Monday, November 29, 2010

Hays County protects vital spring

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Hays County Commissioners court Tuesday finalized the purchase of 50 acres of environmentally sensitive land around the historic Jacob's Well site near Wimberley. The acreage more than doubles the buffer zone that cannot be developed near the huge spring and the sparklingly clear water it pumps to the surface.

At one point, the land was slated for a residential development that would have placed 65 condominiums and a hotel within 700 feet of the well. A four-year legal battle over that development ended with a settlement stopping the project and awarding the developers $1.7 million. Half of the money came from Hays County, while the remaining $850,000 was loaned to the county for the purchase by the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization that helps preserve environmentally important land. The county will repay the loan over a three-year period, with money raised through grants and donations arranged by the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, a local group established eight years ago to protect area water supplies.

David Baker is the executive director of the Association and its Jacob's Well Natural Area. He first saw the spring in 1988 when he was looking to rent a home and art studio near Wimberley.

"The person who was helping me look for a home pulled up and said, 'David, I've got your place: Two little stone houses at Jacob's Well,'" said Baker. "And I came down the steps and the hair on my arms rose up and I looked down and saw the spring and I said, 'I'll take it!"

Jacob's Well is actually a water-filled cave that drops a mile deep into the Edward's Aquifer. It is what is called, a "perpetual artesian spring" that pumps thousands of gallons a minute to the surface. The water is clean enough to drink and clear enough to see more than thirty feet below the surface. It is not, however, invulnerable.

"The biggest threat is overpumping of the aquifer," said Baker. "Hays County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Population growth, people moving to the Hill Country and pumping ground water is causing the aquifer levels to diminish, therefore causing the spring to stop flowing. The well, through pumping of the aquifer and through drought, has stopped three times in recorded history. In the summer of 2000, it stopped for the first time. In 2008, it stopped briefly and the drought of 2009 stopped the spring for almost two months."

The quantity of water coming out of the cave is just one concern. The quality is also at risk.

"As you develop a watershed and there's more impervious cover," Baker said, "the pollutants that come off of that impervious cover can cause pollution, things like fertilizers and pesticides and things that go on lawns and golf courses; those can wash into the aquifer very easily and pollute it, as well as sedimentation from disturbance of the land."

Adding another 50 acres to the existing 46 acre preserve will help on both fronts and no one is happier about that than Steve Klepfer, the former mayor of Wimberley, a small town that thrives on its artist and tourist economy. Klepfer is now helping with a $4 million drive to improve Blue Hole Park, crowned by a natural swimming hole on Cypress Creek, just three-and-a-half miles downstream from Jacob's Well. It is the spring water that creates the creek and its iconic swimming hole, lined with giant cypress trees. The surrounding 126 acre park was purchased by the Village of Wimberley in 2003.

"If there's no Jacob's Well, there's no Blue Hole," said Klepfer. "We're sure that the biggest threat to this park in the long term is not having water coming out of that well. Sixteen thousand people came this last summer to swim in this hole. And we're expecting the park to grow, with the new facilities that will be in by this time next year, up to 100,000 people will use it."

Meanwhile, back at the well, Baker is cautiously optimistic.

"It's a beginning," he said. "It's ultimately not enough to protect the spring, but we think that by sharing this site with the community, opening it up for people to learn about the aquifer, to experience the beauty of this place, and for us to continue our research and restoration, it becomes a place that the community can rally around for a larger conservation effort that would protect the watershed and the aquifer recharge areas that feed Jacob's Well."

Why, though, would authorities not just close the well off to the public, as it was when it was still in private hands? The answer to that question, at least in Baker's mind, has to do with human psychology.

"We need to share this special place with the community, if we're ultimately going to protect it," he argued. "By sharing it through managed access, through our educational programs, I think people will build a sense of pride that this is a part of our community that they now own; they have a vested interest in."

Already, the Jacob's Well Natural Area is providing that kind of outreach.

"There is managed access," Baker

said. "We have tours every Saturday morning at 10:00 AM. We want to share this, and the county and the Nature Conservancy as partners, I think will bring the institutional support to manage this in the long term."

As things develop, though, that managed access will grow more strict.

"There will be limits," Baker said, "much like there is at Hamilton's Pool or Westcave; we will have a capacity limit on how many people can access at one time. At the same time, we do feel like it's important for people to experience it and share it. Ultimately, that's the only thing that's going to protect it, is the people and their choice to be good stewards of the land and the water."

Baker expects the new rules to be in effect before the end of next year. Until then, he is relying on people to take ownership in the site.

"Come and visit it to appreciate it," he said. "Take a cool dip in the spring, but leave it better than they found it. We want people, if they come here, not to bring alcohol or their pets or glass bottles and coolers, to come and visit it, to appreciate it, take a cool dip in the spring, but leave it better than they found it and make it a place that everyone respects and takes care of. There's something magical about this place and about the millions of gallons of water that come out of here every day. What a miracle that is and how amazing it is that the Earth can just well up like this and give us water that's clean, that we can still drink."


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