We wade in knee-deep to soak our life vests in the cool water. As we ease our kayaks out onto the lake, my guide points out a patch of strikingly blue water ahead, lighter and brighter than the rest. As we approach, the water becomes increasingly clear, and soon I can easily see more than 30 feet down to the floor of San Marcos’ Spring Lake, composed of the pocked, contoured, and reflective white limestone so characteristic of the Texas Hill Country. Clear, cool spring waters like these at Spring Lake surface at several locations throughout central Texas, in large part because of this porous and fractured limestone. And while these waters are often enjoyed as a source of refreshment and recreation, they are also part of a complex, interconnected and vulnerable water system, too often taken for granted.
I’ve lived in and around Austin for most of my life and regularly sought summer relief at local spring-fed watering holes. And yet, my understanding of Texas’ water system that includes springs and aquifers, as well as rivers and streams, lakes and reservoirs, wetlands, bays, and estuaries, has not always been as complete as I would like. My kayak outing brings me to a unique resource for learning and experiencing more. San Marcos Springs and Spring Lake are part of a protected natural area owned and operated by Texas State University and overseen by the Meadows Center for the Water and the Environment. The collaboration works hard to ensure central Texans have a sustainable water supply for years to come. So I am exactly where I need to be to find answers to my most basic questions – What exactly is a spring? An aquifer? How are they connected? How are they vulnerable? And why does it matter?
Although access to Spring Lake is limited due to its protected status, the Meadows Center’s educational programs address my questions through highly experiential learning opportunities. Glass-bottom boat tours, customized field trips, a wetlands boardwalk, programs for citizen scientists, an interactive exhibit hall, and outdoor classes (like my kayak tour) are all recreational as well as educational. As I enjoy myself, however, I’m also clarifying my hazy understanding of water systems and visualizing how spring waters emerge from underground aquifers– layers of porous rock, like our local limestone, that can store rainwater for just a few days or for many thousands of years. I learn that it is this permeable structure that allows water to move and eventually return to the ground’s surface as spring-fed pools and headwaters of rivers and streams. Underlying a large portion of central Texas is the Edwards Aquifer, supplying water to San Marcos Springs, as well as to our much-beloved hometown swimming hole, Barton Springs.
The Center’s recent partnership with the REI Outdoor School creates an especially accessible mix of recreation and education, such as the kayak tour I enjoyed. Instructors balance introductory kayak and stand-up paddling instruction with engaging interpretation of the area’s cultural history and ecological significance. During our two hour outing, my guide skillfully builds my confidence as a novice kayaker, identifies a variety of native plant and animal species and details significant archaeological discoveries made on-site. She chronicles the history of early homesteaders in the area and recounts Ralph the Swimming Pig’s tenure at the AquarenaSprings amusement park. And she describes how this unique convergence of underground limestone caves, continuously flowing fresh water, and constant temperatures provides a home to eight threatened and endangered species. As I float, white egrets converge noisily above me to fill the branches of towering bald cypress trees and take shelter for the night. Below me, the aquifer silently holds the unseen life source.
The folks at the Meadows Center and at REI understand that positive outdoor experiences like these help nurture a personal connection to the natural world– a connection that is essential to developing a greater understanding of, appreciation for, and desire to protect natural resources. Experiences like these also help me understand that the significance of the Edwards Aquifer goes far beyond recreation; water pumped from Texas aquifers provide a significant portion of Texans’ drinking water.
The quantity and quality of water in the Edwards Aquifer is especially vulnerable to the loss of recharge zones and the over-drafting of water. Recharge zones are lost when development covers land with impermeable surfaces like asphalt and cement– land that would otherwise allow rainwater to percolate below ground and “recharge” the aquifer’s water supply. Over-drafting occurs when water is pumped out of the aquifer faster than it is recharged by rainfall. But aquifers are not threatened in isolation. As in any natural system, each part affects the whole, so that the quality and quantity of water in the aquifer impacts the health of lakes, wetlands, bays and estuaries that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately, just as the Meadows Center brings together education and recreation, many other organizations combine stewardship of our aquatic resources with enjoyment of the outdoors.
- At Spring Lake, qualified Open Water SCUBA divers can enjoy the cool, clear waters while they assist with lake monitoring as members of the Meadows Center AquaCorps.
- At Barton Springs, swimmers can support Austin’s Save Our Springs Alliance, a local nonprofit working to “protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs.”and have some chilly fun each New Year’s Day at the annual Springs Polar Bear Splash or participate Barton Springs University for “a free day of snorkeling, learning, and live music.”
- The annual Rainwater Revival, sponsored by the Hill Country Alliance, also combines information and entertainment by celebrating rainwater harvesting as a way to conserve scarce water resources.
- Competitors in the Texas Water Safari, a 260 mile canoe race from the headwaters of the San Marcos River to the Gulf Coast help protect the unique ecosystem of San Marcos Springs by following the Meadows Centers’ clean boat protocol.
Opportunities like these are great ways to reap the many physical, emotional, social and spiritual benefits of outdoor recreation. They also enable us to enjoy Texas’ waters sustainably, keeping in mind the vulnerable, unseen source of it all, and reminding us not to take our aquifers for granted.