Committed researchers continue the slow process of documenting Texas' smaller springs.
By Rob McCorkle
If rivers are the arteries of natural Texas, then the state's springs are its heart that pumps life-sustaining waters into our creeks and rivers, from the sandy soils of East Texas to the sun-bleached deserts of the Big Bend.
In that context, Helen Besse heads a team of heart surgeons seeking to document hundreds of Texas' remaining springs, many of which were not examined during the late Gunnar Brune's original research on 183 of the state's 254 counties that produced Springs of Texas – Volume 1 in 1981. Besse, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Chad Norris and botanist Patsy Turner are tackling the daunting task of picking up where Brune's 1970s research and resultant tome concluded before he could produce Volume II.
Norris, who is focusing on 10 Texas Hill Country counties, is as interested in the smaller springs as he is in the bigger ones because, he says, all springs, intermittent or not, serve as natural outlets for the state's aquifers, upon which many Texans depend for drinking water.
"Springs, in many cases, are the difference between perennial and intermittent streams, and their health directly reflects that of the aquifers that feed them," notes Norris. "Considering their importance as a water resource, it's surprising little or no information has been gathered on smaller springs that litter the Texas landscape."
Besse and her colleagues have been instrumental in resurrecting interest in the obscure book written by Brune toward the end of his life while he was employed as a geologist with the Texas Water Development Board. Besse wrote the introduction to the second printing of the book, published by Texas A&M University Press in 2002.
Grants from TWDB and several nonprofit organizations initially launched Besse's crusade to document the springs found mostly on private property in 71 counties. Her focus is on a geographic area she describes as shaped like a giant donut, with the hole in the middle being Travis County and surrounding counties covered by Brune's earlier work. The new research area stretches from Throckmorton County in the north to Angelina County in the east to Glasscock and Reagan counties to the west to Goliad County in the south, with the majority of springs located in the Texas Hill Country.
The intrepid springs hunter has visited roughly 100 springs since 2002. Besse says that when she started her research she calculated there were about 1,500 springs in the targeted 71 counties. Today, she estimates the number to be closer to 1,800, though incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data in old databases have made it tough to know for sure.
"I think many documented springs are duplicates and many others are shown in the wrong location because the data are inaccurate," Besse says.
Besse and her coworkers have found that many of the historical reports on water wells done in the 1930s and 40s lumped springs in with well surveys, with only vague descriptions as to their locations that 30 years ago didn't benefit from today's global positioning system technology. Brune's 1975 report to TWDB on "Major and Historical Springs of Texas" documented 281 springs, 65 of which had completely dried up. Since then, little or no data have been gathered on smaller springs in Texas. Besse and her cohorts plan to rectify that for future state databases.
One ongoing challenge for Besse and her springs sleuths has been the difficulty in tracking down the owners of land where many of the springs are believed to exist. She says most owners have been helpful, but they are busy folks, so it's been a "very slow process" in which a projected four-year project is going on six years.
Besse contends that increasing our knowledge of the state's springs is more important today than ever in the face of increasingly frequent periods of drought and rapidly growing population dependent upon ample water supplies to sustain that growth.
"The more we know about where our water is coming from, and not coming from, and what springs are drying up, the better," she says. "Springs provide not only aesthetic beauty to the landscape, but also are critical to animals whose entire ecosystems are built around springs, especially the isolated ones in West Texas."
So, what is Besse's deadline for completing the Springs of Texas Project?
"I have my own deadline," she replies with a chuckle. "Soon. I want to retire."
Note: Besse and Norris would love to hear from anyone who has information about springs in any of Texas' 254 counties. Besse's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org; Norris' e-mail is email@example.com.