Source of Inspiration—Land&People

From the dining room window of her high-rise condominium, 83-year-old Fay Sinkin enjoys one of the best views of San Antonio. The city of the Alamo sprawls among the broad plains and low hills of south-central Texas as far as the hazy horizon. “This is where eight of us sat and brainstormed back in 1988,” recalls Sinkin, sipping from a glass of ice water on this hot, humid day. “We tried to figure out how to get some undeveloped land protected in order to preserve our aquifer. Everything one sees out this window depends on San Antonio’s wonderful underground water supply.”

The refreshing liquid that soothes Sinkin’s parched throat came from this source, as does virtually all the drinking water consumed in this fast-growing city of 1.5 million–the largest in the United States to derive its water from a single rechargeable aquifer. The 180-mile-long underground limestone reservoir provides water so pure that it is treated with chlorine only to meet legal requirements.

“The Edwards Aquifer is our lifeblood,” stresses Jason Corzine, a former staffer for the city-owned San Antonio Water System and now project manager for the Trust for Public Land’s local office, which opened in 2000. “Protecting this resource is critical to the city’s future.” An estimated 15 to 50 million acre-feet of water are stored in the honeycombed karst–a limestone formation–which also serves scores of smaller Texas communities.

“This is why Government Canyon is so important,” says Sinkin, a gravel-voiced activist who has spent more than 20 years drumming up support for conservation of the Edwards.

Located on the fringe of San Antonio’s newest suburbs, about 20 miles northwest of downtown, the Government Canyon State Natural Area protects 7,043 acres that lie mostly atop the aquifer’s recharge zone, an environmentally sensitive area where moisture flows through sinkholes, tunnels, pores, faults, and cracks directly into the aquifer.

“We came very close to losing Government Canyon to residential development,” says George Veni, a straight-talking San Antonio hydrogeologist and one of the foremost authorities on the Edwards Aquifer. “Roads, houses, golf courses, septic systems, toxic chemicals, parking lots, and commercial buildings pose a threat to water quality in such areas. They tend to inhibit the natural flow of surface water and introduce contaminants into the aquifer, which might be impossible to clean up if incoming water becomes polluted.” The value of this resource, Veni believes, is incalculable, since San Antonio has no other large, cheap, easily accessible supply from which to draw.

“Almost all available water rights in the area have been locked up,” he points out. “Without this aquifer, the city would probably have to build a desalinization plant at the Gulf of Mexico and pump that water to San Antonio, at great expense.”

Conservation Through Cooperation

The aquifer protection efforts initiated by Sinkin, Veni, and other concerned citizens paid off in 1993, when TPL structured a deal in which the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), Edwards Aquifer Authority, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bought 4,717 acres of Government Canyon for $2 million. The land has since been administered as a state natural area by a unique alliance of local agencies, nonprofit groups, and volunteers. In 1996, TPL helped bring 1,121 adjacent acres under the protection of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

TPL since has acquired two additional parcels of recharge land, with support from the city and state as well as several foundations, corporations, and individuals. The ongoing effort, which now preserves more than 7,000 acres of recharge land, is a testament to the power of conservation through cooperation.

“Members of the community really feel that this place belongs to them, and they are very committed to helping us manage it,” says Deirdre Hisler, the enthusiastic whirlwind who oversees Government Canyon State Natural Area for Texas Parks and Wildlife, talking with a visitor on the tree-shaded porch of the old ranch house that serves as park headquarters. “We are trying to make this a model for a new, cutting-edge kind of state park–one in which our partners and the people who live in Bexar County are involved every step of the way.”

Although the property is owned by the state of Texas, its management is bound to legal partnerships with SAWS; the Government Canyon Natural History Association (a nonprofit group evolving from the original coalition of pro-canyon activists); and the Edwards Aquifer Authority, a regional oversight agency on whose board Sinkin once served.

“We share information with each other all the time and constantly reach out to the original players,” says Hisler, stressing the importance of ongoing feedback from those who first sought the canyon’s protection. “It’s a big challenge to make this work within a state bureaucracy, but we are.”

Recharging Spirits and Water

Although the Government Canyon State Natural Area was created eight years ago, it will not open to the general public until 2002. The delay has been necessary to allow experts to assess Government Canyon’s resources. According to its master plan, the primary purpose of the state natural area is to protect the canyon’s natural resources. Human activities will be limited to such low-impact pursuits as hiking, picnicking, primitive camping, birding, and mountain biking. Eight miles of equestrian trails are planned on the park’s least sensitive acreage. Although no construction will occur in the recharge area, an eco-friendly visitor center, classroom, and a few other structures are being built beyond that zone.

Meanwhile, scores of trained volunteers, along with laborers from the Texas Department of Corrections, have been building a trail network, removing non-native flora and fauna, restoring native grasslands, and carrying out other tasks that must be completed before the land will be opened to visitors.

“Our outreach emphasizes that there’s more to do in parks than play soccer or T-ball,” says Hisler, noting that the ballfields some would like to see at Government Canyon demand the use of chemicals that could contaminate the aquifer. “We’re offering a more nature-oriented kind of recreation,” she says, citing Government Canyon’s silence and solitude as two of its greatest assets. Visiting high-stressed officials have gone home relaxed and convinced that, as the park’s manager puts it, “this is a place to recharge the spirit as well as the aquifer.” Such serenity is significant, since Government Canyon is so close to a major city.

Although Hisler describes the canyon’s rugged landscape as “not mind-blowing,” others would surely disagree. The state natural area is a prime example of relatively untouched hill country, distinguished by thick oak-juniper-mesquite woodlands punctuated by colorful meadows of native grasses and wildflowers as well as sun-baked patches of cacti. Government Canyon provides habitat for at least two endangered bird species–the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo–in addition to bobcats, deer, porcupines, and many other animals. Numerous caves on the property are home to several endangered species of tiny cave invertebrates as well as bats.

Other Government Canyon treasures include a stand of tall live oaks whose branches drip with long strands of Spanish moss, cliffside seeps from which ferns emerge in shady splendor, ragged bluffs with distant views of downtown San Antonio, lush riparian zones dense with sycamore and willow, and bands of ancient limestone where three-toed dinosaur tracks are exposed. Much of the environment is being restored to a more pristine state through the removal of feral hogs and non-native vegetation.

There is history here, too. Government Canyon’s name is said to derive from its strategic positioning on a 19th-century supply trail that led from San Antonio to Camp Verde and other military forts. A stone farmhouse and stagecoach stop, built in 1882 by the pioneering Zizelmann family, is one of several historic buildings within the park’s borders. Evidence of earlier visitors–including Apache and Comanche hunting parties–also has been found.

Nurturing a Coalition

Cattle ranching by private owners continued on the property until 1967, when it was sold to investors. The subsequent collapse of the savings and loan industry resulted in the federal government acquiring the land through its Resolution Trust Corporation, an agency formed to dispose of foreclosed real estate. As with other properties, the RTC was eager to auction the parcel to the highest bidder.

Community activists and grassroots advocacy groups, then focused on acquisition of another bankrupt tract nearby, took notice and in 1991 formed an alliance of about 40 local entities called the Government Canyon Coalition. Participants included churches, neighborhood associations, birders, architects, scientists, and even a few conservation-minded ranchers and developers. The group garnered political support from Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizando and then-mayor Nelson Wolf, and contacted TPL for help.

“TPL brought us expertise on real estate transfers, alliance building, and fundraising that we desperately needed,” says Danielle Milam, a former co-chair of the coalition and one of the eight original advocates for recharge zone protection who convened in Fay Sinkin’s dining room. Politically savvy and a tireless worker, Milam served on the SAWS board and helped convince the municipal utility that it needed to invest in a watershed-land acquisition program focused on the Edwards recharge zone. “It took more than two years [to protect Government Canyon], but we never could have pulled this off without TPL.”

TPL’s Dave Sutton managed the project. “I think what we did was invaluable not only for protecting the aquifer but for lending credibility and confidence to San Antonio’s environmental community at a time when local politicians and agency officials were not really listening to them,” he says. “Our success has provided an impetus for authorities to do things differently.”

Milam cites Tim Hixon, a powerful member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, as an important ally. “Hixon visited Government Canyon and was literally ‘sold’ on the spot,” she recalls. “He became the true champion of the purchase, and once the deal closed he maintained that role by becoming the lead contact for raising development money from the private and foundation sectors in support of the park.”

Coalition founders agree that there is greater public awareness of the importance of protecting the Edwards. This was demonstrated in May 2000, when San Antonio voters approved a sales tax increase that earmarked $45 million for the purchase of up to 10,000 additional acres of recharge land by TPL and its partners (The Nature Conservancy of Texas and the Bexar Land Trust) for transfer to the city. So far, 3,000 acres have been acquired or are under negotiation for purchase by TPL.

The slow-moving collaborative effort to protect Government Canyon has had a downside, however. Reaching consensus and raising money don’t happen overnight, and the price of land in the area nearly doubles each year. Parcels adjacent to the park that were acquired for about $2,000 per acre in 1999 cost more than $3,750 in 2000. This contrasts sharply with the $424 per acre spent to purchase the core tract in 1993.

“Government Canyon is great,” says Kyle Cunningham, founding president of Government Canyon Natural History Association. “But we need to do more.” Indeed, an estimated 30,000 acres in Bexar County’s recharge zone either have been developed or are currently slated for development.

Fay Sinkin, dubbed “the mother of aquifer protection” by local media, remains optimistic. The new park “is a vital tool for environmental education,” she concludes. “Today, people in San Antonio realize they don’t get water from a tap; they get it from the Edwards. One can’t imagine how big a step that is.”

Freelance writer Richard Mahler was born in San Antonio and now lives one state away, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.