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April 24th, 2012
Rare rice species keeps San Marcos River flowing

Texas State University students swim in the headwaters of the San Marcos River in San Marcos, the only place on earth where Texas wild rice grows. PHOTO by DAVID BARER

For Reporting Texas

At the headwaters of the San Marcos River, a fragile plant undulates beneath the clear spring water like tall grass waving in the wind. It isn’t just any plant, though: It’s endangered Texas wild rice, and this is the only place on earth where it grows.

Despite being nearly wiped out by human encroachment and invasive species, the humble rice strain has helped saved the existence of the San Marcos River, defending it against urbanization and drought, and may now figure prominently in the fight against a Texas Supreme Court ruling that could allow unlimited pumping from the water’s sole source of water – The Edwards Aquifer.

The struggle to keep Texas wild rice, or Zizania texana, alive has been a decades-long fight waged by conservation groups in Central Texas, the Sierra Club, Texas State University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The rice was declared endangered in 1983, the first plant to be so designated in Texas history, putting it under the umbrella of the federal Endangered Species Act, which also protects the water that keeps the plant alive.

“From the beginning we have known that the wild rice and the other endangered species are the only reason we have a river,” said Dianne Wassenich, program director of the San Marcos River Foundation. “Without them there would be pumping of the aquifer down to the point where we would have no springs flowing.”

This year the wildlife department gained more authority over the rice by creating a regulation that designates a two-mile stretch near the top of the San Marcos River a “state scientific area.” It is now illegal for anyone to uproot the rice, and the wildlife department can stop recreation activities when waters are low, such as during a drought, which makes the rice particularly vulnerable.

According to Thomas Hardy, the chief science officer at the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, recreational tubers and river users pose a greater risk to the wild rice than drought. Hardy believes the regulations that govern pumping from the aquifer during droughts are stringent enough to keep flows constant and keep the plant alive. Designating the two-mile stretch of river a “state scientific area” gives the wildlife department the authority it needs to police and stop harmful recreational activities, he says.

“It’s been a long, arduous process, but I think it has been successful,” said Andrew Sansom, the institute’s executive director.

Texas wild rice only grows in a five-mile stretch of river near the San Marcos Springs. It needs clear, flowing water at least a foot deep to thrive, and its pollen can only seed plants within three feet of the parent plant. It is easily killed by pollution and mud suspended in the river.

The recent drought showed just how important regulations are for the survival of the endangered species. Cindy Loeffler, a water resources branch chief at the wildlife department, has seen urban development encroach on the wild rice over the 25 years she has worked at the wildlife department and say there have been general concerns about reductions in spring flow for years.

Loeffler believes the rice saved the river. “Under the Endangered Species Act there have to be minimum flows to protect the species, including Texas wild rice,” she said.

Three main groups have been struggling to maintain a portion of the limited water in the Edwards Aquifer: upstream water pumpers of the Edwards Aquifer, spring users like the endangered species and recreational interests in San Marcos, and downstream users like the San Antonio River Authority.

It’s been a contested issue for about 50 years, says Steve Raabe, director of technical services for the San Antonio River Authority. The Edwards Aquifer Authority has been sued numerous times by aquifer pumpers disputing their water rights. Downstream, San Antonio has vital interests in the aquifer since the majority of Bexar County residents use its water.

To devise plans and regulations for water use, the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program was created in 2006 to bring together representatives of the three groups to negotiate water rights. The goal was to create detailed plans that allow stakeholders to pump from the Edwards Aquifer while leaving enough water to ensure the survival of the endangered species that rely on constant flow from the springs. More than $4 million was spent on the process, which culminated in the designation of a portion of the river as a “state scientific area.”

“I’m not going to say there haven’t been tensions between the three groups,” said Raabe. “But it has been an ongoing process to see how we can work through it.”

For Hardy, the herculean effort by the members of the implementation program to save the Texas wild rice, as well as seven other endangered species in the area, has been well worth it. “We are in an extremely unique ecosystem here that just has tremendous intrinsic value. … It has elements that aren’t found anyplace else on the planet,” he said.

Government agencies and universities aren’t the only organizations uniting to save the endangered species. Community organizations are also deeply involved in the effort to sustain the endangered species of the San Marcos River, as well as the nearby Comal Springs and River.

Wassenich of the river foundation leads teams of volunteers into the river once a month to pull out invasive plants, including water hyacinth and South American alligator weed, all of which can harm the wild rice. They also police the riverbanks for anyone polluting it with mud and dirt, usually from erosion.

The river foundation will alert the authorities, the city council and even the mayor if nobody else will listen.

“We stay after it until they put adequate erosion controls into place,” said Wassenich. “This is a constant problem here.”

Now, a Texas Supreme Court case decided in late February could change how river flow and groundwater pumping standards are regulated, in effect possibly endangering the rice.

The court ruled, in Edwards Aquifer v. Day, that landowners own the water beneath their property and can sue a water authority for limiting how much water they withdraw without compensation. Some of the people working to protect the wild rice and endangered species of the San Marcos and Comal rivers worry the ruling could lead to more pumping and groundwater rights litigation.

“It is so potentially far-reaching that I don’t believe that anyone has really determined” how it will play out yet, Sansom said. “But I can tell you that there’s a whole lot of people scurrying around trying to figure out what the impact is going to be, including the Edwards Aquifer Authority.”

This case will raise perplexing issues in terms of how property owners can sue groundwater authorities for curtailing their use of groundwater when the authority is trying to abide by federal Endangered Species Act rules.

The worst scenario for the wild rice and its guardians, however unlikely, is the springs running dry and all the rice dying. But even if that occurred, there is still a contingency plan. The wildlife department is storing wild rice seeds and plants in a refugium in San Marcos. In the event of a disaster, the wildlife department is ready to repopulate the area with wild rice, as well as the seven other endangered species including the fountain darter fish, blind salamander and two types of tiny beetles.

“They are the canaries in the coal mine with respect to the flow of our springs,” Sansom said.

DAVID BARER reports for Reporting Texas, a project of the University of Texas School of Journalism. This is story is published here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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42 thoughts on “Rare rice species keeps San Marcos River flowing

  1. I see what’s going on now. The state now has the authority to stop tubing/swimming on the river and the city is going to ban drinking on the banks. The plan to make the river untouchable by humans is coming together nicely. Well played.

  2. Considering the ignorance of the general population, laws to keep this jewel protected from herds of 2 legged cattle seem like a reasonable plan to protect it in the big picture, for generations to come, from being turned into a dead cesspool of mans stupidity. I too have had concerns about access, but after contemplation, can see the bigger picture, and the rate of excelleration that man-made damages could come to this beautiful, unique jewel, as some would turn our city into a seething mass of commercialization for profits sake alone. Hmmm,it is like those that always want to pick the blooms of a beautiful flower, until there are no more blooms left for us to observe, their actions must be constrained.jlb:-)

  3. San Antonio has already made it clear that they believe they should be able to pump the San Marcos River dry. They cite our poor stewardship as the reason. This is nothing new.

    It would behoove us all, to come up with a workable solution, which allows recreation on the river. I suspect we’re not actually ready to work together, though. I swear, we’re our own worst enemy.

    Hopefully I’ll always be able to enjoy a beer in my tube, on the river I love, and not just on a viewing deck, a “safe distance away,” and not on the dried up bed of what once was the river.

  4. As someone who has frequented Sewell Park for a little more than 20 years now, I can say that the rice has gotten to the point where it’s darn near impossible to enjoy that stretch of river anyway.

    You used to be able to put in at Pepper’s and float a nice float down to the Hopkins bridge – but now you get tangled or stuck on mounds of the rice at just about every turn. It’s a major nuisance and the main reason I haven’t even tried to float that part of the river in several years.

    That being said, if no rice = no river, then I guess we have to put up with it.

  5. I fear we will not actually work together until we are on the verge of obvious in-our-face-extinction or the aliens invade and provide a common enemy. Or perhaps clean technology can make scarcity archaic (I’m hoping for this one).

    Reasonable discourse en masse might get us closer to where we COULD be as a species if we held more communitarian attitudes, but I ain’t holding my breath. Just look at the election ads being run at the moment – apparently we are not a very substantive or critical minded body politic…

    Until the day comes when our culture and society are less myopic and pay more attention to our own impact on our fellow humans and unborn generations it seems to me we must try and use the imperfect structures in place like ESA to preserve jewels like the river…it sucks that it is like that, but to act like we don’t need to think very carefully about how our actions today impact the future in irreversible manners is arrogance akin to our current adult generation selling out their unborn great-grandchildren in mountains of debt because they’re too irresponsible to live within their means…or whomever thought Sagewood was a good idea…

  6. Someone please explain how “no rice = no river”. I have lived here 37 years, and I know we used to dredge the river. I had friends who used the blind salamander as bait for bass. How can the wild rice and other endangered species be the only reason we have a river? There has to be more to it than that.

  7. I don’t think there is any more to it. It may be a flawed argument, if running the river dry does not endanger the rice.

    I’ve only been here a little over 20 years, so I can’t say that I know anything about dredging the river.

  8. Been around since 62. There used to be aquarium supply companies that dumped stock into the river. And I am unaware that the area where the rice is was ever dredged.

    Dano, most of the stuff jamming up the river is not wild rice. There’s a reason it’s endangered, there’s not that much of it.

    Now if any of y’all want to get on a crusade; there’s plenty of elephant ear that needs to be removed from the river.

    And if you want to know, I will pass on recipes, it’s edible.

  9. I’m no crusader, but I’m all for elephant ear removal. Of course, what I noticed is that there are no elephant ears where there are man-made (concrete) walkways/access points. More of those = less elephant ears? Try selling that.

  10. Ted, I’m far from a crusader, but the elephant ear, or taro if you will, is an invasive plant that really needs to be removed from the river. And concrete is not the answer.

  11. I think the no rice = no river argument comes from the assumption that the presence (and protected status) of the rice is a major contributing factor in our ability to limit overuse of the aquifer (source of the springs that feed the river) from both upstream and downstream users. No rice would mean we lose that leverage against those who would theoretically overuse the aquifer to the point where the springs – and thus the river – would dry up completely.

    I clearly remember the dredging of the river as late as the early 90s….the river was all but completely cleaned out all the way through Sewell. If it isn’t the rice that’s clogging up the river so badly, then why in the world isn’t someone thinning that junk out? It’s an inconvenience and an eyesore…..

  12. I believe that the river and the rice should be protected, but at what cost? The clean waters provide relief from the intense and long summers for thousands of people, as has been the case for thousands of years. People swimming and floating are of minimal impact to this rice, just look at last years low flow and high crowds. Yet the rice remains strong as ever. It seems to me that shutting down the first two miles even temporarily would destroy the very heart of this city. What’s the point of having a beautiful clean river if none of us is allowed to use it? The argument that no rice = no river is weak at best. Yes, we should protect it as has been done, but to prevent people from using the river would be a most unfortunate step in the wrong direction. Limiting groundwater pumping in times of severe drought would do more to protect it than anything else.

  13. I know the article isn’t the most stimulating in the world but folks should at least read it if they’re going to comment.

  14. The main point of no rice=no river is that since it is an endangered species, that provides requirements for the amount of water that needs to flow in the river, giving agencies the ability to restrict pumping from the aquifer, especially in times of drought. Without the endangered species, we don’t have authority to restrict pumping.

    Winchester – agreed on the elephant ears. I bet we would see a larger increase in water if those things could be completely removed. They suck up literally tons of water daily. Now, just to figure out how to do it!

  15. I didn’t say it was the entire river. I merely pointed out that the walkway seems to deter elephant ear growth.

    Did I say it was the entire river?

    I’ll have to re-read my comments.

    Perhaps I was smoking crack.

  16. I don’t know about anyone else, but I did read the article. Several times.

    I’d settle for people reading the comments the reply to.


  17. An inquiry I made to the city’s Conservation Coordinator about what the scientific area means for recreation was passed along to Dianne Wassenich of the San Marcos River Foundation. The situation she describes is more limited than prohibiting all swimming/tubing during low flow periods:

    “During extreme low flow periods there may be floats like swimming pool ropes that have floats on them, placed around certain areas in the river where wild rice is vulnerable, so people will know what to avoid as they float by. Or avoid as they throw sticks to their dogs, or wade through the rice, ripping it up with their feet, etc. The idea is to keep boat and tube traffic flowing, and swimmers and waders happy, but trying to keep the plants from being ripped up. Some areas only become wading territory during extreme low flow events. Rice is already stressed when exposed to sun by low flows, and needs to be disturbed less when it is already in trouble.

    “As you know, having healthy rice stands is our best assurance that we’ll have aquifer pumping rules that keep our river flowing at a reasonable rate, so it will look like a river in the future, not a dry ravine. Millions are being spent each year to keep the river flowing through the RIP process, and taking care of the rice is one small part of the effort, but a key part of the agreement.

    “By the way, aquifer is dropping 1 ft per day lately, total of 13 ft. since April 1st, since ag pumping is peaking. We just went to Stage 1 and may be in Stage 2 by the end of this week at the rate it is dropping. This drop has not shown up here yet in the river, because of the delayed reaction from aquifer levels in Bexar County to here, but I’m sure hoping for rain this weekend. The “conduits” from SA to here, as I understand it, are cracks and holes in rock and often fractured and very circuitous, so it takes time for the water to get here, or alternatively, time for the low levels in the SA part of the aquifer to show up here as low flows in the river. Also, we get some recharge from Blanco River, so that has helped lately as it has had good rains around its headwaters. DW

  18. Okay boys & girls, define dredge.

    I’d even ask some of you to give us some identifiers for wild rice versus hydrilla.

    Please identify the areas where wild rice grows in the river.

    And if you use Peppers as a location, you should make some attempt to go back just a tad farther in history. Used to buy blocks of ice at the ice house.

    As for the issue of elephant ear, it’s above and below the picture, and a true menace to the biology of the river; may not be in the story, but it is an issue.

  19. OK so the term dredge is not the best to use in this particular circumstance. Dredging typically involves moving the sediment along the bottom, not removing flora. The point is that they used to trim all that crap out of the river.

    And if we are being completely honest, I could care less which is rice and which is something else. I would just as soon see it all gone and have a more usable river again. But while we are on this train of thought, I would still like to know why the stuff that isn’t rice is still being allowed to take over the river through Sewell…..

  20. Now we’re getting there. There really isn’t that much rice, again,hence the designation, endangered.

    But there’s a ton of other aquatic plants, some native, many not; that clog the river. The invasive, non-natives should be removed. And the river would be better off for it. And the public would be better off for it.

    The U has traditionally done a better job of maintaining the aquatic plant life in its portion of the river. But is concreting the sides of the bank really the way we want to go? Is that a river, or a glorified drainage ditch? Will it improve or increase the risk of flooding?

    All I want is a healthy river. That is a benefit to the community.

  21. Ted, are you suggesting that the banks of the entire SM river be concreted? If so, who pays for it? And what happens when you run into private owners that don’t wish to go along?

  22. I’m not suggesting anything. Just pointing it out. Who is going to pay for any elephant ear eradication? How important is it?

  23. Well, since it’s now being done by volunteers, the cost is zero. As to how important it is, I would suggest you ask the folks at nature center or at the U who are running the old Aquarena.

    It is not a native. It is invasive.

    Do you like johnson grass? Same thing, different environment.

  24. I don’t like elephant ear. I don’t really care what grows in my yard. I think you are looking for an argument. I think you should look elsewhere.

  25. Dano, bingo. Why is the crap being allowed to take over? Not a new issue, the river has always, at least in my memory, had a problem with aquatic flora. I have no problem with natives, they were here before us; but the non-natives must go.

  26. Ted, I didn’t start the snark.

    And I don’t give a flip what grows in your yard either; so long as it stays there.

    As for the river, I care.

  27. This conversation could be turned to any issue that is currently facing this country, everything from illegal immigration to our massive debt.

    Sorry,don’t mean to change the subject. This is an important issue but I just had to throw in what was running through my mind while reading the comments.

  28. Waiting for the Mercury to post a story on this issue:

    [link removed]

    Apparently some sort of construction at the gun park is underway. Nobody seems to know what it is.

  29. Ted, I haven’t been able to put together a story on the bulldozing along the river that prompted the story you refer to above. But according to Dianne Wassenich, the city was told that it was not done in preparation for development but for agriculture reasons. This is what she says in an email yesterday:

    “We hear the bulldozing people across from the Falls at Martindale have promised to not doze near the river bank. The Hillert Tract owner says he’s just dozing so his cows can get to the river to drink. What happens to him for dozing down into the river remains to be seen, we are hoping fines will be levied.”

  30. Bulldozing “for agricultural purposes” has now led to a new Toobing outfitter opening up, without any permits, zoning changes, etc., it seems.

    I won’t post the link to the competition this time, but it would be great to see the Mercury on top of this.

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