Environmental Defense Fund advocates for the preservation of San Solomon Springs with new story map 

For centuries, spring water near Balmorhea has been channeled through a canal system to help irrigate crops, provide wetland habitats for migratory birds and more. Copyright Kevin Greenblat, 2023.

BALMORHEA — An online story map over a year in the making, “Water in the Texas Desert: The Story of the San Solomon Springs System,” was recently published by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an international nonprofit organization with a program dedicated to Texas’ water issues. 

The multimedia story map combines video footage, audio interviews with locals and scientists, landscape photography, illustrations of flora and fauna, maps and more to tell the story of the understudied San Solomon Springs System. It chronicles the history of the springs’ various human uses over time, beginning with Native Americans who harnessed the water to raise crops and concluding with today’s Balmorhea State Park — the largest spring-fed pool in the world, which sees more than 200,000 visitors per year. 

“I live in an oasis in the desert. I love this water — taking my kids to swim in it — and to fish in the lake,” said Balmorhea resident Angel Maxwell in the story map. “This water belongs to all of us. I don’t know how much water is here. We think it’s coming from hundreds of miles away. We don’t know for sure, but we need to know.” 

Balmorhea resident, construction worker and father Angel Maxwell was interviewed for the Environmental Defense Fund’s online storymap. Copyright Kevin Greenblat, 2023.

Dan Mueller, senior manager of Climate Resilient Water Systems with EDF who is based in Austin and led the project, said in addition to highlighting the vital role the springs play in the lives of area residents like Maxwell, the project stresses the need for further research and better understand the springs’ water sources in order to make sure they keep flowing. 

“Protecting the springs means protecting and understanding the groundwater flow and the complete spring shed,” said Mueller. “Where does this flow come from?” 

In total, the San Solomon Springs System contains six springs. The largest is San Solomon, which fills the state park pool at a rate of 11,000 gallons per minute; another, nearby Phantom Springs, which is located on private property, has stopped flowing except for during heavy rainfall. Mueller said the flow of San Solomon Springs, which is monitored by the United States Geological Survey (USGS,) has declined over the years, like many springs across Texas, due to drought, overpumping and other environmental factors. 

“To protect that spring you need to work in advance of the spring [no longer] flowing,” said Mueller. “[If a spring stops flowing] now you’re too late. Now you’re working backwards and trying to bring a spring back to life.” 

Balmorhea State Park. Copyright Kevin Greenblat, 2023.

That was the fate of Comanche Springs in nearby Fort Stockton, which is presented as a cautionary tale in the story map. The springs once supported the town’s tourism, flowing at a rate of 30,000 gallons a day in the early 1900s — about twice the flow of San Solomon Spring today — but went dry in the 1960s due to pumping demands and hasn’t returned. 

“With looking at what has happened with Comanche Springs historically, you then go to the iconic San Solomon Springs, which is still flowing and flowing at a significant flow rate, but yet, there’s not enough known about its spring shed to give both landowners and groundwater managers the tools and information to really protect those springs,” said Mueller. 

Part of what makes the San Solomon Springs System difficult to understand is that the hydrogeology — or ways the water moves underground — is complex in the area, said Mueller. Research conducted by Rebecca Nunu, a groundwater hydrologist with the Southwest Research Institute, found that source areas to all six springs were generally located west and northwest, including in Culberson County 50 miles away, and further research was needed in that area. 

A custom map created for the EDF story map shows the locations of all six springs in the San Solomon Springs System. Copyright Kevin Greenblat, 2023.

Mueller said a current research objective is to determine the boundaries of the spring shed. A preliminary dotted map included in the story map shows land areas scientists would like to gain further access to — land along I-10 West towards Van Horn including parts of Jeff Davis, Culberson and Reeves counties. Mueller said scientists want to help landowners understand how and where spring sheds might be occurring on their property.

“Really, it’s to their interests also to sustainably manage the groundwater. That’s part of the value of their land,” said Mueller. 

Another complicating factor of the San Solomon Springs System is that while its boundaries are not entirely understood, it is known to be expansive, meaning it overlaps multiple groundwater conservation districts and management areas — local governmental entities that can make water management decisions. 

“You’ve got jurisdictions overlapping each other and how do they work together?” said Mueller. “Well, step one is to understand how much they are overlapping and we don’t know that yet.” 

Greg Perrin, Reeves County Groundwater Conservation District general manager, who was interviewed for the story map, said because the GCD was established in 2015, it was a young entity, still working to register pre-existing wells and build its program. However, one of the GCD’s goals is to sustainably manage its aquifers despite heavy oil and gas industry growth in the area.

“Science is the way to go in all of this. We have to look at what we’re doing, what’s happening to the aquifers,” said Perrin. “There’s not much potable water here, but it’s fairly decent for irrigation and apparently is pretty good for going into drilling and exploration. It’s very good for swimming and it raises a few fish too.”

Copyright Kevin Greenblat, 2023.

Mueller said there’s examples across the state of GCDs making proactive groundwater management decisions when armed with the right scientific data. The Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, for example, has plans in place to protect the flow of Jacob’s Well spring, which is located entirely within their district. If flow decreases, as it has currently with the spring going dry for the 4th time in recorded history, they take action. GCDs issue well-drilling permits, and might, for example, assess depths and locations of new wells and to help protect spring flows.

“[For] Solomon springs, that’s exactly what you would need,” said Mueller. “Only now you’ve got a much larger geographic area, and you’ve got multiple groundwater conservation districts that need to work together.” 

EDF recently released a report on what it called Texas’ “flawed” groundwater planning process, recommending state legislators funnel more adequate funding towards data collection and additional resources to local GCDs to help them set and attain sustainable groundwater goals. 

The inclusion of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Shield-Ayres Foundation and Nature Conservancy representatives as well as longtime Balmorhea locals such as David Smith, the owner of the Eleven Inn, and Ellen Weinacht, who started a wetland in the area, was meant to show how many people are working together and are invested in seeing the springs conserved, said Mueller. 

“It’s really a local local issue, and it’s really the way ahead — the local collaboration of landowners, stakeholders and groundwater managers along with the researchers,” said Mueller. 

Neta Rhyne, owner of the Toyahvale Desert Oasis and Funky Little Dive Shop, who was also featured in the story map project and spoke previously with The Big Bend Sentinel about her concerns over the oil and gas industry boom negatively impacting the springs, said the springs are “the lifeforce,” of the town. 

“We’re dependent on these springs to survive,” said Rhyne. “San Solomon Springs creates a unique ecosystem. Here, we are in the desert, so it’s such a valuable resource of life to the desert. And without these springs this would just be a dust bowl.”

To view the interactive story map, visit https://arcg.is/1q51S5