Day Trips & Beyond: Texas Springs Under Threat

Visit these five watering holes while you can

A day on a spring-fed river during the summer is an honored Texas tradition. The springs that feed our rivers and cool our summers are under threat from many directions. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Imagine sitting on the edge of a spring-fed pool with your feet dangling in the ice cold water on a hot summer’s day. Welcome to the best a Texas hot spell has to offer. It doesn’t get any better. But that vision of watery bliss might become a reality of the past.

There is no definitive count of how many natural springs are, or were, in Texas. Estimates give the number from 2,000 to as many as 4,000. No one knows for sure because 95% of Texas land is private property.

In a 2005 article in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, Larry McKinney counted: “Of the 31 large springs once known, only 17 remain, and 63 historically significant springs have altogether failed.”

Springs are the spillways of underground reservoirs. When the water table drops, so does the flow of the springs until the level of the subterranean water falls below the opening in the ground.

Stories about these springs contain a certain amount of “see them before they’re gone” and “fall in love with these oases and help preserve them.” It’s hard to tell how the story will ultimately play out as we go through our natural cycles of floods and droughts.

Unfettered Water

“All of our rivers and streams are spring-fed,” says Sharlene Leurig, director of the Texas Environmental Flows Project. “Water is a finite resource. We need to recognize that it is a resource that needs to be regulated and preserved.”

Because of their beauty, our springs are in danger of being loved too much. Our springs are threatened by:

•groundwater pumping

“The biggest threat to our springs is the continued unregulated use of groundwater,” says Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos. “We get 60 percent of our municipal water from groundwater. That’s a problem when residential wells, the largest number of new wells being drilled, don’t have adequate regulations. The property owner can pump as much water as they want. All of our Hill Country springs are at risk.”

While water quantity is of the biggest threat, water quality is a top concern. Yes, recreation is a threat to our springs. That’s because there are a lot of us who want to dangle our feet in the cool spring-fed waters during the summer heat.

“It’s not hard to understand why people love these rivers,” says Sansom from his office overlooking San Marcos Springs. “When you get 20,000 people on the river, like we did [on the San Marcos River] for the Fourth of July, it’s a recipe for problems.”

Stewards are struggling to protect some of the major springs while making the rivers they feed accessible to the thousands of Texas toes yearning to be free. By visiting these springs and understanding the threats to them, it is hoped that you will develop an appreciation for their beauty and become an advocate for their protection – even if that protection means a curtailment of some of your personal freedoms.

Sacred Springs

From 1951 to 1994, the springs in San Marcos were the centerpiece of a theme park featuring Ralph the Swimming Pig and mermaids doing underwater shows. The water source for the San Marcos River is also the home to 50 varieties of fish and 125 species of plants, including some that are found nowhere else. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

The swimming pigs are long gone from San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, but the glass-bottom boats still ply the waters at what was once Aquarena Springs Resort. Now it’s owned by Texas State University and managed by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

You can’t actually swim at the springs at Spring Lake; it’s a nature center with boardwalks over the wetlands and a museum in the former hotel.

Instead, you get to see the water bubbling through the sand from the boats. The cautionary tale here is that the second largest springs west of the Mississippi River were described by European explorers as a fountain shooting several feet above the surface of the lake. In the last 300 years the flow has been reduced to a gurgle, although it has never completely stopped flowing in recorded history – yet.

Visitors to San Marcos can still enjoy the cold spring-fed waters of the river at a series of city parks that line 150 acres along the banks nearly to the city limits. The Lions Club rents tubes and offers shuttle services for an hourlong leisurely float from City Park behind Strahan Coliseum to Rio Vista Park.

Rio Vista Park at Cheatham Street and C.M. Allen Parkway is one of the most popular parks in San Marcos. It can get very crowded on weekends and holidays, for good reason. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

The city is looking at ways to deal with the overcrowding in the riverfront parks, especially Rio Vista Park, by limiting already scarce parking and outlawing some types of cooking grills. The Texas Legislature is considering a water recreation district below the city to bring some semblance of order to the large number of tubers on the river.

San Marcos is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country. The springs and the river are under constant pressure from pumping from the Edwards Aquifer, pollution from runoff from lawns, and the mountains of trash left by all those park visitors.

“The San Marcos and Comal are some of the most protected springs in Texas,” Leurig says, “primarily because of the threatened and endangered species they support.

“Endangered species are the best thing for spring protection. It’s a legal lever.”

What’s nearby: Wonder World Caverns and Wildlife Park, Dick’s Classic Car Museum, Herbert’s Taco Hut, and Hays County Barbecue.

Original Lazy River

Floating down the Comal River in New Braunfels is one of the easiest and most fun trips during the Texas summer. Several outfitters along the stream have made the journey very pleasant. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Eighteen miles south of San Marcos, the Comal River is, at 2.5 miles long, Texas’ shortest river, winding its way through New Braunfels to connect with the Guadalupe River. The largest springs in Texas that feed the river dropped to its lowest points in recorded history during the last drought, but have rebounded with recent rains.

Much of the river’s course near the springs has been set aside from swimmers. Nearby are a shaded wading pool and paddle boats.

Landa Park, the city’s central green space, offers recreational opportunities from an 18-hole golf course to a miniature train and the historic Wursthalle, the main space used during Wurstfest, the annual October festival.

Downstream from the water gushing from the bottom of a limestone cliff, Hinman Island Park is the primary access point to the river for swimmers and tubers. The old millrace in Prince Solms Park near the San Antonio Street Bridge has been turned into a popular tube shoot.

Parking in the park is difficult at best. Outfitters on either bank of the river are your best bet if you plan to take the 3- to 4-hour float trip from Wursthalle to the last exit from the river. (Go here for a list of all outfitters in the area.)

“The city is trying to manage the crowds without being overly restrictive,” Leurig says. “It’s a tough balancing act. The ‘can ban’ was an effort to reduce litter on the river, but was opposed by the outfitters and was ultimately lifted.”

For a more relaxed river experience head to River Acres or Cypress Bend parks off Common Street on the north side of New Braunfels. Both are on the Guadalupe River above its confluence with the Comal River. Cypress Bend Park has a small gravel beach.

What’s nearby: The original Schlitterbahn Water Park if you want a more structured water experience; Gruene if you want shopping, dining, or dancing; and River Road for camping and tubing on the Guadalupe River.

Sons of Jacob

Jumping off the cliffs into the pool seems to be the biggest reason people like to swim Jacob’s Well. At a constant 68 degrees, it is a gorgeous place to cool off on a summer’s day. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Just a few miles north of New Braunfels, Jacob’s Well outside of Wimberley has been a not-so-secret swimming hole for generations. The artesian spring was once part of an RV park, but the owner, David Baker, realized the community value of the water source and sold to Hays County, Leurig says.

For years Jacob’s Well had a reputation for being a place where scuba divers got stuck in a watery grave. As a result of all of the scuba activity, which has been limited in recent years, the cave system feeding the spring has been extensively mapped. At a mile in length, the system lays claim to being the largest underwater cave in Texas.

Jacob’s Well is in the Trinity Aquifer rather than Edwards Aquifer like the San Marcos and Comal springs, and is subject to different regulations. That means almost no limits on groundwater pumping. The spring has already gone dry several times during extended droughts.

It is an incredible sight to stand on the limestone ledge above the clear blue-green water looking down at a water-filled hole that looks like it goes forever.

Visiting the Hays County Natural Area is free anytime during daylight hours, but swimming is a little more difficult. Swim season runs May 1 through Oct. 1 and swimmers must make a reservation online. Access to the natural pool is limited to 60 people in two-hour slots and there is an admission fee of $5-9.

What’s nearby: Wimberley would love to have you stop by while you’re in the area. The spring is the headwater of Cypress Creek which feeds Blue Hole Regional Park, another legendary swimming hole.

Road Trips

San Felipe Springs and San Solomon Springs are two road-worthy swimming holes. Both are 4-5 hours from Austin.

At around 50 million gallons per day, the springs in Del Rio feeds canals and channels that provide relief from the desert heat. The springs are in danger of being pumped dry and the water sold to Odessa and San Antonio. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

San Felipe Springs in Del Rio has nourished humans and wildlife for thousands of years. It’s no coincidence that it is on the historic highways to San Antonio and El Paso. Surrounded by the frying-pan summer heat of the Chihuahua Desert, the springs and the parks around them have been called Hell’s Oasis.

Remarkably, of all the major springs in Texas, this – the fourth largest springs in the state – is one of the healthiest. But that health is largely determined by nearby Lake Amistad and its shaky future. Since the dam opened in 1968, water flow has increased because water from other springs is being diverted underground to the springs. On average about 50 million gallons of water flow from three primary springs.

As the water source for the city and Laughlin Air Force Base, it is in danger of being affected by excessive groundwater pumping.

“San Felipe Springs is under threat because there is no groundwater management,” Leurig says. “The city has tried repeatedly to get a conservation district approved by the Legislature, but has been repeatedly turned down. For a rancher with marginal land, the ability to market his groundwater is easier than raising cattle. They want to export the water to San Antonio and the Permian Basin.”

On the eastern outskirts of the city and easily accessible from U.S. 90, the most popular swimming holes are Horseshoe, Lion’s, and Blue Lake parks.

On its 8-mile journey to the Rio Grande, the spring water passes through the channels of Moore Park past the picnic areas and shaded paths. San Felipe Springs Walkway is a nice stroll connecting the parks.

What’s nearby: Ciudad Acuña, Mexico; ancient rock art at Seminole Canyon State Park, and Judge Roy Bean’s grave at the Whitehead Museum.

Desert Oasis

Outside of Toyahvale and 32 miles north of Fort Davis, Balmorhea State Park is the legendary swimming hole for a large section of West Texas. Home to two endangered desert fishes, it is also surrounded by oil fields. (photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Farther west at Balmorhea State Park, San Solomon Springs fills the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Thirties, the park also has camping, motel-style cottages, and an excellent interpretive program on the value of ciénegas, or wetlands, to the desert environment.

The springs gush 15 million gallons of crystal clear cold water through the V-shaped pool every day. It’s enough output to put the springs at seventh among the largest springs in the state.

Use of the pool is included in the park entrance fee, but scuba divers pay an extra $5 fee. The park administrators are exploring ways to limit visitation to the pool because of overcrowding.

“San Solomon Springs seems like it should be well protected because it’s a state park,” Leurig says. “There has been fracking in the area for many years, but a new oil field has been added and we don’t know the effects yet.

“It is home to the Comanche Springs pupfish and other endangered species, so its protection is critical,” she says.

What’s nearby: Star parties at McDonald Observatory and the Fort Davis National Historic Site.

A condensed version of this story appears in the April 21 “Earth Day” issue.

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