San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

May 10th, 2010
Task force could ask city to restrict river access

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City of San Marcos Watershed Protection Manager Melanie Howard, standing, addresses last week’s San Marcos River Recreation Task Force meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.

STAFF REPORT

Facing the possibility of restricted river access being mandated by the state, a city-organized task force met last week to consider ways to mitigate the effect of recreation on the San Marcos Springs/River ecosystem.

Among the goals of the San Marcos River Recreation Task Force is to insure that the city has sufficient influence on the outcome of a state-mandated, regional effort to ensure adequate springflow at Comal and San Marcos Springs.

In 2007, the state legislature authorized the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP), which is intended to preserve  federally-listed species that depend on the Edwards Aquifer for survival. The EARIP steering committee hired consultant firm Halff Associates, Inc., to examine the effects of recreation on endangered species on the river ecosystems near the aquifer.

“What we’re trying to do is either work with them or work a little bit out in front of them … so we can shape the solutions ourselves rather than having them shaped for us,” said City of San Marcos Watershed Protection Manager Melani Howard at the San Marcos River Recreation Task Force meeting last week.

The issue of restricting all types of river access during low flow periods came up late in the meeting, along with a suggestion that a finite number of river access permits be issued by the city during low flow periods. The preliminary discussion exposed sharp division among task force members as to whether a permit system ought to be recommended to city council.

Howard told her task force colleagues the permit option should be discussed in-depth because Halff Associates or other EARIP stakeholders would probably recommend at least something like it.

“No matter how you feel about it, (we need to talk about) how doable is it, how practical is it, how would we do it, do we want to do it,” Howard said. “If we don’t want to do it, why don’t we want to do it? So, we do need to flesh this one out.”

Task force members have discussed, or at least raised the possibility, of the following measures regarding restricted river access:

• Restricting river access only during low flow periods.
• Prohibiting access to certain areas.
• Establishing limited hours for river access.
• Restricting access by setting maximum numbers of people or tube rentals.
• Restricting pet/animal access.
• Enacting better enforcement measures to protect the wild rice.
• Establishing alternative recreational attractions like increasing the size of Rio Vista Pool, constructing a “lazy river,” or implementing “eco-tours.”
• Dispersing recreation over a larger length of the river.

The task force includes representatives of river vendors, riverside property owners, the city council, local businesses, environmental groups, the city’s parks advisory board, Texas State students, river boating groups, large river user groups, and staff from the City of New Braunfels and City of San Marcos. The task force will present its findings and recommendations to the city council this summer.

Task force members expressed general agreement that access to the river’s headwaters behind Clear Springs Apartments should be discouraged or increasingly managed, perhaps by decreasing the parking spaces available to non-apartment residents. San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Dianne Wassenich told task force members that until recent years, gates kept people from parking near the university-owned house by the apartment complex. Wassenich said the university created more parking around the house and the spaces now are being used by non-apartment residents who access the river headwaters.

“That has become a new access point for the most sensitive spot we’ve got,” Wassenich said at the task force meeting.

The task force meeting resulted in consensus about the need to:

• Implement a strategy to better educate the public about ways to protect the San Marcos Springs/River ecosystem.
• Establish bouys in the river to protect rice during low flow periods, perhaps when springflow is below 100 cubic feet per second (cfs).
• Ascertain where official river access points should be constructed. A map of proposed access points distributed at the meeting listed eight access points between the river’s headwaters and Interstate-35. The access points are to double as spots to prevent erosion of the riverbank.

The EARIP steering committee is especially concerned about Texas Wild Rice, which grows naturally only in San Marcos and is the species most harmed by low springflows. The wild rice, once abundant in the San Marcos River and in Spring Lake, now exists only along the upper four miles of the river.

Task force members discussed using large and enhanced, but limited, ingress/egress sites along the river, and planting dense vegetation between such points to help prevent unwanted access to the river. The group discussed reducing riverside litter by increasing enforcement, adding more trash cans and providing litter boats near river access points.

Members also discussed protecting Texas Wild Rice stands by temporarily restricting access near the stands from May to September, establishing permanent access restrictions near the larger, more permanent rice stands, and protecting stands through better enforcement.

Task force members discussed ways to educate residents and river users about the unique qualities of the San Marcos River and its endangered species, such as by distributing an educational video to schools, using “branding” techniques, installing educational signage near access points, getting recreational outfitters to provide educational material, posting access maps with educational material, and providing recreational/educational information at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Halff Associates will conduct public forums and interview local businesses, task force members and city leaders to gather information about the state of recreation on the Comal and San Marcos Rivers. Halff Associates will then formulate recommendations for submission to the EARIP steering committee.

The committee will formulate a plan that could include engineering solutions and changes in the amount of legally-pumpable Edwards Aquifer water. Engineered solutions may involve storing water in off-channel features like abandoned quarries, and capturing water downstream for reinjection back into the aquifer to artificially create a greater springflows during a drought periods.

Because the actions recommended by the EARIP steering committee may themselves at least temporarily involve the incidental “take,” or harm, of endangered species, the committee opted to create a habitat conservation plan (HCP). The HCP is being drafted by California-based firm RECON. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approves the HCP, the agency will issue a permit authorizing the incidental take of seven species listed as endangered or threatened within the permit area, which includes San Marcos and New Braunfels.

The seven species include the Fountain Darter, San Marcos Salamander, San Marcos Gambusia, Texas Blind Salamander, Peck’s Cave Amphipod, the Comal Springs Dryopid Beetle, and the Comal Springs Riffle Beetle.

USFWS will evaluate possible effects to species not listed in the HCP, such as Texas Wild Rice and the Whooping Crane. The public has until June 3 to provide input via Internet, mail, or fax regarding the steering committee’s request for an incidental take permit. USFWS will include and respond to all public comments in the appendix of the Environmental Impact Statement, a document USFWS will create to evaluate the EARIP’s proposed HCP.

The federally-listed species in San Marcos under consideration by the EARIP include the Texas Wild Rice, San Marcos Salamander, Fountain Darter, and Comal Springs Riffle Beetle.

An Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) report about the effects of variable flow on river life indicates that recreation activity on the San Marcos River in 2009, coupled with the low springflow, adversely affected The Texas wild rice and other aquatic vegetation, “and thus also influenced important fountain darter habitat.” The study concluded that San Marcos Salamanders did not appear to be affected by the lower than average flows in 2009. The study was conducted by BIO-WEST, Inc. on behalf of the EAA.

“Low (spring)flows coupled with recreation pressure in summer resulted in the least amount of aquatic vegetation coverage in the City Park Reach since the study’s inception,” states the BIO-WEST study. “Lower flows in this reach contributed to reduced depths and easier access for recreationists to parts of the river bed that are typically too deep. This resulted in more mechanical disturbance from people walking through these areas and sometimes physically pulling out plants.”

The BIO-WEST study found that as a result of the low springflow and recreational pressure, the total amount of Texas Wild Rice decreased by 14 percent from summer 2008 to fall 2009, the lowest amount since the critical period low flow event in 2006.

“However, since this program first started measuring the total amount of Texas wild rice in the river in 2001, it has shown a steadily increasing trend, with occasional decreases,” states the BIO-WEST report. “The highest recorded total area of Texas wild rice measured in the San Marcos River since the inception of the study occurred in January 2009.”

The BIO-WEST report states the total area of Texas Wild Rice began to decrease as lower-than-average springflows during 2009 continued and winter gave way to summer. Most losses of wild rice occurred within the upper reaches of the river, where recreation access points are numerous. The study found evidence of mechanical disturbance in those areas, though researchers were unable to tell whether the plants were uprooted by being physically pulled out, or were displaced by walking and swimming.

“The plants at Thompson’s Island virtually disappeared in 2009 because of sedimentation and dropping water levels in the area where the plants were found,” the BIO-WEST study states.

EAA spokesperson Roland Ruiz said a report presented to EAA’s board in March concluded the recent drought and attendant low springflows did not result in significant negative effects on the federally listed species.

The legislature created the EAA in 1993 after the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit pursuant to 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, implements pumping restrictions during droughts, and funds aquifer-related research. 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 San Marcos Springs flowed at 245 cfs as of May 9.

“If we were to lose the rice and the fountain darters were still alive, then there would still be strict (EAA) regulations about pumping,” Wassenich said last month. “What I worry about is if we lose all the endangered species. Then, we’re in trouble. We do have a few of each species in an aquarium environment out on McCarty Lane at the (USFWS) refugium. So, it’s possible they could reintroduce things if it started raining again.

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0 thoughts on “Task force could ask city to restrict river access

  1. I see all kinds of restrictions for citizens but what about TX State? What kind of restrictions will the university have?

  2. By all means, let’s restrict access to the river to only seven or eight points. Then, let’s set up check points at each of those booth to make sure all river users acquire the appropriate permits (and pay the appropriate use fee). Let’s make it a CRIME to just go up and jump in the river. We here in San Marcos can have Texas’ first “toll river”!

    Man, I’m glad we have task forces to dream up ways to keep people from enjoying the river!

  3. So if low water flows cause 99.9% of the problems and users cause .1% of the problems, is it really fair to say low water flows and users caused the loss of vegetation? Surely low water flows are a problem, but anything that correlates with water flows should not be mistaken to cause the same problem. It could equally be said that low water flows and an increase in pizza restaurants led to the loss of vegetation, because the same causal relationship can be proven. And the consulatant’s report…?… Compare “This resulted in more mechanical disturbance from people walking through these areas and sometimes physically pulling out plants” with “researchers were unable to tell whether the plants were uprooted by being physically pulled out, or were displaced by walking and swimming.”

    Sound like a clear call to action — thank you EARIP. It won’t be long until they realize the only way to insure the river isn’t damaged by others is to drain it ourselves. Oh wait “Because the actions recommended by the EARIP steering committee may themselves at least temporarily involve the incidental “take,” or harm, of endangered species, the committee opted to create a habitat conservation plan (HCP)” we are already there.

  4. It seems like this all stemmed from a request from San Antonio, to eliminate the San Marcos River flow rate as a trigger for water-usage restrictions. As I recall, they said that if we don’t take better care of the river, they ought to be able to pump it dry, or words to that effect.

    If someone else remembers differently, please correct me.

  5. There is no way that is legal. As many of you may recall Judge Rodriquez ruled many years ago in the Stefanoff case that under the Mexican Partidas that encumbmer the Veramindi land grants that surround the Head waters of the San Marcos, all citizens have the right to hunt, fish and dry their nets all along the river shore, even on what most people what was private property. I really hope that no one will try to take our river from us but if so I have the research and stand ready to litigate on behalf of the river rats of San Marcos.

  6. Hey river rats- I guess if all these restrictions are enforced as much as the TCEQ has enforced restrictions at Buie Tract, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about!

    Funny how developers can get away with harming the recharge zone, but now the hammer could be brought down on the little guy enjoying the river…

  7. Let’s send the “Task Force” out to the Buie Tract and have them enforce all of the regulations that have been broken out there,….from day one !!!!

    I’m really getting pretty sick of this crap !!!

  8. The headline screams controversy, but I bet the task force is simply trying to be comprehensive in identifying most of the potential actions and consequences.

    We do need to have the right story to tell others in the region (including the EARIP steering committee), concerning our stewardship of the San Marcos River.

    Side note, if the current task force does not include representatives from the Texas State University administration, that seems like an important gap to fill, pronto.

  9. First, let me make sure to mention that the EARIP is all of us. All of us are represented, including City of San Marcos, San Marcos River Foundation, and many others who care about the river and keeping the springs flowing so that San Marcos can have a river in its future. We work hard and devote much of our time these days to the RIP, to be sure that San Marcos and Comal Springs are well represented at these meetings. You can’t imagine how much time and energy these meetings take, plus reading all the scientific studies, and trying to understand all the details that are involved in trying to keep our river flowing.

    For those who have not been following the RIP articles in all the newspapers in the region, nor the details of meetings that SMRF publishes in its weekly email updates, or who have not attended the public hearings last month that the RIP held, you need to catch up. The RIP is not forcing any of the dicussions going on here in our city. The City has chosen to have these discussions among its own citizens to be sure that the problem of people ripping up wild rice accidentally and even on purpose (which has been well documented) is solved. This problem is the most serious during low flow periods, and SMRF has been asking for someone to help for years, so we are thrilled that the City is convening this Task Force. We here in San Marcos fully understand that the wild rice is one of the main reasons that we have a river. Wild rice cannot move around like fountain darters to follow puddles of water here and there during low flows. So the flow requirements that are set for this river are really based on keeping the wild rice healthy. US Fish and Wildlife Service folks will be looking at the RIP’s plans to be sure that enough water is planned to keep this river flowing during extreme drought, a much worse drought than we had recently.

    This entire Edwards Aquifer region is looking at spending billions of dollars to be sure that we have sufficient flow in this river, to call it a river, and keep the endangered species alive. Without these kinds of agreed ( and possibly engineered) solutions to our springflow problem, this river will not continue to flow. This region has already grown way, way beyond its ability to support us all with the water we have available in our aquifer. Now we are laying plans to take water from other areas. We know we all have to work hard to be sure that there is a flowing river for coming generations, and that is what the RIP is about. So now comes the River Task Force, trying to make sure the wild rice stays healthy and we continue to have a good flow in our river for recreation. They are going to discuss in great detail the ways that wild rice can be protected.

    If a buoy string, like you see in a swimming pool to divide deep areas from shallow areas, can help direct traffic away from a particular area while keeping the river open for navigation, that is not a problem for any tuber, swimmer or boater. If the University can close a parking area (that they built recently or opened up recently) that is causing more people to enter the river right on top of the rice, that is a simple way to direct traffic. This is all about directing the traffic, guys. And yes the University has people on the task force. Try to remain calm and rational. If you want to meet and talk over specific concerns you have, please call me. We’ve got to find sensible answers.

    I do not believe that Halff and Assoc. is having public hearings, they are doing a recreational study and are talking directly to many businesses and the city parks department and other city departments involved with the river. The River Task force needs the time to discuss all the ways that wild rice can be protected, and decide which things might be practical and protective and cost efficient, while preserving recreational enjoyment of the river. Give them a chance and do not try to stir controversy. Do some serious thinking instead and come up with good solutions to suggest. There are many good people on the task force who are representing the many types of good healthy fun recreation that we all want to have on the river.

    But you will have to agree that at some point, with the massive growth in numbers in our parks, we are going to have to consider having some kinds of limits at certain times. Surely you have avoided the river during holiday weekends because of the standing room only around Rio Vista and other parks. This is not safe or healthy for anyone. It may not be time yet, but that time is coming and people need to discuss what is the breaking point for them personally. We reached it long ago for me personally, but I gather that some of you are still okay with what is going on down at Rio Vista. Go visit it on Memorial Day weekend in the afternoons and then try to think about how you would deal with that, when it starts happening every weekend, or every day during the summer. Those are the kinds of suggestions and the kind of work we need for every San Marcan to contribute to the discussion.

  10. The City made the decision to rebuild the Rio Vista dam into a water park. Did they not think that people were actually going to want to use it? No, let’s just look at it and make it a City landmark and rope it all off. We’ll have our own water park musuem that costs $5 to look at, but don’t think that you can get in the water. Remember folks, the San Marcos River is a navigable river that is state water. We have the right to be in the water. Yes, we need to protect the endangered species. Let’s educate people first before we make rash decisions that could forever change the recreational tourism for our city. Personally, I still live in San Marcos because of the river.

  11. Dianne Wassenich said “but I gather that some of you are still okay with what is going on down at Rio Vista. Go visit it on Memorial Day weekend in the afternoons and then try to think about how you would deal with that, when it starts happening every weekend, or every day during the summer.
    Why then did the city spend $6.2Millon on the dam.? This was 3 times over budget! Heck they could have spent far less and repaired what was needed. No it was done to attract visitors and to have pride. The all too much failure of mankind…Pride. Maybe you don’t enjoy the river like some of us Ms. Wassenich, so how dare you want to limit the visitors to the river. I do agree that people can be pigs and need to leash their pets, but that just means that more Rangers will be needed. And maybe bigger trash cans. I read that TXST is on the board. But I still don’t see how much water is comsumed by TXST? TXST is still consuming during drought times too.! I think if you limit citizens TXST should be limited also.

  12. Let’s remember that it is because of the fine work Dianne Wassenich does (along with the many members and friends of the San Marcos River Foundation, and others) that we are able to still have a flowing San Marcos River in the first place.

    It’s a fact (reality) that only so many people can physically be in the river at one time in order to protect the wild rice. It’s the endangered species (especially the wild rice) that keeps some semblance of sanity on others draining the aquifer.

    Hopefully, with some creative new solutions, we’ll continue to be able to enjoy getting in the river on a regular basis. It could be a simple combination of things like hardening appropriate entry points, cordoning the wild rice areas when necessary, further enact and enforce additional litter regulations, and step up the park ranger presence.

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  14. The cynical part of me has always thought that the real reason for protecting the flora and fauna of the river was simply to ensure that it would never be pumped dry or access to its banks blocked by private development, for the benefit of those who enjoy recreating on it, and that over time this legal/political solution would come to bite its beneficiaries. After all there are many fragile ecosystems and threatened environments but its the ones that are picturesque and have recreational opportunities which generate impassioned conservation movements to save them.

  15. ….

    Of course if the ideas like booms around the shallows to direct swimmers towards deeper water and simply blocking the little paths that go into the weeds are what is planned, than that is a wise plan.

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