Friday, March 9, 2012

Week Two: Jacob's Well and hydrology

Jacob's Well Natural Area
In the 1950s, my grandparents, Mose and Meta Smith, retired to Wimberley on the Blanco River. So as a child, I spent countless hours, swimming, wading and paddling, in the water below their home. Often, Papa would take us down to the "rapids," as he called them, and there we'd plunk down among the rocks and let the water rush over our shoulders.

In all those years of growing up and then the 23 I’ve lived here in Blanco, I’d never visited Jacob’s Well, the second longest underground cave in Texas. Even while a newspaper reporter in the early 1980s, I wrote about the artesian spring but still never visited, which embarrasses me even more.

Finally, as part of our Master Naturalist training with the Highland Lakes chapter, this week I walked down the worn stone steps and followed the dirt path that lead to this amazing natural feature.

Week Two of our curriculum focused on aquatic ecology and management, ecosystems concepts and management, and Hill Country hydrology and water issues.

David Baker, who initiated efforts to preserve Jacob’s Well in the 1990s, now serves as executive director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, which oversees the 149-acre Jacob’s Well Natural Area.

“I moved here 24 years ago,” he told our class at the natural area’s education center. “When I walked down the steps, the hairs on my neck rose when I saw the spring. I knew I was supposed to be here. Especially because my then nine-month-old son’s name was Jacob. He always thought we named the well after him!”

According to Baker, growth projections for the Texas Hill Country are ominous. Studies predict that our population will double (from 3 million to 5.3 million) within four decades. (I always want to cry whenever we drive into San Antonio, Austin or San Marcos, and see all the development.)

“If we continue to build as we have, a lot of rural lands will be lost,” Baker warned. “And so will our quality of water. How will we deal responsibly with the growth issue? Because if we don’t, Jacob’s Well will be one of those places we could lose and not get back.”

“We need to sustain our aquifer, not mine it,” he continued. “We are deficit pumping our aquifer. It’s not regulation or a magic bullet but what we do collectively that will save and protect Jacob’s Well.”

Toward that crucial goal, Baker advocates the use of native plants in landscapes, installation of rainwater collection systems and clustering developments with open (undeveloped) areas.

After lunch, Chad Norris, an aquatic biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, addressed groundwater, natural springs and hydrology in the region.

“We’re on top of the Trinity Aquifer here at Jacob’s Well,” he explained. “The Edwards Aquifer recharges through a rain event when water seeps through rivers and cracks in the rocks. The Trinity, though, recharges more slowly through the rocks.”

As the “springs guy” with TPWD, Norris has surveyed many springs in the Hill Country, such as Rebecca Springs near Canyon Dam. At sites, he’s always glad to find spring-dependent species, such as salamanders, Nueces red nose minnows, plateau shiners and greenthroat darters, which indicate healthy waters.

Anne and Jeff–Master Naturalists with the Hays County chapter–shared about their volunteer work at the natural area and why we need to get kids back outside. Adults, too.

“A lot of people don’t even know where their water comes from,” said Barbara Attwell, who's with education and outreach at Jacob's Well.

[Note: To find out, go online to Surf Your Watershed. But I’d suggest going the county list first–that’s where you can click on your county and find out quicker.]

After the presentations, we headed outside for 20-minute visits at three stations. I'll just let my photos do the talking from here....

Betty, a Master Naturalist with my Highland Lakes chapter, accompanied me down to see Jacobs Well for my very first time.

The "bottomless" hole reaches way down into murky darkness.

Betty pointed out this "English ivy" looking vine. My image is fuzzy, but I hope someone can ID it for us.   
UPDATE: Blog reader Sandy Lawrence suggested climbing snapdragon vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora). She's right! According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the species is "found climbing on shrubs and hanging from bluffs in rocky, calcareous soils in the southern half of the Hill Country." Bingo!
Later, Jeff–a Master Naturalist with Hays County–escorted our half of the class down to Jacob's Well.

He pointed out Mexican buckeye...
UPDATE: Reader JonniAlmoney thinks this plant may be a red buckeye, not Mexican, because of the leaves. Check out the difference: Mexican buckeye, scarlet buckeye. I think I agree!

...and little bluestem.

A prickly agarita. I mixed it up with barberry (of which my photo didn't turn out), which is closely related to barberry. Anne wrote an article on Texas barberry (clicking the link will download the Hays County Master Naturalist Newsletter, November 2011 issue).

The limestone ledged overview at Jacob's Well.


Cedar sage–I loved seeing them grow between the rocks.
Joanne and Marcy from Blanco head down the riparian trail back to the education center.

Live oaks growing FROM the rocks! Marcy from our chapter spotted this neat shot.

This interesting guy shared my table during Chad's presentation. An expert with has IDed it as a snakefly, an insect that's new to me! The long "tail" (ovipositor) indicates that he is indeed a guy. Snakeflies don't sting and are harmless to humans.

The rainfall simulator, our first station, demonstrated how pesticides, fertilizers and other harmful elements wash into our rivers and aquifers.

Ray from the Hays County chapter grew this little bluestem specimen in an AC duct just so he could show the perennial species' lengthy root system.

Wheat, an annual grass, has much shorter roots.

Ray showed us the roots of a switchgrass bunch, which he also grew in a duct.

On the path back to our cars, we saw prairie verbena and baby blue-eyes (above).

Also this little mystery flower.... Maybe a newly opened Texas greeneyes (Berlandiera betonicifolia)? I'm stumped.

Our class curriculum sends us the Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, where we'll get an overview of the Highland Lakes and hear about water issues and solutions. We also learn about invasive zebra mussels and tour the fish hatchery.


sandy lawrence said...

It's hard to determine the actual size of the leaf on the "English Ivy"-like plant, but I wonder if it could be a Snapdragon Vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora)? At least you can rule it out with this reference, and maybe someone else will do a better ID job than I. Thanks for taking us on the visit to Jacob's Well. I'd never been and always wanted to see it.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

Sandy, I believe you're right! Thank you thank you!! said...

Could that possibly be a scarlet buckeye, Aesculus pavia, rather than a Mexican buckeye? The leaves look like it from your photo.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

I think you may be right! That's what we were told on the trail. But now that I've compared images of the leaves, like you point out, I agree more with you.....

Unknown said...

I am asking a silly question but was wondering if this is the Normal Water Level at Jacob's Well? Without doubt I am sure the drought has impacted it but was curious. These are wonderful shots and so nice to see them. Hope Jacob's Well keeps going and will always be a place of natural beauty. Thanks for the teaching lesson. Martha

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

I know the creek is WAY DOWN. But I'm not sure about the well level. I'm sure that's down too.

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