Our Water Matters

A regional plan for some of the Texas Hill Country’s most beloved swimming holes

Central Texas is home to four of the most spectacular springs in the state, which have been enjoyed by humans for millennia. According to the Indigenous Cultures Institute, these restorative waters were known to the earliest Texans as tza wan pupako (Barton Springs in Austin), ajehuac yana (Spring Lake in San Marcos), saxōp wan pupako (Comal Springs in New Braunfels), and yana wana (the Blue Hole headwaters of the San Antonio River) and formed sacred sites along an ancient pilgrimage route to the peyote gardens of South Texas. The Indigenous Cultures Institute also promotes the study of rock art, such as the 4,000-year-old White Shaman Panel, which is believed to include a map of these four sacred springs. With so many unique features, including caves, sinkholes, sinking streams and large springs, this ribbon of water stretching from San Antonio to Austin is truly a marvel worthy of veneration.

Now imagine a 100-mile network of recreational trails going all the way from the Alamo City to the State Capitol and simultaneously linking these major springs systems. The endeavor, known as the Great Springs Project, seeks to “create a greenway of contiguous protected lands between San Antonio and Austin over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone” by the Texas bicentennial in 2036.

The conservation of open lands over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone could not come at a more critical time. According to maps by the U.S. Geological Survey, the four counties that are home to the Great Springs Project, including Bexar, Comal, Hays and Travis, have added some 120 square miles of impervious cover over the past two decades, while Comal and Hays were the two fastest-growing counties in the country between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This explosive growth is not only adding to the nearly 2 million people that depend on the aquifer for their water, it is also encroaching on the undeveloped lands that are indispensable to the collection and filtration of precipitation that supplies water to the aquifer in the first place.

According to the Great Springs Project’s vision statement, “We still have an opportunity to conserve land over the Edwards Aquifer and the life-sustaining waters that run through it.” But as one of the fastest-developing regions in the country, “those opportunities will become fewer and farther between as residential and commercial development fills the open spaces between Austin and San Antonio.” The project is aimed at conserving open lands as well as providing “a trail network connecting people to nature, offering a vital community resource for community health, active transportation, outdoor recreation, flood protection, and economic development.” 

In its 2022 annual report, the Great Springs Project defines its role “as both a catalyst and a tool for greatly increasing the scope and scale of regional conservation and trail-building efforts” by working “at the local level with great project partners to put land into conservation and trail on the ground.” This multi-faceted project was started back in 2017 as the brainchild of Hill Country philanthropist Deborah Morin, who is the wife of Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey. Its most ambitious goal is to preserve 50,000 acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. 

The main preservation tools available include outright purchase and conservation easements. But with the skyrocketing cost of land in Central Texas, outright purchase is becoming a very expensive proposition. And conservation easements are no silver bullet either because they involve financial sacrifices that some landowners may be unwilling to accept. While the ultimate cost could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the project’s leaders remain undaunted. According to Scott Parker, director of land transactions for the Great Springs Project, “Our work is about relationships, mutual trust, dedication, and commitment. Our project highlights the important ways in which landowners, conservationists, public agency partners, philanthropists, and community organizations must work together –– and work quickly –– to protect the iconic landscapes of the Texas Hill Country for future generations of Texas.”

Even if only a fraction of the land-conservation goal is met, the creation of a 100-mile trail through the heart of the Texas Hill Country would be its own modern-day marvel: a new path of pilgrimage for a hotter, drier era.

To learn more about the Great Springs Project, visit greatspringsproject.org.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]