Restoring the ‘spirit reach’ of the San Antonio River

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UIW freshmen George English and Blake Thomas remove debris from the outlet of the very dry Blue Hole. Paula Christine Schuler

UIW freshmen George English and Blake Thomas remove debris from the outlet of the very dry Blue Hole. Paula Christine Schuler

UIW freshmen George English and Blake Thomas remove logs to keep water flowing in the right direction from the headwaters of the San Antonio River. Paula Christine Schuler

UIW freshmen George English and Blake Thomas remove logs to keep water flowing in the right direction from the headwaters of the San Antonio River. Paula Christine Schuler

By Paula Christine Schuler

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

About once a week 10-50 community volunteers and students from the University of Incarnate Word gather 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays or Saturdays at a small, but significant green space occupying the first one-third mile of the San Antonio River.

They work to help restore, preserve and build a place where the Earth can stay well and people can be restored.

With the recent drought, flow from the San Antonio Spring, fondly known as the Blue Hole, has ceased.

The spring that feeds the San Antonio River and the Olmos Creek come together near the Blue Hole to bring inhabitants and tourists to the area for more than 10,000 years.

Helen Ballew, executive director of Headwaters of Incarnate Word, originally named Headwaters Coalition, said some like to call the headwaters “the spirit reach” of the San Antonio River Walk.

The first initiative of Headwaters of Incarnate Word is the creation of a nature sanctuary for education and spiritual reflection.

Part of the work is removing debris deposited by the Olmos Creek after storms and building trails.

Other workdays are devoted to removing invasive plants and replacing them with native species.

Ballew reported that the Olmos Basin north of UIW collects rainwater from a large area of San Antonio.

Water flow is controlled by the Olmos Dam to prevent massive flooding.

San Antonio has been in a state of drought since fall 2010 leading to a backflow situation.

In spite of flow controls of rain from the dam and below the dam can overwhelm the dry creek bed from the Blue Hole and push water and debris back into the Blue Hole.

To prevent blockage, Ballew installed a fine grate over the spring’s circular wall opening.

She said the grate protects the opening to the spring cave from debris.

When rain returns, the spring will be unimpeded and able to flow again, Ballew said.

Little springs and seeps will begin again in abundance over the Olmos Basin and headwaters area of the river.

On April 5, volunteers cleared recently gathered debris with a wheel barrel from the grate area and moved on to clear trees that had fallen over the riverbed.

Ballew said keeping the river bed clear of logs, fallen branches and leaf build-up helps preserve the Blue Hole, so it will be free to flow again when the aquifer returns to levels above 676 feet.

The historical marker tells of a much more active spring in the 1800s reported to sometimes gush several feet into the air.

“The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth,” landscape architect and travel writer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in his first travel book, “Journey Through Texas.”

Olmsted wrote, “It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.”

Ballew said they want more of a natural contemplative human scale to the development and care of this part of the river and maintain a simple, low impact kind of vision.

Ballew said there is a misconception that the Blue Hole is owned by the university but is inaccessible.

The headwaters sanctuary area is accessible from the UIW campus and visible on their campus map. Visit uiw.edu/map.

Three more initiatives of the Headwaters of Incarnate Word include restoration and care of the land, facilitation of sanctuary-based programs that encourage an ecological ethic and reaching out to serve as a catalyst for environmental responsibility.

Water will always be essential to life, and clean water coming from preserved sources is critical to the wellbeing of the environment.

The volunteers April 6 were a peaceful group ready to work at 8:30 a.m., dressed in boots or sneakers, jeans and long sleeves because it was a cold day.

UIW pre-pharmacy freshman George England said it was his second time to volunteer and he enjoyed the project.

Retired Air Force volunteer Olivia Tapia has been volunteering for two years and said, “This is important work.”

The friendly, ready hearts of the volunteers invested care and spirit into the river.

Tapia appeared typical of the volunteers, a group of individuals who were finding enjoyment, satisfaction, peace and restoration as they restored the “spirit reach.”

For more information, call Helen Ballew at 210-824-2224, Ext. 232 or visit www.headwaterscoalition.org.

To volunteer, email howard.homan@amormeus.org.

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