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
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
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
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
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
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
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."


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
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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Kinney County

Texas Parks and Wildlife - July 2005Water Wars

Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
July 2005

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.

See Also:

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

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Top 10 Swimming Holes

Texas Parks and Wildlife - July 2005Top 10 Swimming Holes

Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
July 2005

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.

[See also “The Park That Time Forgot,” in the April 2005 issue.] (432) 375-2370 www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/balmorhe/

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,
Travis County

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]

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

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Balmorhea State Park

Texas Parks and Wildlife - April 2005The Park That Time Forgot

Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
April 2005

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

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

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The Only Honest Lake in Texas

The Texas Observer (Volume 97, No. 14)The Only Honest Lake in Texas

The Texas Observer
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 handshakes—all 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.)

Caddo Lake

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

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 cypress—Texas’ own redwoods—were 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.

Dwight Shellman

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.

Paul Fortune

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 uses—a 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 father—he 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

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 sight—downy 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.

Great Blue Heron - Caddo Lake

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 town—City 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 Lake—close 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) mapping—to 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 Refuge—when 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 myself—a trait I am not celebrated for. So, it’s not clear I will leave—or 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.

See Also:

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.”

[visit the Texas Observer]

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