Day Trips

Helping protect the San Marcos River

Securing water rights through the state regulatory agencies to keep Texas' rivers, bays, and estuaries from going dry seems like a simple solution to the problem, yet it has never been tried before. As water resources are being stretched thinner each year, a San Marcos environmental group has petitioned the state governing bodies for a piece of the dwindling pie in the name of Mother Nature.

The bays and estuaries along the Texas coast depend on the flow from rivers to maintain the proper level of salinity in the water. When the infusion of fresh water significantly decreases, the salty Gulf water overwhelms the bays. The high levels of salinity affect the reproduction of blue crabs, shrimp, and other fish. The reduction in these food sources has a ripple effect throughout the food chain and the Texas economy.

Last year, 12% of the whooping crane flock didn't survive the winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge outside of Rockport. This was the second year in a row that the only naturally reproducing flock in the world has been hit hard by the decline in blue crab populations in the bay, their primary food source. The drought conditions that covered much of the state were exacerbated on the coast by thirsty residents upstream.

"When the whoopers start dying, you already have a crisis," says Dianne Wassenich, president of the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF). The foundation has taken the unusual step of applying for rights to the water in the San Marcos River; 1.3 million acre-feet per year.

According to a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) study, it will take a minimum of 1.15 million acre-feet of instream flow to maintain the health of San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe River Estuary. The foundation has applied for an additional 157,459 acre-feet to protect the flow of the San Marcos River. An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre in a foot of water, or 326,000 gallons.

Basically what happens is the river foundation gets in line behind water applicants who have a priority date earlier than Dec. 31, 2000, when their application was filed. The 16-year-old environmental group must still prepare for a public hearing before the application is approved. Wassenich says they have some stiff opposition from the likes of San Antonio, the Guadalupe Basin River Authority, Kerrville, and Kerr County, among others. The opposition groups fear that the foundation is asking for too much water and there won't be enough water left for future growth of their municipalities.

"[The opponents] are going to have to look for alternative water sources now" instead of later if the application is approved, Wassenich says. Both sides wonder if there is even that much water left in the Guadalupe River after all of the current water rights are exercised. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) is preparing a study of the state's rivers to determine how much flow is still available.

If approved, the foundation will donate the water rights to the Texas Water Trust. The Trust was established by the Legislature for Texans to sell or donate their water rights back to the state for safekeeping. In a speech prepared for the August TPWD Commissioners meeting, Wassenich asked the agency to set aside a minimum instream flow in all Texas rivers to protect the bays and estuaries along the coast.

"The bays and estuaries are not the only ones that have to have adequate water in them," Wassenich says, "rivers have to have water in them too." She points out that cities dump their treated sewage into the rivers and many take their drinking water from the same streams. In addition, farmers, ranchers, and industries all along the river basin depend on adequate flow in the rivers to maintain their livelihoods. Studies have shown that recreation and other industries on San Antonio Bay alone contribute nearly $200 million to the coastal economy.

During drought years like the past two years, the San Marcos and Comal rivers, which originate from large springs, contribute 80% to 90% of the Guadalupe River's flow into San Antonio Bay. In recent times, Texans have seen the flow from both streams reduced to dangerously low levels.

"Bottom line is that we're seeing warning signs that our bays are in trouble," Wassenich says, and the results could have devastating effects to the coastal economy and beyond if the flow in our rivers isn't protected. "We need to set the minimum [flow] and work back from there," she says, "if the water's not available then Texas needs to discuss it and look for alternatives."

The 250-member volunteer group has plunked down the initial $25,000 to cover the first round of paper work. The lawyers guesstimate that it will take at least another $500,000 before the process is complete. "That's why we're busy applying for grants and asking everybody and every organization in the state for help," Wassenich says.

The San Marcos River Foundation began doing water quality monitoring and river advocacy in 1985. Each spring they sponsor a cleanup of the 90 miles of the river from Aquarena Springs to Gonzales. One of the group's most important tasks has been to keep an eye on discharge by municipalities, business, and industries along the river. Educational activities sponsored by the foundation reach thousands of visitors to the river each year.

For more information on the San Marcos River Foundation, check out their kiosks in San Marcos' City Park, at the Aquarena Springs River Center, at www.sanmarcosriver.org, or by calling 512/393-3787.

Coming up this weekend ...

First Annual Texas Bigfoot Conference is hosted by the Texas Bigfoot Research Center in the North Texas town of Jefferson (the area has a history of Bigfoot sightings). Some of the biggest names in the field will be speaking, and the whole thing's free. Sept. 15, at the First United Methodist Church (305 W. Henderson). www.texasbigfoot.com.

Bluebonnet Planting Days are quickly approaching, and the Wildseed Farms this side of Fredericksburg will be holding planting seminars, Sept. 15-23. 830/990-1393, www.wildseedfarms.com.

Republic of Texas Chilympiad at the Hays County Civic Center in San Marcos heats up between noon and 2pm on Saturday when the showmanship competition happens, Sept. 14-15. 888/200-5620.

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