During fall 2015, I interned with the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the quality, flow, and beauty of both San Marcos Springs and San Marcos River. As an intern with SMRF, I was a participant in in public outreach, land restoration in effort of conservation, volunteer work days, and Price Center maintenances and an observer of public engagement and professional activism at local and regional meetings.
The San Marcos River Foundation was established in 1985 to represent the San Marcos River which flows through numerous counties, where jurisdiction is not always clear, especially during times of rapid development and growth in the area (http://www.sanmarcosriver.org). The River Foundation consists of approximately two to three hundred members and nine board members. Additionally, SMRF actively seeks volunteers from the community to be involved in outdoor activities. Over the last thirty years, SMRF has maintained a high level of involvement in local and regional meetings, decision-making processes, and social networks, that in many ways it is difficult to untangle foundation operations from Mrs. Wassenich’s role as a professional activist to motivate both the public and the policy-makers to prioritize river and responsible development issues. This report will describe The San Marcos River Foundation’s integral projects such as land conservation and watershed protection for preserving water quality and flow and how the Foundation achieves mission goals through floodplain awareness, public outreach, and community and stakeholder engagement.
San Marcos River System
The Edwards Aquifer is a karst aquifer, which means it “consists of porous, honeycombed formations of limestone that serve as conduits through which water travels and is stored underground (http://www.edwardsaquifer.org)”, and is the source of the San Marcos Springs and River. The aquifer system consists of a drainage zone where rainfall collects in streams and tributaries and begins to permeate into limestone rock as it moves onto the recharge zone, where ‘sinking’ creeks infiltrate the limestone matrix through large caverns in large quantities, thus supplying the water expelled in the artesian zone through low and high pressure springs. The prolific aquifer supports livelihoods of approximately two million Central Texans, eight endangered and threatened species, and in-stream and freshwater flows to the San Antonio Bay.
A system, according to Morse et al. 2011, is a dynamic and complex whole composed of interdependent and interacting parts, and each system is ‘nested’ inside other systems. The Edwards Aquifer zones, springs, and San Marcos River are connected to the activities of humans living within the system as agents because the environment is a setting for and a product of human interactions. The San Marcos River System has many interconnected ecological and social components that shape ecosystem services, or benefits that functioning ecosystems provide, which support the livelihoods of ecological and social networks; such as development in watersheds and decreased water quality and recharge, floodplain development’s degraded riparian zones and intensified flood surges, and the formation of SMRF and the increased protection of water quality, flow, and beauty.
The Edwards Aquifer and San Marcos River are imminently confronted with the impact of human activities within the recharge zone and watershed, however with the help of SMRF representation there may be pathways to protection and sustainable management of these natural assets to the community. The River Foundation represents local concerns such as the impact of heavy recreational use on the river banks and water quality, what constitutes responsible development in the flood plains and sensitive recharge areas, sewage and septic tank discharge and storm water run-off into the river, and the spread of invasive species to the public and decision makers in order to protect the quality, flow, and beauty of the San Marcos River System.
Water Quality and Spring Flow
Activism and Stakeholder Engagement
Dianne Wassenich is a professional activist in San Marcos that represents environmental interests of the San Marcos Watershed, Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, San Marcos River, and floodplain activities to ensure water quality and spring flow protection. She and the non-profit organization motivate residents to get involved in city council, planning and zoning, and neighborhood council meetings, to participate in comment periods, send letters to local representatives, and engage in discussion with community members about sound land development code and sustainable development projects. Frequently, I observed Mrs. Wassenich speak on behalf of San Marcos River interests during the public comment period of council meetings, send letters informing decision- makers of issues or offering advice on healthy floodplain, recharge zone, and watershed management, and sustain productive conversation in a difficult regional planning meetings.
According to the dictionary, a stakeholder can be a person or group affected by or possessing interest in particular operations; in this case I am speaking of operations regarding the activities influencing the San Marcos River System. Stakeholders represent diverse interests such as industry, agriculture, municipalities, water districts, environmental, small businesses, public, etc. Stakeholder engagement, as I personally observed at city council and regional water planning meetings, was dominated by pro-development and profit seeking stakeholders and rarely by residents of a city or county. The San Marcos River Foundation encourages public stakeholder relations through sponsorship of community events such as the Texas Wild Rice Festival and coordination of volunteer outdoor activities such as the Annual River Clean up that connect the individual with services provided by the river. Stakeholder groups that are diverse in development and public representatives can bring attention to particular collective needs and interests in order to find compromise and provide flexible and transparent decision making.
The River Foundation’s program director was appointed to the Basin and Bay Area Stakeholder Committee (BBASC) due to her experience in a water rights application in 2000 that fought to keep freshwater flowing in stream to for a healthy San Antonio Bay and estuary system. Dianne Wassenich has been a representative of environmental interests in a group of stakeholders representing agriculture, industry, municipalities, and river authority interests for the last five years. The stakeholder committee works with expert scientific teams to analyze rivers and bays, and has recommended an environmental flow regime for each basin for adequate flows.
Land conservation is at the forefront of SMRF’s plan to protect water quality and spring flow of the San Marcos River in the coming years. In 2013, SMRF purchased the Geiger Tract consisting of seventy- five acres of highly sensitive recharge zone of Sink Creek just above Spring Lake, the head of the San Marcos River. Land purchases such as the Geiger Tract are instrumental in protecting water quality and spring flow of the San Marcos River as defense against the negative impacts of development within the Upper San Marcos watershed and Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, such as increased impervious surface and storm water runoff, decreased water quality, and decreased recharge of the aquifer. Land purchasing as an environmental non-profit organization can be extremely expensive, requiring large sums to be acquired through grants, loans, and fundraising. Additionally, land management after purchase is essential and typically requires SMRF to rally groups of volunteer workers and expend resources in order to be stewards of the newly acquired land.
The River Foundation encourages other land owners in the area to consider conservation easements in order to protect recharge zones, land and habitat connectivity, and sensitive watershed areas (Sanborn 2015). A conservation easement is a voluntary, typically permanent legal agreement between a land owner and a land trust or government agency easement holder intended to protect scenic open space, productive forests and rangelands, plant and wildlife habitat on private lands, aquifer recharge zone, and water catchment areas. According to Rissman et al. (2013), land protection in perpetuity is desirable to organizations concerned that development will overturn zoning and policy regulation. Results from 2013 show that conservation easements were designed to prevent land uses considered incompatible with their purposes such as waste dumping, landscape and surface alteration, prohibition of new buildings or subdivision of the property.
The San Marcos River Foundation participates in watershed initiatives such as the San Marcos and Plum Creek watershed projects to gather information with an end goal of a community and federally approved watershed protection plan that will protect the water quality and recharge features. Watershed protection planning (WPP) is a voluntary, stakeholder driven process that incorporates entities such as the City of San Marcos, realtors, Chamber of Commerce, counties, ranchers, SMRF (NPOs), and Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University to be involved in the planning processes. The diverse stakeholder process has explored ways to manage impacts to surface and groundwater resources (http://www.sanmarcosriver.org).
Watersheds, or catchment areas, are examples of ‘nested’ systems in which smaller systems form larger systems with the boundaries defined by an observer or a group of observers; in this case an observer is a stakeholder. Determining best management practices within creek and river basins, or lower level watersheds, could initiate the emergence of a complex watershed protection plan that is ecologically and socially appropriate. During city council meetings, I was able to see council members and the mayor begin to consider watershed activities’ consequences on livelihoods such as increased impervious surface and flooding, and even raise concern about having multiple counties within the larger Blanco River Watershed to communicate and plan future activities. Adopting a watershed protection perspective offers a systems thinking approach that utilizes adaptive problem solving for each nested boundary within the overall system, not just the parts of the whole.
SMRF in Action
“Flash Flood Alley”
The River Foundation seeks to spread awareness of the risks of development in the flood plain like increased recovery and reconstruction costs, loss of lives and households, and decreased water quality. The San Marcos River Foundation has shed light on consequences of development in the flood plain and has stood to remind many councils during times of flood amnesia that our activity in seemingly dry creek beds will have major impacts on livelihoods downstream. City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission were advised by SMRF to postpone further flood plain development until the updated Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps where released, which are currently being engineered by a collaboration of Guadalupe- Blanco River Authority (GBRA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); these ABFEs will advise the City where the new flood plain lines occur, and then it will be up to the City to decide if further elevation is needed. In the year 2015, San Marcos suffered two major flood events, the Memorial Day Flood and the All Saints Flood. The sequence of these devastating events has influenced certain residents and council members to be extra committed to participation in flood plain awareness.
The San Marcos River Foundation seeks to engage and inform the public of resource outlets for emergency updates online or text during extreme weather events and volunteer disaster recovery groups. As part of my internship with SMRF, I volunteered to repair flood damaged government housing after the Memorial Day flood and with the habitat conservation crew to clean up debris along the river after the All Saints Flood. Volunteer opportunities like these are examples of what might be included in SMRF’s newsletter and Facebook posts to get Hays county residents involved in the local community and better understand the effects of floodplain development.
Advocacy of risk management and issues of development within the floodplain is increasingly important in the Central Texas region as it is historically prone to flash floods with close to twenty major flood events in the Blanco River Basin in the last fifty years according to City of San Marcos staff. With the help of flood plain awareness, the city and surrounding communities are beginning to plan ahead for severe weather events and looking at impervious surface and impacts of development on the quality and resilience of the San Marcos and Blanco River watersheds. The council, land code developers, and planning and zoning commissions have their work cut out for them in embracing flood plain risk management and finding comprehensive ways to address needs of current and future residents within the flood plain.
Public Outreach and Education
According to Dianne Wassenich, public outreach and education is SMRF’s number one tool to get residents and decision makers to take action. The River Foundation seeks to inform all members of the community including decision- makers who otherwise might be unaware of issues or hold a narrow perspective on an issue. The SMRF newsletter and Facebook are critical tools in alerting the public of urgent action needed for agenda items or volunteer groups. The River Foundation also has a new website, which I was involved in editing content for, that is readily available for visitors to learn of upcoming events such as the Annual River Clean up in spring 2016, news and issues, and current projects of the Foundation.
The San Marcos River Foundation was one of the sponsors of the award winning documentary, Yakona, which takes the viewer from prehistoric times through the modern era of the crystal clear waters of the San Marcos Springs and the River. The documentary captures the audience in the beauty and awe of the life sustained by the springs, while enhancing the audience’s knowledge of the history and human interaction with the lands we inhabit today. Yakona was showcased with a live student orchestra in Alkek Teaching Theater at Texas State University this October. The event was an opportunity for me to observe SMRF social networking in real time and participate in discussion with the public about SMRF’s projects and newsletter and distribute SMRF book marks containing river related literature.
The San Marcos River is a symbol representing multiple meanings to various people in the community. Certain people that have dedicated time and effort to the revered river have passed away, leaving loved ones to cherish the river in their memory. Through a memorial donation process, SMRF has successfully planted fourteen Bald Cypress trees in order to commemorate past river stewards and activists. I created a map of the Memorial Bald Cypress trees using a handheld GPS device, ArcGIS, and Google Earth (See Figure 1). I documented the tree locations around Rio Vista, Wildlife Habitat, and Ramon Lucio Parks during a routine maintenance check on the cypress saplings.
Public involvement in the initial stages of agenda items and development projects is critical in order to have input in the decision making process. Major challenges exist for public participation including, and not limited to, initial information not readily available for the public until the final stages of discussion and implementation process, and feelings of discouragement due to blasé decision makers during public comment. Public involvement from my experiences with the internship, hinged on being engaged in local issues and events, which is linked to being informed of local issues, having the autonomy, or self-motivation, to be present in public discourse with other residents and decision makers, and the feeling that participation was actually accomplishing a desired result. In order to stay involved on time, individuals must continue to be actively informed on local issues and events and communicating with fellow residents and decision making entities.
Social networking and outreach is a great way for community members to stay informed and active through outlets such as SMRF weekly newsletter and Facebook posts about upcoming river and development related agenda items as well as upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. According to Drazkiewicz et al. 2015, “networks of participants build trust and develop shared norms, which bolster cooperation and alliances leading to the ability to implement and support beneficial activities”. Established social networks are easily ‘deployed’ during times of need as seen fall 2015 through campaign crew outreach and fund raising within a community, emergency and flood update outlets, disaster recovery resource distribution, and volunteer group organization.
Residents that stay civically engaged and informed of the local government and developer actions when they first arise are more likely to have an opportunity to make an impact than a resident who is uninformed and not engaged. Citizen science utilizes local knowledge and civic engagement to collect data systematically in an area. A scientifically engaged public allows for transparent discourse between diverse interests of decision-makers, engineers and developers, and the public. I learned at a Desired Future Condition meeting for Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD), that Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCD) are strapped for funds for scientific studies that would help constituents and decision makers better understand and manage their groundwater resources, and the GCD needs the assistance of local citizen science groups’ data reports and analysis to address management objectives. Citizen studies such as river ranger data or local geology surveys can help fill in the knowledge gaps surrounding local resources, and may answer public and administrative questions while allowing citizens to interpret privately funded models presented during public hearings with a more informed understanding, refuting, and decision making ability.
Every Day Anthropology
The disciplines of Anthropology are celebrated for being diverse and crossing the boundaries of other disciplines in order to reach a more whole perspective and understanding of the interrelationships among systems at varying levels. I was able to pull knowledge from political science, history, biology, ecology, geography, and sociology during my experiences with SMRF internship. Two frameworks I utilized throughout my internship were ecological anthropology and systems thinking (from integral ecology course fall 2014) in order to understand the complex interconnected activities and goals of the San Marcos River Foundation and roles of Dianne Wassenich.
Non-profit organizations, like SMRF, emerged in the late 20th century and focused on environmental and ‘rights’ issues; and have gained attention as social change enablers (Kottak 1999). Agents within systems must have motivation to act, rationalization of action and knowledge of social structure and schemas in order to act purposefully to obtain intended outcomes, and have reflexive monitoring of action of self or others (Morse et al. 2011). For the last thirty years, the San Marcos River Foundation has been an agent of change for the San Marcos River System and the biota it supports including the humans that interact with the ecosystem in many interconnected ways. The River Foundation has pursued water rights to keep in stream flows of rivers, represented environmental and public interests in regional groups, advocated for sound watershed and floodplain management for sustained water quality, and motivated the residents and public of Hays County to be engaged and informed.
Ecological anthropologists such as Roy Rappaport (Kottak 1999) were influenced by Julian Steward’s cultural ecology, which saw culture as a primary adaptive mechanism used by human societies to deal with, understand, give meaning to, and generally cope with their environment; however new ecological anthropologists seek to understand and devise culturally informed solutions to such problems as environmental degradation, aquifer mining, and development on recharge zones (Kottak 1999). Some Texans that rely on Edwards Aquifer resources have adopted water conservative behavioral habits that help them address the issues of the area such as rainwater harvesting and native landscaping, as well as participation in local and regional ecosystem and resource planning and management. According to Kottak 1999, ecological anthropologists are interested in gaining insight from environmental and ‘rights’ oriented NPOs due to the trend of their emergence and possible role in creating desired environmental feedback responses during decision making processes in order to better solve problems of future societies and ecological communities (Kottak 1999).
A system thinking perspective has been mentioned throughout the paper dealing with complex characteristics of dynamic systems, intricate nested hierarchies of systems of watershed protection planning, basin and bay area stakeholder groups, regional water planning, city council meetings and subsequent commissions, and the goals of the SMRF. In terms of ‘self-organizing’ features of complex adaptive systems, the San Marcos River Foundation is an organization that formed from “humans reflecting and acting with foresight to purposefully develop and manage resources, mitigate impacts, and communicate ideas into the future” (Morse et al. 2011); and in turn various projects have been fundamental in protecting water quality, flow, and beauty of the San Marcos Springs and River. With a systems’ perspective, I noticed a pattern through SMRFs history initially focusing on small scale, one on one citizen science training and now the organization presently is focusing on large-scale, regional issues such as watershed protection and resource management. Small changes in lower level systems can have emergent effects in the higher level systems, for example, the City of San Marcos now has for the first time in SMRF history a majority of ecologically inclined council members, which may lead to fundamental changes in the growth oriented, pro-development pathway previously paved for San Marcos.
My internship with environmental, non-profit organization the San Marcos River Foundation was an immersion into real world scenarios of balancing realities of urban development and sensitive ecosystem management, the devastating effects of two intense rainfall and flooding events in Central Texas of 2015, and the challenges of groundwater uses and needs for future Central Texans. The River Foundation maintains a presence at local city council, parks, and planning and zoning meetings in order to keep a watchful eye on agenda items and offer vocal representation for the water quality, flow, and beauty needs and vulnerabilities of the San Marcos Springs and River. The program director of SMRF, Dianne Wassenich, is largely involved in the community in order to generate and maintain community networks of informed and engaged residents. Coordinating volunteer groups, land conservation, and watershed protection projects are integral aspects of SMRFs water quality and spring flow missions. The River Foundation works to sponsor events like the Texas Wild Rice Festival and the creation of the documentary Yakona to foster public connections to the beauty and history of the springs, fostering a sense of place worth protecting for future generations.
As a participant and observer through this internship, I have gained a better understanding of the role of professional activists and NPOs in policy and decision making settings as change agents, or advocates, that motivate public involvement; as well as the continuing to be a representative of natural resources: land, water, and people. I experienced tangible applications of ecological anthropology perspective and systems thinking during my internship via the interconnected water quality and spring flow projects, the River Foundation’s various scales of involvement in local and regional stakeholder planning and decision-making procedures, and observation of outcomes to SMRF’s public outreach and engagement efforts.
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Texas Water Development Board. 2015. “Water Planning.” www.twdb.texas.gov