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

December 2nd, 2009
River recreation limits on the table in aquifer plan

Texas Wild Rice is an endangered plant species that grows only in the uppermost four miles of the San Marcos River. Efforts to protect it and other endangered species underly the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program which could change how the aquifer is managed and pumping permits are issued. PHOTO COURTESY EDWARDS AQUIFER AUTHORITY

by BRAD ROLLINS
Editor and Publisher

Charged by the Legislature with recommending potentially far-reaching changes to management of groundwater in Central Texas, the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program is reviewing a number of a ways to protect endangered species in the San Marcos and Comal Springs.

No one is suggesting that the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation program might impact popular San Marcos River spots like Rio Vista Falls. But some form of restrictions on recreational activities are on the table in the state-mandated planning effort. FREE PRESS PHOTO by JEN BIUNDO

In San Marcos, where the springfed San Marcos River is an important part of the city’s culture and economy, discussion turned recently to the possibility that the planning program could result in efforts to close parts of the river to  recreational use.

Updating the San Marcos City Council on the Recovery Implementation Program two weeks ago, Public Services Director Tom Taggart indicated that San Antonio members of the RIP’s stakeholders committee who “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 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.”

Taggart, who represents the Guadalupe Basin Coalition of cities that includes San Marcos on the RIP steering committee, added, “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.”

Both San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz and city council member Kim Porterfield bristled at the suggestion. Narvaiz said later, “The river belongs to the people.”

At least one member of the steering committee, San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Dianne Wassenich, said talk of restricting recreational access is very limited in scope and fears can easily be overblown.

Wassenich said, for example, Texas State University could take steps to discourage people from entering the river in the area of the Clear Springs Apartments downstream from Salt Grass Steakhouse. A stand of a federally endangered Texas Wild Rice is frequently disturbed from traffic in and out of the river in that spot, she said, and it could be closed without stopping people from entering the river on the western bank as most do already. Wild Rice exists only in Spring Lake and the uppermost four miles of the San Marcos River.

“The laws in Texas protect the public’s use of public water ways. I don’t think most of us in the RIP see trying to keep people out of the river as a real solution to the endangered species recovering,” Wassenich said.

The RIP has asked for feedback from its stakeholders for a range of recommendations ranging from removing invasive species from the river to reducing municipal and agricultural use of aquifer water. San Antonio interests on the RIP steering committee are pushing for designation of a San Marcos Pool which “seems solely directed at preventing triggers from causing restrictions on pumping in Bexar County,” Taggart said.

State lawmakers embraced the RIP in the 2007 session when the region sat on the verge of an all-out water war over Edwards Aquifer pumping.

Following a judge’s ruling in the Sierra Club’s 1991 lawsuit under the Federal Endangered Species Act, the Legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority in 1993, and set a total of pumping limit of 450,000 acre-feet to be scaled back to 400,000 acre-feet by January 2008. An acre-foot is the amount it takes to flood one acre with one foot of water, about what an average household of four uses in a year.

The same bill, however,  codifies guidelines for the authority to use in issuing pumping permits to cities, water supplies and other users (such as West Texas irrigators) based on their historical use of the aquifer. Following its interpretation of those rules, the authority has issued permits totaling 549,000 acre-feet of water.

Representing a district that includes San Antonio but also the spring cities of San Marcos and New Braunfels, State Sen. Jeff Wentworth two years ago proposed legislation to raise the cap to 549,000 acre-feet Wentworth’s bill would have raised the cap to that level and set a floor of 340,000 acre feet that could be pumped even during the most critical drought periods.

As the Legislature headed to a showdown over the proposal, Wentworth instead proposed legislation that he characterized as a truce, saying “We don’t need any more water wars. We don’t need more blood spilled over water on the floor of the Texas House and Senate.”

Senate Bill 3 froze current pumping limits until 2010 and looked to the RIP process as a way to mediate the dispute. Now in its second year of work, the RIP group is getting down to hard details of what they will eventually propose.

Said Narvaiz, “There is definitely alot of positioning going on.”

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One thought on “River recreation limits on the table in aquifer plan

  1. Thanks Brad, for a balanced article. There are many ways that we in San Marcos could protect wild rice better than we do now, especially during low flow periods. I think all of us who use the river regularly have seen people accidentally harm this endangered species, and we could think of many ways to prevent this without closing down sections of the river completely. I believe there are very few people who would harm the rice intentionally, if they realized our river’s continued flow depends on having the rice here. We need to work harder to educate people about ways to protect it, and I believe the city will soon put together a group of stakeholders to ask for suggestions from everyone in the community. It would be forward-thinking to come up with our own suggestions, here in San Marcos, of ways to protect this rice, instead of waiting for others to give us instructions. And please remember that there are many aquatic plants in the river that are not wild rice. Wild rice is a tiny percentage of the aquatic plants. Without this rice though, we can kiss our springflows goodbye. We would end up with a dry riverbed every time it gets dry. And central Texas has a lot of dry spells.

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