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Completed Greenbelt Loop protects critical recharge land and the river

Graphic provided by San Marcos River Foundation

Completed Greenbelt Loop protects critical recharge land and the river

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Twenty years ago, members of the San Marcos River Foundation along with the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance (SMGA) and Hays County Master Naturalists created a plan to try and have the most impact on springflow in order to protect the San Marcos Springs while also providing greenspace for wildlife and outdoor activities.

The San Marcos springs are fed by the Edwards Aquifer, which provides clean drinking water to over 2 million people in Central Texas. Protecting land in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone is one of the best ways we can mitigate growing demands for water in the region and help protect springflow in the river, even during the driest years. By protecting the recharge zone, rainfall is allowed to soak into the landscape, recharge the aquifer and sustain flows to the San Marcos springs and river that provide habitat to nine federally protected species.

“Focusing on the recharge zone, we created a map to identify the areas considered most critical for recharge and conservation that could directly benefit the springs and serve as a buffer against overdevelopment and impervious cover that prevents recharge,” Virginia Parker, Executive Director of the San Marcos River Foundation, said.

The map became a greenspace blueprint, often referred to as the “Loop and Check,” because it contained a fully connected loop around the city and a check linking internal creek and trail networks. Over time, SMRF, along with many partners, looked for ways to purchase and protect the land within this blueprint through a combination of publicly and privately conserved land.

“As a community, we have succeeded in protecting some of the most sensitive and ecologically valuable land, while also affording undeniable protection to the springs, providing residents with important recreational space, and mitigating floods in our flash flood prone city,” Parker said.

The Hays County Parks and Open Space Bond, created to facilitate and fund land protection efforts, passed with overwhelming support in 2021. Thanks to this bond, and in collaboration with many partners, SMRF finally completed the contiguous greenbelt loop around the city of San Marcos from Spring Lake Natural Area on the east side of town to Purgatory Creek Natural Area on the west side.

To complete this loop, SMRF submitted a project with two components to the Parks and Open Space Committee. Both properties are within the greenbelt loop and contain numerous sensitive karst features essential for collecting rainfall to recharge the Edwards Aquifer.

The first part of the project included protecting a 102-acre parcel of recharge land referred to as the Elsik Tract located on Old Ranch Road 12. The Elsik Tract was officially conserved in September of 2023 with bond funding and creates a greenspace corridor between Ringtail Ridge Natural Area and River Recharge Natural Area, both of which are owned by the city of San Marcos and have publicly accessible trails. It was recently announced that the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance will build the Limestone Link trail on Elsik. That trail will connect the two adjacent public spaces within the greater greenbelt loop. With the help of many dedicated volunteers, the new trail is planned to be opened to the public in 2025.

The second part of the project included conserving a parcel of land within the greenbelt loop referred to as Owl Bluff. Hays County provided funding in December of 2023 for partial purchase of a conservation easement on this 75-acre tract of private land along Sink Creek. Owl Bluff contains an abundance of karst recharge features and is critical to water quality in Spring Lake through groundwater recharge and stormwater inputs since Sink Creek flows directly into the lake and springfed headwaters. This land has a narrow trail easement on it that is adjacent to a different trail easement on another privately conserved property. SMRF manages these two trail easements, and plans to assist in connecting this area, via one of these easements, with the contiguous 18mile publicly accessible loop around the city of San Marcos in the future.

“For people to appreciate and protect land, water, and wildlife, they must be able to interact with the natural environment, and what better way to do that than spending time in the outdoors on a public trail system that benefits the crystal-clear San Marcos Springs and River,” Kimberley Meitzen, SMRF Board President, said. “Central Texas continues to experience unprecedented population growth, and with that comes an increased demand for water and more development of homes and other community infrastructure over the Edwards Aquifer. These land cover changes increase the amount of impervious surfaces and reduce the quantity and quality of critical rainfall recharge into the Edwards Aquifer. Land conservation and greenbelt expansion projects help mitigate these effects and ensure adequate water for people and the environment.”

The greenbelt loop was pieced together over the past two decades and includes both public park land and private conservation easements, one of which was purchased with a Clean Water Fund federal grant that the city of San Marcos received with SMRF’s assistance to conserve a large ranch with exceptional karst recharge features.

“Our drive to secure these lands twenty years ago is perhaps the best long-term investment we could have made for the future of our city, especially as land prices continue to rise, and it is now more costly to purchase and conserve valuable recharge land,” Parker said. “SMRF will continue to work with our many partners on opportunities to conserve sensitive recharge land and create cross-city trails to link urban trails with the 130-acres of river park land.”

We are grateful to Hays County leadership for recognizing the need to protect our Hill Country springs, providing more park land for our residents, and making all of this valuable land conservation possible through the Parks and Open Space Bond. We are also thankful to all the voters that supported the proposition to protect our natural resources and invest in the long-term health of our communities and river. As ambitious as this plan was twenty years ago, with the collective effort of many partners, landowners, and the city, have made this community vision a reality.”

The San Marcos River Foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary next year and continues to be dedicated to protecting and preserving a clean and flowing river for future generations to enjoy.

Rachel Sanborn, Kimberley Meitzen and Virginia Parker, with the San Marcos River Foundation, contributed to this article.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666