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Troubled Waters

On Guadalupe River, Tubers Aren't Only Ones Facing Low Flows

Many Texans gauge the health of the Guadalupe River by the speed of their tubing trip. Given the drought conditions plaguing most of the state, people come prepared to walk. On a broader scale, the shallow spots are indicative of the growing demand on the spring-fed water source.

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Troubled Waters

Six years ago, state leaders launched an effort to better manage the health of Texas' rivers. But environmental advocates fear that ecology still takes a back seat as legislators fret about having enough water to sate Texas' fast-growing cities. Now, every Texas river is threatened by nearly unprecedented drought and the looming effects of climate change. Our series explores the history, health and future of some of Texas' most important and legendary rivers. More in this series 

CANYON LAKE — Averaging 70 degrees year round, the Guadalupe River lures Texans to its banks every summer to float. Outfitted with the most tubing companies of any river in the state, vendors are up front about what to expect.

Two hand-painted signs affixed to the check-in booth at Shanty River Center spell out the conditions: “The river is low. You will probably walk. No refunds.”

Most of the people waiting in line on Labor Day weekend weren’t deterred.

The launching point for the upper Guadalupe’s “horseshoe float” lacks momentum. To move at all requires paddling — and even then it’s common to end up stranded on a rock.

"Reduced spring flow makes the tube trip from a six-pack [of beer] to a case because it's so slow,” joked Bill West, general manger for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, or GBRA.

The Guadalupe’s flow is fed by Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs, combined with water from the Canyon Dam northwest of New Braunfels.

But the drought has diminished the San Marcos Springs’ flow to about half of its normal rate, putting stress on Canyon Reservoir to augment the flow. Cities, like San Marcos, Kerrville and Boerne, that rely on the Guadalupe for their water supplies have been placed under varying use restrictions. In San Marcos, homeowners and businesses can only water their lawns one day every other week.

Citing shallow water, officials at the Guadalupe River State Park shut down weekday water service to park campgrounds last month after water flow in the river decreased to almost nothing. Those limits are still in place today.

"The key element is protecting the resource while balancing the various needs,” West said. “It is an everyday struggle.”

West said he considers the Guadalupe the most unique of all of Texas’ rivers because of the interface of surface water and groundwater, and the competing interests that must be protected.

Protecting the species that thrive in the Guadalupe, some of which are on federal endangered lists, as well as those in the connecting bays and estuaries, have often forced interested parties into court.

A high-stakes case involving the Guadalupe and the whooping crane is currently playing out in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case hinges on whether more water should be allowed to flow from the Guadalupe River to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where environmental advocates say the only naturally migrating and breeding population of whooping cranes thrive.

In 2010, a nonprofit environmental group called The Aransas Project sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, arguing that the agency didn’t allow adequate freshwater from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers to flow into the Aransas Refuge. It’s there, on the southwest side of San Antonio Bay along the Gulf Coast, where about two-thirds of all whooping cranes in existence live.

Officials with GBRA and the San Antonio Water System, or SAWS, worry that a ruling in favor of the nonprofit would mean more water would have to flow into the refuge, leaving less for their customers. The court’s decision isn’t expected for several months.

In March, a U.S. district court sided with the nonprofit and ordered TCEQ to not only conserve the cranes’ habitat, but to block the agency from issuing any more permits to the GBRA or SAWS. But at the request of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the judge agreed to allow permits to be issued while the appeals process was pending.

One GBRA permit application pending before the TCEQ is causing another stir. It would allow the authority to pump more than 24.4 billion gallons (75,000 cubic feet per second) of water from the Guadalupe annually to support the growth of communities between Austin and San Antonio — part of the GBRA’s Mid-Basin Project.

SAWS announced a couple of weeks ago that it is contesting the bid to ensure it can keep control over its wastewater flows through the San Antonio River. It is one of 10 stakeholders that have filed a request for a hearing in the permit process.

“We understand people who ‘want a place at the table,’” West said.

The concern — in part — goes back to the whooping crane case.

Greg Flores, a spokesman with the water system, said that if the appeals court ends up ruling that the state needs to send more water toward the Aransas Refuge, “we want to make sure that we have control of the return flows we put into the river from our wastewater treatment plant.”

Tyson Broad, a water research associate with the Sierra Club, said that instead of fighting the whooping crane case, the state should have allocated resources to try to solve the problem outside of court.

One example: the Edwards Aquifer Conservation Plan, a collaboration between environmental groups, cities, landowners and river authorities that laid out steps to resolve the conflict between a federal mandate to protect endangered species and region’s reliance on water from the aquifer.

As they ride out the drought, river revelers aren’t complaining. The slow flows just means their floating parties never seem to end.

This story is part of the Texas Tribune's "Troubled Waters" series, examining the state of Texas' rivers. Find the rest of the stories and a map of the rivers in the series here

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