“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 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.