Photo © Jennifer Idol/Engbretson Underwater Photography
Nurturing Nature at Spring Lake
The former Aquarena Springs now helps educate future stewards.
by Melissa Gaskill
A group of fourth-graders bunched up on the trail near Spring Lake in San Marcos vibrates with energy. Some push and poke each other, several lean out over the water, others scuff their feet and stir up dust. The field trip guide explains peripheral vision, and those who are listening widen their eyes comically as they try to see things off to their sides.
They hunker down on the ground with the guide as he sniffs at a plant, capturing the attention of the distracted. When the interpreter cups his hands around his ears, they follow suit, putting on their “deer ears” to listen more closely to sounds around them.
These field trips, part of an environmental education program offered by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, seek to more closely connect children to nature.
“It isn’t intuitive that children in urban areas have access and availability to these kinds of spaces,” says Rob Dussler, chief education officer at the center. “Nature is not part of their day. But children are the next generation of stewards, and unless they feel some kind of connection with water and resources, the outlook is bleak.”
Emily Warren, the center’s former executive adviser on environmental strategy, believes Spring Lake offers something special.
“Spring Lake is such a unique site to demonstrate the connection between the land, water, animals and human history of the site and its meaning to current culture,” she says. “We developed these programs to help young Texans build environmental understanding and awareness — and we hope an ethic and stewardship.”
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
To evaluate the program’s effectiveness, Dussler, Warren and graduate researcher Shadi Malek launched a study using maps that students make after their field trips.
“We have more than 20,000 students here a year, so it will be a large database, maybe the largest one of children’s maps,” Malek says. “It adds to the research on how children see and define nature after an experience like this.”
The research also seeks to give students more awareness about nature and help them not just observe the natural world, but to think more deeply about what they see and learn.
On any given day, the grounds around Spring Lake teem with a variety of people engaging with the natural world. Scuba divers fin across the bottom of the lake in search of invasive plant species, while glass-bottom tour boats ply the water’s surface. Visitors follow boardwalks through a wetlands area and wander an exhibit hall in the center’s headquarters building.
In fact, people have been hanging out around San Marcos Springs for more than 11,000 years. In this spot, more than 200 individual springs flow from the Edwards Aquifer, a vast body of water underneath seven Texas counties. These artesian springs have never stopped flowing, and some once gushed several feet into the air. Now they bubble out of the bottom of the lake, created in 1849 when Edward Burleson built a dam in order to operate a gristmill. Below the dam, the water forms the San Marcos River.
Local businessman A.B. Rogers built a hotel beside the lake in the 1920s. Beginning in 1949, his son Paul Rogers created Aquarena Springs Resort. A popular destination for decades, it included a submersible theater, glass-bottom boats and a sky ride, in addition to the hotel. In the 1980s, the family sold to an investor, who offered the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It wasn't deemed a good fit.
“It was still operating as an amusement park, and we didn’t see that as part of our mission,” says Meadows Center director of environmental strategy Andrew Sansom, then executive director of TPWD.
Instead, Southwest Texas State University bought the springs and the land around them in 1994. The school became Texas State University in 2003 and created the Meadows Center in 2012 to serve as caretaker for the springs and to conduct research and education programs on the value of these and other waters. It demolished the amusement park in 2012. The former hotel became center offices and Discovery Hall, a visitor center with a 1,000-gallon aquarium of native fish, endangered species displays and interactive exhibits about the Edwards Aquifer and other Texas water systems.
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
The center offers learning experiences to the general public, including glass-bottom boat tours and guided kayak and paddleboard tours provided in partnership with REI. The center keeps a close eye on the effect of these activities on the springs and lake and their native residents.
“We continually ask how to do these things — along with important work such as removing non-native species — in a way that preserves the native flora and fauna, without locking up the lake,” says chief science officer Thom Hardy. “True sustainable recreation showcases the uniqueness of the site without unnecessarily restricting access. Is it a swimming hole? No. Can you fish? No. But you can get access through one of our structured programs.”
All told, the center sees about 150,000 visitors per year.
“One of the great things about working here is that I can open my office door and it sounds like recess,” Sansom says. He walks over to demonstrate his point, and we hear delighted shrieks from children playing out in the sunshine.
The center’s research and restoration efforts make less noise but are just as important to its mission.
The springs and the river hold critical habitat designation for eight endangered or threatened species: fountain darter, San Marcos gambusia, Texas blind salamander, San Marcos salamander, Texas wild rice, Peck’s cave amphipod, Comal Springs dryopid beetle and Comal Springs riffle beetle.
The center partners with TPWD to maintain the habitat, and it permanently dedicated 33,108 acre-feet of water from the springs for environmental purposes. That represents the largest commitment of water rights ever made to the environment in Texas, Sansom says.
The center, TPWD and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor the endangered species and maintain individual animals and plants in off-site protected facilities, known as refugia. These would preserve the species should a disaster such as unexpected loss of spring flow occur, Hardy says.
This work is guided by the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), created to ensure enough suitable habitat for endangered species in both San Marcos and Comal Springs while still allowing water use by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, San Antonio Water System, the cities of San Marcos and New Braunfels, and the university.
In addition to education studies, the Meadows Center conducts research on coastal and marine systems, integrated water resources, watershed services and fresh water. A current study looks at the presence of salmonella in fish before and after a flood event and the implications for possible sources of the bacteria. Other research relates to habitat use by other species, growth rates of native versus non-native species, and archeology of the site.
The HCP restricts the number of boats on the water and divers beneath it. Based on all the information he has reviewed, Hardy says that, so far, such activities have had no detrimental effect on the natural environment.
“It’s a fine line, though, and hard to know where enough is enough,” he says.
Making sure recreation and education activities cause no harm isn’t the only challenge, though; the center seeks to strike a balance between those activities and habitat restoration. Volunteer divers get credit for eradicating invasive hydrilla from the lake, for example. While the center dramatically increased the population of Texas wild rice, which is found nowhere else, the HCP calls for 1,000 square meters of it in Spring Lake.
“We have about 5 square meters,” Hardy says, “and we haven’t been able to figure out where we’re going to get that much and where we could put it that it doesn’t interfere with the boats.”
Meanwhile, promoting lifelong learning about the environment and people’s relationship to it remains the heart of the mission. Plans are underway to create a state-of-the-art visitor center, dedicated to rivers and springs, that takes up the entire ground floor of the center.
And in addition to the children’s map study, scientists are conducting research to understand the experience of the interpreters who lead nature tours and to help them see and engage with nature and their surroundings differently.
“The assumption is that mindfulness will facilitate greater connection with nature,” Dussler says.
Defined as an active state of mind characterized by drawing novel distinctions, mindfulness grounds people in the present, making them sensitive to context and perspective.
“That has ramifications in how we train interpreters,” Dussler says. “A lot of mindfulness is simple, but we don’t do it.”
The field trip program may add activities that help facilitate children’s noticing skills.
“They’re jumping up and down and high energy, and we love that,” Dussler says. “But how do we get them to be quiet, to sit down and listen, and make more connections in these experiences than they normally would? How do you get a pack of fourth-graders to put on their deer ears and listen more deeply?”
Beyond creating the next generation of stewards, these efforts help foster tomorrow’s scientists as well. Research links informal learning experiences such as the Spring Lake field trips to improved retention of science knowledge, positive attitudes toward science and environmental learning and increased interest in science. That makes kids who get to participate in this kind of informal science more likely to pursue it as a career.
“Teachers tell us repeatedly, and our research bears this out, that they can talk all day about water coming from the aquifer, but looking down from the boat and actually seeing it coming out of the ground is an incredible teaching opportunity,” Sansom says.
Photo © Jazzmin Aguayo
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
The researchers hope to continue the map study, or at least keep giving students the chance to create the maps, indefinitely.
“My favorite part is the information children give us without us asking,” Malek says. “We ask for specific things, but they also use the maps to talk about favorite things, such as seeing turtles, the big trees or the really clear water. The specific elements of nature that capture their attention are interesting.”
The project is unique. Not many centers have access to so many students and the ability to create this map database.
“We can collaborate with other centers nationally and internationally and use this research to improve and strengthen our tours and field trips,” Malek says.
The resource itself — Spring Lake — is unique as well, as is the fact that it is part of a university.
“This site is the second-largest artesian spring in the western U.S., home to eight endangered or threatened species and one of if not the oldest site continuously inhabited by human beings,” Sansom says. “There’s no more pressing natural resource issue in Texas than water.”
You don’t need deer ears to hear that.
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