Great Springs Project Envisions a Network of Trails From Austin to San Antonio

Written by: Brendan Gibbons

Read Article in the San Antonio Report

Twenty-seven years ago, Deborah Morin watched as the hills, streams, caves, and springs of the Hill Country outside of Austin were being gobbled up by construction.

At the time, Morin was serving on the board of the Hill Country Foundation, where she was involved with efforts to map the watershed for the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer outside of Austin.

The vast majority of that land is in private hands, meaning the health of the aquifer and Barton Springs was mostly dependent upon the decisions of private landowners. In Morin’s view, government regulation alone wouldn’t protect these sensitive waterways or preserve the land for generations.

“It doesn’t matter how many laws, how many rules you have,” Morin told the Rivard Report earlier this month. “You have to buy it.”

Almost three decades later, Morin, a San Antonio native, is at the head of a nonprofit working to do just that, but on a much larger scale. She’s president of the board of the Great Springs Project, an initiative to preserve land and stitch together a network of hike and bike trails that will eventually connect San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Austin, and smaller cities in between.

The nonprofit group is named for the four major springs in each of those cities that gush forth from the Edwards Aquifer on the edge of the Hill Country – the Blue Hole, Comal Springs, San Marcos Springs, and Barton Springs.

“All those cities are here because of those springs,” Morin said.

Preserving water is also a major part of the project. Its goal is to permanently save 50,000 acres over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, where water flows through cracks, caves, and crevices into the aquifer and replenishes the main underground drinking water supply for the region.

Morin, who’s married to Whole Foods founder John Mackey, said preserving land along the booming Interstate 35 corridor will take “a lot of philanthropic money.” Working relatively quietly for the past seven years, the group has already made progress.

Earlier this month, Morin and Great Springs CEO Garry Merritt made their pitch for former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. Hardberger is no stranger to fundraising for big park projects, having raised more than $10 million in private donations for a $23 million land bridge for the public park named for him on San Antonio’s North Side.

“I think you could get public excitement quite easily,” Hardberger told Morin and Merritt. “Nobody needs [the trails] more right now than Austin to San Antonio.”

However, Hardberger said one aspect of the project could make deals with landowners a bit more challenging than other land preservation efforts.