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Future Flow In Doubt For San Antonio River Blue Hole

Every summer there is a drop in the water level of the Edwards Aquifer. This is one of the most prolific artesian aquifers in the world. It is the main source of drinking water for San Antonio and over two million people.

But when the water level drops too low springs in Central Texas stop flowing.

And the aquifer is about at the point for one special spring that has cultural, historical and spiritual significance.

The spring water pulses out of the ground like a heart beat. The cold crystal clear liquid bubbles out of an underground chamber and into a circular limestone rock wall. Then the water breaks down the slope giving birth to the San Antonio River – and will eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.

This is the Blue Hole – the river’s headwaters - a miracle of nature tucked away on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word.

But for many like Jodie Alvandarez Vela the Blue Hole is more than a natural spring it I a spiritual place that connects her to her ancestors.

“This to me is our umbligo – our belly button of life. Night time is the best time to look at it when the moon is right over it and it will show you – it showed us – a lot of ways. So this needs to be protected, really really it does.”

She says the slowing water flow of the Blue Hole saddens her.

“I can’t believe it’s that low. The last time I came up here the water was up to the edge.

When this area was first settled over 300 years ago the Blue Hole was a gusher – a natural fountain bursting with life. The water was shooting out of the ground. It was the source of the river and to the founding of the city of San Antonio.

And Matilda Torres says her ancestors celebrated and prayed to the waters. They called it Yanaguana.

That’s a name that has been reclaimed in San Antonio but without the acknowledgement of its full meaning.

“Yanaguana is the river that is the mirror of the sky. That’s what really Yanaguana is. Everything that we walk on here, basically everything here is the mirror of our sky – of our universe. Nature and universe that’s how our people saw things. And I don’t think that here in Yanaguana or in San Antonio that people know what we really have here.”

Alex Altrim is the Executive Director of the Headwaters at the University of the Incarnate Word.

“It’s the life blood of San Antonio, the head of the river and the reason why this area was settled. The fact that most of the population of San Antonio doesn’t recognize this as a great cultural and ecological resource is sad.”

For a long period the Blue Hole stopped flowing. Except during periodic heavy rain events, then it would dry up once again. Altrim explains that when the spring goes dry things are dramatically different here.

“It becomes a stagnant spring. It’s dark. It gets mucky. It doesn’t flow. It’ not attractive to wildlife or to people. And it’ just sort of an echo really of what it one was.”

About two years ago the Blue Hole came back after a particularly wet spring and early summer the Edwards Aquifer was recharged to a point where the spring flow was healthy again. But now that the wet weather has moved on – the aquifer levels are back on the slide. And the concern is that it’s just a matter of days before the Blue Hole goes dry again.

“Yea, I definitely think it could stop flowing permanently,” said Altrim.

Altrim say that perhaps this could be the last time that the Blue Hole will have enjoyed a relatively long period of robust flow.

“It seems that there are not a lot of restriction on how we use the Edwards Aquifer,” she said.

But there are aquifer restrictions and protections in place which are managed by the Edwards Aquifer Authority. And due to issues connected to the Endangered Species Act there are limits on how much water can be pumped from the aquifer.

But Gary Perez, trustee of the Native American Church in Mirando City and the Custodian of the Peyote Gardens says there needs to be some community focus on the health of the Blue Hole.

“If these springs aren’t flowing then how culturally responsible are we being as a city to the history of pre-Columbia, before the Spanish arrived? There was a whole group of people here that told stories and from here all the way up to the Trans-Pecos and down into Mexico. And what happened to all that history. That needs to be told.”

Perez says when the Blue Hole stops flowing there is a mourning by the Native Peoples who see this spot as an important location on Earth. And they continue that mourning until they see the Blue Hole flow again.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi