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Floating on Groundwater

How spring flows sustain wild rice, fountain darters and Turisticus aquaticus

By Tom Harvey

In good weather, on holiday weekends, it’s easy to spot the burgeoning droves of species Turisticus aquaticus along spring-fed rivers and swimming holes.

From Barton Springs Pool in Austin to Balmorhea State Park in arid West Texas, the love affair between Texans and cool, refreshing springs is by no means limited to the Comal, San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers.

But it is here that the connection between groundwater and tourism becomes as crystal-clear as the springs themselves.

“The tourism industry in the immediate New Braunfels area is worth more than $200 million per year according to state tourism researchers, and 70 percent of that is water-dependent,” says Michael Meek, New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce president.

“Our tourism industry has all our eggs in one basket, and that’s Comal Springs, Texas’ largest natural flowing springs. When they flow it’s great for tourism and when they don’t, it’s not. Periods of drought and low flow have a very negative impact.”

Below Landa Park, where the springs emerge, the Comal River is mostly spring water. According to U.S. Geological Survey records, there was no flow in the springs from early June 1956 through November 1956. Even though this is the only time the springs stopped flowing entirely, concerns remain that increasing pumping threatens the Edwards Aquifer, the underground, water-bearing rock layer that keeps the region’s springs and rivers flowing.

In response to an endangered species lawsuit, the city of San Antonio has adopted more stringent mandatory water conservation rules that help protect rare plant and animal species — such as Texas wild rice and the fountain darter (a tiny fish) — sustained by the aquifer and springs. The more stringent conservation rules are applauded by spring-dependent tourism communities.

“Our largest industry is tourism, so we want to maintain a constant [spring] flow in order to maintain not only river-based tourism but water for our citizens,” says Comal County Judge Danny Scheel. “River recreation is the basis of our economy. We estimate that on any given weekend, we have approximately 300,000 visitors in the county.”

So great is the importance of river recreation that the region boasts a unique quasi-governmental body formed to regulate it — the Water Oriented Recreation District, created by the Texas Legislature in 1987. W.O.R.D. issues free permits to water recreation businesses such as B&Bs, motels, canoe and kayak outfitters and campground operators, and they collect taxes to fund the state’s only water recreation district. W.O.R.D. pays for law enforcement, litter cleanups, trout stockings and youth fishing events along 40 miles of the Guadalupe River.

Even the region’s best-known water recreation business relies indirectly on the springs. Schlitterbahn’s founders, the Henry family, started their riverfront resort in 1979. Although the two newer Schlitterbahn areas use city tap water, their original tube slides still rely on Comal River water that is mostly spring flow, recirculating it through the slides and back to the river.

“We’re very concerned about the spring flow in the Comal, both the quality and the quantity,” says Sherrie Brammall, Schlitterbahn communications director.

“We could use city water, but our guests like that spring water. Protecting spring flow is a critical issue, both for recreational use and for flora and fauna in that river. It’s a natural treasure.”

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