Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/behold-the-bounty-of-the-blanco/

The July 2021 cover of Texas Highways Magazine, "Hill Country Oasis"

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

Rivers in Texas run the gamut from bucolic babbling brooks to churning whitewater, from rocky dry channels to wide and muddy waterways. The Blanco River, which winds 87 miles through the eastern Hill Country, stands out for exhibiting all of those characteristics at one time or another. I should know. The Blanco is my river.

Twenty-eight years ago, our family moved to Wimberley to be near the Blanco. I’d been hooked on swimming at Barton Springs, Austin’s 68-degree spring-fed swimming pool. When it was time to move, we decided to jump ahead of the inevitable suburban sprawl while looking for another spring-fed place to swim.

I was sold on the house my wife had found the minute we drove over the Blanco on Bendigo Crossing, a low-water bridge also known as the Slime Bridge. Upstream, people were splashing around in the clear water, their laughs punctuated by shrieks of pure joy. Marco! Polo! Bright shafts of late afternoon sunlight shot through the branches of tall cypress trees hovering above the riverbank. Never mind what the house looked like.

An overhead view of the wide blue Blanco river with boats in the middle and trees on the side

Kayaking the Blanco near Wimberley
A watercolor illustration showing a map of the Blanco and San Marcos rivers between Austin and San Antonio

The vintage ’70s ranch-style home needed some love and care, but it would do just fine: It was a half-mile from the Blanco and gave us river access through a property owners’ park.

The first time I jumped in the Blanco, I was taken aback. The water tasted clean. The visibility underwater didn’t compare to Barton Springs’ clarity—the suspended limestone sediment in the Blanco clouds the water and gives the river its name, which translates to White River. But it tasted clean. Smelled clean too.

From April through October, I swim in the Blanco. It is one of the greatest pleasures I know. It’s a pleasure I share with growing crowds of both locals and visitors who converge on the river’s cypress-lined banks at places like Blanco State Park in Blanco; Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Blanco in Wimberley; and Five Mile Dam Park, a 34-acre Hays County park at the lower end of the river near San Marcos. On summer weekends, the parks routinely fill to capacity.

The crowds have grown as suburban sprawl has infiltrated Hays County. The county’s population grew nearly 50% from 2010 to 2019, making it the nation’s second fastest-growing county, according to the U.S. Census.

“The Blanco has always been a hidden gem with little access, fiercely hoarded and protected,” says Ryan McGillicuddy, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conservation biologist who advises landowners on land management. “But the Hill Country continues to become carved up, and whether landowners like it or not, more people are coming to the river.”

Over the past year and a half of COVID-19, I’ve gotten to know my particular stretch of the Blanco even better. Swimming in the river almost every warm day has been a saving grace. Fallow season walks have opened my eyes to the subtle shift of the seasons. The bird and bat migrations, I now realize, aren’t a twice-a-year migration, but rather a constant, steady symphony of movement throughout the year.

When the wind kicks up, you can’t see the Blanco’s bottom for the chop. When the flow is high and fast following a flood, there’s enough whitewater to haul out the kayak, and as soon as the muddy current clears up, go paddling. The river is never the same. And no matter how stressed out it might appear to get, it always comes back. The Blanco has never let me down. The question is: Can we hold up our end of the bargain?

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

A young woman in swim goggles stands on a wooden dock on the edge of the blue Blanco river water

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

The Blanco—locally pronounced “Blank-o,” rather than the Spanish “Blahn-ko”—is the bellwether river of the Hill Country. It’s notorious for its frequent flash floods, treasured for its semi-pristine water quality and quantity, and fretted over because of threats posed by rapid population growth. While human development encroaches the river now, it wasn’t always this way. Few written accounts exist of early European explorers in Texas visiting the Blanco. The topography was too rugged, and the river valley too defended by Native Americans, particularly Lipan Apache and Comanche, who were hostile to incursions by outsiders.

The Blanco begins as a cluster of springs in Kendall County, running shallow as it enters Blanco County and growing as it courses beyond the town of Blanco into the Wimberley Valley and Hays County. It joins the San Marcos River just downstream of the city of San Marcos. Along the way, the Blanco traverses a landscape of cliffs, steppes, canyons, tributaries, waterfalls, springs, and rapids.

The Blanco River bottom is mostly hard limestone and absent natural vegetation. Its water quality remains close to unsullied. On numerous occasions, people have told me the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas. The Devils, the Frio, and the upper Nueces rivers have all been cited as the cleanest, depending on whom you’re talking to. As the self-declared “King of Texas Swimming Holes,” I’ve swum in all of these, and written about them in these pages, including stories about the Frio in 2019 and the Nueces in 2020. I’m not sure which is the cleanest, but they’re all less polluted than other rivers in the state. The Blanco is hardly pristine, though. More than 100 dams and low-water crossings span the river, according to the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Riverbank and riparian habitat are increasingly fragmented as ranches are cut into subdivisions.

I’ve lived by the river long enough to see the Blanco go hog wild on uncontrolled rampages, swallowing trucks and trees, and killing livestock and people—most notably during the destructive and deadly Memorial Day flood of 2015. There’s a reason the Blanco is the heart of what’s known as “Flash Flood Alley.” During extended droughts, and practically almost every August, I’ve watched the river slow to a trickle. My rule of thumb is the earlier in the summer, the better the swimming—as long as the spring and summer rains come. Late in the summer, if it’s been dry and there’s no apparent flow, I’ll skip my swim and go back to the house wondering if I’ll outlive the river, what with all these external pressures it faces, most of them human-related. Is the Blanco a relict, a river at the end of its run? With the local climate trending drier and hotter, is the Blanco destined to be a huge dry wash of bleached rubble, like the thousands of once-upon-a-time drainages threading through the Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert farther west?

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

The Blanco has the reputation of being a fenced-off, no-access river. Even today, trespassers can still have a gun pulled on them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Respect “No Trespassing” signs and purple paint markers on fences, trees, posts, and walls. (A Texas law passed in 1997 allows landowners to use purple paint in lieu of “No Trespassing” signs, with the same consequences.) Ignoring those warnings can lead to being arrested, jailed, and/or fined, which can pretty much ruin your river experience. Don’t fret. There are numerous parks where the public can access the Blanco River for swimming (see below). Always be mindful of the local environment and practice “leave no trace” principles, such as proper trash disposal, respecting wildlife, and not collecting what you find, including rocks, plants, and arrowheads.

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

A man in a gray shirt stands on a rock above bright blue water

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

David Baker came to the Wimberley Valley in 1988 and bought property on Mount Sharp Road that included a piece of Jacob’s Well. Here he started the Dancing Waters Inn.

If there is a steward of the Blanco watershed, it’s Baker. If you’ve seen Jacob’s Well, you’ll understand.

Located about 5 miles from Wimberley, the deep, heart-shaped underwater cave is the source of Cypress Creek. The well begins as a crack on the limestone surface before tunneling deep into Trinity Aquifer. The mouth of the cave makes an incredible swimming hole, and the sweet sensation of diving off the rocks into the hole’s cold, clear water is a rare thrill, even among other spring-fed pools.

Baker founded the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and led the campaign for Hays County to purchase the well and its surroundings, replacing a trailer park and tennis courts with an educational and research center.

“My first impetus was to erect a fence and keep people out,” Baker says. “But thinking long term, if we don’t share these special places with people, they won’t care if they’re destroyed. They won’t know. We’ve got to do better connecting the community to these local resources.”

As the protections increase, so have the external challenges. Baker was involved in the successful four-year fight to stop a private company’s plans to pump and ship groundwater out of the county, which was finally resolved earlier this year. In 2019, working with Hays County and other interested parties, Baker helped stop the City of Blanco’s discharge of 1.6 million gallons daily of treated wastewater into the river. The treated water triggered algae blooms on the Blanco that extended far downstream. The town is now using the wastewater to irrigate alfalfa fields.

“These are some of the few clean rivers left in Texas, and even the most thoroughly treated wastewater contributes to their degradation,” Baker says.

It’s a race between conservation awareness and unfettered development in a booming region. In 2000, Jacob’s Well, which provides about 10% to 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow via Cypress Creek, stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, due to drought and groundwater pumping, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011, 2013, and January of this year.

Despite these threats, Baker is an optimist. Last November, 70% of Hays County voters approved a $75 million parks bond for the county to secure land to protect natural resources and increase river access. And Jacob’s Well, he likes to point out, has become an economic engine through tourism. In recent years, overnight lodging has contributed $70 million annually to the economy in Wimberley.

“Last year, 35,000 visitors from 28 different countries came and visited the well. Twice that many visited Blue Hole,” Baker says. “When people see this, they begin to understand how this all fits together.”

Groups of people sit under tents or in the sun along the banks of a blue-green river

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

I’ve grown to appreciate the Blanco’s nuances. Some mornings the surface is smooth as glass, sunlight painting shadowy ribbons on the rock bottom. Other mornings, wind ripples the surface, the wavelets sparkling like shimmering diamonds.

My thing is jumping in and swimming about a quarter-mile upstream to the big boulder and beyond, following the contours of the riverbed as I work a steady alternating stroke, stretching, kicking, my body and mind getting locked in a rhythmic, meditative zone. The sight of a snapping turtle moving slowly across the bottom may startle, interrupting the repast. I’ve had the same reaction spotting gar and snakes close by underwater.

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

As a native of San Marcos, Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell has long known about the Blanco’s beauty—and dangers. But still, he says, the growing demands on this local treasure have presented a learning curve for the community. “When we first opened Jacob’s Well as a county park in 2011, we didn’t understand that people from all over the country, and eventually the world, wanted to see it,” he says. “That lesson has been learned.”

Shell has made protection of natural resources a priority. Conserving land around the Blanco improves the river’s water quality and can also mitigate the severity of flooding, he says, by directing development and impervious cover away from the river and encouraging the restoration of riparian habitat that naturally absorbs floodwaters and mitigates erosion.

“There are a lot of people in western Hays County who haven’t been here that long,” he says. “They see the Blanco as a river, but I don’t think they respect or understand the river and its value as much as old-timers. The [2015] flood brought that to the forefront: the importance of managing the resource, conserving it, and potentially reducing the likelihood of flooding.”

Shell is proudest of the Sentinel Peak Preserve, a new 535-acre park. When Shell caught wind of the pending sale of the old El Rancho Cima Boy Scout ranch, he strategized with area officials and the Nature Conservancy to secure some of the land. Located just below the rocky ridge known as Devil’s Backbone, the preserve covers a milelong stretch of the Blanco River, protecting prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Officials hope to have the preserve ready to open to the public by late 2022 or early 2023.

“The importance of getting people on the land and seeing the river is immeasurable,” Shell says. “Signal Peak is iconic. It’s the perfect spot for us to do this.”

The new preserve brings hope for McGillicuddy, of Texas Parks and Wildlife. I recently caught up with the biologist as he met with science students from St. Edward’s University. “With a property like Sentinel Peak, there is a rare opportunity to start with a blank slate and shape how the land can be managed for both conservation and recreation,” he says.

Pulling up grasses from the bank, McGillicuddy demonstrated how they help prevent erosion and soil loss during floods. The group discussed the importance of landowner stewardship; the restoration of the Guadalupe bass, the state fish; how the Blanco is connected to Barton Springs and San Marcos Springs; the impact of the 2015 flood; and how to manage for future floods.

Such challenges are enough to turn a river lover like me into a worrywart. But the uncertainty of what’s to come is balanced by experiences like an afternoon this spring. Swimming in the river, I raised my head every now and then to gaze at the line of majestic cypresses looming above the bank and to check for red-eared slider turtles sunbathing on the rocks. At moments like these, I can’t imagine a more splendid place on earth.

Two men relax of the water of the blanco under a green tree

A swimming area by the dam on the Blanco River at Blanco State Park; Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

Dive In

Recreating on the River

While private land borders the majority of the Blanco, there are numerous opportunities to swim and enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Blanco

Blanco State Park: a mile of riverfront, campsites, and cabins. 830-833-4333; texasstateparks.org
Redbud Café: soups, salads, and sandwiches on the square. redbud-cafe.com

Wimberley

Blue Hole Regional Park: Online reservations are required for the swimming hole on Cypress Creek. cityofwimberley.com
Jacob’s Well Natural Area: Advance reservations are required for swimming, but not for the hiking trails. hayscountytx.com
Cypress Falls Swimming Hole: swimming and a hotel. thelodgeatcypressfalls.com
Creekside Cookers BBQ & Bar: great food and outdoor seating. creeksidecookers.com
Rio Bonito Resort: cabins and swimming on the Blanco. riobonito.com
7A Ranch Resort: cabins, a pioneer town, and swimming on the Blanco. 7Aranch.co

San Marcos

Five Mile Dam Park: riverfront with swimming and hiking. hayscountytx.com
Herbert’s Taco Hut: a longtime local Tex-Mex favorite, near the bank of the San Marcos River. 512-392-2993

From the July 2021 issue

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This might be the prettiest body of water in Texas – from Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/rivers/shhh-this-just-might-be-the-prettiest-body-of-water-in-texas/

Ranch Road 337 offers great views in the Hill Country

Ranch Road 337 leads to Camp Wood

View of the Nueces Canyon

Sweeping vistas of Nueces Canyon abound along RR 337

A young woman looks down into a swimming hole on the Nueces River

A swimming hole south of Camp Wood off Riverview Road.

Last summer, I drove into the Nueces Canyon
from Leakey on Ranch Road 337,

one of the storied Twisted Sisters drives favored by weekend motorcyclists. I was looking for what I suspected was one of the most pristine bodies of water in Texas, a Hill Country river hardly anyone ever talks about.

A map showing the roads and towns around the Nueces River in Texas

Illustration: Alan Kikuchi

I arrived in Camp Wood, population 736, a century-old town originally known as a hub for raising sheep and goats. Most of the storefronts along State Highway 55—the main drag dually known as Nueces Street—were occupied, but this did not feel like the Hill Country most tourists experience. None of the businesses were gussied up, and there wasn’t a winery or distillery for miles. The newest structure was a Family Dollar. The shuttered two-story hotel, the faded sign identifying the mohair business, the empty Lindbergh Park, and the mysterious point of interest with seven flagpoles on SH 55 just north of town serve as testaments to events that transpired here on the western edge of the Hill Country over the past 250 years or so.

These spots exist expressly because of the Nueces River and its adjoining creeks, springs, and tributaries. The river is why people settled in the remote Nueces Canyon and why they remain. It’s also why a growing number of intrepid travelers are passing on popular Hill Country destinations to play in Camp Wood, as well as Barksdale, Montell, and points in between.

I’m a spring-fed freshwater swimming nut. Rivers and creeks are my thing, as long as they’re unspoiled, untamed, and unchlorinated—the clearer, the better. The sweetest water I’ve ever seen was on a ranch near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Nueces, out in the middle of nowhere. The water, fresh and infused with ozone, even smelled amazing, like a crashing wave at the beach, minus the salt. I wanted to know if the main channel of the Nueces River, about 20 miles south of its headwaters, was as clear, clean, and dreamy to swim in as the neighboring Frio and Devils rivers.

My guide was Jim Holder, a chirpy, suspenders-wearing board member for the local volunteer group installing exhibits and signage for Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, a public archeological site near the banks of the Nueces. Holder is a retired school teacher and businessman whose kinfolk go back to the 1880s around these parts. He attended elementary school here before moving away and returned as a retiree eight years ago. Holder enjoys life in Camp Wood.

Various people wade and swim into The Quince on the Nueces River

Chilling in The Quince

“The smaller the town, the more people want to visit,” he noted, as we headed north of town to Camp Wood Springs, aka Old Faithful Springs, a couple hundred yards from the river. “Until two years ago, this was the sole source of drinking water for the town,” Holder said of the gin-clear water in the small pond.

Holder guided me to Barksdale, four miles north of Camp Wood, to look at more springs. We took Ray McDonald Ranch Road off SH 55 past a low-water bridge and across a field of white rubble deposited by the October 2018 floods. The actual river was a thin channel maybe 20 feet wide in the rubble, wedged against a low limestone shelf. As the westernmost Hill Country river, constantly rechanneled by big floods that periodically tear through the basin, the Nueces’ riparian landscape is minimalist: white rocks of all sizes, with occasional stands of hackberry, sycamore, oak, and pecan. It reminded me of the Greek islands.

Holder told me this was one of his favorite places on the river to visit. We parked and I had a swim. The water was brisk for a Texas river in August and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. A few small bass and cichlids congregated around rare patches of vegetation.

If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection. While I swam, Holder read Paul Horgan’s book Great River, about the Rio Grande. “I can spend two hours here every day, easy,” he said.

Compared to Hill Country rivers to the east, the Nueces is relatively unpeopled. The dearth of attractions beyond the water is no liability; it’s an asset.

The next stop was the former site of Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, just north of the Camp Wood town limits on the west side of SH 55. Situated on a small ridge above the east bank of the Nueces River, the empty but overgrown grounds sandwiched between two rural residences would have been easy to miss if not for seven flagpoles by the highway. “Those are the six flags over Texas,” Holder said. “Plus, the Lipan Apache had their own flag.”

The water was brisk for a Texas river in August, and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection.

Jim Holder stands by the water of the Nueces

Jim Holder knows the ways of the Nueces

The outside of Two Fat Boys BBQ

Two Fat Boys BBQ on State Highway 55

Lush growth near Old Faithful Springs, which feeds the Nueces

Old Faithful Springs feeds the Nueces and nurtures riparian habitat

The site was originally excavated in 1962 by Curtis Tunnell and a Texas Memorial Museum field crew from the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two summers, it has been reexamined by Tamra Walter of Texas Tech University along with the Texas Archeological Society, which had 300 volunteers camping near the location while doing excavation work. Interpretive signage will be installed, Holder
promised, as a manner of explaining the site’s deep connection to the river.

Young men jump off of a rock cliff into the water of Lake Nueces

Jumping from a cliff into Lake Nueces

Back in Camp Wood, we turned west and followed a dirt road maybe a half-mile to The Quince. This is the town’s sparkling swimming hole, hollowed from a bed of gravel by the sycamore-shaded banks of the Nueces and named for its 15-foot depth. Heading south on SH 55, we hit water crossings for the next 19 miles. On the dirt path of County Road 416 South, the southern extension of Wes Cooksey Park Road, Holder suddenly cautioned, “Slow down, slow down. STOP!”

The road abruptly ended. A 50-foot-long low-water bridge, built five years ago, had both ends washed out by the October 2018 deluge. The route was impassable. The washed-out bridge is now a choice slab for river swimming.

Nine miles south of Camp Wood, we stopped at a clearing on the east side of the highway with four historical markers, three of them faded and tilted. The markers identified the second Spanish mission in Nueces Canyon, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón. Unlike Mission San Lorenzo, Señora de la Candelaria completely disappeared as the adobe eroded into the terrain.
Holder turned around and pointed across the highway. “That’s Montell,” he said.

Back when I conjured my first “Top Ten Swimming Holes in Texas” list, for the June 1985 issue of Texas Monthly, I had one major omission. Liz Rogers, then a hard-charging attorney in El Paso, told me I should have written about her family place on a creek that fed the Nueces in her hometown of Montell. It was the best swimming hole anywhere, she contended. I couldn’t include Montell, I told her, since it was on private property. More than 40 years later, making my way downriver from swimming hole to swimming hole, I appreciated Rogers’ passion for the water.

The heart of the settlement of Montell is a stout, rectangular old stucco building identified as the Montell Country Club. Built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1920s, the building was converted into a community center after the school closed. “That country club is the reason I had no idea that country clubs usually connote wealth,” Rogers told me. “The canyon can be insular,” she allowed. “But it was a beautiful place to grow up. We were surrounded by people that pushed us and cared about us.”

Holder and I drove 9 miles south to Nineteen Mile Crossing, where Nueces Canyon flattens. We then looped back to Camp Wood and Leon Klink Street, just west of Nueces Street. Leon Klink Street was named for the pilot and airplane owner who flew with 22-year-old Charles Lindbergh when their Canuck biplane accidentally landed in a field north of Camp Wood in 1924.

“This was where the plane landed, crashed, and took off,” Holder explained while slow-cruising Leon Klink Street. He pointed out the vacant site of Warren Puett’s hardware store, which the biplane crashed into while attempting takeoff. Lindbergh and Klink were forced to stick around and wait for a propeller replacement and materials for wing repair. “That was the two-story Fitzgerald Hotel where Klink and Lindbergh stayed,” Holder said, pointing to a one-story, blue-green house behind a white picket fence. Three years after the Camp Wood ordeal, Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

People lounge in shallow areas along the Nueces River

Lounging in the shallows

A view of the hills upstream from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

Upstream view from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

The Nueces River winds and snakes through the hills

The river as it emerges out of the hills

A young women snorkels in the clear blue water of the Nueces River

Snorkeling in glassy water

The naming of rivers, along with mountains, valleys, and other natural landmarks, is often a perk reserved for their conquerors. That’s why you never hear about the Chotilapacquen, as the Nueces was known to the Coahuiltecan-speaking locals. They were defeated by the Spanish, whose name prevailed.

The Spanish explorer Alonso de León named it “Nueces” for the abundant pecan groves he observed along the river’s banks. Other Spanish explorers mapped the river upstream from Corpus Christi Bay across the Brush Country of South Texas to the westernmost canyon of the Hill Country and its headwaters, 2,400 feet above sea level and 315 miles away. Along the journey upstream, the river disappeared for stretches. Around present-day Uvalde, the water was startlingly clear and surprisingly abundant. Upstream, the river frequently vanished under piles of gravel and rocks, again and again, only to reappear a few hundred yards later.

The early Spanish explorers chose a location 30 miles downstream from the headwaters, just downstream from Camp Wood Springs, which provided a constant source of water. There, in January 1762, Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was founded by a Spanish commander with the help of a Franciscan missionary. The mission aimed to spread Christianity while offering shelter and protection to the Lipan Apache, who were being harassed by Comanche and other hostile tribes. The establishment of the mission—at least 14 adobe and limestone structures—came four years after Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near present-day San Saba was destroyed by the Comanche. The Comanche were angered by the alliance the Lipan Apache, their enemy, made with the Spanish.

Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón, a companion mission 10 miles south, was established two weeks after San Lorenzo. Within seven years, both were abandoned. Two smallpox epidemics, Comanche attacks, and the realization that the Lipan Apache weren’t interested in converting to Christianity prompted the retreat. The closings in Nueces Canyon marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s expansion into Texas from Mexico.

Following the end of the Texas Revolution, in 1836, Mexico regarded the Nueces River as the southern border of the breakaway territory. That is, until the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, formalizing the southern boundary as the Rio Grande. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, near the site of Mission San Lorenzo, as a deterrent to Native American raids. But the camp was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. The town of Camp Wood was eventually founded in 1921 as the railhead for logging cedar.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

A person in a floppy sun hat looks out over the still water at Lake Nueces

Kayaking on Lake Nueces, south of Camp Wood.

I returned to Nueces Canyon a few weeks after visiting with Holder. I wanted to drive from the headwaters down toward Camp Wood, a dramatic drop of 1,000 feet in elevation. I came this time to meet the River Whisperer.

Sky Jones-Lewey, a chestnut-haired 60-something whose steely eyes portray a no-nonsense demeanor, lives on a ranch at the south end of Nueces Canyon. I call her the River Whisperer because she has spent most of her life learning about the Nueces River and all things riparian. She shares that knowledge as resource protection and education director for the Nueces River Authority. Her publication Your Remarkable Riparian: A Field Guide to Riparian Plants Within the Nueces River Basin of Texas is a bible of information about Texas river sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and trees.

The Nueces is Jones-Lewey’s river. She took me to its edge, just downstream from the low-water crossing in the Camp Wood Hills subdivision west of Camp Wood. We parked in a cleared lot she said used to be a dumping ground—“trash, animals, everything”—but is becoming a county park. I was surprised to find such a great spot to take a swim, which I promptly did after she offered her mask and snorkel. As I immersed, I thought back to the detailed explanation of the Nueces’ immaculate state Jones-Lewey emailed me in advance of my trip.

“Nueces basin headwater streams (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, etc.) are so incredibly clear because they are naturally carrying almost no nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus,” she wrote, “and so far, no nutrient-rich wastewater has been allowed to be added to any of them.” According to Jones-Lewey, the towns and camps across the Nueces headwaters utilize the soil, via land application, for their wastewater disposal, with zero discharge into the river.

The clarity of the Nueces, she continued, has to do with the river’s unique underwater landscape. “The base of the aquatic food web in this desert is a delicate community of periphyton (algae, bacteria, and other microbes) that have found ways to prosper on bare rock. These plant-like organisms are harvested by teams of tiny specialized May and Caddis fly larvae, beetles, and snails that are in turn eaten by the Nueces plateau shiner, Spring salamanders, and other endemic species.”

Between dips in the river, we discussed water, riparian habitat, and humans’ relationship to and impact on the environment. The good news is, while some rivers and waterways in Texas are either polluted, compromised, or threatened, the rivers of the Nueces basin—the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces—don’t attract near the number of visitors that the Guadalupe and Colorado river basins do, although prime swim spots get crowded on summer weekends.

“This is the last of the pristine rivers in Texas,” Jones-Lewey said during one swimming break. “It’s extremely clean.”

Robert Mace, a hydrologist who is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, agrees. “Due to its rural and remote locale, and the perpetual gnawing of water against the limestones of the Edwards Plateau,” he said, “the headwaters of the Nueces are among the most pleasing in the state.”

This is in large part due to the work of Jones-Lewey, who led the Nueces River Authority’s efforts to help persuade the Texas Legislature to ban driving in riverbeds. Sitting on the rocky beach at water’s edge, she illustrated why, scraping away large, dry rocks at our feet to reveal pebbles of wet gravel underneath. “The river’s here, too,” she said. “We just can’t see it with all these rocks in the way.”

The Nueces was all that I thought it would be: some of the best swimming around, with calm and cool waters, free of debris and with clear visibility. Hovering below the surface, rhythmically reaching one arm out after the other, steadily paddling my extended toes, I felt like I was floating in a state of suspended animation. Locals are cautiously optimistic the river will continue to allow a magical experience. Awareness about respecting and protecting it has been raised, slowly but surely.

“The river’s in good shape because there are miles and miles of undisturbed streambed,” Jones-Lewey said. “People have not done anything to it. So far.”

The love for the river is deep and wide, and lives on forever in Nueces Canyon High’s school song:

Down below the plains of Texas, /
where the hills arise, / there’s a land of
sparkling waters, / canyons and blue
skies. / Ring ye Nueces High with music, /
we praise your power and might. / Hail
to thee Nueces Panthers, / hail to Blue
and White. / FIGHT PANTHERS! / FIGHT
PANTHERS! / FIGHT! / FIGHT! / FIGHT!

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Water For All? Texas Coop Power’s water issue

Water for All?

Texas Coop Power’s water issue follow the link to download the pdf file.

I’m proud to be a part of the team that put this issue together and especially proud of the journalism done in the name of Texas and its future.

My article on groundwater and surface water in Texas is below and through this link:

photo by Woody Welch

Once deemed too ‘secret, occult and concealed’ to regulate, groundwater remains a vexing subject too deep to capture for today’s lawmakers

By Joe Nick Patoski
August 1, 2012

Water: It’s a deep subject, and veteran journalist Joe Nick Patoski has been trying to get to the bottom of it for years. Spring-fed Jacob’s Well, his favorite swimming hole, sustains the Blanco River and recharges the Edwards Aquifer. But while Wimberley’s Jacob’s Well is threatened by drought and increased pumping of the Trinity Aquifer, some homeowners in nearby Austin have paid to have private wells drilled in the Edwards—not for drinking water, but for water to keep their lawns lush and green.

Water is water, except in Texas.

All of Texas’ freshwater comes from precipitation. Where it goes when it falls makes all the difference in the world.

Surface water, meaning creeks, rivers and lakes, is considered a public resource commonly owned by the people of Texas. Simple enough.

Groundwater, that is all water that you can’t see below the surface of the Earth, is a whole other matter. That water, contained in aquifers and bolsons (Spanish for “bag,” in this case meaning hollowed basins), found tens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet below the surface, is regarded like oil or other minerals—a resource owned by the owner of the land above it.

Got that?

In 1904, the Texas Supreme Court determined in the Houston & T.C. Railway Co. v. East case that property owners could pump as much groundwater as they pleased without regard to the effects on neighbors’ wells. Groundwater, the court ruled, was too “secret, occult and concealed” to regulate. No one understood how groundwater worked, so the court applied rule of capture, a remnant of British common law, to the case.

In February 2012, the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in the Day v. Edwards Aquifer Authority case affirmed that the property owner of the ground also owned the water under that ground.

The problem with both decisions is that groundwater does not observe property lines. Some aquifers are so large they span several counties. Some, hydrologists have learned over the past century, are actually moving rivers. Plus, no matter how groundwater moves, what’s clear is more water is being pumped from underground than is being put back in through recharge.

That explains why other states in the American West have developed different laws and strategies regarding management of groundwater. Texas is the only Western state where rule of capture is law. That may work well for property owners wanting to sell their groundwater, or sell their mineral rights, but not so great for most of the rest of the population that relies on water as a life source.

Where water is abundant, rule of capture works fine, because whatever water is pumped out from underground is usually replenished. But in arid, water-short regions, such as all of the state west of the 98th parallel (roughly following U.S. Interstate 35), the devil’s in the details. Consider this: It’s perfectly legal for a single landowner, taking advantage of his or her property rights, to drain so much groundwater that neighbors’ wells go dry or the groundwater underneath their property disappears.

The most notorious case illustrating that point is when Clayton Williams Sr. and other businessmen pumped groundwater below land they owned west of Fort Stockton to create a pecan orchard in the desert. Because of their actions, Comanche Springs, the largest springs in West Texas, went dry, forcing more than 200 truck farms east of town to go under. Williams’ right was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in 1954.

The Texas court has since reaffirmed property owners’ right to underground water; in 1999, the court upheld the right of Ozarka to mine a spring in East Texas for commercial purposes, even though it caused neighbors’ wells to go dry.

The Texas Supreme Court’s decision in early 2012 affirmed that Texas landowners own the groundwater “in place” beneath their property, and that they may have a valid claim for compensation from the government if regulations go too far in limiting their ability to capitalize on their groundwater.

Still, there are limits to unregulated pumping.

The withdrawal rate of pumping groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the world’s largest underground aquifer systems that covers most of the Great Plains, including the Texas Panhandle and South Plains—has exceeded recharge of the aquifer through rain and snowmelt over the past century. Parts of the water table in Texas have been drained, while less than half of the underground aquifer’s original ground water supply remains. Pumping costs have increased to the point where many Texas farmers have quit irrigated farming altogether, even if groundwater is available. In other words, pumping without regulation is unsustainable.

In 1993, Federal District Judge Lucius D. Bunton III ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set pumping limits in the Edwards Aquifer—which at the time supplied San Antonio with all its drinking water—to protect endangered species dependent on the Comal and San Marcos springs, the biggest spring systems in Texas.

“Without a fundamental change in the value the region places on freshwater, a major effort to conserve and reuse Aquifer water, and implemented plans to import supplemental supplies of water, the region’s quality of life and economic future are imperiled,” Bunton wrote in his decision.

Bunton’s ruling led to the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority by the Texas Legislature. The authority regulates pumping from the Edwards Aquifer.

In 1997, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, establishing statewide water planning for the next 50 years. The bill and subsequent legislation have stated that the best means of local management of groundwater are the 101 groundwater districts established across the state. The rub after the Texas Supreme Court’s 2012 decision is, if a groundwater district or other government entity limits a landowner’s desire to pump, the landowner can sue the district for a “taking” of private property.

“While the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in the Day case makes clear that landowners own the groundwater in place beneath their property, it is much less clear how far a groundwater district may limit pumping before it amounts to a taking of private property,” says attorney Tom Mason, the former general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority who now specializes in water law in Austin.

Which means groundwater districts, regional planning groups and state water authorities, in order to ensure sufficient water supplies 50 years from now, will have a hard time managing groundwater in a way that allows long-term, sustainable use by a variety of landowners/pumpers.

So, groundwater is a property right, and as such requires a whole lot of trust and awareness of the unwritten “law of the biggest pump” when it comes to management of groundwater resources locally, regionally or statewide. Otherwise, if all property owners exercised their right to pump, there wouldn’t be any groundwater left to fight over.

Surface water, on the other hand, is owned by all Texans, even though despite the different laws, really, it’s all the same water.

——————–
Joe Nick Patoski is the author of nine books, including Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy (Texas A&M University Press, 2010). Patoski, an avid swimmer and kayaker, lives in Wimberley, in the Hill Country.

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Generations on the Land book review

OK, they misspelled my last name, but beyond that minor detail, the reviewer gets the gist of the book.

Journal of Sustainability Education

March 18th, 2012
Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, by Joe Nick Patosky. A review.
By Richard Pritzlaff

The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself.

-Aldo Leopold

With regard to management of working lands (private lands engaged in the production of food and fiber), sustainability requires the ability to produce what is necessary for survival today, while understanding the complex relationships within which management of resources must be accomplished to preserve them intact or improved for the future. Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, authored by Texas journalist and writer Joe Nick Patoski, describes some of the skills, motivations, and reasoning behind the progressive land management practiced by eight winners of the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award. Each chapter is a vignette illustrating the difficult and challenging work of six ranching families, a family forestry operation, and a family of vintners.

While well written and interesting, if you are looking for a discussion and analysis of the deeper complex relationships between ecology, production, and economics you will not find it here. This book is not a deep read, and it is not meant to be; this is storytelling. As such it simply mentions a few of the many agro-economic and ecologic realities that fundamentally drive land management decisions.

On occasion the narrative touches on deeper insights. For instance, the loss of jobs and profit margins experienced by local agriculture (silvaculture in this case) as a consequence of downward price pressures is related to global markets unsustainably overharvesting resources:

Terry Peters had witnessed dramatic changes in silvaculture in the thirty five years he had been working these woods. Logging used to be the dominant lifestyle of the region, defined by rugged men wielding axes…and sawmills around almost every bend of the river… But as wood processing evolved into a global industry, the wood workforce in Wisconsin and across the United States declined rapidly. Hanging on in a business where the competition included Brazilian eucalyptus plantations owned by American paper companies, massive logging operations in New Zealand, and clear-cut operations in China, required creative thinking (pp. 44, 45).

The book’s real value is found in what is revealed and implied through the stories told by the working families in their own words. One of the important insights repeated in several of the chapters is a contrast to the view accepted by many farmers and ranchers that regulation and environmentalists are the main threat to ranch viability. The reality of past abuse resulting in degraded lands is cited as most often to blame:

…dad sat on the BLM grazing board…We understood the West was overgrazed…Those were hard times back in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s…For (dad) the light went on when President Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The act held liable every individual party that held a federal grazing permit. Before the act was signed, stockraisers could graze public lands to the point of destroying grasses… (pp. 8, 9).

Decisions to restore degraded lands and to manage within ecologic limits are for the most part enlightened self interest and practical business decisions made to enhance productivity. In addition to greater management options and revenue sources resulting from more productive lands and functioning ecosystems, the skills acquired accomplishing this work are increasingly marketable for those willing to look for opportunities beyond their own fences:

If you can convert to organic, your quality goes way up and…you can command a higher price…We burned this year just out of the need to burn…went the extra mile and received official burn training and certification…secured a $1 million insurance policy to do business as a Conservation Fire Team…consulting and burning for hire all over West and Central Texas (pp. 102, 103).

In addition to acknowledging that restoration has to be accomplished, another hopeful message from these families is the realization that bigger and more isn’t necessarily better. “‘Some people see the land in terms of dollars and wealth’, Teddi Coleman said. ‘We think you can’t put a price on that water, that field. We live in what I call rustic elegance. We don’t have frills, but we have all this natural elegance around us’” (p.63).

By constantly highlighting the true nature of this important work, the author accurately supplies credit where credit is due. For although ranchers, loggers, and farmers relish the ideal of their perceived independence and self-reliance, these stories reveal the partnerships that are essential for restoring working lands. Restoration is complex, costly, and time consuming. Accessing correct information for a particular practice and understanding the latest techniques as they may apply to a specific need takes experience. The work is costly and labor intensive. Mistakes often make things worse than before the project began. Fortunately there are many federal and state programs offering technical and cost share assistance. Private conservation organizations also work to help landowners achieve their restoration goals and are also able to supply volunteers and low cost labor. This is good public policy in practice, which until recently enjoyed bi-partisan political support. Maybe the horrific and costly fires this past summer will remind more short sighted politicians about being “penny-wise and pound foolish.”

In addition to celebrating the accomplishments of the families that are its subject, this short enticing book also helps as a bridge across the political and cultural gaps between working families and those of us who, while not daily working land for a living, share common interest in healthy sustainable food-systems and ecosystems. It touches on complex issues in a way that offers a non-threatening opening for ranchers and non-ranchers to talk and think about the management of working lands. This in essence is at the heart of applied sustainability education.

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Courts and Regulators thwart water planning

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

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

Tags: Lone Star Chapter, landmark cases, San Antonio

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By Bill Hanna

billhanna@star-telegram.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacob’s Well Inspires a Push To Protect the Underwater Cave and Springs

photo by David Baker

Groundwater Gusher
The mysterious power and irresistible draw of Jacob’s Well inspire a push to protect the underwater cave and springs.
By Joe Nick Patoski

At first sight, Jacob’s Well appears to be a deep, dark hole at the bottom of a pool of creek water — nothing more. Pay attention to how the hole, about 15 feet in diameter, has perpetually gushed pure artesian water out of the ground since before humans first wandered around this part of what is now known as the Hill Country, and it takes on deeper meaning. Listen to stories about it, and it becomes something much more than just a special natural place.

Spanish explorers described a head of water 4 to 6 feet high being pushed to the surface from far below. American Indians living in the area considered the place sacred. The name Jacob’s Well was supposedly inspired by a survivor of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle for Texas’ independence from Mexico, who first saw it while looking for a place to build a mill along the Blanco River and declared it “like unto a well in biblical times.”

mp3 button Listen to a podcast of “Groundwater Gusher.”

Local elders speak of leaping in as kids and being thrust back to the surface by the force of the flow. The location in the eastern Hill Country — the dry, rocky rise above the coastal prairie — makes it all the more remarkable. That a place like this exists in the 21st century, when half the springs documented in Texas in 1900 have gone dry and disappeared, is a miracle.

At least that’s how it seems whenever I’m gazing into the blue and green hues tinting the water and the limestone walls of what is the beginning of a giant underwater cave. Everything sparkles like magic, a phantasmagorical welcome to another world below.

Peer into its depths and it pulls you in.

That pretty much sums up David Baker’s life since May 1988. He had been in Austin working as a designer and carpenter on a theatrical production when he took a drive with his wife to the village of Wimberley, got directions, walked down a trail to the end of a limestone bluff and saw Jacob’s Well for the first time.

“The hair on my arm just stood up,” he says as he relates his first impression of the bubbling spring surrounded by elegant cypresses with a rough, rocky bluff rising above it. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was so confident we were going to move here that I rented a storage locker.”

In a matter of months, Baker left a mountaintop home near Santa Cruz, Calif., in the redwoods, where on a clear day you could see the Pacific and the town of Monterey. He packed up his pregnant wife and his 9-month-old son, Jacob, and moved into a rock cottage a few short steps away from Jacob’s Well.

Fast-forward 23 years.

The sign in front of a former RV park reads “Welcome to Jacob’s Well Natural Area, the Jewel of the Hill Country.” A couple hundred yards past the sign, David Baker sits at a desk, typing at a computer, preparing a paper to protect the well he fell in love with. Baker’s office is neither bucolic nor picturesque, but rather chaotic. Baker fields calls, refers to charts and converses in geologist/hydrologist acronyms, citing DFCs (desired future conditions), ADRs, MAGs and GAMs as he talks about the Well’s past, present and future.

Baker toils in the trenches these days, working his way through a very thorny political process, having been schooled in contrarian water laws. Texas treats surface water such as lakes and streams as a common resource owned by all Texans, while groundwater such as Jacob’s Well is considered private property. The “rule of capture” states that the owner of surface property owns the water underground as long as it is not part of a subterranean stream.

Baker was in the minority voting bloc when the board of directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, an entity he was instrumental in establishing, voted earlier this year to issue new pumping permits for a development and a golf course that Baker fears will hasten the Well’s demise. There is already an annual decline of two feet under current conditions, Baker pointed out during discussions before the vote.

Board President Jimmy Skipton, a developer and property rights advocate from Henly, responded, “That’s David’s opinion.” As an individual, Skipton has filed a lawsuit against Hays County for establishing development rules that require lot sizes to be at least six acres for homes dependent on individual water wells. Skipton wants to sell 1.5-acre lots on the 165 acres he would like to develop.

David Baker wants Jacob’s Well to continue being Jacob’s Well.

For natural places to remain natural, stewards like David Baker are required. Special places lack lobbyists, money to contribute to politicians and the legal tools to fend off forces that compromise their integrity and threaten their existence. The best hopes are advocates willing to devote time, money and research in order to preserve, protect and conserve places such as Jacob’s Well.

In the big picture of earth science, karst aquifers are rare and unique — spongy-looking hard limestone reservoirs hundreds of feet below the surface that filter water, hold water and produce water, pushing it above ground, as is the case of Jacob’s Well.

The Well feeds Cypress Creek and Blue Hole, the town park and swimming hole in Wimberley, before the water flows into the Blanco River about five miles downstream. The creek courses through scenic landscapes of twisted oak and gnarly scrub woodlands and abundant grasslands, bordered by high bluffs and hills beyond the drainage. The beauty is both surreal and exceptional. Endangered golden-cheeked warblers thrive in abundance here.

My introduction to Jacob’s Well came through Stephen Harrigan’s 1980 article for Texas Monthly magazine and his 1984 novel, Jacob’s Well, in which he tells the story of the Well and its attraction to scuba divers, and how several cave divers died in its chambers. I came away wondering what kind of place exerted that sort of fatal attraction.

Between 1960 and 1985, eight divers died in the Well, primarily because of the tight passageway between the third and fourth chamber, the quicksand-like sediment at the bottom of the third chamber that is easily stirred up and narcosis, a condition of confusion that can affect divers at depths greater than 100 feet. Don Dibble, a master scuba instructor and the owner of the Dive Shop in nearby San Marcos who almost lost his own life on a recovery dive on behalf of the San Marcos Area Recovery Team, wrote his own account of the Well’s allure for divers for Reader’s Digest.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

I didn’t actually see the Well until the early 1990s after I moved into the Wimberley community and was invited to a festival at Baker’s Dancing Waters Inn.

When I finally saw it, I got it. Of the proverbial 1,100 springs that define the Texas Hill Country, this one was indeed special, exceptional and worth fighting for.

In 1996, Baker got serious about protecting Jacob’s Well when Wimberley residents began meeting to discuss formally incorporating the village. Baker was on the water and sewer committee. One consensus recommendation from the committee was the need to form a nonprofit land trust and water trust in the Wimberley Valley to ensure water quality and quantity, a critical element of Wimberley’s tourist economy. Working with Jack Hollon, whose family had donated ranchland to create Rancho El Cima for the Boy Scouts of Houston and who had seen the Blanco River go dry in the 1950s, landowner Johanna Smith, University of Texas history professor Patrick Cox and physician-nutritionist Dr. Philip Zyblot, Baker helped form the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association in December 1996.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

The nonprofit organization began writing small grants and engaging in water quality monitoring, participating in the Texas Watch program. It also focused on ownership of Jacob’s Well, which had been divided into four major pieces, with more than 120 parcels in the 100-acre area around it.

“It was extremely fragmented,” Baker says. “We debated whether to buy land around the Well to get it under one owner or work on the surrounding watershed to protect the recharge. We decided we needed to get land around it for an educational center.”

In 2005, with financial help from the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin, the group got a loan for $2 million to purchase 46 acres, including 100 percent of the well. The selling price was about $1.1 million less than the appraised price. The SOS Alliance put a conservation easement on most of the property to prohibit future development and to limit impervious cover such as asphalt and concrete to 6 percent. The Wimberley group had two years to pay back the loan.

In 2007, 69 percent of Hays County voters approved $30 million in bonds for open space. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association hired the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and architects Lake/Flato to create a master plan with input from 30 residents. The group determined that environmental education, aquifer research and recreation were the top priorities.

The patchwork of acquisitions was completed in late December 2010 when developers of the mobile home park canceled plans to build a “green” development with 65 condominiums and a hotel on 15 acres adjacent to the Well and dropped a lawsuit against the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association over access issues and the perceived right to build a road through the property. Instead, the developers agreed to sell the land for $1.7 million. Hays County ponied up half the price and the Texas Nature Conservancy loaned the other half, citing the unique attributes and ecological significance of Jacob’s Well.

photo courtesy of David Baker

Humpty-Dumpty has been put back together again. Today, Hays County owns Jacob’s Well and 96 acres around it. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association has a three-year contract with the county to manage the property and oversee education and public outreach.

Slowly but surely, the surrounding landscape is returning to its natural state. Through better understanding of how the land and water are interconnected deep underground, people are beginning to appreciate the critical role we play in this system and how easily we can disrupt the balance that has made nature’s abundance such a critical key to human growth and progress.

But that is not enough.

The “rule of capture” property right accepts the Texas Supreme Court’s judgment made in 1908 that groundwater is too “mysterious and occult” to regulate like a river, lake or stream. Looking down into Jacob’s Well, I can understand the judges making that sort of determination.

But our understanding of groundwater has improved considerably over the past century. We know how it works, how it moves, where it starts and where it stops.

Through Baker’s initiatives, scuba divers and dye tests, we know that Jacob’s Well is connected to the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio and to Barton Springs in Austin, that the actual well is at least 5,550 feet long as mapped by divers for the United States Geological Survey (the first- or second-longest underwater cave in Texas, depending on the latest measurements of Phantom Cave near San Solomon Springs in West Texas), that the water emerges from the Cow Creek Limestone formation and that pumping from some of the larger of the 6,600 wells in western Hays County reduces the flow of Jacob’s Well.

The Well stopped flowing twice — in the summer of 2000 for the first time ever and during the drought of 2008 when 42 wells in the county and nearby Onion Creek went dry. The Well survived the historic drought of the 1950s but may not be able to endure the population boom in Hays County and the surrounding Hill Country.

Education is the best hope.

“It’s so neat to watch people react to it,” Baker said. “It’s the mystery. This hole in the ground. Nobody knew how deep it was. It was intriguing watching people relate to it. Some would be afraid. ‘That’s where the divers drowned.’

“Some look at it as sacred. I feel that way about it: Here’s the earth, giving water, the one thing besides air we need to live, it’s doing it every day, it’s done it for millions of years, it’s a miracle. It was also chaotic. Nobody really was responsible. I kind of started to become somewhat of a policeman, which wasn’t a pretty job. But someone needed to take responsibility for managing this resource.”

Receiving the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Texas Environmental Excellence Award for 2011 has helped validate his work. Baker prefers another standard of measure: “If the well’s flowing, the water’s still clean so we can drink it and our kids can still swim in it, we get an ‘A.’ If the water’s polluted or quits flowing, we’ve failed.”

He acknowledges he’s in a race against competing interests and that the deck may be stacked against him.

“Sometimes I do feel it’s not going to work out, that it’s too late. But then I see all these people who get it. That’s when I realize that we can do it.”

As if on cue, a women’s hiking club from Canyon Lake arrives and Baker delivers an informal talk about the Well and shows hydrological charts, historical photographs and underwater video before sending the group on the path down to Jacob’s Well. (Free public tours of the Well are conducted at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

I’m not sure who walked away happier from the visit — the hikers or Baker.

“I found something bigger than myself,” he told me. “It gave me a purpose for my life the past 22 years to create something that would be here after I’m gone that I could share with the community.”

And now they come — to see, to study, to experience and even to jump in. If Baker gets enough people to do that, they just might save Jacob’s Well for this century and even beyond.

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After Fire, Wind and Drought, Something Good Will Follow

from the Friday, April 29 edition of the New York Times and Texas Tribune:

 

 

 

photo by Alberto Tomas (Beto) Halpern/Associated Press

 

Wildfires overran parts of Fort Davis, Tex., in early April, destroying more than 60 homes in West Texas and killing livestock and horses.

By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: April 28, 2011

These are strange days in Texas. A severe drought gripping the entire state, unseasonably high temperatures, unusually low humidity and exceptionally gusty winds have created a perfect storm for wildfires, which have erupted statewide like never before. Horrible images of homes burned to the ground, property destroyed, and livestock, wildlife and human fatalities are impossible to escape.
The Texas Tribune

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

Unfortunately, the greatest chronicler of such dire conditions — the person everyone in Texas turned to for perspective — is no longer with us to make sense of it all. It’s fair to ask, rhetorically: What would Elmer Kelton say?

Mr. Kelton was the farm and ranch editor for The San Angelo Standard-Times from 1948 to 1963. He was also the longtime associate editor of Livestock Weekly and the author of several dozen western novels. His finest work, “The Time It Never Rained,” published in 1973, focused on the historic seven-year drought of the 1950s as told through Charlie Flagg, the hard-headed, independent-minded protagonist.

If anyone knew about drought, wildfires and making a living from running livestock on the range west of the 98th meridian, it was Mr. Kelton. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009. But his son, Steve Kelton, is alive and well and living in San Angelo.

Steve Kelton, who now edits Livestock Weekly, remembers clearly that his father considered the period of time spent covering the 1950s drought for the San Angelo newspaper the most traumatic in his life. “I’d long since run out of new ways to say ‘dry,’ ” the father had told the son.

What would the elder Mr. Kelton write about today’s news? That there is an upside — a silver lining. “Dad was always a firm believer that nothing was black and white, nothing was all good or all bad,” Steve Kelton said.

“Fire can be good for brush control, if it’s a good, hot fire; these should be pretty effective in that regard,” he said in droll understatement, referring to the so-called Wildcat fires that have raged over 159,000 acres north of San Angelo in the west-central part of the state, threatening to engulf the towns of Robert Lee, Tennyson and Bronte.

Indeed, for all its obvious negatives, fire was part of the life cycle of the arid western range long before humans settled the region and tried to tame the land, instinctively suppressing wildfires whenever possible. Today, when conditions are right, many landowners intentionally burn their property because, as Steve Kelton noted, “it will improve things.”

He cited the destruction of nuisance species like prickly pear, mesquite and ashe juniper — a k a cedar — and brushy undercover that compete with native grasses. “There are a lot of caveats to that,” Mr. Kelton added. “You have to have rain, but if it comes all at once, you lose all the topsoil.”

But if the rain falls gradually, the first land that will green up and spring back to life is that which burned. “A really hot fire brings out woody vegetation that deer, birds, and even goats and sheep like to eat,” Mr. Kelton said. “Their seed needs fire to germinate.”

He made the same observation about the Texas rangeland that critics have made about forest management in the American West: the human tendency to suppress fire at first sight has created a buildup of dry tinder that makes any wildfire that manages to break out “bigger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kelton said. “But we also have the technology and the people on the ground to fight them, so we’ve got a trade-off.

“During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we went 13 years with a really severe drought out here,” he said. “Then it rained.” The country was left so depleted, he said, that there were no cattle or sheep left to eat the grasses that sprang up; so in 2006, the worst year for wildfires in Texas on record until this year, “when it burned, it burned extra hot.”

Despite the horrific loss of property, livestock and wildlife this year, the longer view finds something to look forward to in the wake of the destruction.

“This is survivor country,” Mr. Kelton said. “It puts on its best clothes when it rains after a long drought.”

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” (Texas A&M Press).

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