BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Water Front BY BRAD TYER Texas Water Atlas By Lawrence E. Estaville and Richard A. Earl Texas A&M University Press 129 pages, $24.95 quarena Springs, in San Marcos, is no longer the commercial tourist attraction it once was, but at the soberer Aquarena Center, operated since 1996 by Texas State University, you can still, most days, pay the fare and walk the plank and skim the surface of Spring Lake in a glass-bottom boat. You should. Spring Lake is the semi-artificial headwaters of the San Marcos River. The lake is fed by hundreds of artesian springs, drowned by a dam installed in 1854, bubbling up out of the Edwards Aquifer through porous limestone. Some of the bigger springs emerge in clouds of turbulence from fissures in the rock. Hundreds of little ones exhale tiny plumes through loose sand, tossing grains in their underwater wake. It’s a remarkable and unlikely thing to see, and over the years, hundreds of thousands of people have seen it. The springs have averaged a flow of about 152 cubic feet of water per second, uninterruptedly, for as long as anyone can figure. Subterranean sandbars flooded when the springs were dammed have yielded signs of human presence dating as far back as 12,000 yearsas old as any known inhabited locale in North America. There’s rare Texas wild rice down there, and endangered fountain darters and blind salamanders. There are wary gar and soft-shell turtles and translucent little shrimp you’ll never see in the clarity. There are wire-gridded old archaeological digs and a big old pipe to nowhere and little anchored thermometers poised at the outflows by grad students. The water has been getting warmer recently, and nobody knows how that might skew the ecosystem if it keeps up. Generally it runs at 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The San Marcos, as far as anyone knows, has never stopped flowing. For much of the latter half of the 1900s, Aquarena Springs featured a swimming pig, moonlighting students dressed as mermaids, an underwater theater, and a resort hotel on the shore. The story goes that Texas tourism was more or less invented there. I recently saw a picture of myself on the grounds as a 5-year-old child. I can’t dredge up a single memory of that day. I went back in mid-December to take a better look. Since 1991 the real estate has been owned and managed, inciting varying degrees of local controversy, by Texas State. There’s a project to restore the lakeshore landscape to its pre-resort condition. There are others who’d like to see the little mill dam removed and Spring Lake drained to restore the natural fountain. Still others want the pig back. The old hotel building now houses staff from Texas Parks and Wildlife, the National Park Service and Texas State’s River Systems Institute, a seven-year-old think tank and research center under the auspices of the university’s Geography Department. The River Systems Institute is headed by Andy Sansom, well known as a forParks and Wildlife Department and a Nature Conservancy. Sansom is also the author of the recently published Texas Water: An Introduction, part of University of Texas Press’ Texas Natural History Guides series. It’s a small-format book, 7.5 by 5 inches, suitable for stashing in a backpack or a waterproof duffel and setting off downstream \(though it won’t help reference, and like its series companion volumes on flowers, snakes and birds, it even has a centimeter scale printed inside the cover, though it’s unclear what for. Water in Texas: An Introduction By Andrew Sansom University of Texas Press 319 pages, $19.95 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 23, 2009
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