by SEAN BATURA
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.
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.Email | Print