Most of the 41 water-retention dams that prevent flooding of populated areas during deluges in Bexar and Karnes counties have no standing water behind them. One of the few that does is a grassy hillside between a highway and a pond where all manner of life is attracted to the water’s edge.
At 2,264 feet long, Walker Dam is a massive embankment that stretches east to west with apartment communities on either end. The dam reaches 47 feet at its highest point and descends sharply to a reservoir that’s shaped like an obtuse triangle.
Visible from Wurzbach Parkway, the 94,000-square-yard body of water doesn’t have a formal name. Those who venture there call it Silverhorn Pond, Bud Lake, Mud Lake, or simply The Lake. And though it is located along Panther Springs Creek, the pond is dry most of the time.
But the pond, its muddy banks lined in thick brush, is teeming with wildlife – birds, turtles, snakes, ducks, geese, and other critters. Bass spawn in its deep waters, and tame white-tailed deer visit at dusk and dawn. Coyotes have been spotted in the area. And people of all ages and walks of life are drawn to the shores of the pond for recreation and the scenery.
The owner of the pond is the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which bought the land for $1.2 million from Robert Folsom Investments in 1974 and leased it back to Folsom for $1 a year. The favorable lease rate was agreed upon in exchange for Folsom selling the property for $345,000 less than fair market value. Over the years, the lease has been handed off to a series of other entities.
SARA built the dam in 1985 with help from the Soil Conservation Service and the Alamo Soil & Water Conservation District. The dam mitigates flooding in the area and protects the downstream Walker Ranch Historic Landmark Park, an access point to the Salado Creek Linear Creekway Trail. Walker Ranch Dam is part of a system of 14 dams in the Salado Creek Watershed operated and maintained by the River Authority that protect life and property in the area.
Today, Silverhorn Golf Club leases the pond from SARA and the 99-year lease is the only such agreement that SARA has with a golf club. The Silverhorn owner, Arizona-based C-Bons International Golf Group Management, pumps water from the pond to a smaller pond to irrigate the course. Terms of the lease, however, give SARA the right to drain the lake for necessary operations and maintenance of the dam.
Between the base of the dam and the pond is a stony, urban wildscape of high grass, weeds, and some trees. Thin trails crisscross the dam, created where vegetation has yielded to repeated foot traffic, and a chain-link fence surrounding the pond leans to the ground in some places.
SARA spokesman Steven Schauer said the pond is not open for public use, and the golf course, through its lease, is responsible for securing the area.
“It is a hidden, unhidden secret that people go out there and use it for personal use even though it’s not designated for that,” he said. “Folks that use the lake for fishing are trespassing, as are those who may be using the spillway or the dam as walking trails, as those areas are not open for public use.”
Silverhorn’s Assistant General Manager Ryan Sharpe said that when people venture onto the golf course, where the pond meets the sixth hole, they are reminded that the course is private property and asked to leave.
But Sharpe said he often sees people fishing along the banks of the undeveloped south and west sides of the pond, or from kayaks and canoes. And a number of online urban fishing discussion forums confirm it as a favorite “secret” spot for catch and release. Google Maps has made it easier for such anglers to find and share previously unknown locations for fishing.
David Garza of Pleasanton has been fishing for bass at the pond ever since a friend told him about it two years ago. The pipelayer said he goes every chance he gets the OK from his wife and, rod and tackle box in hand, accesses the pond from a trail at the top of the dam. His prize on one outing was a 13-pound bass.
On the north side of the pond lie the manicured greens and sand traps of the Silverhorn. Opened in 1996, the Hill Country-style, 18-hole course is one of the busiest public golf courses in San Antonio, bringing in locals as well as visitors due to its proximity to the airport. Sharpe said the club also hosts about 100 benefit tournaments a year for local charities and causes.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the sun shining and the air crisp and cool, there were well over 100 golfers on the course, putting greens, and driving range. Few were gathered in the clubhouse. Designed on a narrow plot of land, Silverhorn is considered difficult for the average golfer.
Professional golfer Ray Caldwell has been playing there “off and on” for 25 years when he’s not traveling for tournaments. The Stone Oak resident considers it the most scenic course in San Antonio with the best variety of views and wildlife.
“The golf course needs the lake in two ways,” he said. “We need the lake for the water for the golf course and all the wildlife. And for the aesthetics. It’s a beautiful piece of property.”
As a competitive golfer, Caldwell appreciates that the course forces him to take different kinds of golf shots. His course record at Silverhorn is 64. “It’s a good product is what it is,” he added.
Up close, however, the scenery of the pond is marred by profuse litter on the side nearest Wurzbach Parkway. From the top of the dam to the water’s southern edge, broken glass, Styrofoam cups, carpet remnants, and other items are scattered about. Graffiti in the shape of a yellow and black flower has been painted on a boulder.
The San Antonio River Authority is responsible for maintaining the dam, spillway, and downstream side of the dam and they use signage to discourage trespassing. Schauer said SARA crews often pick up litter there while doing maintenance work and have also cleaned up trash from illegal dumping along the fence line with the adjacent apartment complex.
That hasn’t stopped the flora and fauna from growing freely. Though visitors to the pond report seeing the bounty of wildlife that tends to thrive in a semi-urban environment like the pond, including the exotic-sounding Egyptian goose, no official biodiversity survey has been done.
Yet it doesn’t take an expert to identify the nice crop of persevering wildflowers that, these days at least, dot both sides of the Walker Ranch Dam with shades of blue.