Dams · Groundwater · USA

Sacred Origins: Spring Lake and San Marcos River of Texas

It was a freak accident. But it meant that I had to travel every week from Austin to Brooke Army Medical Center, some 75 miles away. These were not enjoyable trips and one of the solace was a sign on the highway:  “San Marcos River Recreational Areas: Turn Right”. I used to wonder what will happen if we actually turn right someday. A river with parks around it maybe? Or trails along a flowing river? The thought always made the journey slightly more palatable.

Then one Saturday we decided to finally “turn right” and I realised how stunted my imagination had been.

Image result for san marcos map
Index Map showing San Marcos city in Texas City-Data.com

San Marcos is a river that originates in a city. Not any city, but San Marcos: a city that has been the ‘fastest growing in United States’ for 3 years in a row. Considering its population of just over 63,000, it is still a tiny town by Indian standards, but the city center is bustling and entirely urbanised. The biggest employer and land owner in San Marcos is the Texas State University.

When we followed signs to “Tubing San Marcos River”, we had little idea what tubing meant.  A warehouse stood next to brilliantly colored river bank. The warehouse was full of bright “tubes” upto its roof. Kids, youth, elderly were renting these tubes and chugging them to the river to idly float along nowhere in particular.

Pleasures of Tubing in San Marcos River Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

My ten year old enjoyed the river and “tubing” thoroughly. So did my husband who is otherwise very reluctant to get into water. He veritably swam. Shock came from my 68 year old mother with aching knees. At the sight of the clean flowing river, she actually got down into the chilly water.  I have to confess that I have never seen her frolicking in a river before that. In a minute, all three were splashing water at absolute strangers, laughing and asking tens of questions about rivers which they never asked before. (They are naturally scared of the long answers that might follow :))

It was amazing to see how a flowing, clean and beautiful river effortlessly brings people closer.

Flowing from artesian springs, the San Marcos River emerges out of the Edwards Aquifer, forming Spring Lake. It flows southward to join the Blanco River and then the Guadalupe River 75 miles downstream. It is also a rare and delicate ecosystem with numerous threatened and endangered species including the Texas Blind Salamander, the Fountain Darter and Texas Wild Rice. These, along with the San Marcos Gambusia and San Marcos Salamander, require clear, clean, continuously flowing water with a stable temperature. (San Marcos River Foundation)

San Marcos River marked in red over map of Texas Source: Wikimedia Commons

From here we went on to see The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, Texas University. The only thing I knew was that it was in San Marcos. I wanted to meet Dr. Thom Hardy, Professor and Chief Scientific Officer at Meadows Centre. I had met and interviewed Dr. Hardy at a conference few years back and his vast experience and scholarship had left a deep impression. He had once said, “The San Marcos River is one of the largest aquifer-driven spring systems in the world, and represents a very unique ecosystem. It’s a living laboratory”. But this was a Saturday and there was no chance of meeting Dr. Hardy. We just decided to visit the Centre.

We were in for a big surprise.

Meadows Centre is situated on the banks of an emerald lake. This is the Spring Lake, formed by the bubbling of hundreds of springs which emerge out of the Edwards Aquifer, one of the most prolific artesian springs in the world.  It is here that the San Marcos River originates. Edwards Aquifer serves the diverse agricultural, industrial, recreational, and residential needs of over two million users in central Texas, including San Antonio with a population nearing 1.5 million.

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Edwards-Trinity Aquifer System in United States Source: edwardsaquifer.net

According to this story, formerly known as Aquarena Springs, Spring Lake was an incredibly popular amusement park from the 1950s through 1980s. Texas State University purchased the property in 1994 and reinvented it as an environmental education centre to teach people about the importance of water to all living things, including the many endangered species that call the springs home, like the Texas blind salamander. Today, the official name of the Spring Lake water “park” is the Meadows Centre for Water and the Environment at Spring Lake, a division of Texas State University. It’s a research centre, an active restoration site, and an educational centre for the public.

As we reached the Spring Lake, we were informed that there is a Glass-bottom Boat ride on the lake. We could not miss it. The ride was about 30 minutes and was captained by a young student of Aquatic Ecology and Restoration from the Meadows Centre. The glass bottomed boat opened up an underwater wonderland for us.

We could see aquatic vegetation, huge fish and springs bubbling with freshwater underneath. This was the first time that I actually saw groundwater bubble up into a lake like that. The children in the boat were mesmerized to see it all. There cannot be a better environment education site than a flowing river or a bubbling spring.

These springs provide water at constant 72 degree Fahrenheit at all times (there is also a Festival named 72 Degrees). The springs have never been known to stop flowing. The average flow is 152 ft³/s (4,300 liters/s); the lowest recorded flow of 46 ft³/s (1,302 L/s) occurred in 1956.

Many archaeologists believe the area around the Springs is one of the oldest continually inhabited site in North America. Sediment cores indicate that humans lived here 11,500 years ago, and there is evidence the area has been occupied during every known period of human habitation in Central Texas.   In historical times, the Cantona Indians called the Springs Canocanayesatetlo, meaning “warm water”. Another Indian term for the area was Canaquedista, meaning “headwaters” . (EdwardsAquifer.net)

The entire area of Spring Lake, which is the origin of the San Marcos River is protected through the 251 acre Spring Lake Natural Area Reserve.

Bottom of the Spring Lake from the glass bottomed boat Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Diver volunteers clear off invasive aquatic plant species from the Spring Lake Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Wetlands Boardwalk made of recycled plastic over the Spring Lake brings us closer to the wetland, and has a number of interactive displays about Function and importance of Wetlands.

Wetlands Boardwalk over the Spring Lake Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Spring Lake and the boardwalks

Meadows Centre has a an intriguing Discovery Hall which showcases “1,000 gallon aquarium of native fish found in Spring Lake, an endangered species exhibit where you will see Texas Blind Salamanders, San Marcos Salamanders and Fountain darters, a baby turtle aquarium, a multiscreen video wall and interactive exhibit about the Edwards Aquifer and the Water Systems of Texas.” (Meadows Centre)


Discovery Hall Aquarium with native species
Interactive and real time Watershed contour Model Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

We did not realise that a two-hour visit was already a day long affair and it was time for the Discovery Hall to close.


We Indians hold places where rivers emerge as sacred: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Amarkantak, Trimbakeshwar, Bheemashanker, Tal Cauvery… the list is long And the way we validate this “sacredness” is by more and more concretising, polluting the headwaters, deforestation, unregulated tourism, damming the headwater streams, etc. Protecting any of these origins in the natural form just does not seem to come to us. Long ongoing fight to protect Bhagirathi Ecosensitive zone is a case in point.

Here too the headwaters of San Marcos are held sacred. And this divinity lends them protection to flow constantly at 72 degrees F till posterity.

San Marcos River and Spring Lake have their share of problems, mainly from overuse of Edwards Aquifer, increases recreational use, increasing population, etc. But they also have an active civil society, local groups, students, volunteers and scientific organisations supporting the fragile ecosystem.

Let us hope that rather than Ganga Arati and more and more senseless tokenism in name of Ganga or any other river, Indian society and governments aim not for temples, but for Natural heritage Museums where the next generation can understand the intricacies of our rivers and her species, not for more concrete, but more protected origins where the river is able to be herself before she heads out into the anthropocene.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

3 thoughts on “Sacred Origins: Spring Lake and San Marcos River of Texas

  1. Educationing,motivating people will be helpful attending environment issues,making no development zone along banks of rivers & ensuring indigenous Flora & fauna develop will revitalize rrivers


  2. I went to school in San Marcos from ‘80 -‘87. I was a mermaid in the underwater show at Aquarina Springs and still have dream of jumping in that nice cold river when it gets really hot here in Houston. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you


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