The Blue Hole: A Center City Hidden Gem

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Blue Hole Manmade Exterior. Photo by Warren Lieberman.

Blue Hole's manmade exterior. Photo by Warren Lieberman.

“Travel to places few people have ever visited,” is a phrase taken from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) website describing the Rain to Drain Experience, one of many educational programs SAWS conducts. I was scheduled to take the tour on Saturday, May 16 but heavy rains the prior week and flooding concerns at two of the tour stops forced its cancellation. My plans to write about Rain to Drain went down the proverbial drain.

Instead of a structured tour I set out to find one of San Antonio’s little known marvels, the source of the San Antonio River – the Blue Hole. Armed with a map of the University of Incarnate Word campus, my wife behind the wheel, I navigated to the heart and soul of historic and modern day San Antonio. We parked a short distance from the sand volleyball court; I consulted my map and a few yards past the court, at the end of a tree-lined path we found the Blue Hole. For a moment I felt the excitement Indiana Jones might have experienced on some great adventure; but in this case I found a quiet place that very few San Antonians have visited or perhaps realize exist.

Native Americans relied on the river as a source of life and Spanish settlers used the springs and developed canals to provide drinking water for their missions and for crop irrigation. Native Americans who lived in this area must have felt a spiritual connection to the Blue Hole because it was the source of life for them. When the Spanish missionaries found springs in the area they decided to build the missions in present day San Antonio. The missions follow the San Antonio River and were supposedly a day’s mule ride apart.

We tout the San Antonio River as a marvelous tourist attraction, but neglect to understand the limits of one natural resource, water. The Edwards Aquifer is the sole source of water for two million people in the region. Spring flow and well levels are constantly in the news. The level at the publicized monitor well is relative to sea level; water will flow from the monitor well when the level reaches 730 feet (the monitor well top is 730 feet above sea level). The western reaches of the Edwards Aquifer are much higher, Uvalde’s J-27 monitor well currently measures 827 feet, and since water flows downhill the monitor well will flow.

The Edwards Aquifer. Courtesy image.

The Edwards Aquifer. Courtesy image.

The level of the J-17 monitoring well level is erroneously thought of as a measure of how much water we have; in fact we rely on scientists to estimate water quantity from studies of the aquifer (see this informational article on “How much water do we have?“). A lake or reservoir can be measured and a volume estimated of how much water is available. The Edwards Aquifer cannot be measured to exactly calculate the amount of water contained; it is imperative to limit our reliance on it, conserve general water use and find alternative sources of water for the thirsty residents of San Antonio and the surrounding region.

The Blue Hole is one of many places where the Edwards Aquifer makes it presence visible. When the J-17 monitoring well is at 676 feet the Blue Hole flows naturally. The fact that the official level is currently 25 feet lower should tell the residents of the region that, despite the headlines of floods and end of the historic four-year drought, our sole source of water is severely stressed and low.

On May 9 voters approved the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan, or Proposition One, which continued the dedication of an eighth-cent sales tax toward protection of the aquifer.

A glance inside the stone and cement-lined orifice reveals a damp, slimy structure. The Blue Hole is obviously not flowing. A few bits of trash are visible but not a hint of spring flow. Immediately adjacent to the Blue Hole the creek bed is only damp, the product of recent rains – not spring flow. A short distance downstream the river shows some life; runoff from recent rains resurrected the river to a small degree.

“San Antonio, we have a problem. The springs are not flowing.”

I found workers and volunteers for the Headwaters at Incarnate Word restoring native plants during my search for the Blue Hole. Several adult and youth workers and volunteers engaged in removal of invasive species and planting native plants. One of the children discovered a tiny native species frog and eagerly showed it to the Headwaters Director, Helen Ballew. Helen shared a few moments with me while overseeing the morning’s project. One of the stated goals of the Headwaters organization is to restore and celebrate the historic and spiritual value of the Blue Hole headwaters, in a manner reminiscent of the historic residents of San Antonio.

Helen and I agreed that sole reliance on the Edwards Aquifer is dangerous and San Antonians must conserve and find alternate sources of drinking and irrigation water.

The task of supplying water to the region’s residents is monumental. In additional to supplying a massive volume of clean water there are environmental matters to address. There is no gain if by providing water we destroy the land. Restoring the entire habitat to its original state may not be possible or practical but bits and pieces can be restored and maintained. My journey on May 16 led me to a 53 acre tract that a small, relatively unknown organization is dedicated to protect and restore. Cancellation of an orchestrated infrastructure tour brought me to a tiny hidden treasure in the heart of the city. And showed me a problem.

Our city has many problems to battle. As individuals we can whittle away at these problems. Some of these can be done in our homes by conservation, collecting rainwater for yard and garden use, xeriscaping our lawns or pressuring our politicians to limit development. As groups we can band together to create and work with organizations, such as Headwaters, to protect the environment.

Small projects like Headwaters or larger projects such as Bracken Bat Cave protection by Bat Conservation International can be models for environmental progress that can be achieved at the local level. Bat Conservation International’s work at Bracken Cave does more than protect bats; it protects several thousand acres of Edwards Aquifer recharge land. My tour of the SAWS infrastructure is now scheduled for September 12, at which time I hope to learn more about water use and conservation on a large governmental scale.

Sunday morning it rained, some streets and streams flooded, and the Edwards Aquifer rose to 654.9 feet over the weekend. Only 21 feet to go before the Blue Hole flows again.


*Featured/top image: Headwaters Volunteers at Work. Photo by Warren Lieberman. 

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18 thoughts on “The Blue Hole: A Center City Hidden Gem

    • Water issues are probably the most complicated issue facing San Antonio. There are many paths to conservation that citizens, governments, industrial users and agri-businesses can implement. As a part-time citizen journalist my input is limited. Involvement in the political process is required by all shareholders, by raising issues and by voting. Thanks for your comments.

  1. Limiting development and sprawl is a huge problem. But it’s a challenge that San Antonio’s elected leaders and economic development leaders are not likely to tackle because that type of growth is understood to be a sign of our city’s success. It’s not all that smart to implement water conservation and aquifer protection efforts AND promote urban sprawl.

  2. Great article, not only is the blue hole the original source of the San Antonio river it was the epicenter of human habitation and culture for thousands of years. The Native Americans still visit this site and sing songs to Yanagana, the ‘spirit waters’ in their own tongue. I visited the subject in May 2014 as part of the Backyard Film Project

  3. Thanks for your interesting report. Some of us have known about this topic, and the Blue Hole, for many years, and we even know the last time it flowed. LOL. June, 14, 1973. I hope you know, several San Antonio natives know this. We also know that the pure natural artesian water pumped from the wells at Brackenridge park, is used for the animals at the ZOO. Funny? No. Seriously. Please continue to study and explore, and discover. I went for a cool swim with pure spring water at SAN PEDRO SPRINGS, not too long ago. It was the summer of 2010. It was wonderful. Not the POOL, the SPRINGS!
    In Landa Park, we we went swimming at the natural spring pool, July 2014. We plan to go again, this year. We got plenty of RAIN…. The DROUGHT is over! I predict a record rainfall amount total of 40 inches this year. The average for San Antonio is 32 inches per year. The record rainfall was 1973. ….. 51 inches! Thanks! I would love to meet you, and share with your some stats.

    • Thanks for your comments. While the drought may be over the Edwards Aquifer is still below the historic average for this time of the year and the hot dry months of summer are still to come.

      You may be wrong about when the Blue Hole flowed last (we have been over 676 feet several times since 1973). I will check on that with Hellen Ballew of Headwaters at Incarnate Word.

  4. Thanks, Warren! Even better news. The Blue Hole SPRINGS actually flowed in 2010, and into 2011. WOW! That’s not bad. Some people would have us think that we are bone dry, and that we are in DIRE straits. I saw reports on TV and the Papers, saying… “San Antonio may turn into a Desert”… bla, bla, bla….Just a few months ago, the negative comments included reports of “we may have seen the vanishing of Medina Lake”. Also, comments about Wichita Falls…”We may have to drink sewer water”.

    Well, today…Medina is at 37 feet. Wichita Falls is overwhelmed, and there is more water than we know how to conserve. The problem with water is not the availability, but the lack of management. RAINS WILL FALL with a vast abundance… all we have to do is capture it, and save it for a “rainy”, errrr …. “arid” day. LOL. Thanks!

    • I appreciate your optimism about our water reserves. Despite all the rain the Edwards Aquifer is still below the historic average. And the city/region continues to grow and the we require more water.

      Thanks for your comments.

  5. If you are looking for the map with the location of the Blue Hole go to Incarnate Word’s webpage for the campus map.

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