Texas Wild Rice growing in the San Marcos River. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
San Marcos City Councilmembers listened with alarm last week as they learned that a state-mandated river protection initiative could force the city to shut down parts of the San Marcos River for recreational purposes.
Because the city is engaged in a state legislature-mandated process to develop a program to prevent further harm to endangered species that depend on the Edwards Aquifer, a wide range of options, including closing portions of the San Marcos and Comal Rivers, will soon be discussed by the 39-member stakeholder group that is overseeing the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP). Eight federally-listed species depend on adequate spring flow from the Comal and San Marcos Springs, which are fed from the Edwards Aquifer.
The EARIP is especially concerned about Texas Wild Rice, which grows naturally only in San Marcos and is the species most harmed by low spring flow. The plant was once abundant in the San Marcos River and in Spring Lake at the river’s headwaters. Texas Wild Rice now only exists along the upper four miles of the River.
San Marcos Director of Public Services Tom Taggart, who represents the city on the EARIP steering committee, advised city councilmembers to prepare themselves for requests by other stakeholders that San Marcos consider agreeing to limitations on river-related recreational activities before signing the EARIP Cooperative Agreement.
“To be honest, what we’re seeing in the RIP process so far is that the science on this is relatively clear and straightforward: (recreational) activities are harmful to the species,” Taggart said during the meeting. “That is not something that appears to be any serious scientific question. What we do know from the stakeholder meetings to date is that the San Antonio interests, and those that are concerned about having their pumping restricted, are very much focused on our activities at this end of the river, and also around Comal Springs. They are taking the opinion of, ‘Look, if you won’t protect the species there, if you’re not willing to do anything, we’re not willing to entertain us restricting our pumpages and doing these other things which are painful to us.’ I’m not saying that’s a fair characterization on their part, and I don’t see those things as parallel, but I guess all I’m saying is that’s clearly what we’re already seeing develop with the focus on looking at separate pool designation and localized pumping restrictions, things that are already being discussed, as well as these kinds of issues in relation to recreation. I can tell you that (the San Antonio Water System) and some of the other San Antonio interests are very keenly focused on these kinds of areas. I just want to be frank with council that I know these areas will come up.”
San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz and Councilmember Kim Porterfield reacted with alarm to Taggart’s news.
“You need to come back to council when (the EARIP steering committee gets) to that place and find out exactly what this body wants you to do in writing a policy or having input on that policy,” Narvaiz said to Taggart during the meeting. “At least, that’s how I feel. Because this is a big deal. Whatever steps we (take), we need to do it in such a way that the public understands and knows what the pros and cons (are) of doing or not doing (it).”
Senate Bill 3, passed by the Texas Legislature in May 2007, directed the EAA and other state agencies to participate in EARIP and to prepare, by 2012, a plan for the preservation of the federally-listed species at Comal and San Marcos Springs. San Marcos would not be required to sign onto the EARIP Cooperative Agreement, but may still feel the effects of programs the agreement creates.
The agreement, which has not yet been drafted, must be finalized by 2012. In order for EARIP programs to be implemented, the United States Secretary of Interior would have to sign the cooperative agreement. Congress would then decide how to fund the programs mandated under the agreement.
Federal funding legislation usually necessitates non-federal matching dollars provided by non-federal participants. The lifespans of EARIP programs thereby established would range from 15-50 years, and could be extended.
“No one wants any of our river off-limits,” San Marcos Councilmember John Thomaides said during last week’s meeting. “I mean, that’s the heart and soul of our city. But if we have to take common-sense restrictions like you say — I mean, I see people with dogs dragging out the (Texas) Wild Rice all the time. And yeah, maybe in really bad times, it would be a good idea to have that buoyed off to protect them. I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, we’ll just dig it out and put it in a aquarium, and it’ll live there.’ That’s not what we want.”
Taggart informed the council that Texas Wild Rice requires a minimum spring flow rate of 60 cubic feet per second in a six-month average in order to be free from harm. The spring flow at San Marcos Springs for the last six months was between 80 and 96 cubic feet per second (cfs) most of the time.
“Certainly, we’re grateful that we have some (Texas) Wild Rice, because without the wild rice and endangered species, our river would probably be dry,” Porterfield said to Taggart during the meeting. “So I wasn’t trying to suggest I don’t care about the wild rice. I just want some balance and some reasonableness. But when you said ‘Close the river,’ that just kind of freaks me out.”
Thomaides said he often hears the Texas Wild Rice referred to as “seaweed” by recreational users of the San Marcos River.
“This gives us an opportunity to educate the people out there that think we’re just growing weeds,” Narvaiz said. “If that’s what they believe, they don’t understand the importance of it. And it’s hard to explain if they’re not engaged in the conversation.”
The legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) in May 1993 after the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in 1991 under the Federal Endangered Species Act. EAA is charged with ensuring that the Comal and San Marcos springs flow at rates sufficient to protect endangered and threatened species to the extent required by federal law. The EAA regulates water withdrawal during normal time periods and implements pumping restrictions during droughts, among other measures. EAA mandates a 20 percent reduction in pumping from the aquifer when the ten-day average flow at the San Marcos Springs reaches 96 cfs.
The EAA lifted Stage 1 restrictions in the middle of October and the City of San Marcos ceased its water use restrictions soon afterward. The city receives about 75 percent of its water supply from surface water from Canyon Lake and about 25 percent from the aquifer.
The city council did not direct Taggart to convey to the other stakeholders a refusal on the part of the city to consider closing off some of the river, but supported his recommendations.
Taggart, in his written recommendations to the council, advised: “Support and work cooperatively with (Texas State University), private landowners and other stakeholders to develop and implement strategies to minimize negative impacts. This is preferable to potential loss of local control in these decisions if endangered species are not protected.”
Taggart requested the council’s guidance regarding seven other items currently under discussion by the EARIP steering committee. The council backed all of Taggart’s recommendations. Taggart recommended that the city oppose the following measures under consideration:
– Designate a separate San Marcos Pool for aquifer management purposes. Taggart said designating a separate San Marcos Pool “could worsen/prolong low aquifer and flow levels,” and he said the effort to do so “seems solely directed at preventing triggers from causing restrictions on pumping in Bexar County.” The Edwards Aquifer Area Expert Science Subcommittee, which advises the EARIP steering committee, said in its last official recommendations on the matter that there is insufficient data to support the scientific designation of a San Marcos pool.
– Establish permanent off-site preservation of endangered species as a “routine adaptive management strategy,” except “as an extreme condition-last resort option,” in Taggart’s words.
– A proposal for recirculation, the practice of capturing water downstream from springs, piping it to an area above the springs, and injecting it into the aquifer to artificially create a greater spring flow during a drought periods in order to allow continuous pumping from the aquifer.
Taggart recommended that the city support the following proposals on the EARIP docket:
– Remove invasive species from the San Marcos River and near the edge of the river, and planting “preferred aquatic plants,” in the language of Taggart’s recommendations to council.
– Implement measures to “help maintain healthy natural balances in the aquifer, spring and river ecosystems,” in the language of Taggart’s recommendations. He said such measures may include stormwater controls (quality and quantity), buffers along the river and its tributaries, sediment controls, public education efforts, enforcement efforts, recharge area pollution control and water quality monitoring.
– Reduce municipal and irrigation use. “Support programs that create higher efficiency irrigation and incentives to place water in trust or other solutions that increase sustainability of the Aquifer,” said Taggart in his written recommendations. “Support development of non-Edwards water supply sources and oppose water planning that fails to diversify sources and increases reliance on the Edwards Aquifer.”
– Construct recharge dams to capture natural spring flows and implement cedar removal and other natural recharge enhancements.
– Expand the geographic scope of the EARIP program area to include a region extending from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico, which Taggart said “would require discussion of the significance of freshwater flow to the survival of the federally-endangered Whooping Crane (Grus Americana).” Taggart said extending the project scope to the Gulf “would likely require that pumping be limited to ensure adequate fresh water inflows to the Gulf.”Email | Print