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Aquatic Islands in a Sea of Land

Texas landowners and biologists work toward the common goal of conserving springs — and the fragile species that call them home — before it’s too late.

By Wendee Holtcamp

I stand at the edge of an emerald spring pool and the creek it feeds with a biologist, an octogenarian land steward, and his son, a real estate broker and land developer, on the largest ranch in Hays County, a semi-arid Hill Country landscape interlaced with spring-fed streams. Lynn Storm wears a handsomely tailored yellow oxford shirt and khaki slacks, and stands quietly observing. His son, Scott, tall and stout, sports a red-and-blue plaid shirt and Levi jeans, and stands under a stately live oak at the creek’s edge as we talk. Chad Norris, a young biologist studying the springs, has his long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. We’re discussing a hodgepodge of all things springs: their hydrogeology, the flora and fauna that rely on them and how the desire to conserve them has brought together interests historically at odds.

Cottony gray clouds hang heavy with rain, which will soon come. It’s been a year of record rainfall, and the landscape grows as lush as it’s ever been. Springs surge and the streams they feed flow strong and steady. “It’s been this way before. I remember wet periods, but I remember the dry periods a lot more,” says Scott Storm. Increased withdrawal from underground aquifers, which provide the source of spring flow, has led many springs to periodically cease flowing. “Even in the major drought of the 1950s, the springs on the property flowed,” says Storm, “But if there is a minor drought now, the springs dry up.”

For the first time in recorded history, the ever-gushing spring known as Jacob’s Well ran dry for several months in 2000 — as the crow flies, just five miles from the Storm Ranch. It was a wake-up call for many locals, who for the first time realized that people weren’t just crying wolf when it came to the serious problems caused by unregulated demands on their groundwater. The “Rule of Capture” says that anyone who puts in a well on his or her land can withdraw unlimited groundwater. This ancient statute, written when Texas’ population was far lower, has a lot of people, from landowners to conservation groups to biologists, seriously apprehensive.

“It would be great if no one moved out here and no water was taken out of the aquifers,” ponders Storm. “But if they move out, they’re going to put a well in, and that’s going to take a sip out of the aquifer. You get 20,000 to 30,000 of those …”

“That’s a lot of straws,” says Norris.

Like more and more landowners, Storm understands not only how important springs are for wildlife, but also how crucial wise planning will be to maintain the ecosystem, “If we don’t have the correct planning, this place could be a desert. They are very, very fragile.”

I hear the sound of a single drop of water falling. We walk over toward the edge of the spring pool, and I scan the bluff until I locate a thin stream of water dripping every few seconds into the water below, Fernpool Springs. This drip derives from a fissure in the porous karst limestone, where groundwater from the Edwards Aquifer seeps out of the earth and follows gravity’s course over land. The water cascades down a limestone cliff, green with moss and ferns, then runs downstream, forming spring-fed Gatlin Creek, which, like other spring-fed streams throughout the arid and semi-arid west, is the lifeblood of the ecosystem. Without water, nothing can live.

I mention a children’s book I read to my kids that shows giant underground lakes, and I ask if the Edwards aquifer is like that. Storm explains that on the Edwards plateau, the limestone bedrock resembles Swiss cheese, with holes throughout in which the water sits. Springs emerge where pressure and gravity force water out of fissures in the earth. I imagine myself standing on a slab of giant rocky Swiss cheese. I think my kids would get a kick out of this.

Something like 3,500 freshwater springs dot the Texas landscape, mostly on private land. Geologist Gunnar Brune spent the last 10 years of his life characterizing the ecology, geology and history of Texas springs, culminating in the hefty tome, Springs of Texas. Brune’s visits in the 1970s provided the last scientific documentation for many Texas springs. That is, until Norris and other like-minded scientists got involved. “I went to a meeting where they were talking about these water marketing strategies,” Norris says, “and that got me thinking of the impact to spring flows, and how that affects river flows. I thought, to try to be proactive, we should get out and start getting data now.”

In 2003, Norris received a grant, funded from Keep Texas Wild license plates, to study a handful of the springs Brune characterized in the 1970s. “There is a big void in knowledge,” he laments. “We want to get some baseline biological data so we can come back in five or 10 years, because changes in the biotic community often reflect something that’s changed in the environment.” Norris’ collaborations with landowners have been so successful that his spring research has become part of his regular duties, even though the grant ended.

“I thought it was interesting, because as Chad started that project, and I kid him all the time, he’s this tall, skinny, hippie-type guy and I’ve just been amazed that he’s gone out on this project and the folks that have opened their gates to him, and the stories he comes back with,” says Larry McKinney, TPWD’s director of the division that Norris works under. “Ten years ago he’d have been shot. There were just many places where you couldn’t even drive into the driveway.”

With strong attitudes about property rights prevalent in Texas, fear and loathing of government officials looking for endangered species took over the mindset of many private landowners. A few years back, a biologist who was studying cave fauna, George Veni, was hit by a bullet when a landowner’s warning shot ricocheted. “We shifted our emphasis from basic science to a more applied approach to landowner assistance. We began to lean towards more applied conservation-minded efforts,” explains McKinney. “We’ve been able to turn this thing around, and it’s back where it really used to be, where our biologists can go out and work with these landowners. Part of it may be that landowners recognize the threats to springs on their property, that they need all the help they can get and that we are working toward a common cause.”

Storm, for his part, seems thrilled with Norris’ work. “I’ve learned so much about this place, about everything — the water, the flora and fauna, and it’s amazing how much is going on. It’s all connected,” he says.

As the rain begins to fall, we exchange goodbyes, and Norris and I climb into the green Suburban and drive toward the boundary between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Plains, where, as Norris describes it, “everything pokes or scratches you.” The live oaks grow squattier as we drive westward, and the grasslands are interspersed with yucca and prickly pear. “You get 35 inches of rain on the eastern edge of the Edwards plateau and 12 inches of rainfall on the western edge,” says Norris. Springs become increasingly more important to wildlife as one moves toward the western edge of the ecoregion.

Though spring-fed creeks nourish the immediate ecosystem, spring water also provides a critical lifeline to creatures in many Texas estuaries. “I’ve actually had people telling me a drop of water that reaches the bay is a drop of water wasted,” laments Norris. Interest groups are intensely planning for future water demands, but many don’t realize that freshwater inflows — water that reaches the estuaries at the mouths of rivers — feed multimillion-dollar fisheries industries. “Without the water coming from springs, it significantly reduces the quality of the estuary,” says Norris.

We arrive at the ranch owned by John Rogers, another landowner who has welcomed Norris. Joining us is Sky Lewey, an activist, mother and rancher who oversees education and outreach for the Nueces River Authority. We’re here to measure water flow and to look for invertebrates, fish and salamanders in a spring on Rogers’ Uvalde County ranch. We park and haul out some nets and gear. Donning rubber boots, we wade across a wide but shallow creek, its spring water so clear you can see furrows made by wagon wheels from an age long gone, and the fish darting about oblivious to them.

The spring water flows down the limestone bedrock into the creek. Little caverns line the side, created by the springs’ cool, dripping water constantly wearing away at the limestone. We scour the crevices and look under debris for spined and spineless wonders. Norris explains the system aquatic biologists use to rate the tolerance invertebrates have to pollution or disturbance, ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most intolerant. At the top of the creek bed, Norris calls us over, “Do you want to see something with a level-two tolerance?” He reveals a tiny caddisfly larva, a helicopsychid, that makes a coiling case out of sand grains. He also catches other intolerant critters: mayfly larvae, a brilliantly colored greenthroat darter and a caddisfly that makes cases out of sycamore leaves. This is a good sign, that this spring remains pristine.

We also spot a cave salamander of the genus Eurycea, which has reduced eyes and lives only at the source of springs. Since springs occur in isolated pockets, biologists sometimes liken them to aquatic islands in a sea of land. Spring-adapted animals can’t just saunter over to the next spring if one dries up, because they can only live near the spring opening. Because of the aquatic island phenomenon, these species often become highly specialized and genetically distinct from species in nearby springs. Many cave salamanders and other spring fauna are endemic, meaning that in all of the world, that species lives only at a single spring, or group of springs. Norris explains that the Edwards Plateau has the highest concentration of endemic flora and fauna species of any ecoregion in Texas.

Like the Storms, Lewey and Rogers have nothing but praise for Norris’ efforts. “It’s a way to link resource stewards with the information they need to manage their resources,” says Lewey, who has spread the word about Norris’ work to several landowners. “Plus I am pretty darn sick of hearing of only two springs in Texas.” The bulk of research and media attention goes to the largest springs in Texas, Comal and San Marcos. Many citizens don’t even realize the extent and importance of freshwater springs throughout the state. “The trick is educating the public about a resource without exposing the resource to the public. This spring can’t handle a lot of feet. It can barely handle a few.”

We spend a couple of hours exploring the creek, measuring flow with the state-of-the-art flowmeter, and looking for critters before wading back across the wide creek to the vehicle. We drive around hilly roads and Rogers points out Blue Hole, a deep spring-fed pool where many generations of children have played.

The importance of springs historically, prehistorically and ecologically cannot be overstated. Springs often provided the only reliable source of clean water for settlers, Native Americans as well as European and Mexican explorers. Trails, and later roads, connected springs like a dot-to-dot map. The earliest archeological artifacts in Texas date to more than 30,000 years ago, and were located near springs and spring-fed creeks. Middens and archeological artifacts can be found near many springs, including on the Storm Ranch and Lewey’s property. These geological features existed millennia before humankind settled the landscape, and in less than half a decade, one by one, we have witnessed Texas springs drying up due to water table declines in the aquifers that feed them. Brune documented the decline of many Texas springs in his work in the 1970s, and the situation has only worsened. Springs must maintain a delicate balance between the water table below and an adequate area for recharge above. Brune wrote, “The story of Texas springs is largely a story of the past. Many are already gone. It is urgent that data on past and present springs be recorded.” It remains up to scientists such as Norris and gracious landowners to capture a snapshot of springs in time, and hope that his work can do more than mark the end of an age, but ultimately lead to efforts that may reawaken the increasingly silent springs.

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