Scheel told the Express-News last year. “It’s ridiculous. Just the thought of them sucking the lake down to the last drop blows my mind.”

Bill West, general manager of GBRA, has stated the water will be above the lowest intake level 97 percent of the time, or about three days a year. GBRA spokesperson Judy Garner said the lowest intake would be used in only a worst-case scenario.

“It is a slap in the face to let the public even think the GBRA would take this down to that low of a level, regardless,” Judge Scheel replied.

Former New Braunfels City Councilwoman Juliet Watson said the intake locations confirmed her initial suspicions: that profiteering is pushing these decisions. “There is going to be no lake if they have their way. It’s all about money and selling as much water as they can, while destroying the ecosystem, destroying the livelihoods of people at the lake and destroying the Guadalupe River.”

For close to 50 years, Canyon Dam worked as its builders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, intended. Whenever flash floods broke out in the Hill Country, as they do more frequently and with more force than anywhere else in the United States, the dam held back excess waters, releasing the floodwater downstream in a kinder, gentler flow.

Built for the same purpose as other lakes in Texas – to hold back floodwaters and store water during dry spells, an almost a permanent condition in Central Texas – Canyon Dam unwittingly started the tourism industry that dominates Comal County. The dam formed Canyon Lake, the largest and most popular lake for recreation near San Antonio, and home to five marinas, seven parks, and two military recreational areas. According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the lake logs more than 1 million recreational user visits per year.

Dennis Szewczyk

Comal County resident Dennis Szewczyk (center) comments on the issues during a recent town hall meeting near Canyon Lake. About 250 local concerned citizens attended the meeting held by the Friends of Canyon Lake to discuss the future of Canyon Lake and outline thier legal case against GBRA and TCEQ. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The dam also transformed the 25 miles of river below it into the state’s most heavily used riverfront for recreation. Floating the Guadalupe in an inner tube is practically a Texas tradition, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors on summer holiday weekends. More than 4 million visits to the lake and the river below are recorded annually. And because the water comes off the bottom of the dam, it runs swift, clear, and cool enough at a constant 60 degrees to foster Texas’ only year-round trout fishery.

Lake and river users have consistently voiced concerns that the increased amount of withdrawals by the GBRA will also increase the frequency that the lake will dip below the 903 feet level deemed the minimum for recreational activities on the lake and the river below it. Only one time since the lake was impounded 40 years ago has the level dropped below 899 feet. Yet, by the GBRA’s own estimates, with the increased withdrawal, the lake will fall below that minimum level 10 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, recreation doesn’t count in Texas water politics. “Recreation is not an intended purpose of Canyon Reservoir,” Bill West has stated. According to the authority’s official terminology, Canyon Lake isn’t a lake, but a reservoir, its water meant to be sold and used.

Try telling that to the hundreds of businesses on the lake and river that rely on visitors to fuel Comal County’s economy. Or to the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the United States, which sued GBRA to guarantee a minimum flow for trout to survive in the river. Or to the Army Corps, for whom the lake generates more income than any Corps-managed park in Texas.

Friends of Canyon Lake have responded to the GBRA plan with a litany of charges:

  • Increasing the withdrawal of water from the lake will compromise water quality. Environmental engineers fear that GBRA will siphon the “sweet” water from more oxygenated level of the lake, Bob Wickman says, leaving lake residents with turbid, dead water.
  • The planned expansion of the Canyon Parks Estate Wastewater Treatment Plant, built and operated by the GBRA to service the Silverleaf “Hill Country Resort” timeshare apartment community which discharges treated sewage directly into the lake isn’t helping.
  • No thorough environmental impact studies were done prior to TCEQ’s approval of doubling the GBRA’s allowable limit from Canyon Lake, although GBRA did conduct a Canyon Reservoir Benefits Study – after the fact.

The approved amount of withdrawal violates the Texas Water Board’s original decision issued in 1958 that limited withdrawal to just 50,000 acre feet a year through 2008. Extra withdrawals could legally empty the reservoir. State courts respectfully disagreed. The local economy will be destroyed. The dollars don’t lie. Whatever amount of money generated by delivering more water to meet growing demand, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic losses suffered by area businesses during periods of low and no water. Bob Wickman uses the July 2002 flood as an analogy. George Cushanick, the Water Oriented Recreation District manager in Sattler, reportedly told Wickman that last summer about $1 million per week in business revenue was lost because flooding closed the lake and river. Wickman estimates the flood’s economic impact would be similar to that of lake/river closure due to low water.

Recreation is now a federally sanctioned activity, even if Canyon is a reservoir and not a lake, as GBRA insists. The National Recreation Lakes Act of 2001 passed by Congress to privatize recreational opportunities on public lands including Corps land on Canyon Lake, encourages industrial-strength recreation. Like power generation, irrigation, and yes, water sales, recreation is a beneficial use.

To gain political support of those same buyers in applying for the increase, GBRA was aggressively seeking water buyers before applying for the amended permit. By making token deals with SAWS and Bexar Met, GBRA was also trying to establish precedent to sell water out of its 10-county jurisdiction. The backroom negotiations may not be against the law, but they do speak volumes how done deals get done.

GBRA already mismanages the lake. It is in charge of allocating and releasing water that is above the 909 feet conservation pool. Below that level, the Army Corps of Engineers calls the shots. Criticism has echoed downstream all the way to the coast about how and when the GBRA releases water above 909 feet.

The GBRA responded with advertisements in local newspapers describing opponents of the deal as self-interested obstructionists.

In turn, the obstructionists presented the TCEQ petitions with 8,000 names. The Friends filed 59 allegations of administrative violations by GBRA and TCEQ. Twice, the TCEQ denied Friends of Canyon Lake a hearing. The Third Court of Appeals rebuffed the Friends’ appeal. Last January, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

Water Tower

A water intake tower juts out of Canyon lake Dam. Due to a wet year, the lake level remains normal. Increasing water demands are threatening the lake. Some local residents fear the lake’s future is uncertain. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Now they’re taking it to the next level, hiring Houston water lawyer Jim Blackburn, who in August filed an attorneys’ request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an environmental impact statement. Turned down, Friends of Canyon Lake will take the case to court, and their lawyers are likely to dwell upon the potential collapse of real estate values and the school tax base if the GBRA renders the lake unusable.

Blackburn has a track record for stopping projects including the Dallas Floodway on the Trinity River and the Wallisville Reservoir. He is working farther downstream on the Guadalupe, representing interests opposed to GBRA pipeline project. He says the GBRA’s use of state laws to manipulate its draw is irrelevant since federal courts are hearing the case. “Canyon is a federal lake and subject to federal environmental laws,” Blackburn said. “That’s different than Texas law, and requires that certain procedures be followed. We have been hired to make sure that every step taken by GBRA complies with federal law. If it does not, we intend to sue.”

Attorneys’ fees were already in the hundreds of thousands to work through Texas’ courts and may soon reach $1 million. It is expensive to fight authorities and governmental oversight, but there is no choice, Wickman says. They have a stake in the lake, and the government isn’t going to take it away from them until it pries their cold, dead bodies out of it.

Bob Wickman compares the strategies employed by the GBRA, developers, attorneys, and politicians as straight from the script of the film Chinatown, with San Antonio in the role of Los Angeles, out to steal water and dry up the Guadalupe like LA did to the Owens Valley in the early 20th century. In this contemporary Texas scenario, like in old Southern Calfornia, the dealmakers are willing to do anything to get water, or so goes the implication. “GBRA will not be satisfied until they have obligated for processing and distribution every drop in the lake and river,” he says. “It is all revenue for them.”

For Wickman, it’s just his life.

John and Sue Gibbs

John and Sue Gibbs’ once-fertile ranchland is now under water much of the year, attracting alligators where grass once grew. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Dead Zone – Part Three

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 18, 2003

Part 3 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County – at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.

John Gibbs stands by the special barge he built last year on his 1,000- acre ranch south of Victoria and grimaces. “I had to build this so I could feed my cattle,” he says in a soft, sullen voice.

With the barge, he explains, he could load four round bales of hay and motor down the temporary bayou to areas of his ranch where cattle were stranded. “I just worked my rear end off and wore out my knees trying to load into that boat.”

Gibbs’ 1,000-acre ranch lies below the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, about 25 miles from the mouth of San Antonio Bay. Until mid-June 2002, it was dry and lush with thick clumps of grasses, but for the next nine months, much of his land was under water. As Gibbs drove around his land in a pickup this summer, he surveyed the damage. The palmetto palms were thriving. So were Chinese tallow and willow. The oaks, some standing, some fallen, some as tall as 60 feet, weren’t doing so well.

“All this was big oaks,” Gibbs says, waving his arm all around. “They’re dead now. If they’re not dead, they’re dying. See the water marks on the fence post? We knew it’d flood. This is river bottom. But not for nine months.

“Bill West [of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority] says it’s been this way for millions of years, but these big ol’ trees didn’t grow in the water.”

The Gibbs bought the ranch along the Guadalupe bottoms in 1989. He leased it for 15 years before that from the previous owner and ran cattle – long enough to see a slow degradation in the land. “This used to be farmland. But for the past 15 years it’s got worse and worse. In ’87 we were flooded for two months. In ’90, ’91 it’d been flooded for two months. In ’98 it was six months. This year was nine.”

Gibbs and his wife Sue, have been fighting the GBRA for more than a decade. With their neighbors, they have formed the Guadalupe-San Antonio River Valley Organization, petitioning local, state, and national authorities to hear their plight.

Gibbs remembers how it used to be. “Before dams were built, the main channel feeding Guadalupe Bay and San Antone Bay was what I call an estuary where crabs and shrimp get their start. Guadalupe Bay and Mission Lake was all estuary. Green Lake was the largest tidal lake in Texas, full of trout and redfish.”

A channel cut to divert freshwater to the Union Carbide plant and nearby farmers a half-century ago decimated the area’s ecology. “They stopped the flow so the natural river couldn’t clean itself out,” Gibbs says. “Now it’s depositing so much silt in Green Lake it doesn’t reach the saltwater anymore. It’s lost its productiveness. Very little nutrients and salts are getting into the delta.”

The perils of a pipeline

The GBRA’s solution is not one Gibbs is excited about accepting. “Bill West said, ‘If we can’t solve the problem, we’ll buy the land.’ Trouble is, we don’t want to sell the land. This was the best place in the world until they fouled it up.”

By the time the Guadalupe River reaches Victoria, its green-blue patina has turned a thick, viscous brown from 100 miles of blackland sediment. The river, broader and wider than upstream, is vital to the region, going back to the 19th century when Irish immigrants put down roots and started running cattle around Victoria, Goliad, Refugio and Cuero. O’Connors, Dunns, Fagans, McFaddins, and Welders, five and six generations down the line, still hold considerable sway in Victoria, thanks in no small part to significant deposits of gas and oil under that ranchland.

Water may be their next play.

South of Victoria, State Highway 239 cuts through the Fleming Prairie to link Goliad with Tivoli (or ‘Tie-voh-lah’ as the locals call it) near the lip of San Antonio Bay. Parts of the two-lane blacktop divide O’Connor land from Welder land.

At the center of the families’ disagreement is the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project, the centerpiece of the Region L water plan. The GBRA, with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the San Antonio River Authority, wants to build a 127-mile pipeline from below the Guadalupe River’s confluence with the San Antonio River southeast of Victoria back to San Antonio and Bexar County. Beginning in 2011, the pipeline will deliver up to 289,000 acre feet of river water and groundwater a year, according to the GBRA, thereby reducing demand on the Edwards Aquifer.

The cost of the project is estimated at $785 million, considerably higher than the $475 million predicted two years ago. While the Guadalupe River would be the primary water source for the pipeline, groundwater would be used during droughts and/or low river flow. By 2050, if GBRA’s projections are accurate, the pipeline will no longer carry river and groundwater, but desalinated water from the Gulf of Mexico. J.F. Welder Heirs Ltd., which oversees the family’s business, has entered into agreements with the GBRA to lease 20,000 acres of land in Refugio County to sell groundwater to the GBRA and store water in reservoirs on their land. The arrangement would earn the family $4.5 million through 2012, according to planning documents.

But the O’Connors don’t want to sell their groundwater. Nor do they want their neighbors, such as the Welders, selling water, although in Texas, without a local groundwater conservation district to regulate pumping, landowners can sell as much as they want to whomever they want.

“What’s going to happen to our water wells?” asks D.M. O’Connor spokesman Bill Jones. “We’ve got hundreds of them. Are we going to have to drill deeper? It doesn’t seem right that a ranching family that means so much to the economy and environment of the region is going to have their water taken from under them.”

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

It isn’t just the D.M. O’Connor interests, Jones says. “We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”

One bone of contention is just the amount of water the pipeline intends to take out of the area. When the proposal was first presented to the public, the project was scaled at 94,500 acre feet of water a year, Jones says. “All of a sudden, the permit application is for 289,000 acre feet. It’s very difficult to assess.”

[Bill West of the GBRA explained that the average take of river water would be around 30,000 acre feet a year; groundwater use would range from 14,000 to 40,000 acre feet. The 289,000 figure would be used only during the first year following a drought of record.]

“The GBRA says the pipeline will reduce San Antonio’s dependence on the Edwards Aquifer, and by doing that, Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs will have an increased flow, so there will be more water in the river downstream,” says Bill Jones. “We’ve questioned the rationale of this calculation. What happens in drought years? There’s no margin of error. It scares the hell out of us.”

The Welders’ water resource manager, James Dodson, a biologist at the Coastal Studies Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, calculates there is plenty of groundwater. Bill Jones understands the Welders’ position. “The Welders feel like they’re looking after the best interests of their family. We’re looking out for interests of our family and the region. If the project doesn’t work, Du Pont, Dow, everyone is in trouble.”

The O’Connors went public with their displeasure last January before the start of the 78th Texas Legislature, rolling out heavy public relations artillery at a press conference in Victoria. Representatives of the Coastal Conservation Association sportfishing group, the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, the Calhoun County Shrimper’s Association, and Mark Rose, the former executive director of the Lower Colorado River Authority (and Bill West’s boss before West left to run the GBRA) stood around Jones.

At the press conference, Rose said the true intent of GBRA, SAWS, and SARA was “to take as much water from the Victoria area as they can … unless the community unites to oppose this diversion application, this water will be taken away and never seen again in this part of Texas.”

West dismisses the opponents as “a handful of folks down there who want to stand in the way of millions of people who need water.” He chalks up the opposition to the pipeline to a combination of the property rights stigma, distrust of government including local groundwater districts, a dislike of San Antonio, the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard), and a generational split between younger people interested in their water rights and an old crowd that isn’t.

Jones vows to keep the pressure on.

“They’ll start building in four years,” Jones says. “We want them to slow down. It’s not what you can see. It’s what you can’t see. We’ve got some fuzzy math going on down here.”

Art Dohmann

Balancing the impact of exporting groundwater with the expense of desalinization concerns Art Dohmann, head of the Goliad Groundwater District. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Ecology, livelihoods threatened

On April 15, about 100 people, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, filled the gallery of a federal district courtroom in downtown Victoria to discuss flooding in the Guadalupe delta, where the Guadalupe River meets the San Antonio River below Victoria on its last 50 miles to San Antonio Bay and the Gulf Coast.

The subject of the meeting, largely forgotten in the fuss over the GBRA’s pipeline proposal, was the GBRA’s stewardship of the river. It is an extremely important issue to the owners of more than 25,000 acres in Victoria County that have been flooded for nine straight months, rendering the property worthless. The long stretch of inundation is largely attributed to the record floods in 1998 and 2002, but anecdotal evidence indicates flooding has become more frequent over the past half-century.

Some pointed fingers to diversion dams and historic logjams in the river that have never been dislodged. The dams, initially built in the ’30s and ’40s to irrigate rice fields, are maintained by the GBRA and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Although rice farming is no longer sustainable without heavy federal subsidies, the dams continue to divert river water to a Union Carbide plant. Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish. The lack of fresh water is killing the bay and ruining livelihoods.

The GBRA’s Bill West observed the delta has been changing course and wandering for centuries, adding “And it will continue to meander for millions of years.”

The critics contended otherwise. If GBRA can’t steward this part of the river, why believe its promises about the pipeline, which sounds more like a pipe dream?

A broad range of water interests were represented among the 70 invitees to a closed session – landowners, seven of the nine GBRA directors, representatives from the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, Texas Parks & Wildlife, county judges, shrimpers, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Ken Schustereit, the water activist who led the defeat of a groundwater district for Victoria.

“We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”
– Bill Jones

Using graphs and slides, Bill West presented a history of engineering and water flow on the lower part of the river, revealing an ugly truth: What often solves problems upstream exacerbates them downstream. This is a tough river to steward, especially above the delta. “It doesn’t take much of a flood event to have the river go out of its banks at several locations,” West explained.

John and Sue Gibbs were given time to make a presentation too. Sue Gibbs acknowledged the havoc that nature can wreak. “But we’ve reached a point where continuous flooding is no longer a natural occurrence. A nine-month flood is not a natural occurrence.”

The Gibbs’ once fertile cropland now attracts alligators. “Some of you have been told the land we live on is worthless swampland,” Gibbs said. “It’s beautiful land – far from being worthless and worthy of being saved.

“Our land should not line the pockets of those in the water business,” Gibbs added emphatically. “We should be able to use our private property. Those appointed to manage from the lake to the bay, their responsibilities do not stop at the saltwater barrier dam. Trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are dying because they’ve been under water so long.”

Wesley Blevins, representing shrimpers in Calhoun County, also spoke. “Water is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “San Antonio Bay is still fresh, and we don’t have a flood. Salinity on the west side of the bay is increasing. We need those places opened back up and the water getting back into all the right places. Millions of dollars have been destroyed because this is the most productive bay on the Texas coast. This bay is getting so messed up, you can’t hardly fish.”

Out of balance

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” Ken Schustereit says by way of introduction. A big man with a beard dressed in blue work overalls and Coast Guard gimme cap, the 47-year-old Schustereit is leader of the Water Research Group in Victoria, an ad hoc organization that led the opposition against a groundwater district for Victoria in 2001, and has since allied itself with environmentalists and angry landowners against the pipeline project and the GBRA.

Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish.

He’s directing criticism where it is most needed, he says. “What I’ve tried to get across is the three prime movers in the Region L – San Antonio, GBRA, and SARA- all three have problems with ethics, administrations, and corruption.”

In his perfect world, Schustereit would like the diversion dams on the Guadalupe below Victoria to be removed, the logjams unjammed, and have the GRBA audited and revamped. “Water is power, economic development, so San Antonio can grow beyond the capacity of its natural resource. Downstream it’s no different,” Schustereit says. “Why sell water out of Lavaca County, the number two cattle producing county in the state of Texas and risk killing cattle production to promote the growth of San Antonio? If you dry up Lavaca County, who’s going to feed you?”

If nothing else, his complaints are having an impact. A June meeting of the Water Research Group attracted 375 people including State Senator Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria. Armbrister told the gathering that the pipeline is not a done deal, and proposed Schustereit be added to a committee studying the pipeline, which has been done.

Despite Armbrister’s overtures, Schustereit remains unmoved. “When you and I were in the second grade, we were taught that occasional flooding of river valleys left nutrients that made the soil more productive. River bottom property in my grandfather’s day made a man rich. River bottom property in this basin today is a curse. Farm and ranch land has been turned into a boggy marsh. Our wetlands are being artificially expanded to drive people off their property. A lot of property owners here are flooded half the year all the way to Victoria. This is the resource that the GBRA and SARA are supposed to be stewarding.”

Ken Schustereit

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” says Ken Schustereit, who has led the opposition against a groundwater district in his area. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The growing demand

The head of the Goliad Groundwater District, part of Region L that spans 21 counties from Calhoun to Uvalde, sits in his home office, fishing neatly arranged folders out of his desk. Art Dohmann, his face still flush from doing chores outdoors, his thinning gray hair matted to his pate, peers through his aviator glasses at a note he pulls out of his western shirt, then refers to a folder. It’s a chart of population projections for Region L, 21 counties in South Central Texas the state has designated for water planning purposes. According to the chart, in 2000, 2 million people are living within Region L. By 2050, that number is expected to double.

“How are we going to service this?” Dohmann asks, shaking the paper. “I recognize and support a 50-year plan. Unfortunately, every time we turn around, something comes up that doesn’t square with this population projection.”

Dohmann says that desalinization of Gulf Coast water has been proposed to meet water needs upstream. The technology exists, but desalinization is expensive.

“Groundwater here is more available and it’s relatively cheap. It’s two-thirds the cost of desal water. But the impact of drawing water from here over 50 years – what is the cost of that to the economy of the region, to the tax base, and the economy of the whole state?”

The Texas Water Development Board has rejected the Goliad Groundwater District’s population projections and its desire to reduce the amount of water exported out of the county. Schustereit cites the board’s action as proof that local districts, the state’s touted method of governing groundwater in lieu of addressing the antiquated Rule of Capture, really don’t have final authority in how their water is used.

“It’s been phenomenal what’s happened in the last 10 years and we expect it to continue. The key is, this water allowance. If we’re not careful and this county continues to grow, we’ve got to have the ability to support that economic development. We talk about a 50-year plan, but so many things that happen, we’re looking at today.

“People say, ‘We’ve got plenty of water, why are you trying to restrict what we can sell?’

“Well, we’ve got to make sure we’ll have water to accommodate growth for the next 30 or 40 years,” Dohman says. “We need to be very prudent to take care of today and tomorrow.”

Wesley Blevins

Shrimper, seafood purveyor, and water activist Wesley Blevins holds up a large Gulf white shrimp at his seafood shop, Chucky Monkey’s in Seadrift. Some shrimp on the Gulf Coast are being found with a condition called black gill. While not harmful, the condition is thought to be caused by stress and too little freshwater in the bays. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Fresh Water Fight- Part Four

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 24, 2003

Part 4 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy.

“What was it that started limiting pumping of the Edwards Aquifer up by San Antonio?” Tom Stehn asks one morning, pausing briefly while unpacking boxes in his new office in the basement of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

“It was the Endangered Species Act,” Stehn says, answering his own question. “The Hill Country had to realize they couldn’t pump forever. I’m afraid it’s the same down here. In the end, the Endangered Species Act will determine how much is pumped here. You hate to force it with the Endangered Species Act. That’s not the issue. The issue is sharing a limited resource, and limited is the key.”

Stehn knows the issue well. As the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Whooping Crane Coordinator, his primary task is setting policy that will get the Whooping Crane off the endangered list. And from where he sits, state water laws are obstructing that goal. If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, he says with a reluctant sigh, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Of all the water battles being fought in the Guadalupe River basin, the least understood and easiest to explain is the one over freshwater inflow to bays and estuaries. Simply put: No freshwater means no shrimp, no redfish, no seafood, no sport or commercial fishing.

Bays need freshwater to make all that happen.

And of all the competing special interests in these fights, it is 185 part-time residents who winter over in Texas who may be the biggest players of all. Their presence – or disappearance – could crumble the cornerstone of the Region L water plan for South Central Texas, as well as other related projects to move water from the Guadalupe to where it is needed most.

The 185 are the world’s only wild flock of Whooping Cranes, the tallest birds in North America and Texas’ most celebrated endangered species who rank with California condors, Florida manatees, grizzly bears, and peregrine falcons as national symbols of conservation and mankind’s successful efforts to save wildlife from extinction. Having rebounded from a population of 15 in 1941, these snow-white big birds with black wing tips are the most famous residents of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, about 30 miles north of Rockport. As such, they are the most formidable foes water hustlers face.

A lanky 54-year-old with a full beard, Stehn works with a Canadian counterpart to monitor the 185 cranes who fly 2,400 miles every spring to spend their summers in the Northwest Territories, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle before migrating back south to the Coastal Bend every October.

On the Texas coast, the cranes’ meal of choice is blue crab, which thrive in the state’s bays and estuaries. Stehn has observed the link. “When blue crab’s not available, there are other foods to eat, but they’re not as nutritious. The cranes lose energy reserves, making the migration more difficult, their mortality rate increases, and birth rates drop in Canada in the summer. If we’re going to maintain the population we need to do everything to maintain the blue crab population, and blue crab does better when there’s fresh water inflow and sediments. When there’s a drought, the blue crab population crashes. When there are less blue crabs, the species declines towards extinction.”

Although the Whooper population increased 4 percent during the 1990s, the numbers have been dropping since 2000. There are other factors leading to their demise, including collisions with power lines, but blue crabs and are key, Stehn says.

The ball is in Texas’ courts. “They’re trying to get water for the next 50 years, but they don’t realize how limited the supply really is. It’s the old rhetoric of putting a bird ahead of people. I say people want the Whooping Cranes to survive and thrive. I say let’s manage the resource so we can take care of both. I don’t know how else to answer that. Ecotourism should be looked at as another economy. But it’s not. We’ve got $5 million a year coming into Rockport from tourists who want to see Whooping Cranes.”

Three years ago, the San Marcos River Foundation applied for water rights to 1.15 million acre feet for conservation and ecology – the minimum for a healthy San Antonio Bay, according to studies conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department studies. But the GBRA, municipal water companies, and other water industry interests opposed the foundation’s application, which was backed by more than 15 other organizations.

The San Marcos River Foundation is a 200-member organization that formed 18 years ago to advocate for the San Marcos River, which joins the Guadalupe near Gonzales. If the application has been granted, their water right to guarantee instream flow would be placed in the Texas Water Trust to be administered by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

At the urging of several municipalities, water industry groups, and authorities including the GBRA, which subsequently applied for all other unappropriated water rights in the Guadalupe basin, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst successfully persuaded the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality to dismiss the application, arguing the state was the proper authority to set freshwater inflow minimums.

Bill West, who is on Dewhurst’s new committe studying the issue, says the minimum inflow determined by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department was arbitrary. “The health and well-being of the bays and estuaries is just as important as the health and well being of Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs,” West says. “From a pure hydrologic standpoint, Comal and San Marcos Springs and the freshwater in-flow to the bays and estuaries is basically one and the same. That’s the importance of this regional plan, to try to see that the Comal/San Marcos Springs continues. The inability to see that spells the destruction of the bays and estuaries. So for those people that say we’re not concerned with bays and estuaries, that is the very inherent target of the whole regional plan.”

Diane Wassenich, the gray-haired former restaurant owner who is president of SMRF, was upbeat despite the setback. “We got farther than we ever dreamed,” she says. If nothing else, the issue was brought into public view.

“The Legislature spent millions over 35 years to study this. Now, no one wants to believe it. We’ve appropriated all our water and even over appropriated our water. We don’t want to face that. We have got to figure out how to make sure our rivers will continue to flow. And there is nothing in place.”

A dollar value of San Antonio Bay has been pegged at $55 million a year by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Robert Costanza, director and founder of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and cofounder of the International Society for Ecological Economics, calculates the value of an estuary to be $11,000 an acre per year. Using those values, the bay that the Guadalupe flows into is worth $2 billion annually in productivity.

Any reduction of freshwater coming into the bay has considerable economic impact, which refutes the common belief that any water that reaches the bay without being used is wasted.

GBRA, SAWS, and SARA are trying to address those concerns with two studies that they will oversee. GBRA has commissioned R. Douglas Slack of Texas A&M to conduct a five-year, $1.3 million study to determine the relationships between freshwater inflow, blue crabs, and Whooping Cranes, while SARA has commissioned George Ward of the University of Texas a five year, $1.5 million study of San Antonio Bay inflow in order to evaluate the biological productivity of the bays and the estuary to determine the freshwater requirements necessary to support their ecosystems.

Diane Wassenich

Diane Wassenich (center), executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation stands on the bank of the San Marcos River with current and former members of the foundation’s board of directors. From left: Jack Fairchild, Alan Groeger, Ann Allen, Theresa Kosary, Tom Wassenich, and John Tolbert. The 200-member SMRF was formed almost two decades ago to advocate for the San Antonio River. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

That gives Tom Stehn hope the God Squad won’t be called in.

“We’d like to see environmental considerations done at an early stage. One of the problems with the Texas Water Plan is the environment got short shrift. I bet there weren’t a lot of biologists being talked to. Now they’ll have to prove their case that the project won’t impact endangered species.

“Our political system has a tough time dealing with issues 50 years down the road,” Stehn adds. “We’ve never set aside, much less acknowledged environmental flow. If factories were taking oxygen out of the air, we’d regulate them. This is the same. When you look at the cost of water, you need to look at the real cost, what it takes to maintain the ecology. The crane’s role in this scenario is more than just something for birdwatchers to look at.”

A year ago in November, Greg Rothe, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, General Eugene Habiger, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, and Bill West, the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, extolled the virtues of the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project in a press release announcing environmental impact studies of a pipeline project from the Gulf Coast to Bexar County.

Habiger praised the studies: “The actions this week signal the start of one of the most significant water resource projects approved for this region,” he said. “We are going to do the right thing with this project. We all recognize that we all need to view future water needs on a regional basis because we are all linked environmentally, economically and socially.”

Public declarations like the above tout regional cooperation and forward-thinking planning so that San Antonio and South Central Texas can grow and prosper over the next 50 years.

This month’s trip down the Guadalupe River showed a very different take on the planning process from the other end of the faucet, voiced by folks not ready to say goodbye to their river.

Somewhere between the two opposing points of view lies reality.

Regardless of the mandates and the responses, a significant number of players have been left out of the process. At the same time, the barn door has been left wide open to make it easy for those who write the laws, carry them out, and lobby the lawmakers for profit.

If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Lawyers and lobbyists have better access to the ears of lawmakers than the average citizen – while fishing, shrimping, recreational interests, and the Whooping Crane have been underrepresented at the bargaining table or eliminated altogether. There’s a distinct sense the planning process will continue to be dominated by people who want to treat water like a commodity.

If the people of Texas want sound statewide water policy, a good place to start would be a more stringent code of ethics for state legislators. Our lawmakers must be held to a higher standard than the current one that allows former State Senator Buster Brown to profit from the laws he wrote.

Local government bodies such as groundwater conservation districts should be given the final say on local matters, not the legislature. And if there’s local consensus that moving water for a profit will benefit a community, let it flow.

Extend the Edwards’ Aquifer Authority’s reach into Kinney County, which only the legislature can do. If water is moved out of the area, the EAA is a conscientious overseer.

While agriculture has historically been the biggest user of groundwater in Kinney County and elsewhere in Texas, farming shouldn’t be abandoned altogether in favor of water mining. Uncommon produce such as ugli fruit, wine grapes, and other specialty crops including lavender and organic versions of conventional vegetables fetch considerably higher prices at the market. A little creativity might preserve the tradition while benefitting local consumers.

If there’s a need to mine water, Kinney County landowners and San Antonio water users would be better served if property owners leased or sold their water rights directly to SAWS or Bexar Met to gain control of the flow from source to faucets. The current legal setup encourages the same kind of exploitation at any cost that occurred when private energy companies such as Enron, Reliant, Duke Energy, and Williams conspired to manipulate prices and gouge California consumers.

If the market system remains the preferred means of conducting water business, quantify lakes and rivers for their recreational value as well as their water storage value before sacrificing them. Put a number on being the primary nursery for fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and hundreds of species of marine, shore, and land life residing in the bay and the Gulf.

Tom Stehn

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, follows a flock of birds with his binoculars while standing in a marsh on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn is concerned about changes to freshwater quality and flow into the coastal bays and its effects on the delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Consider restructuring how river authorities operate. Currently, the governor appoints the directors of Texas’ river authorities. Typically, they are people in leadership positions in their respective communities. But appointments are too often made based on political patronage than water expertise, which leads to boards rubber-stamping management.

Electing directors instead of appointing them would improve relations with the electorate. The GBRA could also make it clear when projects are announced that buyers on the other end of the pipe must cut consumption during drought periods just as lake and river users must, golf courses included.

There’s a price for appropriating more water than exists, and it’s already being felt in the Guadalupe basin. “Texas has the best knowledge and understanding of its basins, rivers, bays, and estuaries, better than any state,” says Andrew Sansom, the former executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “The data is there. The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”

San Antonio and El Paso, two of the state’s most water-short cities, are Texas’ most conservation-oriented cities when it comes to water. The future of the Guadalupe River, Canyon Lake, San Antonio Bay, and how Texas deals with water can be glimpsed on the Chihuahuan Desert where the city of El Paso and the sister city of Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico have formed a metropolis of more than 2 million people in a valley between two dry mountain ranges. El Paso has the strictest water conservation measures in place in Texas. St. Augustine grass is discouraged and outright banned in some instances, city water cops scan curbs for signs of runoff, issuing fines to violators.

“The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”
– Andrew Sansom

In other words, El Paso is even more water short than San Antonio. It too is looking to pipelines and water mining to make ends meet. But El Paso has also already stepped into the future with a $67 million plant that will be the largest inland desalination project in the United States when it goes online in late 2005. Several pilot desalination projects are being planned on the Texas coast, prompted by Governor Rick Perry’s proposal to use tax-free investment bonds to finance local plants. The cost of desal water, $1.75 per thousand gallons, is higher than water piped from the Guadalupe or groundwater well fields, but isn’t saddled with hidden secondary costs such as loss of tax base or residual impacts such as leases, construction cost overruns, and legal expenses that are part of the cost of obtaining river and groundwater.

Similarly, Region L planners would be wise to budget several million dollars to offer real incentives for rural homeowners to get off wells and convert to rainwater catchment systems. The expense of such systems, which are common on water-scarce Caribbean islands, presently runs as high as $20,000-30,000 per home. The upside is homes equipped with catchment systems reduces demand on existing water supplies as well as prompts each household to be more responsible for their water use. In that respect, catchment systems do away with what amounts to water welfare.

A larger philosophical question begs to be addressed as well. Water as the New Oil may sound good in theory, but ignores the fact water is a resource that belongs to every person in Texas. Water is life. Two years ago, a high-ranking state bureaucrat mentioned Enron lobbyists had a significant hand in writing water legislation in the 1997, 1999, and 2001 legislative sessions, back when the now-bankrupt company was eyeing water markets as a lucrative revenue stream.

Water deserves to be treated more honestly, fairly, equitably and ethically than that. A good start would be the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature eliminating rule of capture.

As laudable as the planning process has been, those left out need to be included. “This Region L spent more money on public input and public meetings than any region in the state,” Bill West says. Still, West admits Calhoun County, where shrimping is a major industry, had no representation on the region planning board. Nor did Canyon Lake interests. Deal them in. Aquaculture and recreation count, no matter what anyone says.

Regional planning suggests regional cooperation. Instead, local groups are fighting the state, the river authority, and private water purveyors, and fighting each other. Victoria folks wonder why San Antonio needs their water when Canyon Lake is so much closer and has all that excess capacity that has caused flooding downstream. Friends of Canyon Lake representatives suggest there’s enough groundwater in Kinney County to meet San Antonio’s needs for decades.

Everyone will have to give up a little. Who is going to give up a lot remains to be seen. “The Guadalupe system is the system that’s going to force all these issues to come to a head,” says water attorney Jim Blackwood. “The data is there. If the state chooses to ignore that data, someone will have to get hurt before the public wakes up. That someone is likely to be in the Guadalupe basin. San Antonio’s had a heck of a deal up until now. I understand why its citizens are loathe to pay as much as they’re going to have to pay. They didn’t give the rest of us any rebates when they had all that free water.”

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Cool, clear water

Krause Springs

Teenagers enjoy the rope swing action at Krause Springs in Spicewood, west of Austin. The springs feature 1,000-year-old cypresses, cool waters, fern-choked waterfalls and rocks for sunning. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Cool, clear water

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Randy Eli Grothe
August 31, 2003

The sweetest pleasure of a Texas summer is the swimming hole.
You can have your Colorado mountains, your slices of watermelon and your gallons of iced tea.

You may prefer passing as many of your waking hours in climates far away from here or in climate-controlled comfort 24/7, courtesy of 50,000 BTUs of refrigerated air and driving with the windows up and the MAX A/C control cranked to high.

You can whine all you want about how hot it is.

I immerse. With a swimming hole, anyone can fade the heat.

Which is why I can say with a straight face that my favorite time of year is right now, when these endless strings of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the human spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls plod onward to the middle of September.

I will survive. In the hole.

Barton Springs

Austin’s popular Barton Springs is fed daily by 26 million gallons of cool, clear spring water. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Oh, I’ll tolerate a swimming pool in a pinch. But whenever I do, I’m reminded why Jed Clampett and family called pools “cement ponds”: It ain’t natural. The chemical scent and sting of chlorine negate any sensations of being cradled in the bosom of Mother Nature. Doing laps in a pool is like getting stuck in rush hour traffic on Stemmons: All I can do is stay in my lane and hope I don’t lose count of the number of laps I have to do before I’m done.

Charting my own course across a swimming hole is more like a meandering Sunday drive on a remote Farm to Market Road. With songbirds, the splish and splash of water, laughs, giggles and the occasional shout of “Marco Polo” providing the soundtrack, you can leave the modern world behind for a little while.

Swimming holes have worked as an effective antidote to Texas’ excessive heat for several millennia. Archeological evidence indicates San Marcos Springs in San Marcos – Aquarena – has been continuously occupied for at least 12,000 years, The area near Del Rio where the Rio Grande, and the Pecos and Devil’s rivers converge is pocked with caves overlooking springs, creeks and rivers containing more examples of Indian rock art than anywhere in North America.

Swimming holes are just as inspirational now, and Norman Rockwell and Thomas Eakins and Austin artists Jimmy Jalapeeno and Malou Flato aren’t the only ones who’ve seen the eternal beauty in them. A good swimming hole is church. Splashing in water that is clean and clear and surrounded by tall, stately shade trees with at least one big rock to lay out on and jump off of, and a rope swing hanging from a limb is compelling evidence there’s a higher power.

Especially in Texas.

Frio River

Neal’s Lodge, on the Frio River in Concan, has several spots deep enough for diving. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

The lazy streak

Great holes stretch from the Piney Woods near Texarkana to the Chihuahuan Desert of Far West Texas, some wild and natural, others tamed and civilized. All of them promise a place in which one can cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The Hill Country is exceptionally blessed. The state’s greatest concentration of swimming holes on creeks and rivers fed by artesian springs are found within a couple hours of San Antonio and Austin, most with hard limestone bottoms that eliminate the “goosh” factor on your feet and towering bald cypresses at waters edge.

Eddie Chiles, the late oilman who used to rant and rave on the radio about being mad all the time, was owner of the Western Company, an oil producer whose advertising slogan was “If you don’t own an oil well, get one.”

I must have had water in my ears because I swore Mad Eddie and his pitchwomen were talking about swimming holes, not oil wells.

So I got one.

It took two years of coaxing from my wife and adjusting to the chilly waters of Barton Springs in Austin to get hooked on swimming-hole swimming. After writing about swimming holes on numerous occasions, discovering new holes almost everywhere I looked and futilely fighting the good fight to preserve Barton Springs against a tide of development upstream, I finally moved to the Hill Country specifically to have a swimming hole I could call my own.

Hamilton Pool

The picturesque Hamilton Pool features a sandy beach and boulders to perch on beneath a waterfall. The swimming hole, fed by Hamilton Creek, is in a canyon west of Austin. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Some people live where they live to be close to work, for the schools, for the neighborhoods. I live where I live for the swimming hole. It’s like I told the mother of a playmate of my son’s, when she asked if I’d moved for the schools or the kids – I moved for me.

A happy dad can influence an entire family, I reasoned. My wife has certainly seen a difference.

“For one thing, it makes you sane,” she has observed. “It improves your disposition. It keeps you from going crazy after spending all day in the heat.”

My younger son learned to swim in the swimming hole. Now 13, he’s been honing his stone-skipping skill at the swimming hole lately, designating one exposed boulder as the “skipping rock” and an adjacent boulder as the “waiting rock,” proving there’s still plenty of kid in his growing teenage body.

My sister tells me the secret swimming hole I took her to not too long ago was the highlight of a weekend that also included a chichi party at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and a movie premiere in Austin. My brother-in-law reports the experience made him feel “giddy” and reminded him of his Arkansas boyhood.

My swimming hole isn’t really mine. I just bought legal access. And to be honest, it’s no rival to Balmorhea Springs in West Texas. But it’s clean enough to attract squadrons of dragonflies and to test better than my well water, and clear enough for visitors to be able to see minnows, perch, bass, catfish, carp and turtles in their element through the goggles, which is enough to make me feel proprietary. Lord knows, I pick up enough trash around it that some litterbugs think I act as if I own it.

Close to nirvana

Medina River

Trevor Barrientes rides along the rapids of the Medina River at a low water crossing between Medina and Bandera. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

During warm weather months, my calendar revolves around my swimming hole. From early spring until late fall, I swim laps in my swimming hole almost every day. During the heat of the summer, two-a-days and sometimes three-a-days are not unusual. Morning swims are a better wake-up jolt than two cups of coffee.

There have been evening swims at dusk while surrounded by fireflies twinkling under the cypresses and bats fluttering overhead accompanied by the croaking chorus of frogs that have brought me as close to nirvana as I think I’ll get on this earth.

Moonlight swims can be both romantic and spooky.

The end-of-swimming-season swims are tests of endurance, requiring a swim cap and considerable intestinal fortitude. Swimming after floods is not a good idea due to dirty runoff and the fact that snakes can’t see you any better than you can see snakes in murky water. A New Year’s Day plunge has become a small ritual, but nuts nonetheless.

Last month, I went back to Burger’s Lake on the far west side of Fort Worth, site of my first natural swimming experience. Not quite 50 years later, I was pleased to see nothing much had changed. The petrified wood cottage and the little rock building under the pecans and sycamores at the entrance still beckon like an elf’s sentry at the gates to an enchanted forest. The high diving boards at one end and the diving platform near the jet fountain in the middle of the lake were still crowded with kids. The line to the trapeze swing was just as long as I remembered.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only kid who liked the cheap thrill of swinging out, then into the water. Lifeguards patrolled the lake in rowboats same as ever. I didn’t recall the chlorine in the water, but times have changed, I guess. What has not changed is that hundreds of people are willing to pay for the sweet relief of cooling off in the water.

I couldn’t help but wonder if at least one of those visitors I saw at the lake will someday want a swimming hole of his or her own, too.

Balmorhea State Park

Crystal Oden, 15, snorkels in the Caribbean-clear waters at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. The oasis teems with aquatic life, including two endangered fish species, frogs, crawfish and turtles. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

The Blue Hole

Laurie Carlton enjoys the peace and quiet of the waters of the Blue Hole, in Wimberley. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Rio Vista Dam

A swimmer enjoys the rush of the San Marcos River as he clings to the Rio Vista Dam in San Marcos. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Comal River

The 2.5-mile-long Comal River begins and ends within the city limits of New Braunfels. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)


Swimming Holes Across Texas
A small sampling of Joe Nick Patoski’s favorite swimming holes across the state.

Swimming holes map DMN staff graphic

San Solomon Springs Pool, Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea. A literal oasis in the West Texas desert that was walled in during the early ’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Balmorhea is the bomb of Texas swimming holes with 76-degree spring water so Caribbean-clear that New Mexico and West Texas scuba diving clubs practice here. 915-375-2370

Barton Springs, Zilker Park, Austin. The best urban swimming hole on Earth. Period. 512-867-3080

Krause Springs, Spicewood. This magical hole – 34 miles west of Austin, actually on Cypress Creek – is fed by a waterfall tumbling from an exquisitely manicured bluff chock-full of maidenhair fern. It’s the best-looking natural swimming environment in the entire state. 830-693-4181

Hamilton Pool, Westcave Preserve, Bee Caves, west of Austin. A placid grotto below a surreal limestone overhang that spews a 75-foot waterfall during wet periods, Hamilton Pool is the stuff that picture postcards are made of. 512-264-2740

San Marcos River, Sewell Park, Lions Club Tube Rental in City Park, and Rio Vista Park, San Marcos. Contiguous parkland lines the banks of the San Marcos River as it winds its way through the town of the same name, its transparent waters making for the finest tubing and underwater viewing in the state. Tube rentals and shuttle information,
512-396-5466. 512-353-3435 or 888-200-5620

Landa Park, New Braunfels. The 1.5 million-gallon spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River, a few hundred yards from Texas’ biggest spring, is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds. Wilder thrills are less than a mile downstream at the Prince Solms Tube Chute. 830-608-2163, 830-608-2165

Blue Hole, Wimberley. This private campground along a narrow stretch of Cypress Creek features cool, blue water and several rope swings dangling from the trees for easy entry. Scenes for the upcoming movie The Alamo were shot there earlier this summer. 512-847-9127

Medina River, between Bandera and Medina. Pick your spot along one of the low-water crossings along State Highway 16 between these two Hill Country towns or jump in at Bandera’s city park where the river runs through it. 800-364-3833

Burger's Lake

Burger’s Lake. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Neal’s Lodges, Concan. A bucolic, old-fashioned family retreat established in 1926, Neal’s is perched above one of the nicest stretches of the Frio River, with several holes deep enough for diving and swimming laps and on-premises tube rentals and float shuttles. 830-232-6118

Burger’s Lake, Fort Worth. The one-ace lake that started my swimming hole obsession has held up well over the years, functioning like a low-key water park in a natural setting. 817-737-3414

 

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


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Surf City Texas

Catching a Break: Surf City Texas

Galveston Bay
A group of Galveston surfers has been surfing the wakes of ships in the Houston Ship Channel for six years. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 4, 2004

TEXAS CITY, Texas — It’s too flat to surf the beach and not quite warm enough to chase oil tankers in the bay, but James Fulbright is still obsessing over the perfect wave.

The 46-year-old Galveston surf shop owner has the classic sun-bleached look and uniform of a surfaholic, down to the scruffy beard, baggy shorts and flip-flops. And he’s got that hard-headed ‘tude common to Texas surfers, a pitiable cult for whom lousy natural waves are a semi-permanent way of life.

When the weather’s nice and Gulf is flat, as is usually the case, Mr. Fulbright and three friends are surfing some of the most perfectly formed swells in the world by riding the wakes of supertankers plying Galveston Bay. This mastery has earned them fame in surfing circles worldwide.

But when it’s too windy or too cold to surf behind oil tankers, as it has been pretty much for the past five months, Mr. Fulbright takes his passion inside a metal building in a salt-rusted industrialpark near Interstate 45.

There, he obsesses about a surfing technology he’s so serious about, he’s almost exhausted his personal savings, he explains as he bids adieu to two similarly attired gentlemen – also in T-shirts and shorts – leaving the oversized shed.

"They’re engineers who heard about it and flew over from France," he says.

"It" is a modified 35-square-foot kiddie pool assembled from a mess of black vinyl, plywood islands, hoses, pipes, pumps, pressure gauges, blue paint and wood to resemble a 1/12th scale model of a beach waterfront.

His wife used pipe cleaners to fashion little palm trees, with sand sprinkled around for effect.

This is the prototype of a surfing wave machine that he hopes will revolutionize the sport of surfing by taking it off the beach and into water parks around the world.

"Want to see it work?" he asks excitedly, moving to jigger some buttons and levels before getting a response.

At the far side of the kiddie pool, a burst of pressure fires out of a compressor, creating a small wave that is split into two parts by a wooden divider.

"See how they both peel down the line?" he says, grinning. "It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?"

Mr. Fulbright’s zealotry and imagination are informed by the realities facing every surfer in Texas, condemned by the eternal frustration of realizing that no matter how much one wills it, the Gulf Coast is a lousy place to surf, unless a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing.

"Gulf Coast surfers are an extremely devoted bunch. We’re the most devoted group of surfers on the planet. We take what we can get, and drop everything we’re doing on a moment’s notice to ride a wave."

Hard-headedness

But out of such frustration comes determination and creativity. In late February, Mr. Fulbright concluded 18 months of testing and dismantled the scale model in the water tank to focus on building a full-scale prototype. (The project is featured in Tom Banks’ documentary Wave Maker, which will be screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on April 9th as part of Houston’s FotoFest film festival.)

"I’ve finally got it going but I’ve spent all my savings. So we’re desperately seeking funding."

Mr. Fulbright started surfing at the age of 12. He has been looking for a better way to surf ever since.

"As you get older, you get more particular," he says. He has done the traveling bit, going to California, Mexico and Costa Rica. "Half the time, it’d be flat there like in Texas, but you’d blow all that money getting there."

Chase Boat
John Benson passes the time between ships surfing the wake of the chase boat. Surf bored. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

While a student at Texas A&M University, he and his landlocked pals would surf behind boats on Lake Somerville. When they weighted the towing boat with extra people, they could generate waves large enough to ride without a tow rope.

Mr. Fulbright and some buddies took that idea a step further six years ago, after watching oil tankers pass through the bay between the coast and the Houston Ship Channel.

Then the light bulb in his head went on while he was working at a surfboard fin factory.

"One day, I overheard two sailors who sailed from Clear Lake to Kemah talk about how their 35-foot boat almost got swamped by a rogue wave generated by an oil tanker. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmmm.’ I asked them if it was surfable. They didn’t surf but said it might be.

"I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler," Mr. Fulbright says. "I studied the waves. I studied the tides, the currents, and the depths of the bay. I hung out in a bar in LaPorte where all the pilot boat captains drink. I started buying drinks. I’d asked where they found waves that they avoided, what channel markers.

"They thought we were crazier than hell asking where to go surfing in the bay," he says. "It took me about six months of reconnaissance but I finally found some constant spots. Lo and behold, I caught the wave of my dreams."

Secret surfing

The supertankers left wakes of perfectly shaped swells so good that the unusual surfing exploits of Mr. Fulbright and his buddies were captured in the 2003 documentary Step Into Liquid which profiles 50 surfers from around the world and their secret surfing spots.

The group members have to not divulge to others where they go.

"This morning I ran into a guy on the beach who said he had information I could use if I gave him information," Mr. Fulbright says. "I said, ‘No way.’"

Still, they’re loyal to their sense of place. Mr. Fulbright and his friends also have another rule that when surf is up on the coast, oil-tanker surfing is not an option.

Ship-wake surfing is not for everyone, Mr. Fulbright cautions. It requires more planning, patience and precautions than beach surfing does.

"You can’t just jump into it. It took me years to get it down. We respect distance from the ships, distance from other boats. We’re very particular when we go."

But there’s a payoff.

Last fall, he says, "I caught a wave that I rode for three miles in ten minutes. Nowhere in the world can you ride a two- to three-mile wave. When it’s been flat on Galveston for a week, we’re surfing till our legs cramp up."

Lining up a wave takes a while to master, he says.

"It takes a boat. It takes skilled maneuvering. That water is littered with sunken boats, pipelines, shallow shoals. You have to burn a whole day to do it. You can’t just do it a little while. Someone has to drive the boat, and nobody wants to drive. I usually have to because it’s my boat. But dude, let me tell you this," Mr. Fulbright says, his eyes lighting up. "It’s worth it."

So is going broke and having to hustle for investments for his wave machine and a park built around it, which he calls Surf City Texas.

Getting a fix

Oil-tanker surfers and his invention go hand in hand, Mr. Fulbright contends. Both are answers to the endless quest to satisy his surfing addiction.

"I’ve wanted to have a wave pool since I first started surfing," he says. "The ones that exist are really bad. My focus was to make a great wave that is really challenging and as natural a surfing experience as possible."

"As Gulf Coast surfers, we’re damned and determined to surf when we want to," he says. "We’re so desperate we’re chasing around oil tankers. That’s how desperate we are. But who would have imagined the best waves, better than any waves in the world, are in our own backyard?"

Or in his own metal building?

He has already commissioned a logo of a steer’s skull – similar to an icon on the Eagles’ album covers – surrounded by water. And he’s set up a Web site, SurfCityTexas.com.

Surfer magazine ran a feature in its July issue, identifying Mr. Fulbright as a "Texas tanker-wave hustler" and calling his idea "the latest, and possibly greatest, advancement in wave-pool technology."

Now all he needs is dough. "It’s not sophisticated technology," he says. "It’s a bunch of pipes and a pond." That happen to generate some awesome waves.

Almost as good as an oil tanker does.

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


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Guad is Good; Guad is Great

Guad is Good; Guad is Great

Texas Parks and Wildlife - July 2004Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2004

It’s the finest recreational river in Texas, but how long can it last?

One late afternoon in mid-February, the day after the frst signifcant snowfall in 19 years, I launched a sit-on-top kayak from the low-water crossing near where I live onto my river, a tributary of the Guadalupe River. It was due for an inspection. It was early in the season for this kind of excursion, but I’ d been feeling the tug for weeks.

The calendar said winter, but spring was subtly stirring wherever I looked. A loud scree overhead identified the first pair of zone-tail hawks nesting in the top of a nearby cypress, none too happy with my presence. The first kingfisher flashed right in front of me, then skimmed above the water in full glide. A mockingbird hopped among the bare cypress branches, scouting for nest sites. A small turtle, its shell caked gray with mud, scooted atop a boulder to sun itself. A bass peeked out from under the base of the same boulder, submerged at the bottom of a deep hole.

With each dip of the paddle, I stirred up liquid diamonds that dazzled in the sunlight. The boat moved swiftly as I paddled through placid, deep pools, and scraped rock and fought currents. Where I could find them, I rode riffles and rapids, and whenever necessary, I sloshed through shallows, dragging the boat behind me.

While surfing the little rapids, I’ d occasionally get in a groove where I didn’ t have to paddle at all. Rather, I was suspended in the rapid, nose upstream, waves rushing downstream, motionless in the midst of perpetual motion, losing sense of time and even existence. In one of these trances, my meditative state was interrupted by a white-tailed doe stealthily sidling up to water’ s edge about 100 yards upstream to take a drink. She spied me about the same time I spied her. She took another quick drink, stepped gingerly on several flat rocks in the water before bounding into a pool and scampering up to cross over to the other side. Two larger whitetails followed, going through the same routine. Look, drink, scan again, step, step, plunge, step, step across. Negotiating around a particularly large limestone hazard, I glanced back to spot a great blue heron, the giant bird-queen of the river, moving upstream, flapping her pterodactyl-like wings just enough to keep her sizeable trunk above the surface of river.

None of the rapids were so much as class II-worthy. But on a mid-winter’ s day in Central Texas, I was more than satisfied. I couldn’ t imagine a better place to be on this earth. That thought stuck with me all the way back to the house even though my butt was numb and I couldn’ t feel my toes.

A River of Pleasure

Of the 15 major rivers in Texas, the Guadalupe is the Texas-most river, springing to life in the Hill Country, that sweet spot where east and west, north and south, coast and desert, tropics and prairie all converge, and diversity thrives and flourishes. The Guadalupe runs exceptionally cool, swift and clear until it reaches the fertile rolling plains, where it widens and muddies and roils through hardwood bottomlands and past the historic towns of Seguin, Gonzales, Cuero and Victoria before reaching the coastal prairie and its delta in San Antonio Bay.

The Guadalupe is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. It is the only river in the state that sustains a year-round trout population. Marked with dramatic stretches of limestone cliffs and tall bald cypresses on the upper half, and distinguished with water that begins gin-clear, evolves into an ethereal green-turquoise and ends an earth brown, it’ s the prettiest river in Texas. Fed by the state’ s two biggest springs – the Comal and San Marcos – and supporting abundant wildlife and several endangered species, the Guadalupe has attracted visitors for more than 12,000 years and today is probably enjoyed by more people than any other river in the Southwest.

But the water of this beautiful river is under pressure from growing urban demand. Whether the river will endure for another 50 years, much less 300, is not certain. For all its attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe may be Texas’ most troubled river. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population of Central Texas booms, the Guadalupe has a forbidding future, and that is a shame when you consider how many Texans take pleasure in it.

Back at the house, I estimated how many other people might have been on the Guadalupe and its main tributaries, the Blanco, San Marcos, and Comal rivers, that same February day. I figured at least several thousand. Fewer than 10 miles south of my little play spot, a flock of sailboats breezed across Canyon Lake, the sole significant lake on the Guadalupe, while several hundred people walked the dam over the course of the afternoon.

Downstream, several hundred more men, women, and children were spread out along the banks, tying flies to their lines, scanning the surface and casting into the fast-moving, chilly waters for elusive trout. A little farther down, a handful of hard-headed kayakers played in the waves around Hueco Springs and Slumber Falls, the most reliable whitewater in Texas. Up and down its length, even in winter, the river is a boon to recreationists. Canoeists and kayakers were paddling it, scuba divers were plying its transparent depths at Canyon Lake, duck hunters were sitting expectantly in blinds on its delta and birdwatchers were searching its forests and marshes.

Once the waters warm in the spring, the thousands enjoying the Guadalupe and its tributaries swell into millions. Each day, thousands of people head to Schlitterbahn on the banks of the Comal in New Braunfels and pay more than $25 to play in America’ s top-rated water park. On any hot day, some of the best river-swimming on earth is in the Guadalupe basin. The curious idyll of "toobing," as it is referred to around New Braunfels, Gruene and San Marcos, where the pastime is most popular, attracts tens of thousands of aficionados on Easter, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The Tube Chute in Prince Solms Park in New Braunfels is a water flume that’ s been a tourist attraction for many decades. All told, no other river in Texas is so heavily used for recreation. Plain and simple, the Guadalupe is fun.

A Hill Country Playground

I have driven the length of the Guadalupe River in stages, exploring its multiple delights, tracing its geography. The river insinuates itself into the rocky oak-and-cedar scrub landscape of western Kerr Country very subtly. There are no specific headwaters, no gushing artesian spring. Dry washes and gullies gradually collect enough moisture from small springs to hold water in pools that stretch longer and longer until a steady, shallow stream trickles over a hard limestone bed and then tumbles out of the craggy hills towards the sea, more than 200 miles away.

At Boneyard Draw, on Farm-to-Market 1340, a sheer 60-foot limestone bluff in the distance marks a bend in the drainage, the first hint of canyons to come. A wooden sign identifies a "parking bird-viewing area" on the perimeter of Stuever’ s Ranch. Just below the crossing is the turnoff to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been testing cedar (Ashe juniper) eradication, brush-clearing and other water-saving land management strategies. In addition to being a center of whitetailed deer research, this WMA holds one of the great concentrations of wild turkeys in the state.

Less than a mile down the road, I detour down a county road, towards Cherry Springs Ranch, Guadalupe Bluffs Ranch, and the Price’ s Joy Spring Ranch Bed & Breakfast. At a low-water crossing, I find the river, sparkling in the sun, the palest of greens with a slight tinge of blue, scooting over the hard rock bed.

A mile farther, the river is moving full-tilt and roaring to life, with a deeper blue tint, a ribbon of sustenance snaking along a narrow alley guarded by soaring cypress trees and flanked by high bluffs, some rising up 100 feet above the water surface. Turkey buzzards politely wait on a fence post while I pass before resuming clean-up duty on a mangled piece of road kill.

A slide leading directly into the water on the banks of Mo Ranch Camp marks the beginning of the "camp run," consisting of Camp Waldemar and Camp Stewart on the North Fork, and Camp Mystic, Heart O’ the Hills Camp and Camp Arrowhead on the South Fork. Crider’ s rodeo arena and dance patio is also on the south fork. There’ s not too many places in this world where a couple can two-step under the summer stars to the sounds of western swing fiddles and the steady rush of the river.

The Guadalupe widens, narrows, and spills from limestone shelf to limestone shelf as it moves past patios, swings and ornate rockwork of dream ranches owned by CEOs, corporations and churches. In one field by the river, scale replicas of Stonehenge and two 13-foot-high Easter Island statues have been erected.

The North Fork and South Fork join just below the Hunt Store, a community gathering spot for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, swimmers and visitors for more than 80 years. Several generations of the wealthiest, most influential Texans have spent the summers of their youth on this part of the river, learning the basics of life and being exposed to a wilder, more untamed version of the natural world than exists near the cities they come from. Small wonder riverfront property here has been the most coveted real estate in the Hill Country for decades.

Anyone can glean a semblance of that experience by passing a night at an old-fashioned resort such as the Waltonia Lodges on the Guadalupe River, or jumping in and cooling off at Schumacher’ s Crossing, the first significant swimming hole with easy public access on the river.

The bluffs fade farther into the background from the river as it flows between Hunt and Ingram. Ingram Dam creates large enough pools to support a bass boat or a one-man sailboat and offers younger river rats the pleasure of dam sliding.

Parks become more plentiful farther downstream: Louise Hays Park on the south bank through most of Kerrville and Kerrville-Schreiner Park east of town. In both parks, people are disc throwing, fishing and hanging out. The river gains stature but loses a little bit of its curb appeal as it flows past Kerrville, Center Point and Comfort, the bluffs considerably diminished, most of the cypress logged out long ago.

The magic returns just below Comfort and Interstate 10, as the Guadalupe narrows, snakes and curves through a verdant valley, parts of which have been cultivated by German farmers from the same families for more than 150 years. To stumble upon the hamlets of Welfare and Waring practically hiding under giant oak motts is like discovering a lost fairyland.

Though the entire 89-mile length of the Upper Guadalupe qualifies as a wilderness river experience – save for the dam in Ingram and all the low-water crossings – the 39-mile middle section between Seidensticker Crossing below Waring to the privately owned Bergheim Campgrounds at FM 3351 conveys the sensation of being somewhere Out There, with more heifers on the banks than humans, more fish in the water than folks.

Below Bergheim and Edge Falls, the 1,939-acre Guadalupe River State Park and the adjacent Honey Creek State Natural Area offer public access to four miles of unspoiled riverfront, more than any park on the Guadalupe and situated a mere 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The park attracts hikers and mountain bikers, as well as toobers, swimmers, and paddlers.

Every Saturday at 9 a.m., Honey Creek opens its gates for a walking tour of the ecologically fragile environment, which encompasses several native species of plants and animals, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

I keep looking for the right superlative to describe the upper Guadalupe’ s blend of wilderness and playground, and one remark sticks in my mind. At Kerr WMA I stumbled upon Anthony Glorioso, a fresh-faced, curly-headed college student from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was working as a field assistant on a study of wild turkeys by radiotelemetry. Glorioso had never been to this part of the world before, he said.

Asked about his first impressions, he lit up.

"It’ s like Africa!" he exclaimed.

The New Yorker got it. The Guadalupe is that special.

Canyon Lake

The most intense recreational use of the river is along the 40 miles of streambed from Highway 281 through Canyon Lake – one of the finest inland spots in Texas for sailing and windsurfing – and below Canyon Lake to Gruene and New Braunfels. In New Braunfels, the Comal – at three miles in length often called the country’ s shortest river – joins the Guadalupe, providing additional flow from Comal Springs. The crowds come for the natural beauty, the dependable flow, and, in summer, relief from the heat. Even in the middle of August, the water temperature remains brisk, rarely climbing over 70 degrees.

The 8,200-acre Canyon Lake was created by the construction of an earthen dam in the mid-1960s. Through managed releases, the dam tempers the wild swings between drought and flood that define the typical stream flow of Texas waterways; the Guad has water when other rivers may not. Since the release is from the bottom of the dam, chilled water is the norm and a boon to the stocking of trout. And since Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited reached a settlement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the flow is supplemented through the hottest, driest months of the year.

In July 2002, Canyon Dam was put to the test by weeklong storms that dumped close to 30 inches of rain into the watershed. The dam functioned precisely as its engineers intended. When the water level in the lake reached near the top of the dam, overflow went over the spillway for the first time ever. The torrent from the spillway carved a dramatic gorge out of the countryside, accomplishing several thousand years of erosion in a matter of days. The result – a dramatic red-dirt gorge pocked with springs, pools and pouroffs – is being studied by geologists. But sometime in the near future, parts of the gorge will likely become another recreational opportunity.

I’ m disturbed to learn that recreational users have not been given a seat at the table in regional water planning, although permit amendments have been approved to draw more than twice as much out of Canyon Lake as has been historically allowed. While it is common knowledge that recreation is the major economic engine for Canyon Lake, the Lower Guadalupe, the village of Gruene, and the town of New Braunfels, no research has been done to calculate the total economic impact of having a bountiful, flowing Guadalupe.

Lower Guad

Recreational opportunities do not stop at Interstate 35. Despite all the focus on the Upper Guadalupe, the river offers plenty of diversions and opportunities after exiting the Hill Country. Between New Braunfels and Seguin, the river widens into Lake McQueeney, a wider-than-normal part of the river. Still, it holds enough water to attract boaters, swimmers, and water-skiers, including the Ski Bees, the first water-ski gang I ever wanted to join.

Twenty miles north of Lake McQueeney is the starting point of the Texas Water Safari, which bills itself as the "World’ s Toughest Boat Race." Last summer I stood on the banks of San Marcos Springs, the second-largest spring in Texas and the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and watched a couple hundred crazies go through last-minute preparations before beginning the 260-mile test of physical and mental endurance. Staged every June since 1963, the race from San Marcos to Seadrift follows the San Marcos River to Gonzales, where it joins the Guadalupe, and down to the coast. While the Safari is technically a race, the challenge for most entrants is to finish the course in 100 hours, which earns racers a pin.

I heard racers’ tales of Hallucination Alley, a side effect of sleep deprivation that has been experienced by most of the contestants who’ ve done the race. I met Julie Basham and Ann Best, two 40-year-olds attempting the race for the first time, and Julie’ s dad, or his ashes in an urn, at least. "Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish," Basham explained. She was going to spread his ashes at the finish, if they made it that far (they did). John Bugge introduced me to his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, who became the youngest paddler to complete the race. Ian Adamson, a 38-year-old professional adventure racer and four-time Eco-Challenge champion from Sydney, Australia, put the safari in perspective: "To me, this is the best boat race I’ ve ever run, starting in a clear, freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast." Talking to them made me want to do the race, too.

But there are more leisurely ways to enjoy the pleasures of the lower Guadalupe that don’ t require a hundred hours of paddling. The "Guadalupe Loop" is a birding route sponsored by the towns of Victoria, Cuero and Gonzales that includes sites along the river. Situated between Luling and Gonzales, Palmetto State Park offers a birding trail that meanders through a lost swamp rife with palmetto palms. In winter, the park is home to large roosting flocks of caracaras. The Athey Nature Preserve and the adjacent Riverside Park in Victoria is one of the hotspots on the Loop, offering birds such as the river’ s specialty, the green kingfisher.

Near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Bay, the tidal marshes and riparian woodland of Guadalupe Delta below Victoria are a whole other world, where heat, moisture and fertile soil conspire to cook up a piquant stew of marine and terrestrial life. Birders flock here to spot anhinga, American bittern, glossy ibis, Ross’ s goose, bald eagle, Virginia rail, Couch’ s kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet, winter wren and late neotropicals.

The Guadalupe feeds them all.

Sustaining the Guad

Yes, the Guad is great, but for how much longer? In 2002, the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States because of demands placed on it from growing Central Texas cities.

Perhaps more than any other Texas river, the Guadalupe faces a diminishment of its flow in the coming years. The thirsty city of San Antonio is looking to the Guadalupe for more water. One plan under close consideration and considerable discussion involves taking water from near the mouth of the Guadalupe at the town of Tivoli and piping it 120 miles back to San Antonio. The project is estimated to cost from $683 million to $785 million, or more, depending on design. The flow of the Guadalupe is also potentially affected by pumping in unregulated parts of rapidly growing Comal and Hays counties, which are part of the Guadalupe basin. This explosive development includes more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.

The Guad is beset by a combustible mix of historic laws, traditions and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand could soon outstrip the existing supply. The "rule of capture" is still the building block of Texas water law. Under it, groundwater belongs to the owner of the property above it, and plans are in place for excessively pumping underground reservoirs that provide the Guadalupe its sustenance. Surface water, such as the river and its tributaries, belongs to the people of the state, and is managed under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine which says, "First in time, first in right." Surface water, too, is being coveted as a resource that can be moved and sold to the highest bidder.

The problem is that the real price of water, in terms of its effect on wildlife and recreation, have yet to be calculated. Thirty-five miles away from the mouth of the Guadalupe as the black-bellied whistling duck flies, I ran into Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn had been a speaker at the eighth annual A Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds in Port Aransas, the town’ s end-of-winter birding and ecotourism festival. When I found him, he had finished hearing Norman Johns, the water research scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, lecture about freshwater inflow, a major unresolved issue in Texas water planning.

Without fresh water from the Guadalupe, the health of shrimp, oysters, fish and other marine life in San Antonio Bay and other nearby bays will be at risk, Johns explained. His PowerPoint presentation layered current water usage and projected water usage in 2050 onto historic data from the great drought of the 1950s. The numbers suggest the likelihood that in the next drought of record, the population of blue crab, the main food source for whooping cranes, will crash, jeopardizing the most successful recovery of an endangered species in Texas.

Stehn joined the long line of witnesses telling me how remarkable the Guadalupe is. After all, what other river nourishes 198 whoopers during the winter so they can fly up to near the Arctic Circle for the summer? Without the Guadalupe, thousands of visitors wouldn’ t be coming to the refuge to try to spot the tallest bird in North America.

The final stop on my tour of the Guadalupe River was at Austwell, a sleepy little community on the western bank of Hynes Bay, the northwestern thumb of San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe meets the sea.

"You carry it in. You carry it out," reads the hand-painted sign by water’ s edge. A single lighted dock juts out into the water. Two men lean on a rail, their fishing lines dipping down.

Wind is a constant, bending the sea oats and cattails northward and stirring up mud in the shallows to add a brown earth tone to the pallet of rich green slate and pale blue hues streaking the expansive bay. Ducks settle contently in salt marshes, shielded from the wind. A redbud blooms near a stack of crab traps, and a Texas lantana is showing all colors, the first clear signs of spring’ s arrival. Austwell is quiet and silent and like some of the stretches of the Upper Guadalupe, refreshingly remote and disconnected.

I start to approach the two fishermen on the dock, but think better of it.

Maybe they’ re in the same zone of solitude I was farther upstream that late February afternoon. If they’ re not, maybe if they’ re left alone long enough, they will get there. I walk away, leaving them be, shaking my head in amazement that the Guadalupe is the reason they are there. My river is a special river indeed.

[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]


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