In San Marcos, a Rare Species of Wild Rice Protects a River
By David Barer
For Reporting Texas
SAN MARCOS — At the headwaters of the San Marcos River, a fragile plant undulates beneath the clear spring water like tall grass waving in the wind. It isn’t just any plant, though: It’s endangered Texas wild rice, and this is the only place on earth where it grows.
Despite being nearly wiped out by human encroachment and invasive species, the humble rice strain has helped saved the existence of the San Marcos River, defending it against urbanization and drought, and may now figure prominently in the fight against a Texas Supreme Court ruling that could allow unlimited pumping from the water’s sole source of water – The Edwards Aquifer.
The struggle to keep Texas wild rice, or Zizania texana, alive has been a decades-long fight waged by conservation groups in Central Texas, the Sierra Club, Texas State University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The rice was declared endangered in 1983, the first plant to be so designated in Texas history, putting it under the umbrella of the federal Endangered Species Act, which also protects the water that keeps the plant alive.
“From the beginning we have known that the wild rice and the other endangered species are the only reason we have a river,” said Dianne Wassenich, program director of the San Marcos River Foundation. “Without them there would be pumping of the aquifer down to the point where we would have no springs flowing.”
This year the wildlife department gained more authority over the rice by creating a regulation that designates a two-mile stretch near the top of the San Marcos River a “state scientific area.” It is now illegal for anyone to uproot the rice, and the wildlife department can stop recreation activities when waters are low, such as during a drought, which makes the rice particularly vulnerable.
According to Thomas Hardy, the chief science officer at the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, recreational tubers and river users pose a greater risk to the wild rice than drought. Hardy believes the regulations that govern pumping from the aquifer during droughts are stringent enough to keep flows constant and keep the plant alive. Designating the two-mile stretch of river a “state scientific area” gives the wildlife department the authority it needs to police and stop harmful recreational activities, he says.
“It’s been a long, arduous process, but I think it has been successful,” said Andrew Sansom, the institute’s executive director.
Texas wild rice only grows in a five-mile stretch of river near the San Marcos Springs. It needs clear, flowing water at least a foot deep to thrive, and its pollen can only seed plants within three feet of the parent plant. It is easily killed by pollution and mud suspended in the river.
The recent drought showed just how important regulations are for the survival of the endangered species. Cindy Loeffler, a water resources branch chief at the wildlife department, has seen urban development encroach on the wild rice over the 25 years she has worked at the wildlife department and say there have been general concerns about reductions in spring flow for years.
Loeffler believes the rice saved the river. “Under the Endangered Species Act there have to be minimum flows to protect the species, including Texas wild rice,” she said.
Three main groups have been struggling to maintain a portion of the limited water in the Edwards Aquifer: upstream water pumpers of the Edwards Aquifer, spring users like the endangered species and recreational interests in San Marcos, and downstream users like the San Antonio River Authority.
It’s been a contested issue for about 50 years, says Steve Raabe, director of technical services for the San Antonio River Authority. The Edwards Aquifer Authority has been sued numerous times by aquifer pumpers disputing their water rights. Downstream, San Antonio has vital interests in the aquifer since the majority of Bexar County residents use its water.
To devise plans and regulations for water use, the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Programwas created in 2006 to bring together representatives of the three groups to negotiate water rights. The goal was to create detailed plans that allow stakeholders to pump from the Edwards Aquifer while leaving enough water to ensure the survival of the endangered species that rely on constant flow from the springs. More than $4 million was spent on the process, which culminated in the designation of a portion of the river as a “state scientific area.”
“I’m not going to say there haven’t been tensions between the three groups,” said Raabe. “But it has been an ongoing process to see how we can work through it.”
For Hardy, the herculean effort by the members of the implementation program to save the Texas wild rice, as well as seven other endangered species in the area, has been well worth it. “We are in an extremely unique ecosystem here that just has tremendous intrinsic value. … It has elements that aren’t found anyplace else on the planet,” he said.
Government agencies and universities aren’t the only organizations uniting to save the endangered species. Community organizations are also deeply involved in the effort to sustain the endangered species of the San Marcos River, as well as the nearby Comal Springs and River.
Wassenich of the river foundation leads teams of volunteers into the river once a month to pull out invasive plants, including water hyacinth and South American alligator weed, all of which can harm the wild rice. They also police the riverbanks for anyone polluting it with mud and dirt, usually from erosion.
The river foundation will alert the authorities, the city council and even the mayor if nobody else will listen.
“We stay after it until they put adequate erosion controls into place,” said Wassenich. “This is a constant problem here.”
Now, a Texas Supreme Court case decided in late February could change how river flow and groundwater pumping standards are regulated, in effect possibly endangering the rice.
The court ruled, in Edwards Aquifer v. Day, that landowners own the water beneath their property and can sue a water authority for limiting how much water they withdraw without compensation. Some of the people working to protect the wild rice and endangered species of the San Marcos and Comal rivers worry the ruling could lead to more pumping and groundwater rights litigation.
“It is so potentially far-reaching that I don’t believe that anyone has really determined” how it will play out yet, Sansom said. “But I can tell you that there’s a whole lot of people scurrying around trying to figure out what the impact is going to be, including the Edwards Aquifer Authority.”
This case will raise perplexing issues in terms of how property owners can sue groundwater authorities for curtailing their use of groundwater when the authority is trying to abide by federal Endangered Species Act rules.
The worst scenario for the wild rice and its guardians, however unlikely, is the springs running dry and all the rice dying. But even if that occurred, there is still a contingency plan. The wildlife department is storing wild rice seeds and plants in a refugium in San Marcos. In the event of a disaster, the wildlife department is ready to repopulate the area with wild rice, as well as the seven other endangered species including the fountain darter fish, blind salamander and two types of tiny beetles.
“They are the canaries in the coal mine with respect to the flow of our springs,” Sansom said.
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