Low water levels at Jacob’s Well could signal trouble ahead for a growing community
David Baker stood on a pier at Jacob's Well, a natural springs watering hole in Wimberley, and pointed to the dark hole where the pool's water comes from.
"There are stories that there was once a 2-foot head on this where the water was bubbling out, almost like a fountain," he said. "You would try to swim down and it would push you back up."
He points to a white line at the other end of the watering hole, far above where the water sits.
"You can see the water levels right there," he said. "It's supposed to be about 3 feet higher."
Baker first moved to the area in the '80s and raised his kids in a house at Jacob’s Well. He said the watering hole was practically in his backyard.
“When I saw the well for the first time, I walked down the steps and went around the corner and the hair on the back of my arms stood up,” he said. “And I said, 'This is my place; this is where I’m supposed to be.'”
Baker said he’s seen the water at Jacob’s Well rise during floods and fall during droughts, but things haven’t been looking too good lately.
Currently, the water stands at only a few inches. Normally at this time of year, the river would have waist-high wading waters.
Those managing the park say it's unsafe for swimmers, so the swimming hole may not open at all this summer.
A history of drought
Katherine Sturdivant, education coordinator for the Hays County Parks Department, said she’s been keeping a close eye on the rain gauge at Jacob's Well Natural Area. She said standing water with almost no flow can build up bacteria and make it dangerous for people to be in.
“It can be really gross,” she said. “People are not the cleanest things in the world, and when we pile them all in, it can cause a lot of problems.”
Last July, Jacob’s Well stopped flowing for the fifth time in its recorded history and closed for swimming for half the summer. Sturdivant said oral and written records haven’t shown any sign that Jacob’s Well stopped flowing before the year 2000.
“So now this has happened five times in the last 23 years,” she said. “And it’s happening more and more frequently.”
Sturdivant said she believes the spring's low flow is caused by the region coming out of a drought. She said the area got only about half the rain it should’ve gotten last summer.
“But we get droughts a lot,” she said. “That’s something we’re pretty used to.”
In the 1950s, there was a drought that lasted for years; many say it was the worst drought Texas has ever seen. Sturdivant said Jacob’s Well didn’t stop flowing then, so why is it stopping now?
“A big factor is the amount of people that live here,” she said. “There are so many more people moving to Hays County and to Central Texas in general.”
Those people need water for drinking, showering and watering their lawns, and all that water has to come from somewhere.
“Unfortunately,” Sturdivant said, “a lot of it is coming out of the same aquifer that supplies Jacob’s Well.”
Baker said there are about 6,000 private wells in western Hays County alone, and they aren't regulated by the district. That means there's more water taken out of the aquifers each year and not enough going back in to recharge them.
"If you withdraw more than is deposited back in the aquifer, you're gonna see deficits," he said. "And this last year is the lowest levels we've seen in all our monitoring."
Changes for the future
Baker got curious about where the water in his backyard was coming from and where it all went, so he founded the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association in 1996 to study and protect the surrounding lands.
He said he believes the springs are a window into the soul of the aquifer. They show the aquifer’s health and can let us know when trouble is ahead. So when the well is low on water, it means we are low on water.
“We really need to try to balance that equation between how much we take out of the aquifer and our needs for the future.”David Baker, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association
A few simple changes can make a huge impact, Baker said, like only putting native plants in yards and installing a rainwater collection system in your home.
“Our house has one. We live 100% off rainwater,” he said. “We really need to try to balance that equation between how much we take out of the aquifer and our needs for the future.”
The Wimberley Independent School District built Blue Hole Primary in 2019, the first One Water school in Texas. The pre-K through second-grade school has managed to reduce its water consumption by about 90% by collecting rainwater, recycling water and designing outdoor spaces for water conservation.
The EPA estimates the average household spends a third of water on outdoor use, and most of that goes to watering lawns and gardens.
Native plants are naturally drought-resistant, Baker said, and they can survive on pretty much what comes from the sky.
Baker said people move out to Wimberley because of the greenery and landscape, so they might be more willing to make changes if they know what’s at stake.
“Every time you take a drink of water, really think of the spring,” he said, “We turn on the faucet and we expect it to be there. But there are lots of people, especially this last year, whose wells have gone dry … sometimes we don’t value things until we lose them.”