Jacob's Well Is A Source Of Life For The Wimberley Valley. What Would Happen If It Were To Stop Flowing For Good?
Picture a 30-foot-deep hole in the ground. It’s about 12 feet wide and kind of shaped like a human eye. Now picture a ton of water gushing up from the bottom of it, filling it all the way to the top and spilling over enough to fill an entire pool of water above ground. This is Jacob’s Well.
David Baker stands on the bank above it, looking down at dozens of swimmers jumping in and out of the crystal-clear water. These days it’s known to most people as a swimming hole, a popular attraction in Western Hays County that Baker says sees about 35,000 visitors every summer.
He would know, because he lives right on top of it. Baker moved to Wimberley in the 1980s, when, in a stroke of luck, he says a realtor told him about a stone house out at Jacob’s Well.
He remembers the first time he saw it.
“The hair on my arms stood up and I was like, ‘Whoa, wow, what is this?’” he says. So he bought the property and raised a family there. But some years later, Baker noticed something was wrong.
“The well was not flowing very well,” he says. “It [was] just really still, and I was just curious. I was like, where's this water coming from? Is it safe? Is it clean? And what's all this development up here happening? Is that impacting it?”
That series of questions led to the creation of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, a nonprofit Baker and other residents formed in 1996 to protect Jacob’s Well — and specifically, that flow of water coming from underground.
Jacob’s Well is more than just a swimming hole. It’s also a message bearer: It lets people know how much groundwater is in the aquifer beneath them.
And this year — for the fourth time in its recorded history — the water at Jacob’s Well stopped flowing for a couple days. For months, it was at a dangerously low flow-rate. And even though the recent rains have replenished it some, the threat of drought and extreme summertime heat is not far from the minds of the people who call the Wimberley Valley home.
“When this stops flowing, everybody starts paying attention,” Robin Gary, managing director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, says.
Jacob’s Well is also the headwaters for Cypress Creek, which flows through downtown Wimberley. Gary says if the water were to stop flowing for good, it would have a major impact on the local economy, which is fueled by tourism.
“Everyone around here is groundwater-dependent. It's a groundwater community,” she says. “When spring flow drops to such low levels, it's indicative of a larger issue.”
A Town That Runs On Tourism
People in Wimberley are painfully aware of the domino effect that would play out if the well stopped flowing. The city relies almost solely on sales taxes generated from its shops, restaurants and Airbnbs, many of which are on Cypress Creek.
Helena Hauk owns one of those businesses, a quiet and lush property called the Creekhaven Inn. When she and her husband bought it a few years ago, they thought about the worst-case scenarios: lulls in business, maybe, or a flood. What they didn’t imagine was the creek drying up entirely.
“A big part of this community and what keeps it running and spinning is tourism. People want to play in the water, experience the water, see the water, be in it however they can,” Hauk says. “That's the main thing that makes our property so cool and inviting and enticing is the creek. Whether you get in it or not, it's part of the draw.”
Life without that water is hard for Hauk to think about.
“Devastating is the only word that would come to mind,” she says.
A Multitude Of Threats
More people are moving out to the Hill Country, which means more development and more straws in the ground drinking up the water from the aquifer below. From there it becomes a classic story of the marketplace: too much demand, not enough supply.
Sometimes these developments are built on recharge zones, which are basically open pieces of land that absorb rainwater and replenish the aquifer. Say a developer pours concrete over that for a parking lot — and water can't through to the aquifer. That's why Baker says it’s so important that the areas around Jacob’s Well are conserved as much as possible.
“Or we'll lose these springs and rivers that depend on this groundwater,” he says.
Conserving the recharge zone for Jacob’s Well has been a big part of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association’s work. In 2019, the group bought a piece of land above the well called Coleman’s Canyon, which was slated to become a massive neighborhood development.
From up on the canyon, Gary points to vast — and undeveloped — areas of the Wimberley Valley. Just trees. No houses, no chimneys.
“That's really helpful for protecting water quality,” she says. “So when it rains on that type of environment, the trees kind of slow down the raindrops and get them down into the ground.”
She shifts her eyes down to a cluster of chimneys and a water tower.
“That's a high-density neighborhood,” Gary says. “If you were to take that and place that all upstream of this area and change the landscape, you'd get less recharge to a groundwater system that supplies that community and others around here.”
And there’s a good reason to make sure no more chimneys pop up in the area surrounding the well. In a worst-case scenario, Gary says, droughts will become more frequent.
“The aquifers are already in drought with the number of people that we are supporting here,” she says.
Collecting Water From The Sky
Development in Western Hays County isn’t slowing down anytime soon. And the Watershed Association knows it can’t conserve every piece of undeveloped land that threatens the well.
But there is another way for everyone to get the water they need without putting more straws in the aquifer. Instead of getting water from the ground, people can collect it from the sky.
“In the Hill Country, one thing that really makes well owners cringe is seeing 20 new homes go up within a mile of them, because all of that water is ultimately coming from the same pool underground."
“We don't know when we're going to get rain here in Central Texas, but we know when we do get it, it's going to be a lot,” says Ron Van Sickle, who owns a rainwater-harvesting business in Dripping Springs. “So we want to take advantage of those big storms, capture as much water as we can and hang on to it to get through the long, dry periods.”
Van Sickle says he mainly serves homeowners on well water who are looking for an alternative water supply. The switch to rainwater harvesting can be an appealing one for them, especially when they’re suddenly competing with new developments for the same water.
“In the Hill Country, one thing that really makes well owners cringe is seeing 20 new homes go up within a mile of them, because all of that water is ultimately coming from the same pool underground,” Van Sickle says. “You can figure that the water level is going to drop. And if somebody has an older well, they're not necessarily going to be at the same depth in the aquifer as the newer homes.”
Harvesting rainwater is something Baker and the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association can get behind. There’s even a term for it: the “one water” approach.
“One water being that water at every part of the water cycle, whether it's rainwater, spring water, whether it's wastewater, graywater,” Baker says. “All of it has value ... all of it can be utilized and used and managed in a more integrated way.”
The Watershed Association worked with the Wimberley Independent School District to build an entire elementary school based on this concept. The school captures rainwater off the roof, plus condensation from air conditioners, and uses it for things like flushing toilets.
“That school will save, we estimate ... 80 to 90% of what a normal school would use,” Baker says. “And so it's not pumping groundwater to do that. And it will save the school district almost a million dollars in water and sewer rates over the next 25 years.”
The question then becomes, if it works for a school, can it work for an apartment complex? An entire neighborhood? Baker says he believes the model at the elementary school can work at a subdivision scale.
“We think that's really the future,” he says.
'Take Care Of Each Other'
Standing just above Jacob’s Well, Baker points out a cypress tree across the water that he planted himself. He reminisces on past floods and marvels at the fish.
“Yeah it's, it's a magical place. Ancient place. It's been here a long, long time — it’ll be here long after we're gone too, you know,” he says. “That's what the well told me. It said, ‘Don't worry about me, I'll be here after you all are gone. Just take care of each other.’”
Of course for Baker, and the people of Wimberley, the best-case scenario is if we take care of both.