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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.