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

by SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Facing the possibility of state restrictions on access to the San Marcos River, a city-created task force has issued recommendations to mitigate the effect of recreation on the San Marcos Springs/River ecosystem.

San Marcos River Recreation Task Force members examining the area behind Clear Springs Apartments in May. Photo by Sean Batura.

The measures suggested in the San Marcos River Recreation Task force’s report are intended to benefit the endangered species that depend on the river. The task force, according to its report, focused on recreation activities that affect Texas wild rice, the most vulnerable of those species. The report also addresses safety and aesthetic issues associated with the river.

The task force recommends the city ban alcohol, disposable materials, and personal barbecue grills at city river parks. According to the task force’s report, alcohol “is directly related to disrupting behaviors and litter.” The task force’s report states that despite the installation of charcoal dumping containers, hot coals from personal grills are still being dumped on the ground.

“River users with bare feet have walked on these accidentally and the coal piles are unsightly,” states the task force’s report. “Rio Vista Falls Park on the Cheatham Street side is filled with smoke during high grill use times.”

The task force also recommends that the city council hire a river manager, similar to New Braunfels, to monitor recreation and issues associated with the San Marcos River.

The task force advises that the city restrict access to clusters (stands) of Texas wild rice in the river by creating “sanctuaries” below the spillway by Clear Springs Apartments, at Bicentennial Park, and in areas of the river that provide optimal habitat for the rice during periods of springflow less than 60 cubic feet per second. The task force recommends using booms and signs to provide protection at the sanctuaries.

Restricting access to Texas wild rice may require state legislation in order for park rangers to legally prevent access to sanctuaries, states the task force’s report.

The task force issued recommendations pertinent to dogs, litter, human river access and alternative river attractions. Among them are a recommendation for greater enforcement of the off-leash rule and waste pickup for dogs, as well as the creation of a water-oriented dog park at a location further from the river. If less stringent measures don’t protect Texas wild rice stands, the task force also recommends limiting the hours of access to the river, limiting the number of people or tubers who enter the river, prohibiting access to certain parts of the river, and building or incentivizing private entities to create alternative tourist attractions, such as pools, a “lazy river,” and “eco tours.”

The task force made numerous other recommendations, such as:

* Constructing large and enhanced ingress/egress sites on the river that also act as bank stabilization structures at certain locations downstream of Texas wild-rice stands.

* Enacting measures to control litter in and near the river (such as a strict litter ordinance).

* Creating dense vegetation zones between access points to prevent bank erosion and habitat damage.

* Training park rangers in river biology.

* Posting educational signage at certain locations along the river.

* Implementing strategies to reduce turbidity and sedimentation in the river.

“None of the changes are huge,” said City of San Marcos Watershed Protection Manager Melani Howard. “Recreation would continue, we’d still be renting tubes, they’d still be tubing down the river, there’d still be snorkeling, swimming, canoeing — we’d just protect a little more, some of the areas of the river, from recreation. But it doesn’t prevent recreation from getting from point a to point b.”

A major purpose of the task force’s efforts is to ensure the city can influence the outcome of a state-mandated, regional effort to preserve eight endangered species dependent on the Edwards Aquifer. The various participating entities are attempting to discover how to ensure adequate springflow at the Comal and San Marcos Springs. The springs emanate from the aquifer and provide habitat for the endangered species.

The task force advises the city to determine the carrying capacity of the San Marcos River parks system. The task force report states that dispersing recreation over a larger length of the river is not likely to reduce adverse effects on the river because the San Antonio-Austin corridor population, being the primary user of the river, is rapidly increasing.

The task force advises that its recommendations be funded by numerous means, including the collection of parking fees by installing parking meters or issuing parking permits for river access parking during the recreational season, as well as the collection fines for violations. The task force also recommends fines for littering, which would be spent for river management.

Another funding recommendation involves the creation of a large large metered or toll parking area, possibly along Interstate-35 frontage by the Little League fields at C.M. Allen Parkway. The parking area would replace parking areas close to the river in order to remove impervious cover near the river. Another source of funding would be the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP).

The task force examined only the San Marcos River, not the surrounding watershed.

In a presentation to the city’s River Recreation Task Force, Kathryn Nichols of the National Park Service’s, Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Office said New Braunfels pays $900,000 annually for a river manager, up to 30 underlings, and contracts for litter cleanup and garbage collection at the Comal River. Nichols said New Braunfels collects approximately $80,000 annually from fines associated with river use violations.

In 2007, the state legislature authorized the EARIP, which is intended to preserve federally-listed species that depend on the Edwards Aquifer for survival, while balancing the needs of the 1.7 million people who use the Aquifer as water source.

The federal government and the State of Texas list eight species as endangered or threatened that live in the San Marcos region of the Edwards Aquifer, Spring Lake and the upper four miles of the San Marcos River.

Stakeholders participating in the EARIP process include cities (San Marcos among them), water utilities, environmental groups, cities, river authorities, agricultural and industrial users, downstream and coastal interests, and state and federal agencies.

The EARIP steering committee hired consultant firm Halff Associates, Inc., to examine the effects of recreation on endangered species in the river ecosystems near the aquifer, such as the Comal and San Marcos Rivers. A major purpose of the San Marcos River Recreation Task Force is to ensure that the city has sufficient influence on the outcome of the EARIP.

“I’m hoping (Halff Associates will) see we’re already proactive, we’ve brought it to council, we’ll start implementing some of the suggestions and recommendations that council approves,” Howard said. “And I would assume that they’d put that into their report, that we are doing those things.”

The EARIP participants must prepare a program document, including a habitat conservation plan (HCP), that can be approved by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Senate Bill 3, passed in May 2007 by the Texas Legislature, directs the EARIP participants to prepare the aforementioned document by September 2012.

“Successful completion of the program document will help to ensure a stable water supply, implement measures that contribute to the recovery of the listed species, and minimize the risk of federal court litigation regarding the use of the aquifer,” states a March 25, 2010, document authored by EARIP Program Manager Robert Gulley.

According to Gulley, the primary threat to the eight species dependent on the Edwards Aquifer is the intermittent loss of habitat from reduced spring flows. Reduced spring flows are the combined result of naturally fluctuating rainfall patterns, regional intermittent pumping and “temporal drawdown of the aquifer,” according to Gulley.

The EARIP committee will formulate a plan that could include engineered 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 greater springflows during drought periods.

Because the actions recommended by the EARIP committee may themselves at least temporarily involve the incidental “take,” or harm, of endangered species, the committee opted to create an HCP. According to the EARIP website, if the USFWS approves the HCP, the agency will issue a permit for any incidental taking of species including the fountain darter, the San Marcos salamander, the San Marcos gambusia, the Texas blind salamander, the Peck’s Cave amphipod, the Comal Springs dryopid beetle, and the Comal Springs riffle beetle. The USFWS also will evaluate possible impacts to other species, such as the Texas wild rice, and karst, riverine, and estuarine species, according to the EARIP’s website.

According to Gulley, the eight species that depend directly on water in, or discharged from, the Edwards Aquifer system and are federally-listed as threatened or endangered are the fountain darter, San Marcos salamander, San Marcos gambusia, Texas blind salamander, Peck’s Cave amphipod, Comal Springs dryopid beetle, Comal Springs riffle beetle and Texas wild rice. The San Marcos gambusia has not been seen since 1982 and may be extinct.

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21 thoughts on “City task force issues river access recommendations

  1. Interesting. Many of these recommendations could actually boost tourism, as well as help protect the river (like getting rid of the litter and the dog $#!7). It would be nice to see that continue beyond the river. I’ve suggested, many times, that litter cleanup be available as a community service option for various minor offenses.

    Of course, enforcement is key. Otherwise, stricter ordinances do nothing.

  2. This is going to be a tough sell to the public at large. It will require a major education as to why it’s important to protect the endangered species. Most river users could not care less about wild rice and see it as a nuisance. Maybe the silver lining is we’ll get some state or federal money to do the bank stabilization. To improve both sides of the river at Lion’s Club would be a wonderful thing. On a related note, the pool should be moved to a new park somewhere away from the river. The tennis courts should never have been reconstructed in their current location. All non river related activities should be moved away from the river to encourage alternatives to river-centric gatherings.

    I feel sorry for this river recreation task force – they are sure to be vilified.

  3. OK, so they’re going to take away the free parking and replace it with a toll lot, ban barbecue grills, and ban alcohol along the river. You can still enjoy the river, but you can’t park, eat, or drink there anymore. Sounds like a *blast* to me…..

  4. I think instead of banning barbecue pits, educating people about the coal dump cans, then enforcing their use should be tried. I love the barbecue pit phenomenon that seems indigenous to south texas. Otherwise we are encouraging people to stay home or eat at Mcdonalds.

  5. Litter fines should have been implemented and enforced a long time ago. Because really, without a consequence, some people have NO second thoughts about throwing their trash on the ground. Maybe in lieu of a fine they could be forced to take some kind of online watershed education course. Or both.

    And banning alcohol in *some* parts could have a really positive effect. Compare Sewell Park and Rio Vista.

  6. Dredge the river and remove all the rice! I’m sick of hearing about protecting it. It’s completely useless and does nothing but hinder recreation along the river. Now they’re talking about closing off sections of the river because of that f-ing weed that tangles up in everything along the river.

    This is what happens when you have liberals in charge of handling public resources. They want to keep the public away!

    The tennis courts at Rio Vista Park are beyond useless. I am at the river almost every weekend and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen only two people using it. That space would have been better served turning it into a parking lot of the number of citizens enjoying the river at Rio Vista Park. I find it unfathomable that they spent the money to refurbish those courts. You can polish a turd but it’s sitll a turd.

    I’m all for stricter enforcement of litter and higher fines. If you go down to the Rio Vista falls on the morning after a busy afternoon, it literally looks like a dump. You can find everything from flip flops and broken styrofoam coolers to used diapers. It’s truly disgusting.

    But drive away citizens and tourists at your own risk. By banning alcohol, limiting access to the river, banning grilling, turning the river into an environmental education experience, you will be slitting your own throat. People will choose to go to locations that are more “fun” where they will spend their hard earned money.

  7. Much of this is disturbing to me.
    One thing is clear; there are people out there who wish to control our every movement when we get near the river. Of course control and regulation costs money, so we have to hire river managers who pass out fines to people? There are those of us who pine for the day when we could drive down to the river at the Scout Camp by the ballparks. So they built a parking lot and restricted access. Who thinks metered parking is even going to pay for itself.
    Boons and signage could be enough to protect the endangered species and our river, but who protects us from overreacting bureaucrats and well meaning control freaks.
    I think our park rangers do an excellent job of keeping the peace, and PARD does great with all they have to do. What does alcohol have to do with endangered species, unless we’re the ones endangered.

  8. Well if the new psuedo-rules go into effect and it chases tourists and people away, then it’s worked IMO. Less people on the river means less trash, less obnoxious people and I might be able to see the ground and bottom of river at Rio Vista one of these days.. Cool- as far as I’m concerned.

    And all the ideas of ‘educating’ offenders. BS- People know its wrong to litter, to not stick their babies in car seats, and to not use a weed eater to shave their empty heads. Yet they do because they are lazy or too dumb to function in life.

  9. BradM, you are a short-sighted idiot. We would have no river if it weren’t for that which you would so callously throw away. It is one of the few legal tools we have to keep the aquifer from being drained by San Antonio. San Antonio would LOVE for nothing more than the removal of the endangered species in the San Marcos and Comal rivers. Then they wouldn’t have to be bothered with those pesky rules about aquifer level, spring-flow be damned, suck it all out in Bexar County. San Antonio must have their St. Augustine lawns…

    That said, I’m not in favor of banning alcohol on the river. Alcohol is not the issue. Stupid people who don’t know how to pick up after themselves barely are. Litter is unsightly, but hardly the largest threat to the river. I’m far more worried about nutrient inputs from the upstream farms, chemical spills from the university, and golf courses over the recharge zone.

    Signs don’t work. At all. Look at how many people think it’s o.k. to bring dogs to the little park below Saltgrass… and all walk past the sign that says no dogs. Long term enforcement does, but that costs money. The San Marcos River is a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. Everyone thinks they have the right to do whatever they want, but have no ability to see that if everyone does that we’ll all lose it.

  10. Clarification: If and only if the city’s efforts to protect the Texas wild rice do not succeed does the task force recommend limiting the hours of access to the river, limiting the number of people or tubers who enter the river, prohibiting access to certain parts of the river, and building or incentivizing private entities to create alternative tourist attractions.

  11. Jesse has nailed the real issue squarely. At THE BIG TRIAL, the lawyer for our side posed the issue of the “tragedy of the commons” to Ray Perryman, famed “no regulations” economist, who had testified that if SA were forced not to be selling millions of gallons per day of free water to various interests, forced to stop wasting it profligately on an individual and collective basis, forced to act on the creation of migratory plumes of contamination, etc,., there would be mayhem–people starving in the streets, the City broken down completely for “the inevitable growth and our economic development dreams” (sound familiar?). The Good Counselor asked him the deceptively insulting question of whether he did not learn in Freshman Economics of “the tragedy,” which came up in medieval England, forcing public control of what had once been free public access to public lands: the grounds were that hogs were abusing and overusing the resource to the degree that it was losing its value to everybody–being ground down to nothing, a dead asset.

    The commons were regulated specifically for the purpose of keeping their public value. The result was value added both for the public and the individual. It was largely because of this exchange that Judge Bunton found in our favor–that if the Comal and San Marcos. and the underground supply were to be somewhat stable (even for the hogs themselves), were to be there for everybody, the political and fiscal power of SW and the farmers in the western counties of Medina and Uvalde had to be leashed. They were, to a large extent, and we have made it for a decade and a half, but SM and New Braunfels had to pay through the nose, setting the example for the rest.

    Among other things, our resorting to buying surface water to make up our demand for drinking and other uses. That is why we pay far more than others all over Texas, and why our WW system is one of the most sophisticated and expensive in the State. If we had not had the protection of the Endangered Species Act, we should have had no River for years already. And the game is not over. By far.

    It is worthy of note that the reason those species developed ONLY here in all the world is that this is a very special, and delicately balanced, place. A showplace of nature, not merely a public pool, and not a receptacle for the garbage and doo-doo of all the stupid people out there. We can claim to be among the longest-inhabited places on the hemisphere because those who came before actually considered the resource SACRED, and kept it for its beauty and productivity. That is what we mean by the word SUSTAINABLE, which is great vogue right now.

    Look back into the recent history of the Guadalupe/Comal “toobin'” space. The hordes of irresponsible people (criminals) invading and trashing were the cause of NB’s installing limits. Question is, “When does a ‘tourist’ become merely a vandalous barbarian?” Answer is, “whenever you encourage them.” The drunken revelers, aside from other endearing qualities, are both tragically ignorant and selfishly careless. Ungrateful, one might say. Same for those who would sell our community’s soul for a dollar (not to mention any names).

  12. I thought I saw this one coming–or smelled it–“incentivizing private entities to create alternative tourist attractions.” Look for a “water amusement” developer coming soon, near you. The River is just too fat a target to pass up.

  13. +1 to what Jesse said. The only reason anyone (San Antonio) is required to care about the flow rate in San Marcos, is because of endangered species, like the wild rice. Lose them and potentially lose the river. Or at least watch it dry up during periods of drought.

    On the bright side, you’ll be allowed to do just about whatever you want, whenever you want, in that odd little strip of sand and rocks running through the middle of town.

  14. @ BradM, I’m in agreeance with everyone else here. Your short-sightedness would surely cause us to lose the river all together. If we lose the Rice, the Salamander, and the 5 other endangered species here, San Antonio would pump it dry. If it’s “safe” to lose the wild rice, it must be okay to lose all of the animals around here, from whitetails to widgeons. I couldn’t deal with that.

    I like how you use the term “liberals,” as if conservatives could never care about the environment. It says a lot about you as a person. Think about it. Would your conscience be alright systematically exterminating a species (plant or animal)? Mine wouldn’t, and I’m no “liberal.” I think the best thing a government can do is to protect the resources a society can destroy without thought.

    Remember what Teddy Roosevelt, a staunch Republican and our 26th President said: “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.”

  15. The staunchest protector of our river is the Texas Wild Rice. It depends on a certain flow of water (volume, rate, quality, and temperature) to exist where it does (in the beginning section of the San Marcos River). The other protected species can be captured and reintroduced (as an absolute worst case scenario if the river were to effectively “go dry” for any length of time). Not so easy, to reintroduce Texas Wild Rice, I am told. The existence of these protected species is what keeps other entities from draining the aquifer to such an extent that the San Marcos River would be turned into a “wet creek” at best (where it only flows during and right after rain).

    We as the current citizens should do our part in protecting the river. Our elected leaders need to make decisions that future generations can appreciate. This is not a “pro growth” versus “pro environment” battle. The growth in and around San Marcos is going to happen. Our responsibility, our opportunity, is to determine what that growth should look like. Protecting the jewel of San Marcos, our river, has got to be one of the top city responsibilities.

  16. Using San Antonio as an excuse to protect the weeds in the San Marcos River is a load of horse shit. That has never been the issue and never will. San Antonio is not some ethereal enemy threatening to suck our river dry. Get over your paranoid delusions. The real fight will be equal access to the natural resources whether that be the Edwards Aquifer or the San Marcos river.

    But who gives a flying rat f*ck about about the money that the river goers spend in this city? Let’s try to make the river as difficult to access as possible! Let’s reduce the number of people who can get to the river. Let’s drive away the money spent by river goers. Let’s do away with the businesses that make a living off of the river. Let’s do away with the Lion’s Club charity. Let’s do away with everything that makes this city a fun place to live. Let’s put a bullet in our own heads. At least it will make you whiny Obama-voting libtards feel all fuzzy inside.

  17. BradM, the world is not nearly as black and white as you’d like it to be. Turn off your t.v. and talk to a human being once and a while and then you can pull your head out of your a** in a more graceful manner.

    Everyone else, instead of complaining about trash at the river how about each and every one of us pick it up every time we are at the river. I do. Maybe some of you do. If you don’t, please start doing it every time instead of wasting your energy complaining about others habits. The act is contagious, believe me.

    Also remember, when we pick it up and put it in the trash it’s going to a landfill to end up in someone elses watershed. And, what’s bad for one river is bad for the san marcos. So, instead of hacking at the branches, how about we dig deep into the roots? Ban all plastic, aluminum, styrofoam, etc. from entering our town. Let the river litter only be corn husks and deer bones. Or does that require to much committment? How ignorant of me to think that you were all actually serious about your committment to the river. Now let’s all go back to our jobs where we slowly destroy everything that we claim to love on the weekends.

  18. i’m not for banning alcohol but something definitely needs to be done about the amount of trash/glass at the river. i’ve been in this town for 20 yrs now. We have stopped taking our dogs to the river due to the amount of glass we have found. Most of my dogs have had very deep cuts on their pads from this glass. I’m talking that we’ve haven’t taken them to the river in over 10 yrs here people. it’s that bad and always has been that bad.

    When i go to the river, it’s hard for me to enjoy it, personally. Most of the time, i’m picking up glass and trash while i’m there. It’s all over the place and hard to enjoy walking in the river when you know there is glass down there for you to step on.

    i think the city needs more rangers and they need a more active approach to ticketing/fining people who are breaking the rules. That would make the city some money for some improvements to these areas. Everyone has glass down there. Someone needs to be enforcing the rules better

  19. BradM, better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. Obviously you have zero understanding of the history of water fights in the area or the importance of protecting ecosystems. Therefore, you are not worth arguing with. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. I have a bumpersticker that’s directed at people like you: “Ignore the environment. It will go away.”

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