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

December 1st, 2009
State planning could close river for rec use

wildriceTexas Wild Rice growing in the San Marcos River. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

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.”

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0 thoughts on “State planning could close river for rec use

  1. Am I misunderstanding, or does this say that there is federal money available to match our contribution to what sound like some very good conservation measures, like recharge dams, cedar removal, clearing out the elephant ears and reducing municipal water use?

    I know the prospect of the river being closed is alarming and hopefully it never comes to that, but these are steps we ought to be taking anyway. If we can get some assistance, so much the better.

    On a related note, the prospect of the state closing off our river creates yet another vulnerability to our local economy, highlighting the need to diversify.

  2. Time for brutal honesty here. I don’t give a damn about the rice in the river. In fact, I miss the days (15 years or so ago) when they would routinely go in and trim back that stuff so that the river flowed more freely and people could go for a dip without being worried about getting tangled up in the stuff.

    Funny how it survived all those years being “controlled” in such a manner, but now the tree huggers are claiming that people simply being in the river is suddenly presenting a serious risk to its continued survival. I know we have turned our kids soft through the years – have we done the same to our rice???

  3. Kim might be right, without the endangered species the river itself would be endangered.

    Can anyone say when was the last time the river went down to 60 fps? We are or were in the worst drought in memory and still 33% (and rising) above the low water mark pertaining to the rice. Still it’s good to have a plan. Maybe we should put some in some aquariums and show it to the schools, exhibit it on tx state campus.

  4. I’m inclined to think that Kim is right, too. San Marcos would have little muscle to keep the river from running dry, if it weren’t for the endangered species in it. Setting aside the stories I have heard about the university pumping water from the river for irrigation, the folks in San Antonio are already saying that they aren’t concerned about the flow rate up here.

  5. Exactly. This river and springs would be gone, and San Marcos would look a lot more like Fort Stockton if it weren’t for the endangered species. I like Taggart’s approach on this so far.

  6. Having a river that people can’t use is like having no river at all….

    I’m not making the connection between the presence of endangered species and the survival of the river. The river is one of the oldest known water sources in this area. It has survived every test of time so far. Why would people think that it wouldn’t survive the loss of some wild rice? Again, I point to the fact that this same rice was, until a few years ago, routinely purged from the river to make it more attractive to recreational users.

    Is there fear that without the endangered species, all restrictions would be lifted on commercial use of the waters? I’m not sure how valid those fears are. Are we worried that downstream pumping might somehow cause the springs to dry up?

    Plus, no one has ever explained to me how downstream activity could affect the amount of water that the springs are able to produce. It seems to me that if someone in Luling pumped water from the river, the only one affected would be those downstream…..

  7. The folks in San Antonio are already making noise that the restrictions should be lifted, regardless of the wild rice.

  8. It isn’t downstream pumping, it is pumping from the aquifer. To greatly over-simplify things, they want to remove the last two columns from this table.

    www . saws.org/our_water/aquifer/

    The rice prevents that.

  9. Timely article that coincides w/”economic development plan” article. So, let’s keep attracting more and more people, development and growth to this area, and that means more and more pumping from the aquifer…Of course, I can’t say I’m anti-growth because it will be pointed out that I moved in and had an impact on others etc…Growth to this area also led to building dams to protect homes. These dams now prevent the occasional “natural” cleansing out of the river of its silt. That and the aggressive growth of the university which led to more construction which led to more silt deposited into the river. More buildings and roads means less recharge. Dan-Ranchers compare this drought to the infamous one in the 50s. But even then, the Sewell Park area looked OK. Not like this summer.
    Dano- “It has survived every test of time so far..” Roll the film backwards through hundreds of years. Do you really think the population growth in the area over time hasn’t had an impact on the amount of water in the aquifer???
    Good for EARIP for shaking us up…

  10. You all realize we’re talking about $50 worth of wild rice here, right? We could take this rice, and transplant it to a million other places. Closing parts of the river? Really?

  11. First of all, the law applicable to the San Marcos River will not let the State nor the Feds close of the river to recreation along the river. As some old timers may recall, I represented my old friend Zeal Stefanoff and litigated a case in which Judge Rodriquez dismissed a trespass charge against Zeal for “Camping, fishing and drying his fishing nets” along the banks of the San Marcos River back when the University closed the river while repairing the dam. The reason was the old Mexican land grant law that controls the San Marcos river.

  12. Patriot, it is the state that is talking about closing part of the river, whether Mr. Sergi is correct about their authority or not. Nobody here is lobbying for the river to be closed, so I am not sure who you are arguing with.

  13. Mr. Sergi- Yes, I rememember Zeal, and I also remember Smoky Joe chaining himself to the fence when the University dug the huge crater on the banks of the Ice House to lay down a pipeline…Is the University’s pumping metered yet???
    Anyways, I thought the law y’all found protected a person’s right to access a private bank, and that the river (navigable)had always been public???
    Thanks for clarification.

  14. The San Marcos is a navigable river, meaning the public has the right to boat on it. I don’t believe the EARIP will be closing down the river, and I’ve attended all their meetings and served on their steering committee for two years. However there is interest in protecting certain spots of wild rice from people who like to tear it up and kill it, especially during low flow periods when the river gets very shallow. This protection could be done with park rangers overseeing the areas that have the most wild rice.

    There are many plants in the river, and not all of them are wild rice. I’m not sure yet what all the protective measures will be that the EARIP finally comes up with, but those of us who serve on that very time-consuming group are fighting for the survival of our river with everything we’ve got. We are suggesting that other cities get alternative water supplies, the way San Marcos was far-sighted enough to do, years ago. We have gathered a committee of scientists together and many computer models have been done to update the predictions of what a drought like the 1950’s 7-year drought would do to the springs, now that so many people live here. So many more people live here now than lived here in the 50’s. It would be bad. The Comal would dry up for a long, long time, in a drought like the 50’s, and our river might dry up too.

    It is important for all of us who love the river to educate people about the importance of the endangered species. The Edwards Aquifer pumping is limited now, unlike groundwater in the rest of Texas, because of the water needs of our local endangered plants and fish. If we lost the endangered species from the river, then there would no longer be limits on pumping from the aquifer, and everyone could pump all they want. They would do that because water is valuable and no one wants to spend a lot of money piping it long distances, they would rather drill a well and pump close to their city. The aquifer is deeper near San Antonio, so they could pump until our springs here are completely dry, if no limits were set. And there are many pumping in our county as well. Their wells would be dry too, soon after our springs were. Then our river would only flow when it rained a lot, like an intermittent creek, as so many creeks in the Hill Country are described. This shallow part of the aquifer near San Marcos has been publicized for about 30 years, and a lawsuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s caused the state to create the agency that regulates aquifer pumping, the Edwards Aquifer Authority. There is a movie you can see at Aquarena or check out from the public library, called The River of Innocence, which goes into detail about this history.

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