Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics.
Unless you frequently travel U.S. Highway 90 between San Antonio and Del Rio, you probably don’t know where Kinney County is. Depending who you talk with, the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District is either the poster child for how not to manage groundwater, or the last best defense for rural areas fighting big cities that covet their water.
The sparsely populated county is located in that transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. Brackettville, the county seat and largest town, with a population just shy of 2,000, is directly across the highway from one of Kinney County’s natural treasures, Las Moras Springs, the ninth-largest group of springs in Texas, which discharge about 160 gallons of water a second. Fort Clark, which was built around the springs by the U.S. Army in 1852, thrives today as a gated residential community.
In 1959, Brackettville became famous as the location where the major motion picture, The Alamo starring John Wayne, was filmed. The movie set was preserved by landowner Happy Shahan and promoted as a tourist attraction called Alamo Village. But a couple of years before the movie was filmed, something more significant happened in Kinney County. While drilling an exploratory well northwest of town in search of oil, drillers hit water. So much water that when Senate Bill 1 — the landmark water legislation mandating that all regions of Texas secure water supplies for the next 50 years — was passed in 1997, Kinney County came into play.
The abundance of groundwater, the county’s small population, the growing demands of thirsty cities and Texas water law have made Kinney County ground zero in Texas’ water wars, as water marketers, legislators, attorneys and lobbyists grapple with the new local groundwater district over how much, if any, water can be pumped and sold outside the county without impacting water supplies, springs, creeks and streams inside the county.
From all outward appearances, the February 22, 2005, meeting of the board of directors of the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District at the Kinney County Courthouse in Brackettville is perfunctorily bureaucratic — board members and the general manager gather around a table to discuss audits, groundwater availability models, recharge numbers, well violations, management zones and a newsletter. The language bandied about is as complex as the aquifers the board is charged with overseeing — the Kinney County portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity zone and the Austin Chalk zone — all of which lack definite boundaries separating one aquifer from the other.
But that only partially explains the tension in the room, which emanates from 11 people sitting in the gallery separated from the board by a railing. They represent the interests of those in Kinney County who want to sell their water. One holds an audio recorder, another a video camera to record the proceedings. From the comments overheard in the hallway during a break, they are a frustrated bunch. They felt that the board was ignoring allocations recommended by Steve Walthour, the hydrologist hired by the board to advise them on pumping permits. Board member Christopher Ring’s family corporation got more water than Walthour recommended; almost everyone else got far less than what they asked for. Allocations were based on land acreage, not on hydrology. They said board members had spread fear among voters that the county’s water was going to be stolen, in order to assure election of five of six board members opposed to moving water out of the county. The board refused the offer by WaterTexas, which most of the folks in the gallery were aligned with, to pay for a study of available groundwater. They even alleged that General Manager Darlene Shahan was working with her husband, Tully Shahan, the county attorney, to thwart their interests.
After the meeting, I head east to Hugh and Dennette Coates’ place in the Anacacho Mountains, where Hugh Coates loads me up with legal briefs and talks about the Pinto Valley farmland he bought in 1988. “We have big water there, shoots straight to the ground. Never has been a pump that’s sucked air in that valley,” he says. And yet, the groundwater district just allotted him less than one third of what the board’s consultant recommended. “It’s like coming to your house and saying, ‘You can have one bath a month,’ ” Coates complains.
Some of the other folks attending the groundwater district board meeting show up at the Coates’, too: Jewel Robinson, the publisher of The Brackett News and a Pinto Valley landowner who has applied for a pumping permit not to sell water, she says, but to assure flow in the creek that “means so much to me”; her son Wesley; Beth Ann Smith, the groundwater district board member who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in board matters; her husband, Richard Smith; Tony Frerich, the co-owner of Kinney County Wool & Mohair; Jennifer McDaniel, who works at the wool house, and her husband, Jim McDaniel, the last cotton farmer in the county.
Over a sumptuous spread of real South Texas Mexican food, they detail the unpleasantness that’s been visited upon them since the city of Eagle Pass first approached several of them eight years ago to see if they’d be interested in selling their water. Their willingness to sell has run headfirst into a board that they say is unwilling to compromise but keeps changing the rules anyway. The pumping caps set by the board are arbitrary, they say. Allocation of such measly percentages amounts to a property rights “taking” (in a legal context, “taking” refers to a government action assuming ownership of real property by eminent domain). They believe that anyone on Pinto Creek downstream from the Shahans and the Rings is getting shorted. Jim McDaniel, the farmer, got 41 percent of what he asked for and will have to go back to the board in July for more water in order to finish his crop. Still, he admits, if he ever gets the permitted amount he seeks, he’s inclined to sell his water and get out of farming altogether. Things have gotten so ugly, Dennette Coates relates, “They’re telling us not to eat in a particular restaurant; they’ll spit in your food.”
I’d heard a whole other story earlier in the day in Tully Shahan’s law office across the street from the county courthouse. Tully Shahan is the county attorney. His wife, Darlene Shahan, is the general manager of the groundwater district. Both have been instrumental in forming the groundwater district and leading the fight against exporting water from the county. The way the Shahans tell it, approximately two-thirds of permit applicants were trying to thwart the will of the county’s voters who elected the groundwater district members. Every sitting board member was reelected despite opposition, they point out. By going to state legislators and lobbyists, filing lawsuits and seeking to have the district dissolved, a tyranny of the few was destroying the board’s good work, or at least bankrupting it through costly legal fees.
“Eight tenths of one percent of county property is irrigated,” Tully Shahan says, “and the irrigators are trying to tell us what to do with 100 percent of the water.”
The water purveyors have lobbyists, they say. The district can’t afford one. “We have the highest tax rate and lowest budget of anyone out there,” says Darlene Shahan. “We are very limited in what we can do as a district. More than two-thirds of the current budget is being absorbed by legal and consulting fees.”
Tully Shahan produces an interim report by Senator Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, issued before the Legislature convened last January. It proposes dissolving the Kinney County Groundwater District and bringing the county under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. the legislation introduced to accomplish this goal is HB 3571 (sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente) and SB 1857 (sponsored by Sen. Frank Madla). The move would leave the county without representation and cost the town of Brackettville at least $24,000 a year for water it is now getting for free, Tully Shahan contends. He pulls out another newspaper clipping that quotes Armbrister as saying the 1904 State Supreme Court decision on Rule of Capture is not in the Texas Constitution.
Darlene Shahan insists the district is doing what the Legislature intended — protecting existing water supplies and users before allocating pumping permits. “Why did we enter into hearings in August, spend money on technical studies, give people an open forum and due process?” she asks. “One hearing was 13 hours. [Water sellers are] saying that we were going to rubber stamp the hydrologist’s findings. If that was the case, the board wouldn’t have sat through those hearings. The water sellers just don’t like how the board is interpreting the rules. The board is doing their best to protect the water according to Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code and the local rules. We’re being as conservative as we can.”
To illustrate why the board is taking the cautious approach, Tully Shahan drives me out of town to the family ranch, a 16,000-acre spread just north of Brackettville, where the headwaters of Pinto Creek are located. He takes a modified golf cart through a pasture down to the rough creek bottom where the creek emerges out of a rocky outcropping and runs pure and shallow through the oak scrub. The cart scoots up over and around limestone gravel shoals to a perch overlooking a small tributary of the creek. A few stone skips away, bubbles float to the surface marking the main spring. The creek bottom, fully visible, shimmers with a pale blue tinge of purity.
Shahan then drives to another spot near a fence line. On the other side are wells that were drilled in the early 1960s that immediately dried up six wells on his family’s land, forcing him to drill new wells at considerable expense. The direct cause-and-effect have given him pause ever since, he says.
A little after eight the next morning, I meet Zack Davis at the Davis Hardware Store and Ranch Supply in downtown Brackettville. Davis, a tall, jut-jawed Kinney County native like Tully Shahan, is taking me to his farm in the Pinto Valley, about 5 miles northwest of town and about 20 creek miles upstream of the Rio Grande. Like most folks in the county, Davis wears many hats — veterinarian, farmer, rancher, former small businessman (after 26 years, he sold his store), husband of a pharmacist, father to six kids.
Pinto Valley is a small 4-mile-by-1-mile basin along Pinto Creek that is locally known as the “honey hole,” Davis explains, an exceptionally abundant source of recharged groundwater where most of the county’s irrigated farming occurs, marked by an almost straight line of artesian wells that run down the valley. Land within a mile yields no water at all. “I had a hydrologist out here once who’d studied this area,” he says. “He told me this solved a mystery — now he knew where all the runoff in Edwards and Real counties up on the Edwards Plateau went.”
After the bounty of water below was discovered in 1957, the Pinto Valley was intensively farmed for vegetables over the next 25 years. Buildings that once housed packing sheds and loading docks speak of that brief period when one-third of the nation’s cabbage and a good chunk of America’s onions were raised in Pinto Valley. But by the 1980s, economics prompted farmers to switch to livestock feed crops such as sorghum, oats, millet, Bermuda grass and alfalfa.
Even with more than enough water, farming and ranching are dicey propositions, acknowledges Davis. “There’s five to 10 percent of the livestock that there was in 1978. If we didn’t have hunting in this county, you could turn the lights out.” In fact, the hunting economy in Kinney County generates more dollars today than farming and ranching combined.
He drives his truck over a fresh field of oats, scanning the sheep and cattle grazing on the bright green cover to spot any legs sticking out of the furrows. Some sheep fall asleep while grazing and fall into a furrow and can’t get up, Davis explains. He finds several and puts them upright.
He stops to demonstrate just how much water there is in the honey hole. Using a large wrench to open a valve in a tangle of pipes, he unleashes a torrent of cool, clear water that shoots out of the pipe with enough force to knock a person down. That sort of abundance, along with queries from Eagle Pass, then Laredo, prompted Davis to organize farmers interested in selling water rather than using it to farm. His search eventually led to WaterTexas, an Austin-based company hired to represent the sellers’ interests. Ironically, one of the first things WaterTexas’ Dan Pearson told Davis was that Kinney County needed a groundwater district before exportation could begin.
Selling water is a higher, better use of the resource, Davis says. “If City X comes in and says they’ll pay me more than what I’m making on this, what am I going to do?” Davis asks. “Over in Uvalde, they built a Wal-Mart on prime farmland. This water is no different. It’s taking a different value than if we farm it. This water getting valuable isn’t my idea. It’s something that happened. It still has to be a managed, regulated resource.”
He still believes in the concept of groundwater districts, just as he believes in the Rule of Capture. “The Edwards Aquifer Authority scares me like it did 12 years ago [when the county successfully petitioned to be left out of the EAA’s jurisdiction]. At the same time, it can’t be any worse than what we have now.”
Davis sat on the groundwater district board until he resigned out of frustration and still sits on the board of the Plateau Region J regional water planning group along with Tully Shahan; the group oversees water planning in a zone that runs roughly between Del Rio and Kerrville. He views the Shahans and the Rings as co-conspirators bent on pressuring smaller landowners downstream like himself. “We feel like they’re trying to choke us out financially. They want to make it so we’ll have to go to them for their allotment if we want to sell water. But we’re fortunate. We don’t have to depend on the farm as our sole source of income. They’re not going to get my farm.”
Davis pulls his vehicle over by the banks of Pinto Creek. “I’ve seen it go bone-dry while the artesian wells are flowing,” he says, gazing over the spread of low oaks and mesquite and blindingly green, lush fields of oats and alfalfa that are fed by the artesian wells. He drives back to Brackettville, heads north to the other side of the Shahan and Ring properties all the way to Nueces Canyon, a stunning sliver of lost Hill Country scenery on the west fork of the Nueces River. Davis grew up on this land and has maintained the family homestead here. He gazes proudly over the rugged hills and fertile bottomland and says, “There’s not enough money in this world to dry up springs. You’ve lost touch with reality if money means more to you than something like this.”
Despite the effect of artesian well pumping on Pinto Creek, Zack Davis believes there’s plenty of water to give and relates the story about when Las Moras Springs went dry in 1964 (due to drought and heavy pumping for irrigated farming, according to many accounts), Brown & Root, which had bought Fort Clark after it was decommissioned, sent tanker trucks to fill up on water from an artesian well in the valley and drove the water to Brackettville.
The prospect of the groundwater district being dissolved and water speculators taking over groundwater in the next county prompted Jay J. Johnson, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Del Rio, to organize the West Texas Springs Alliance in March 2005, joining other groups throughout central Texas in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance who are fighting water marketers. “Kinney County is a test case. If a fast one can be pulled on the naive citizens here, the same fast one can be pulled on any other board in any other county that is rich with water,” says Johnson. “I maintain that the true farmer or rancher should be allotted and receive the water that they need to conduct the agricultural business on their land. On the other hand, I’m totally opposed to anyone who would exploit and siphon from our aquifers so that water can be exported to the metro areas,” he says.
Kinney County Judge Herb Senne points out that the commissioners court, as well as the city councils of Brackettville and Spofford, passed resolutions supporting the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District and opposing its dissolution by the Texas Legislature.
“The voters of their county were given a choice whether to put a district in place. Seventy-eight percent of the people who voted in the elections said yes. That same ballot had the option of how to fund the district and 65 percent of those who voted chose to fund it with an ad valorem tax. If that doesn’t show the district is clearly the choice of the voters in Kinney County, I’ll eat my hat.”
Anecdotal evidence on both sides of the issue fails to address other lingering questions: Exactly what constitutes a private property taking? What constitutes degradation of a natural resource like a spring? Who pays for the degradation? Is there a right of guaranteed stream flow? How connected are the headwaters of Pinto Creek to the artesian wells in Pinto Valley? If the Legislature dissolves the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, what does that say about groundwater districts being the state’s preferred means of locally controlling groundwater use, and what does it say about preserving the Rule of Capture?
No matter what legislators, lawyers, lobbyists, judges, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats say or do, springs are vital to the environmental and economic health of Kinney County, just as they are everywhere else in Texas.
Though the feuding has spilled over into churches, schools, businesses and all over the county, each and every one of the folks I visited with has more in common with each other than they’d care to admit: They are passionate about protecting their land, guided by a deep and abiding love for its beauty, which in the respective cases of the Shahans, Coates and Davises is directly tied to the water.
Politics aside, Kinney County has some of the best water anywhere in Texas. The riparian corridor along Las Moras Creek below the headwaters was as alive with wildlife as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley river brush just after sunrise one morning. The sight of artesian water gushing out of well pipes, pure, clean, cool, pushed as high as 20 feet in the air by underground pressure, is downright miraculous.
Some of the hows and whys of that miracle are answered by Gary Garrett at the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Ingram. Garrett is a TPWD biologist who has studied the springs and creeks of Kinney County extensively. He wastes no time explaining their delicate condition.
“The headwaters of Pinto Creek are biologically unique. It’s one of only four places on earth where the Devils River minnow exists. It’s a natural lab scientists hardly ever see. Pinto is really two creeks. North of Highway 90, it’s quite a healthy system. That’s where the Devils River minnow thrives. South of the highway, the level of sulphur in the water is higher [writer’s note: and emits quite an odor], salinity goes up, ammonia goes up, turbidity goes up. The Devils River minnow is no longer found. Instead it’s the red shiner, which does well in a polluted environment.
“The value of rare, unique species is that they are biological indicators,” Garrett explains. “If there’s no value other than that, it is extremely important. I don’t mind water leaving the county if it doesn’t affect the flow of the springs and streams. The question is, how much? When they irrigate, some of the springs stop flowing. Those springs need to flow, that creek needs to flow. The death of an aquatic system ultimately affects humans. Keeping them healthy is healthy for all of us.”
A century after the Texas Supreme Court decision upheld the Rule of Capture by declaring groundwater too “mysterious and occult” to regulate, the mystery remains, in Kinney County at least.
- blog Kinney Water Wars
- Top 10 Swimming Holes A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions). [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
Top 10 Swimming Holes
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions).
Of all the features that define natural Texas, nothing speaks to the soul quite like springs do. As the source of water in its purest, most pristine form, springs are the basic building block of life. They present themselves in a manner as miraculous as birth itself, gestating in the womblike darkness of an aquifer deep underground until pressure percolates, pushes, and forces the water up through cracks, fissures, and faults in the limestone cap until it bubbles, seeps or sometimes even gushes, to the surface, magically turning everything around it lush and green. Springs feed creeks, streams and rivers, and nourish plant and animal life. Springs are why Texas has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the greatest thing about springs is that they create swimming holes, which are the very best place to be in Texas in the summer. The greatest concentration are clustered in the Hill Country, where human activity around San Marcos Springs, the second largest springs in Texas, has been traced back more than 12,000 years. Like me, the ancients must have figured out that immersing in cool artesian spring water was a pretty smart way to survive a hot day in August.
I endure the heat gladly when I’m close to a spring-fed swimming hole. The endless string of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls — that’s my favorite time of the year. Springs are why.
The great spring-fed swimming holes of Texas run the gamut from wild and unsullied to tamed and civilized. All of them promise a shady place to cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The swimming hole is my church, a holy place to splash in water clean and clear enough not to have to worry, with at least one big rock to lie out on and jump off of, and ideally a rope swing hanging from a tree limb. Settings like that are compelling evidence there is a higher power.
I have written about swimming holes on numerous occasions for several publications. I live where I live for the swimming hole, which all of my family enjoys in the summer. I plan road trips around swimming holes. I’m always on the prowl to find new ones.
There are literally hundreds of these liquid jewels scattered across Texas, many of them known, some secret, all defying the logic of geography, geology, climate and progress. Without springs, I would not be here. Without springs, I don’t think Texas would be here, either.
Having to select my 10 favorite swimming holes is not unlike having to choose among your children, knowing I’m leaving out sweet spots like Mankin’s Crossing on the San Gabriel, Tonkawa Falls in Crawford, the state parks at Colorado Bend, McKinney Falls, and on the Guadalupe River near Boerne, the entire Medina River, Burger’s Lake in Fort Worth, the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, Possum Kingdom Lake west of Mineral Wells, Tule Canyon Lake near Silverton, Chain-O-Lakes near Cleveland, Hancock Springs in Lampasas, Las Moras Springs at Fort Clark in Brackettville, the Slab in Llano and the 7A Crossing in Wimberley, just to name a few. The following 10 are chosen at my own personal peril and risk, because they’re just my opinion. You likely have your own top 10. Either way, we should all quit arguing and jump in, feet first, eyes closed. Biggest cannonball splash wins.
1. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
Back in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps lined the banks of San Solomon Springs, the biggest springs in West Texas, with native stone and built a classic bathhouse to provide easier access to 78-degree water that is Caribbean-clear and brimming with pupfish, tetras, catfish and turtles. Those features and its picturesque location in the Chihuahuan Desert with the Davis Mountains on the horizon conspire to create the finest natural swimming experience on earth.
2. Barton Springs, Austin
As development has sprawled beyond the pool and the creek upstream all the way to its headwaters some 30 miles away in Hays County, Barton Springs is more remarkable than ever. There are times when the water is so clear it’s as if nothing has changed in the last 100 years. I derive a great deal of pleasure watching friends get hooked the same way I did at Barton’s more than 30 years ago. Two recent converts I know begin their day at 5 a.m. in the springs, with downtown skyscrapers and the moon providing all the illumination they need to navigate the dark waters. That’s a little too extreme for me, but they know like I know there is no better urban swimming hole on Earth. Period.
(512) 476-9044 www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonsprings.htm
3. Landa Park, New Braunfels
The 1.5 million-gallon, spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River in New Braunfels is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds, fed by the biggest springs in Texas. A few hundred yards downstream on the Comal River is the Prince Solms Tube Chute, a cheap thrill ride that inspired the nearby Schlitterbahn, consistently rated as the best waterpark in America. Thanks to the constant 73-degree water temperature, snorkelers and divers can do the entire mile-long stretch of the river year-round.
(830) 608-2160; www.ci.new-braunfels.tx.us/parks/Landa%20Park.htm
4. Krause Springs, Spicewood
This sublimely picturesque natural swimming environment consists of several pools on Little Cypress Creek, fed by a small waterfall tumbling from springs on the exquisitely manicured bluff above. Krause Springs is privately owned, but overnight camping is permitted. (830) 693-4181.
5. Sewell Park, City Park, Rio Vista Park,
San Marcos River, San Marcos
The San Marcos River begins at the bottom of Spring Lake, an impoundment where the second biggest complex of springs in Texas pumps out thousands of gallons of pure water, spilling over two small dams before winding swift, crystal-clear and cool (70 degrees year-round) on a short, two-mile run as a semi-tropical waterway ideal for tubing, snorkeling or wading. The flow in some spots is so strong, you can point upstream and swim in place, getting a good workout among the turtles and fishes in the wild rice without going anywhere. There’s even a small dam to slide down to keep things interesting.
Sewell Park (on Texas State University Campus): (512) 245-2004.
City Park, Rio Vista Park: (512) 393-8400. www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us/departments/parks/ParksFacilities.html
6. Schumacher’s Crossing, Guadalupe River, Hunt
This storied hole on Highway 39 was popular long before Hunt became a favorite Hill Country destination for wealthy families from Houston and San Antonio in the early 20th century.
Contact West Kerr County Chamber of Commerce (830) 367-4322 www.wkcc.com
7. Neal’s Lodges, Concan/Garner State Park,
Rio Frio, Leakey
The whole stretch of the Rio Frio between Leakey and Concan is made for tubing and splashing. But these two historic spots dating back to the 1920s on the banks of turquoise-tinted Frio, one of the most gin-clear bodies of water in the Southwest, are a cut above the rest when it comes to swimming and floating among the cypresses. (830) 232-6118
8. Hamilton Pool, Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve,
Thirty miles southwest of downtown Austin, Hamilton Creek transforms into a 50-foot waterfall that tumbles into a steep canyon shaded by a near-perfect cave overhang with a nice sandy beach at the opposite end of the natural pool. Access to this idyllic grotto is limited.
(512) 264-2740 www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/hamilton_pool.asp
Blanco River State Park, Blanco (tie)
A sentimental pick, mainly for the sweet pleasure of pulling off the highway just after sunset at the end of Labor Day weekend last year for a swim in the gathering darkness, the park’s hole is created by a low dam spanning the river with a small pool area below the dam for that cement-pond swimming experience. (830) 833-4333; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
9. Devil’s Water Hole,
Inks Lake State Park, Burnet (tie)
The red granite cliff, a Highland Lakes landmark, is rife with small falls fed by Spring Creek following heavy rains and offers a 25-foot promontory from which to jump (feet first, of course) into this dammed portion of the Colorado River.
(512) 793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
10. San Felipe Springs, Del Rio
This swimming hole on San Felipe Creek in the small city-owned Horseshoe Park is a welcome oasis on the edge of the desert, even though busy Highway 90 crosses nearby. Flanked by improved banks of native stone, shaded by stately pecan, elm, maple and mulberry trees, lined with a hard limestone bottom, and fed by the fourth largest springs in Texas, the pool is shallow enough near the banks for kids to stand in and long enough to swim short laps.
Horseshoe Park: (830) 774-8454.
Blue Hole, Wimberley
This storied hole should bust back into the Top Ten next year when it reopens as a city park. The hole is in the process of being purchased by the Village of Wimberley, aided in no small part by a $1.9 million grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after being saved from development by local resident Peter Way.
See Also: Water Wars How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics. [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
The Park That Time Forgot
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Boasting the world’s largest spring-fed pool and a retro-cool motel, Balmorhea State Park is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert.
To most people looking on a map, Balmorhea is just a state park. But intrepid travelers who willingly make pilgrimages across several hundred miles of lonesome highway to this 49-acre spread in Far West Texas know Balmorhea is much more than that.
To them to us, I should say, since I’m one of the longtime true believers Balmorhea is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert, the most scenic gateway into the Big Bend, and a delightful, low-key, and relatively undiscovered retreat off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, yet still within eyeshot of Interstate 10.
In my particular case, Balmorhea is underwater nirvana, the finest natural swimming experience on earth. The World’s Largest Spring-fed Swimming Pool, as the park’s 3.5-million-gallon centerpiece is billed, is so big a 200-foot circle around the springs and a large rectangular tangent it takes a good 15 minutes of a steady crawl stroke to circumnavigate its perimeter.
The cottonwood-shaded grounds, crisscrossed with footbridges over the small canals, and the distinctive Spanish colonial white adobe, red-tile-roof bathhouse, lovingly constructed in the 1930s by Company 1856 of the storied Civilian Conservation Corps, are soothing to the eye. So is the backdrop of the Davis Mountains rising majestically from the Madera Valley, the land mass dwarfed by the spacious wide-open western sky that sprawls overhead.
That setting is merely a prelude to the scenery underwater. Pure, pristine, ancient artesian water flows from at least nine springs 25 feet below the surface in the middle of the pool at a rate of more than 20 million gallons a day. The water is a constant 76 degrees year round, refreshingly cool in the summer heat and surprisingly warm in the middle of winter, and so clear, the terms "gin-clear" and "crystal-clear" don’t do it justice. Visibility is 80 feet, farther than one can see underwater in most of the Caribbean Sea.
The clear water and intense, sharp sunlight conspire to zap the waterscape with rays of Technicolor, fairyland light that illuminate thousands of minnow-sized Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish both listed as endangered species and tetra, dozens of black catfish hovering near the bottom, and several families of Texas spiny soft-shell and red-eared slider turtles working every corner of the pool. In the winter, coots and bufflehead ducks live on the surface.
Over the past three decades, I’ve managed to go swimming at Balmorhea every month of the calendar year. Many times I’ve had the pool all to myself, like I did two days after Labor Day last year. The solitude, I must admit, was quite a delicious feeling. I felt very privileged to be there at that moment.
Timing is everything. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the pool can be packed on weekend days with as many as 1,500 day trippers from nearby towns such as Fort Davis, Alpine, Marfa, Pecos, Presidio, and as far away as Midland, El Paso and Juarez. Most weekends during the rest of the year, the circular middle of the pool above the springs, and the 18-room white adobe San Solomon Courts cottages and adjacent campgrounds fill up with scuba divers from all across Texas and as far away as New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The pool is large enough to qualify as open water for scuba certification.
Weekdays, more often than not, it’s all yours.
Regardless of when I come, I’m struck by the wonder that a pool of this magnificence and aquatic abundance can exist in a dry, harsh terrain that annually averages 8-14 inches of rainfall. Dora Ceballos, a 20-something woman from El Paso whom I met on my last visit, affirmed the special nature of the place. "We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses," she explained while watching several friends splash in the shallow area by the main steps. "How can you not believe in the miracles of the Creator, seeing this? I had no idea this was here. Next time, we’re bringing the kids."
She’s right. Water like this belongs in the Texas Hill Country, where most of the other great swimming springs in Texas are located. And sunsets like this are straight out of the American West, Mesilla Valley at the very least, especially when you’re finishing a plate of New Mexico-style stacked green chile enchiladas on the patio of the Cueva de Oso restaurant back in town.
Town, 4 miles from the park entrance on State Highway 17, is the real Balmorhea, population 500, so named for Balcomb, Moore, and Rhea, the three Scottish developers who began irrigated farming operations in the valley in the late 19th century.
The water has been around since before man arrived. Humans have been utilizing it for thousands of years. Indians were farming near the springs when the first Spanish explorers crossed this territory in the 16th century. Today San Solomon Springs sustains 12,000 acres of cultivated cotton, sudan grass and alfalfa.
San Solomon Springs is a cienega, the Spanish word for desert marsh, a very unique and rare environment. Much of the cienega was destroyed when the pool was constructed. The pool and the park were initially under the stewardship of the Reeves County Water District No. 1 and were annexed into the Texas Parks and Wildlife system in 1960. In 1996 the unintended marshland damage was mitigated when TPWD established a three-acre cienega below the motel and adjacent to the campgrounds. Planted cottonwood, cattails and bulrushes have flourished. The pied-billed grebe (not seen since 1937) and the green heron have returned.
The above details came from Tom Johnson, the park manager of Balmorhea. Like the Jehovah’s Witness, he too confirmed Balmorhea is hardly the typical Texas state park.
"People that come out here all the time don’t want anybody else out here. They want it as their own private oasis," he says.
But the numbers don’t lie. The annual visitation count is up to more than 200,000 and rising, ranking Balmorhea one of the top ten most-visited state parks. "For a little park out in the middle of nowhere, those numbers are way up there. We have a busy season, and a busier season."
Dove hunters book up motel rooms in early September. Birders from the eastern United States flock to the park to witness western flyway migrations in the spring and fall.
Cyclists regularly stop to ride the local roads. West Texas and New Mexico motorcycle groups hold rallies in town. Rock hunters drop by while seeking out Balmorhea blue agate. Word of mouth has prompted an increasing number of long distance travelers on Interstate 10 to pull off and spend a night in the comfort and quiet of motel rooms with 18-inch adobe walls before resuming their cross-country trek. Then there’s the growing number of urban refugees "trying to get out of the city and wanting to find an unspoiled place," Johnson says. "They’re coming here. They don’t like the TVs in the room, they don’t want phones, and they don’t want us to make it too nice. They’re happy that the nearest Wal-Mart is 53 miles away."
And why not? With simple retro-cool CCC motel kitchenettes for $60 a night, a dive shop next door that sells air and rents masks and snorkels, nearby restaurants, a cafe/soda fountain, an RV park, and the new Laird Ranch bed & breakfast with private dining facilities, Balmorhea Lake three and a half miles downstream from San Solomon Springs, and endless vistas of wide open spaces no matter where you look, why bother going anywhere?
Johnson fetched a trove of old postcards and photographs of the springs and the park out of his desk to show me the cult of Balmorhea is no new thing. Two photos are of Tom Johnson’s father on a high diving board in the 1940s. His father and mother, residents of Van Horn, 67 miles west, were pool regulars when they were growing up. Many cards identify the pool as the "world’s largest." Comments written on the back politely acknowledge the dusty surroundings and occasionally violent weather: "…the country here is so much different from our part of the state."
"We came here but a tornado broke loose over us. What a night!"
On Johnson’s wall are a couple of publicity photographs. One is the Paladins, a modern greased-up rockabilly band from Los Angeles who stop in whenever they’re going to or from Austin, The handwritten message accompanying the band’s autograph declares: "This is the greatest place in the world."
Another publicity photo on Johnson’s wall is signed by Divin’ Sam Hernandez, the first and only American to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championships. "He’s a truck driver now," Johnson said. "His route is from Los Angeles to Dallas, and he says this is the only place between those two cities worth stopping for a swim."
The longer one pauses, the greater the appreciation for the simpler pleasures of Balmorhea. The playground next to the pool has all the swings and slides a kid could ever need. Picnic shelters with small cooking pits may be no big deal in Dallas or San Antonio, but on this part of the desert, the tables and benches, the shade awning, and the grass around them are luxuries. The small network of canals emanating from the springs into the restored cienega provides a subtle, sweetly melodic soundtrack while observing the abundant aquatic life thriving in the see-through water. It’s an elementary, sometimes deeply spiritual exercise comparable to contemplating a tidal pool. (Shorter attention spans will benefit from the window wall viewing area of the San Solomon cienega as well as the adjacent observation deck.) The mere act of sitting on the porch outside a motel room takes on its own appeal. Hang around long enough and you’ll finally make sense out of the older couple who spent at least half of one day reclining in their folding beach chairs by the pool without ever moving.
One February day a couple of years ago, I emerged from the water to encounter a weathered old man gazing onto the scene. He was from California, he told me, and he hadn’t been to Balmorhea since the days shortly after it was constructed. Back then, he said, there were dances staged on the pavilion and a Mexican cafe that operated on the premises. He was passing through and just wanted to see if the old place was still there. He seemed reassured it was. His experience synched with the first impressions two clean-cut gentlemen wearing leather chaps had when they stumbled onto the park last September while riding their motorcycles from Big Bend National Park back home to Kansas. "This is the park that time forgot," one whispered to the other as the ranger checked them into their room for the night.
All kinds of people from all over are Balmorhea fans, I’ve come to find out. From unsuspecting bikers from Kansas to the husband and wife walking in tandem in matching shirts, shorts and knee socks to the peregrine falcon biologist in search of relief from the heat to the displaced bathing beauties in bikinis making like lizards and lying on the concrete wall by the pool to work on their tans.
It’s convinced me that no matter where I go or where I may end up on this earth, sooner or later I, too, will come back to Balmorhea, just to see if it’s still there, just to get that feeling again of being in a park that time forgot in a place that feels like it should be somewhere else. It will be worth the trip, I’m sure.
See also: blog Kinney Water Wars
The Only Honest Lake in Texas
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Ron Munden
July 8, 2005 (Volume 97, No. 14)
It looks like a winner has emerged in the struggle for Caddo Lake.
A table full of good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls are having a hoot over lunch at Dawn’s, under the bridge where State Highway 43 crosses the western edge of Caddo Lake. One in the crowd claims he’s been seeing blue UN flags popping up all over the lake, hearing folks speaking Esperanto and Ebonics, and observing some lake people engaging in secret handshakesall sure signs the United Nations has taken over Caddo Lake.
"That’ll give the general heart palpitations," one big bubba cackles.
The "general" is retired General Vernon Lewis, the lake resident who co-sponsored a resolution along with Ed Smith, the mayor of nearby Marshall, in the 2004 Texas Republican Party platform condemning the Caddo Lake Institute and, through the institute, its president Dwight Shellman and its cofounder and chief financier Don Henley for aligning with the United Nations.
There it is, Article 10 under Environment, Property Ownership, and Natural Resources: "We oppose conservation easements on our natural resources administered by organizations unaccountable to taxpayers and voters. For example, the efforts of the Caddo Lake Institute to act as a surrogate for the UN in gaining control of water rights of Caddo Lake."
The dig was directed at the institute for its role in having Caddo Lake recognized as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (www.ramsar.org) in 1993. Caddo is one of 19 wetland sites in the United States and the only one in Texas to get the designation. The problem with the Republicans’ proclamation is that Ramsar is not a United Nations convention, nor does the "important wetland" designation have squat to do with landowners’ sovereignty rights. (At least the Caddo Lake Institute was in good company. The Texas Republican party platform also opposed affirmative action, statehood for the District of Columbia, the Kyoto Protocol, the Biodiversity Treaty, and buying land for endangered species, while supporting the "rule of capture" of groundwater and abolishment of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.)
On March 24, 2004, several months prior to the platform adoption, Lewis and Smith spoke at an emergency townhall meeting of the Tarrant County Republican Assembly in Fort Worth on "Seven Flags Over Texas (The UN Is the Seventh Flag)." The announcement for the emergency meeting asks, "Why Is the UN in Texas? Why Do They Want Texas Water? Come Here [sic] about the California-ization of Texas and About the Republicans That Are Helping the Wrong Side."
Robby Speight, a burly character sitting at the lunch table at Dawn’s who is president of the Greater Caddo Lake Association, recalls meeting a State Department official at a national lake conference a year ago. The official told him they had a name for people who get their dander up about the United Nations’ support of the Ramsar Convention and are forever paranoid about the world body’s imminent invasion: "the black helicopter crowd." The State Department official allowed that the case of the retired general and Mayor Smith successfully lobbying to get it written into the Texas Republican Party platform was a little more extreme than usual. Obviously, the State Department official doesn’t know Texas.
The lunch crowd at Dawn’s is laughing because, for all the ongoing battles between the lake people and the city of Marshall over water rights to Caddo and the fulminations from the black helicopter crowd, the war on Caddo Lake is over. Battles are still being fought and skirmishes are forever, but when all is said and done, the good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls who live and work on the lake won, and they know it.
Although a last minute state court ruling or political intervention is never out of the question, Caddo Lake as an untapped source for water hustlers is off the table. The water right to 40,000 acre feet that the Army had but never fully utilized when it oversaw an ammunitions plant by the lake, which politicians from the city of Marshall also coveted to sell to an industrial user, is being handed off to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the overseer of the national wildlife refuge being created on the site of the ammo plant, and the Fish & Wildlife Service’s interest in water marketing is less than zero.
Caddo Lake is unlike any other lake in the state. It’s the only lake with an honest history because it is the only honest lake in Texas, having formed naturally sometime during the 19th century. It’s the only Texas lake with its own body of literature, including Love Is A Wild Assault by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland, the twisted, true-to-life romance novel based on the life of Harriet Moore, aka Harriet the Brave and Beautiful and Kishi Woman of Caddo Lake; Caddo Was A Short History of Caddo Lake by Fred Dahmer, the definitive Caddo Lake book; Every Sun That Rises, stories told by Wyatt Moore, another lake sage who was a boatman, fisherman, guide, trapper, raftsman, moonshiner, and roughneck as well as a gifted storyteller; and Jacques D. Bagur’s recent A History of Navigation on Cypress Bayou and the Lakes, the extensively researched history of boat traffic that has debunked several myths about the lake.
Fine as books may be, full appreciation of Caddo Lake is a two-step program. First, one must reach back in the mind’s eye, beyond the printed word, beyond the Great Raft jam on the Red River (most often cited for forming the lake out of the Big Cypress Bayou in the early 1800s), beyond the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, also attributed as the source, and even before to the Caddo Indians and their legend of the chief who had a vision and told his people to move to higher ground in advance of a deadly wall of water that covered their village overnight. Going to Caddo is going all the way back to the beginning of time, when the towering bald cypressTexas’ own redwoodswere common all over the Earth, not just in the few selected nooks and crannies like Caddo Lake where they persist today, bearing witness to the primordial soup that spawned all life.
Next, spray yourself down for mosquitoes, chiggers, and other bugs, walk out on the dock in the back of the cabin you’ve rented, and take it all in. The foreground is defined by a coating of duckweed floating on the water in a surreal electric lime-green swirl. The background is dominated by a wall of bald cypress soaring skyward. In between, herons and cranes pick their way through the muck to stab and grab a small crappie or some other object of desire while a red-shouldered hawk and a green heron play out a quiet drama as the hawk swoops out of high branches of its tree to hassle the heron for infringing on its space by perching on a branch too close. The give-and-take is accompanied by a noisy soundtrack of bullfrogs burping out percussive bass lines to rhythmic ensembles of locusts, cicadas, and crickets buzzing, clicking, and whirring.
Part swamp and consisting of a series of lakes of varying size, shape, and depth, Caddo Lake is roughly 23 miles long and covers 40,000 acres in high water, making it the second biggest natural lake in the South and easily one of the most inspiring, which explains the Ramsar recognition.
Caddo is almost as significant for what it is not: no condos, no high rises, no chain motels or restaurants, no resorts, no gated, planned communities, no margarita bars, no chains, no pretension, none of the trappings of modern Texas Lake Culture. Cell phone service here is as spotty as it is in Big Bend. The Big Bend comparison is intentional. Caddo Lake may be in northeast Texas and relatively close to urban centers in all directions, but for those who get Caddo, it is a natural jewel just as worthy of protection.
Still, it should not be confused for pristine. A lot of bad things have happened here. Almost all the virgin timber was gone more than a century ago. Dam building upstream and downstream along Cypress Creek all but eliminated floods, which rob the riparian forest of much of the soup of rich nutrients deposited on the topsoil in high water. The lake is downwind of several electricity-generating plants powered by cheap but dirty-burning lignite coal containing mercury. Texas Tech toxicology scientist Thomas Rainwater discovered the highest concentration of mercury ever found in a snake while studying a cottonmouth rattlesnake from Caddo Lake. Consumers are warned to eat no more than 8 ounces of bass or drum from the lake per month due to high levels of contaminants. The presence in the water supply of pharmaceuticals from the chicken processing industry is becoming a concern. The highest level of acid rain west of the Mississippi River has been recorded here. And the City of Marshall still wants to utilize part of its right to draw 16,000 acre feet of water a year just upstream of Caddo to attract an industrial user.
Many of those problems aren’t going away soon. It will take time, money, and community consensus to fix them.
This story was originally going to be about Don Henley, Dwight Shellman, and the Caddo Lake Institute they founded together and how the Texas Republican Party came to hate them. Henley is the East Texas musician who spent some of the millions he’s earned with the Eagles, one of the most popular bands of all time, to save Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Henley founded the Walden Woods project, which raised $17 million to protect Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond from development, before turning his sights on his own Walden, Caddo Lake, about 25 miles from Linden, the town where he grew up. In 1993, Henley enlisted Shellman, an attorney and his neighbor in Aspen, Colorado, where he keeps a vacation home, to co-found the Caddo Lake Institute (CLI). Shellman moved part-time to Uncertain, pop. 194, the largest community on the lake and, as president and general counsel for the institute, began showing locals how to use science, education, and the courts to protect the lake and their property.
This story was also going to be about the vendetta waged by retired General Vernon Lewis, the former head of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which is responsible for maintaining the lake’s boat roads, against Shellman and the CLI. Lewis’ field of battle has largely been the op-ed page of the weekly newspaper he co-publishes, the Lone Star Eagle. When asked about his dispute with Shellman, General Lewis is blunt. "He’s going to go away someday, and when he goes away, this Caddo Lake Institute is going to go away. This is a one-man show and it is all about money and environmental power. They don’t give a shit about Caddo lake."
Shellman’s sin was to organize various lake interests and challenge the political status quo. The Caddo Lake Institute’s initial emphasis was on science, research, and school partnerships to define exactly what the lake is. Much of that accumulated data has been put to use. Shellman raised the question of the consequences for the lake if Marshall utilized its full right to 16,000 acre feet of water taken from just upstream of the lake. Caddo Lake interests protested a proposed power plant for American Electric Power that was eventually sited elsewhere. The institute applied for an in-flow water right for the lake and the Cypress Basin. Several lake residents sued power plants in East Texas for emissions causing mercury contamination. When Marshall tried to switch its water right permit from municipal to industrial use, Shellman litigated the city’s ability to do so without a contested hearing all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. (The case was heard in October 2004. At press time, a decision is still pending.)
But Shellman, who is stepping down at the Caddo Lake Institute at the end of the summer, isn’t the story. Neither is the retired general. The longer one lingers on the lake, the clearer it becomes that it’s the people in between who will determine the lake’s future.
Shellman is an Aspen lawyer. Paul Fortune grew up on Caddo Lake in a one-room shack on Pine Island Road on Big Cypress Bayou that his family moved into in 1953 following a house fire. "We had no running water; we had no indoor plumbing," he says, but he did learn a lot about fishing and hunting and paddling. "I’m not very educated," he says. "I graduated high school in a class of 12 and I wasn’t in the top 10. Caddo Lake has been my bread and butter. There’s no other place like it."
A clean-cut, spine-erect go-getter, he followed his father in getting a job at the Lone Star Ammunition Plant, which opened in 1944 and employed as many as 2,400 workers until it ceased operations in 1995. Fortune left the plant in 1980 but never really left the lake, where he builds houses and serves as vice-president of the 700-member Greater Caddo Lake Association. Lately, he’s been hanging around the administration building of the ammo plant again, this time to help transform the property from a $44-million Superfund cleanup site to the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,500-acre symbol of the lake’s future.
"The first time I met Dwight Shellman was six years ago with a group of local people," Fortune remembers as he shows me around the old administration building, where the refuge will be headquartered and the Caddo Lake Institute will lease offices. "We were told this might be a wildlife refuge if the community wanted it. Don Henley had the connections, but Dwight said Don didn’t want to waste his time and money if the local people don’t want it." Fortune and nine others were flown to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, courtesy of Henley, and were sold on the idea.
"We had heard of other usesa prison, a chicken processing plant, industrial park," he says. "All of that sounded good for the local economy, but they weren’t compatible with Caddo Lake right here." Fortune credits Shellman for being "so durn persistent" in making the refuge a reality and recognizes that Shellman’s work is almost done.
"For years, Dwight’s been retiring. He’s like my fatherhe can’t quit. But I think Dwight realizes somebody needs to take the helm, if there is somebody. He wants to find that person to do it. To my knowledge, he hasn’t found that person yet."
Shellman could do worse than Fortune. He’s one of several lake people I encountered who are passionate about the lake and projects like the refuge, where planning for public access is underway, including wildlife observation areas for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. There’s hope the refuge’s infrastructure will siphon off some of the $1.2 billion birding and wildlife observation brings into the Texas economy annually, most of it currently being spent along the coast and in the Rio Grande Valley.
Fortune gets almost gaga talking about Harrison Bayou Bottoms, 1,400 acres tucked back in the wildlife refuge that is a rare slice of old-growth hardwood river bottom. The acreage was initially leased from the Army by the Caddo Lake Institute before it was integrated into the national wildlife refuge. "I would like to see a boardwalk into a portion of where it is totally undisturbed, but where people can view this," Fortune says. "Man has altered Caddo Lake something fierce. Places like Harrison Bayou Bottom prove it’s still a salvageable lake."
The refuge purchase complements more than 8,000 acres on the north side of the lake, designated a state wildlife management area in 1992 through land buys by the Texas Nature Conservancy, and the 800-acre Caddo Lake State Park on the other side of the town of Karnack, effectively blocking major development along Caddo’s shoreline.
Tom Walker, the mild-mannered, fifth-generation local, part-time librarian, pro-life Christian, and vacation Bible school teacher who introduced me to Paul Fortune, is the e-mail version of Paul Revere on Caddo Lake, the communicator who keeps a long mailing list apprised of affairs that affect the lake. He’s also a birder, so when I find a wren chick on the front stoop of the cabin where I’m staying, I know to take it to Walker, who conducts bird-banding sessions on his family homestead. A day later, he’s sending photo updates via e-mail.
Walker lives at the family homestead near the lake, where I nibble fat blueberries out of his garden and listen to him bang out three ragtime-influenced compositions about alligators, herons, raccoons, and Caddo Lake on a dusty upright piano before going for a drive along the north shore of Caddo. We’re looking for Buddy Man Andrews, the 85-year-old African-American wise man of the lake, but Buddy Man isn’t home, so we meander over to Goat Island while Walker calls out birds by sound and sightdowny woodpecker, Acadian flycatcher, northern cardinal, summer tanager, juvenile little blue heron, blue jays, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, blue-gray gnat-catcher, pine warbler, eastern phoebe, mockingbird, mourning dove, little egret.
During the drive, his family history rolls out. William P. Watson settled the homestead in the 1850s when he arrived from North Carolina and married Walker’s great-great grandmother. Watson’s father-in-law, Ward Taylor, founded the daily Jefferson Jimplecute in 1848. Watson’s daughter, Molly, married Andrew Jackson Carter, for whom Carter’s Lake, part of Caddo Lake, is named. The county road leading to his house is named after his father, Boots Walker.
We also talk about Christians and the environment. Walker is flustered that evangelicals flail against concepts such as minimal flows and conservation easements. "Those people think man’s dominion over the world means exploiting it," he says. "Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden to take care of it. Noah had a responsibility to care for the animals."
We drive to Jefferson, pop. 2,912, 14 miles west of the lake and the most perfectly restored small town in Texas I’ve ever visited. Once the major steamboat port-of-entry where thousands of new arrivals first set foot on Texas soil, the one-time boomtown spent most of the 20th century as a ghost town thanks to the advent of railroads and highways, but it was rediscovered in time to save most of the historic structures and reinvent the eight-block downtown by the waterfront into a pedestrian-friendly tourism magnet that is packed most weekends with visitors from Dallas, Houston, and beyond.
Walker introduces Dr. Carroll Harrell, the program director of the Jeffersonian Institute, the town’s equivalent of the Caddo Lake Institute, who breathlessly informs us Richard Subia, the great-great-great grandson of the last Caddo chief, is coming to the institute the next day to speak. Harrell’s doctoral dissertation focused on the populations living in Marion County, including the Caddo, who she says maintained a strong presence around the lake even after Chief Tarshar signed a treaty with the white man in 1835 and most of the tribe moved to the Brazos River and later to a reservation in Oklahoma. "They were in a swamp, so nobody knew they were there anyway," she explains. "When [white] settlers moved in, there was a blending together." The Caddo word tejas, from which Texas was derived, means "friend." The Caddo word for African-Americans translates as "kin."
Dr. Harrell knows a few things about the region’s history. "Jay Gould is a myth," she says dismissively of the robber baron who is said to have placed a curse on Jefferson when the town would not accommodate his railroad. And while it’s true that Howard Hughes’ father developed the world’s first offshore oil rig on the lake in 1917, the lake’s permanent weir dam in Mooringsport, Louisiana, wasn’t constructed for that purpose; it had already been in place for several years. And, no, Harrell insists, the Jeffersonian Institute is not just about preservation. "Our challenge at the institute is how do we create a sustainable economy utilizing the history, the culture, and the environment with education as the driver?"
The Jeffersonian Institute’s driver is Jesse M. (Duke) DeWare, who wears many hats around townCity of Jefferson Attorney; Cypress Valley Alliance President; Jeffersonian Institute President; and director of the Marion County Industrial Foundation. After attending the Citadel and law school, he came home and broke into the cabal who ran Jefferson. DeWare purchased the last forest fire lookout tower in Marion County from the Texas Forest Service and reassembled it in downtown Jefferson as a historical artifact while adding a cell phone tower and a WiFi tower on top. He’s been involved with the Army Corps of Engineers in an environmental restoration of the waterfront that will include an amphitheater, walking trails and boardwalks, and an outdoor education component to educate students about wetlands. He’s also promoting nature tourism as a means to link together Jefferson and Caddo Lake in order to bring visitors to the region, rather than to a specific town.
"Here, we believe in economic development," he says with the certainty of one who’s figured it out. "A big key to that is preserving your environment. It goes hand in hand. There is no conflict. You preserve your environment; you will have sustainable economic development. We want to embrace it in every way we can. We want to attract people here to protect it. People we’ve grown up with don’t realize those assets; it’s no big deal. The people moving in are choosing it."
In other words, Jefferson gets it, just like Austin gets it, Terlingua and Marathon get it, and Port Aransas gets it. Towns and cities in close proximity to parks and open space can make money off their location, as has happened to places like Moab, Utah; Bishop, California; and Port Angeles, Washington.
"My biggest challenge is to reinvent the community to keep up with everywhere else," DeWare says. "We want to be the most well-preserved city in Texas, but we also want to be a 21st-century pedestrian community with global technology. There are people who can live anywhere in the world as long as they can communicate. If they can’t communicate like they want to, you’re not going to get those people."
As lush as the lake appears to be to a visitor’s eye, locals point out that, like most of Texas, it is in the throes of drought. "It’s almost down to the top of the spillway," Robby Speight says during a slow cruise around the lake. "If Marshall was pulling its full water right, you’d feel a reverse current," he says. He points out another threat to the lake’s health. "See that purple flower? That’s a hyacinth. It sucks the oxygen out of the water, and fish don’t live underneath it." The Greater Caddo Lake Association is starting their own hyacinth suppression program to augment state efforts. After Speight attended the Flows Conference in Karnack organized by the Caddo Lake Institute in May, he came away supporting a study of controlled flooding of the lake to mimic nature. "They’re not seeing any new growth of cypress," he says, "so scientists are looking at manipulating the flow.
"For a long time, I took this for granted," Speight smiles as he surveys the water around him. "Now, I don’t."
At their next state convention, Texas Republicans might consider calling for the eradication of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The most sought-after bird in North America, thought to be extinct, was last spotted around Caddo Lake in the 1930s. This spring, the first sighting of an ivory-billed in 60 years was confirmed in the Big Woods of southeastern Arkansas, a similarly wooded swampland about 200 miles from Caddo Lakeclose enough, as the bird flies, to make plausible an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting around Caddo Lake. If that happens, they’ll have to build walls around the lake to keep birders out.
Dwight Shellman finally weighed in via e-mail after I’d returned from Caddo. He confirmed he’s leaving as the institute’s chief administrator in September although he says he may take on special projects "until the institutional transaction is accomplished to my and Don’s satisfaction."
The lake people are now armed with the knowledge needed for community stewardship of the lake and its watershed, and to address issues such as mercury contamination, minimal flows, how to work with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, water districts, and academics, and how to train local people to protect their lake and wetlands.
The National Wildlife Refuge designation is clearly a point of pride. Shellman wrote, "CLI worked for years with the decontamination effort to learn its dimensions, and then used that information to create very difficult technical GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mappingto identify the 7,200 (7/8ths) uncontaminated acres that were ready for immediate refuge purposes and the 1,000 other acres to be taken into the Refugewhen cleaned of contaminants. We then facilitated the transition of that transfer with several federal and state agencies and the community and built them into a team rather than competitors.
"None of this would be possible without Don’s unswerving loyalty to this place and willingness to raise money when the chips are down. He makes locals confident that they will be able to defend; it may also help careless or potential spoilers to be more careful about listening, learning and trying to join our conservation efforts rather than fighting them. There is usually scientific common ground to meet on, with everyone who is prepared and flexible."
This puts Shellman in an uncomfortable position. "I love the place and the people I have come to know so well in 14 years of work and living there," he wrote. "I am torn as to whether I need to get out of the way and be absent so successors can make the program their own, or continue to live there. Living there requires me to learn to keep my opinions to myselfa trait I am not celebrated for. So, it’s not clear I will leaveor just put some burdens down or pass them on to new creative people and stay."
Whatever he does, the lake will still be here, and so will the lake people who have learned to love and fight for Caddo Lake as passionately as Henry David Thoreau felt about his beloved Walden Pond.
Water Foul When the City of Marshall wanted to pump millions of gallons of water out of Caddo Lake and sell them to the highest bidder, the state said, “Sure.” Residents of Karnack, Uncertain, and other tiny northeast Texas towns said, “Hell, no.”