Texas’s Dying Swimming Holes | The New Yorker

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On a typical day, at least twelve million gallons of water burble up from Las Moras Springs, more than enough to fill the million-gallon pool at Fort Clark, a former military post turned resort and retirement community in Brackettville, Texas. But last year, as drought seized much of the state, the springs slowed to a trickle, and then stopped flowing completely. For the first time in decades, the third-largest spring-fed pool in Texas sat empty. In 2019, Christina Bitter and her family had moved to Brackettville, two hours west of San Antonio, in part because they “fell in love with the pool,” she told me, swimming there so frequently that her daughter had “blossomed into this mermaid.” The first signs of trouble came the next year. Bitter had planned to celebrate her daughter’s sixth birthday with a pool party at Fort Clark, but the water levels were too low. Instead, she bought a stock tank from a feed store, filled it with a hose, and did her best to make her back yard festive. This year, after the springs ceased to flow, the family spent most of their time inside. The summer was scorching, and drought crisped the grass. “You just get in your vehicle and you get in your house. I’m a gardener, but you just give up on keeping stuff alive,” she said. “The pool is such a gathering spot. And really just the heart of this community. And to not have it—it’s making people . . . a little cranky.”

This year, with record-setting temperatures and little relief from rain across Texas, the pool sat empty again. In July, knowing how crucial it was to the town—economically, socially, psychologically—the community elected to pump water from a well to fill it. Briefly, things were back to normal. Families basked in the grass; kids splashed in the shallow end. To everyone’s surprise, a crayfish population multiplied—refugees from someone’s back-yard boil, Bitter theorized. But slowly, and then quickly, the water began to drain away, and no water from the springs replaced it.

By the time I visited, in late August, the pool was once again bone-dry, and the air was heavy with what I would come to recognize as the smell of a dried-up spring: hot mud overlaid with the faint stench of decay. “The second the water starts dropping, you don’t see anybody down here,” Bitter told me. “It’s like a ghost town. I don’t think people want to see it.” Before the last dregs of water evaporated, a few weeks ago, a group of volunteers built ramps to help ducklings, turtles and frogs escape the steep-sided pool. “We couldn’t get the fish out, of course,” she said. “Sorry, it’s a little stinky.”

Living through a Texas summer can feel like an endurance test. One persistent source of relief is the state’s abundance of natural swimming spots, which the authors of the travel guide “The Swimming Holes of Texas” call “as quintessential to Texas as Lone Star Beer, barbecue, and Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic.” But, this summer, many places highlighted in the book are unswimmable. When I told Doug Wierman, a hydrogeologist and a former member of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, that I was embarking on an August road trip through Texas’s dried-up and dwindling swimming spots, he rattled off a list of places I could visit: “Comal Springs’ main spring is dry now. San Marcos Springs is down to about fifty-per-cent flow—it still looks like a lot, but if you’re used to seeing how it looks normally it’s pretty sad. Barton Springs is down to basically a critical level—it’s flowing at about seventeen C.F.S. [cubic feet per second] right now, and it should be more than double that. The Pedernales River—that’s pretty much stopped. The Blanco River in Wimberley is really, really low, barely maintaining flow. The Guadalupe, up near Comfort—that’s dry, I understand.”

Texas is in the midst of a population boom as a majority of the state suffers from a protracted drought and some of the highest temperatures on record. Overtaxed groundwater levels drop, and springs and rivers begin to dry up. Climate change accelerates the process—as temperatures increase, more water evaporates and less makes it into underground aquifers. Springs that no longer reach the surface are typically an indication that underground water levels are dropping. “It’s a barometer of the aquifer’s health,” said David Baker, the executive director of the Watershed Association, a nonprofit whose work includes protecting Jacob’s Well, a spring an hour outside of Austin, in the Texas Hill Country. “I call it the canary in the coal mine. If that starts to go, that means the rest of the water table is threatened.” The rivers in the Hill Country are also primarily fed by springs, and need inflow from aquifers to keep running.

When water levels drop, local communities suffer. Concan, a town on the Frio River, is a popular riverfront getaway for Texans. But, for the second August in a row, the Frio was barely ankle-deep in some places, making river trips nearly impossible. When I drove through town, Concan felt empty, many of its ice-cream parlors and tube-rental shops closed. At the real-estate office, nobody wanted to talk about the drought.

In the Texas Hill Country, tourists flock to swimming holes such as Jacob’s Well, which draws visitors from around the state and abroad. In Wimberley, nearby, the economic benefit amounts to tens of millions of dollars annually, according to a 2013 study. “It’s almost like a water pilgrimage, coming to this really special place,” Baker told me. “You can’t jump in that sixty-eight-degree water without smiling. It changes your whole attitude, especially when it’s a hundred-plus degrees outside. It’s like a savior. You actually get cold.” Jacob’s Well is dry for the second summer in a row. In the parking lot, I met a family that had driven an hour and a half, drawn by videos online of people jumping off rocky ledges into a deep, blue-green pool. A pickup truck arrived, driven by a man who had just come from Canyon Lake, where, he said, the water levels were “sad.” I broke the news that Jacob’s Well had dwindled to a tiny, moss-green puddle. “Well, at least my hotel has a pool,” he said. When I spoke with Baker, he had suggested I visit Blue Hole, a spot ten minutes down the road, which had managed to remain open this summer. After I hung up, I saw that I had received an e-mail from the City of Wimberley Parks Department: “It is with great regret that Blue Hole Regional Park announces the closure of its popular swimming area for two weeks,” owing to low water levels.

In the Hill Country, Wierman broadly attributed the water woes to there being “too many people.” The rapidly developing region has seen its population increase sharply, and there’s no sign of a slowdown. “You put twice the amount of people on the same amount of water, and sooner or later you’re going to start having problems,” Wierman said.

The Watershed Association has bought nearly five hundred acres of land surrounding Jacob’s Well to protect the spring from sprawl, but its effects are nonetheless encroaching. Last year, Aqua Texas, a subsidiary of one of the largest publicly traded water-and-wastewater utilities in the country, drew roughly ninety million gallons more than it was allotted from the aquifer. The company faces nearly half a million dollars in fines for overpumping. Overtaxing the aquifer amid a drought, Baker said, has directly contributed to the spring drying up. But there is little that the nonprofit, or the surrounding county, can do. “We have a finite resource, and we have a very lax regulatory environment here,” Baker said. “We’re very developer-friendly. We want to see more growth, and so there’s not a lot of regulation and restriction in terms of how that development is organized.” In Arizona, a law requires developers to secure a hundred-year water supply before they can build; no such law applies in Texas. In some states, such as Oklahoma, water users abide by the “reasonable use” doctrine, which limits a landowner’s use of groundwater. “In Texas, you can still pump out as much as you want, even if it impacts your neighbors,” Wierman said. “Few states in the U.S. still have that.”

Baker has lived near Jacob’s Well for decades. When I asked him if he thought the spring would still be flowing in ten years, he paused for a long time before he eventually said yes. He’s encouraged that more people are installing rainwater-harvesting systems and considering water conservation when designing new buildings. But, with nothing to mandate such steps, their impact will be limited.

There is one upside to the dried-up springs: they are capturing people’s attention. “I never thought I would be someone who goes to water-board meetings, but here we are,” Bitter said. In Brackettville, she added, residents are pushing to require nearby farms and ranches to install meters that regularly measure how much water they are pulling from the aquifer. This November, Texans will vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would establish a state water fund. But the reckoning is not over. “If we get a couple of years of normal rainfall, this struggle will be forgotten. And we’ll just keep slowly inching toward that point of no return, instead of getting there very rapidly, like with this drought we have now,” Wierman said. “There’s a thing that people say about water planning—you don’t want to waste a good drought. Now is a good time for people to be aware of what the situation is.” ♦

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2023-08-30 20:24:45 , "Bitter Springs Arizona" – Vivrr Local

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