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.
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.Email | Print