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The State of Springs

As nourishment for both body and spirit, springs have no equal.

By Larry McKinney

I was born in Big Spring, Texas, and my wife was born in Spring, Texas. My family and I now live in Dripping Springs, Texas. To that extent my life has been defined by Texas springs, as have the lives of many other Texans both present and past. Early Texans, from Paleo-Indian to Anglo settlers, were perhaps more acutely aware of springs than most of us are today — their lives often depended upon them. I cannot imagine any spring site in Texas that is not also an archeological site. The San Marcos Springs site is one of the best documented and has evidence of human occupation for more than 12,000 years. Carrizo (Dimmit County), San Pedro (Bexar County) and Las Moras (Kinney County) springs are a few of the many with well-known historical significance. The location of springs, especially as one went westward, was knowledge worth dying to protect, and many a fight over and around them are chronicled in our history. Bullets and arrows that protected springs in the past have mostly been replaced by lawyers and legal documents today, but one has to be careful. Old-time Texas can bubble up in a flash over these very special places.

Why are springs so powerful? The evident reason is as a source of water, but springs are more than that. The limitless horizons of the sea can overwhelm one at times, as can the raw power of a river, but springs evoke something different, a wonder and renewal — a sense of rightness.

Helen Besse’s introduction to Springs of Texas quotes Paul Horgan’s 1954 book Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Horgan captured it best in his discussion on the apparent meaning of springs to the earliest Americans:

Gods and heroes were born out of springs, and ever afterward came and went between the above and below worlds through their pools. Every pueblo had sacred springs somewhere near-by. There was every reason to sanctify them — physical, as life depended upon water, spiritual, as they had natural mystery which suggested supernatural qualities; for how could it be that when water fell as rain, or snow, and ran away, or dried up, there should be other water which came and came, secretly and sweetly, out of the ground and never failed.

There remain in Texas places that can still evoke such thoughts and feelings. Standing in the flush of waters exiting from the base of 300-foot-high cliffs and tumbling across exposed limestone rocks into the Devils River for as far as one can see is a wonder. In the quiet of an early summer morning, when the only sound is the rush of water and occasional splash of a fish, one can stand lost in reverie as the growing light of day exposes a tableau that remains unchanged through time. Those flows have never ceased as far as we know.

Gliding across one of the many outlets of San Marcos Springs in scuba gear or on a glass-bottom boat, where millions of gallons of water daily boil out of the Edwards Aquifer to form the headwaters of the San Marcos River, is inspiring. The continuous surge of water constantly renews the river and, in time of drought, sustains it. These springs remain the most accessible of the largest of Texas historic springs that still exist. History, ecology and the expression of conflicting human values are writ large above and below the surface here.

The springs of West Texas and the Trans-Pecos are special in many ways. Some are well known — Balmorhea, Phantom and Comanche. Some are less well known but have wonderful names that spark the imagination: Big Satan, Slaughter Bend, Agua Fria, Adobe Walls and Black Cat, to name a few. Most are known to only a few, which is perhaps best. One could cross this country in the not-so-distant past only if you knew them — their locations were carefully guarded secrets. One I visited on Big Bend Ranch was typical. It could not be easily seen from any point in the surrounding country, even with the cottonwoods and other greenery that overshadowed it. Water boiled from the rocks beneath a cool canopy of vegetation and created a small pool. Life here was rich and noisy. Outside the surrounding vegetation it was mostly hot and barren. A fast-flowing stream 5 to 8 feet across and a foot deep formed downstream of the pool. It ran swift and clear around a bend or two in the high-sided draw that contained it. Around the next bend, the stream plunged into the sands, completely disappearing within a distance of less than 10 feet. By the next bend no evidence of its existence was visible. One could have ridden or walked or died of thirst within a quarter mile, or less, of this oasis and never known it was there. Others like it are scattered through the region.

There are fewer places now to experience this “sense of rightness” than at any other time in our past. Springs are drying up in Texas and the loss is more than of historical interest. We do not know the total number of springs that historically existed or currently exist in our state because there is no good census. Perhaps that is because of that historical reluctance to disclose them. Regardless, we do not have a good estimate of their number. The best and most current account is a database of historically documented springs assembled by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2004 which lists some 1,891 springs. But even that may fall short. One expert, Chad Norris of TPWD, thinks the number is likely somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000. Based on the ones we do know about, springs are not evenly distributed around the state. All of Texas’ largest springs issue from the Edwards Aquifer and associated limestone formations. Looking at a map of the spring locations in the USGS database shows that the majority of springs identified are located within the Texas Hill Country (Edwards Plateau and Balcones Escarpment). Clusters of springs also exist along the upper Rio Grande, in central West Texas and on the eastern edge of the Panhandle region. Few springs have been identified within the Gulf Coast Prairie and South Texas Brush Country regions. Springs in the Pineywoods of East Texas are difficult to assess because they are often incorporated into the sandy margins of rivers and streams, so they may be undercounted.

We may not know where all of our springs are, but we do have some accounting of what has been lost and why. Gunnar Brune was Texas’ acknowledged expert on springs, and his work in the 1970s and 1980s is the foundation of our knowledge. In his early works, he described more than 2,000 springs. His book, Springs of Texas, published in 1981, remains the seminal work on the subject. Brune surveyed 183 counties out of a total of 254 in Texas. He planned to do the rest in a second volume, but he never completed it. Brune identified 281 major and historically significant springs, excluding saline springs, in his early works. Of these, four were noted as very large springs with flows exceeding 100 cubic feet per second (cfs). Only two maintain that status today: Comal (Comal County) and San Marcos (Hays County). Goodenough Springs (also known as or associated with Hinojosa Springs) was inundated by the Amistad reservoir in 1968. Once the fourth largest, San Felipe Springs in Del Rio has diminished flows today. Of the 31 large springs once known, only 17 remain, and 63 historically significant springs have altogether failed. Many other springs, perhaps less well-known but no less valuable, have dried up over the last 20 years.

When springs disappear, we lose more than a piece of our history or a source of water. It is a loss of our natural heritage that we will never recover. Texas springs, particularly as one travels west from the Hill Country, are more and more isolated, and are often not associated with streams or rivers of any size. They are, for the most part, self-contained aquatic ecosystems with highly endemic (species with limited ranges) plants and animals. The names of many of these organisms read like a Who’s Who of Texas springs: the Leon Springs pupfish, Barton Springs salamander, Diamond Y Spring snail, Phantom Spring tryonia and Balmorhea saddle-case caddisfly.

For some, all that is left is a name on a list. The ecosystems of Leon and Comanche Springs, along with the namesake fish, are gone, lost when these springs dried up. Others hang in the balance. San Marcos Springs is a world-class biodiversity site. The springs are home to what is likely the most concentrated grouping of threatened and endangered species on record: the San Marcos salamander (Eurycea nana), Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) and fountain darter (Etheostoma fonticola) to note just a few names from the list. San Marcos Springs is a biological treasure, the fate of which generated the most fierce water war of modern Texas. The conflict revolved around the fact that, in addition to sustaining these springs, the Edwards Aquifer is also the sole water source for the city of San Antonio. The fight was as dirty as it was complex, resulting in the federal courts basically managing the Edwards Aquifer until the Texas Legislature acted to establish a regulatory authority to oversee its fate. The success of those actions to protect the springs continues to hang in the balance. The springs do not hang alone — the ecological health of the entire Guadalupe River watershed, including San Antonio Bay, hangs with it. Spring flow supplies about 30 percent of the water in the Guadalupe ecosystem during normal times and as much as 70 percent during drought. At the end of that flow lives this country’s greatest icon of endangered species recovery — the whooping crane. One of the mainstays of that remarkable bird’s diet is blue crabs. The freshwater inflows to San Antonio Bay, primarily from the Guadalupe River, are a key to a healthy population of crabs. As trite as it sounds, there is no better analogy to describe the importance of these springs as that of the canary in the coal mine. The health of the springs heralds the fate of the entire riverine and estuarine ecosystem. Such is the fate of springs in general.

The future of many Texas springs is clearly not assured, and that should be cause for concern for us all. There are numerous reasons for this apprehension, but chief among them is the use of groundwater. As long as we manage groundwater under the Rule of Capture doctrine, the fate of many springs is governed by the biggest straw. That doctrine was based on a 1904 Texas Supreme Court decision in which the court found that the movement of groundwater is “so secret, occult, and concealed that any attempt to administer any set of legal rules … [would] be practically impossible.” Basically that means that whoever has the biggest pump wins — and pumps are a lot bigger today than they were in 1904. Until that issue is addressed, the fate of many springs — and all that is associated with them — will hang in the balance. The war over the San Marcos Springs has spawned other similar battles in Kinney County over Las Moras Springs; the Bone Spring-Victorio Peak Aquifer issue in Hudspeth County in far West Texas; and on to the high plains and the springs associated with the Ogallala Aquifer.

On the positive side of the ledger, many landowners fortunate enough to have springs on their property not only take pride in that fact, but work to protect them. They are becoming more sophisticated in how to do so and are working with others to add to the body of knowledge on Texas springs. Chad Norris of TPWD is coming to know many of them as is Helen Besse. Norris is currently working to gather much needed baseline biological and hydrological data on smaller spring systems that have historically been understudied. Besse was responsible for the recent republication of Brune’s Springs of Texas Vol. I and she is also working hard to complete his second volume. That work will include descriptions of springs from the 71 counties not visited by Brune in the 1970s. Because 95 percent of Texas is private property, landowner cooperation is critical to the success of these efforts.

It was only a few years ago that these same landowners might have chased Norris or Besse away, possibly at gunpoint, but no longer. A trust based on common interest and desire has grown there. Some have organized to form the Texas Springs Alliance and the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. Others are working quietly on their own, but it is encouraging. Do they have any hope of success? It does not seem likely in the face of the challenges before them, both political and otherwise, but institutional and legislative interests are also turning their attention to conserving Texas springs. Developing good groundwater models and establishing groundwater management conservation districts are chief among these efforts. It is worth the effort as more Texans recognize the natural, cultural and economic value of Texas springs. There is just a “rightness” about it that naturally appeals to us all.

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