If you love the river, you love the Habitat Conservation Plan
San Marcos is not San Marcos without San Marcos Springs and the San Marcos River. San Marcos is defined by the river that runs through it. We would not be here if not for the springs and river, an oasis on the Camino Real, itself an old Native American trail, connecting north and south Texas. Texans settled here because of the springs where Ed Burleson borrowed the flows to grind grain and cut lumber for a growing town. More recently, the springs and river provide a water resource and a quality of life that other towns in the area don’t have.
It is unthinkable that the springs and river would not be here since they have flowed for millennia without ever going dry. But not too long ago, not only was the failure of the springs thinkable, it was expected and even planned for.
Texas is governed by the Rule of Capture, which holds that a landowner can pump as much water as they want regardless of drying up neighbors’ wells and springs. For example, groundwater production in San Antonio dried up their namesake springs more than a hundred years ago. The combination of drought and increased pumping from the Edwards Aquifer in the 1950s caused Comal Springs to fail and San Marcos Springs to reach its historical low flow.
The Texas Legislature allows for the creation of groundwater districts, but these districts struggle with balancing private property rights with the greater good. As a result, many springs have gone dry, and many more are under threat. Groundwater users created the Edwards Underground Water District in 1959 to represent their interests after the Nueces River Authority developed plans to divert flow in its river from recharging the aquifer (about 80 percent of all recharge to the Edwards Aquifer comes from stream flows). In the 1970s, there were studies on how groundwater flow in the aquifer between New Braunfels and San Marcos could be reversed to send more water to San Antonio and farmers in Kinney, Medina, and Uvalde counties, actions that would have dried up Comal and San Marcos springs. In short, due to its limited powers, the Edwards Underground Water District was failing to control production to preserve springflow.
A lawsuit in 1991 by the Sierra Club forced the issue into Federal court, and the Texas Legislature, motivated by the specter of the blunt axe of federal control, dissolved the old district and created the Edwards Aquifer Authority with special powers to manage groundwater to protect the spring-dependent species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The tool to continue using aquifer resources and protect the species, what amounts to a contract between the Authority and the federal government, is a habitat conservation plan — ours specifically is the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan.
A habitat conservation plan describes a set of actions that participants — including the City of San Marcos and the University — will accomplish to protect the endangered species; protecting springflows is a critical part of those actions. Texas State University works with the city to maintain and improve habitat for the eight endangered and threatened species, including Texas wildrice, which only exists naturally in the San Marcos River.
To state it plainly, if it wasn’t for Texas wild-rice and other endangered species, the Endangered Species Act, the lawsuit, the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the development and implementation of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, and the dedication of innumerable people to protect the springs, San Marcos Springs — and San Marcos River — would have gone dry by now. Implementing the habitat conservation plan through limiting pumping, managing recreation to protect the species, removing invasive species, and restoring riparian habitat are all part of keeping the river flowing. If you love the river, you love the habitat conservation plan.
Robert Mace leads The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and is a professor of practice in the Geography and Environmental Studies Department, both at Texas State University, chaired the science committee to development the habitat conservation plan, and presently represents the university on the Implementing Committee for the habitat conservation plan.