The Great Springs Project Aims to Build a 100-Mile Hike-and-Bike Trail From Austin to San Antonio

The nonprofit effort will cost hundreds of millions and preserve 50,000 acres over the fragile Edwards Aquifer. Can it be done?

Written By: Megan Kimble

Read the story on Texas Monthly

Scott Way grew up on land his great-grandfather purchased in 1940, sprawled at the confluence of the Blanco River and Cypress Creek in Wimberley, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Like his father before him, he learned how to swim in the creek and spent many sweltering summer days submerged in its clean, cool water. From its source at Jacob’s Well, an artesian spring that releases thousands of gallons of water every day, Cypress Creek flows only a few miles to the Blanco. It’s all part of an interconnected network of free-flowing springs that thread through the Edwards Plateau, which contains one of the world’s most abundant artesian aquifers. The Edwards Aquifer defines life in Central Texas, supplying drinking water to more than two million Texans and sustaining the springs and rivers that wildlife depends on.

Way lives in a house across the street from the one he grew up in. But now, on hot summer afternoons, when his three kids want to jump in the creek to cool off, it’s often not flowing—and when the creek is stagnant, dangerous bacteria such as E. coli can build up. For most of the summer, he says, his family can’t swim in Cypress Creek. “Our creeks and rivers are not flowing as much as they used to because the aquifer is being stressed due to growth,” he says.

Balancing the hydrologic needs of millions of Texans, hundreds of farms and ranches, and six endangered species that rely on the Edwards Aquifer has long required threading a very fine needle. That task has only gotten harder as development has boomed along the Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio. This region, which partially overlaps with the aquifer’s recharge zone, has exploded in population over the last decade: Hays and Comal counties topped the list of fastest-growing large U.S. counties in the 2020 census, with population growth since 2010 of 53 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

Housing construction is gobbling up trees, streams, and open fields. The four counties that stretch between Austin and San Antonio—Travis, Hays, Comal, and Bexar—have collectively added 211 square miles of new development and 120 square miles of impervious cover between 2001 and 2019, according to land cover maps released by the U.S. Geological Survey last year. In place of porous karst and limestone that filters and collects rainwater, the Hill Country is increasingly being paved over in concrete.

In 2017, Way, a lawyer and business owner—he owns the 7A Ranch resort in Wimberley—was invited to a lunch hosted by Deborah Morin, a prominent philanthropist and the wife of Whole Foods cofounder and CEO John Mackey. In her previous role as board president of the Hill Country Foundation, Morin had successfully fought to protect the Barton Creek watershed, in part by limiting development over the recharge zone in southwest Austin. Now, at lunch, to a small group of potential donors and advocates, she was pitching an even more ambitious plan: preserving 50,000 acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer and stitching together four of its springs—Barton Springs, San Marcos Springs, Comal Springs, and San Antonio Springs—through a hundred-mile network of public hike-and-bike trails connecting Austin to San Antonio. Called the Great Springs Project, the massive effort would be the first of its kind in Texas, if not nationwide.

The idea resonated with Way. His family owns land throughout the Hill Country, much of which it had already committed to conservation. In 2019, Way met with Garry Merritt, CEO of the nonprofit Great Springs Project. Way knew of a 2,700-acre parcel of land downstream from his family’s ranch in Kyle that he thought might soon be developed as part of the city’s explosive growth—maybe Merritt could figure out a way to preserve it as part of this new project?

A sixth-generation native of Real County, about two hours west of San Antonio, Merritt graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in Austin and moved back home to set up a real-estate law practice in 2000. “I grew up as a country kid and just had this deep feeling about that place. The Hill Country runs through my blood,” he says. In 2010, he was elected county judge of Real County, whose seat is Leakey, and he eventually became general counsel and legislative director of the Texas Association of Counties, working with elected officials across the state. Before he was hired by the Great Springs Project, his experience with trails had been limited to running on them. What drew him to the project was its ambition—and clarity. “Our mission is to conserve and put trail on the ground,” he says. “That’s our strategic plan. It’s two lines: conservation and trail on the ground.”

The sky has been threatening rain all morning, but almost as soon as we start walking, the sun sweeps away the accumulated clouds. Kenny Skrobanek, a trails and transportation planner for the Great Springs Project, leads us away from the trailhead tucked into a residential neighborhood in San Marcos, through groves of Ashe juniper and in the shade of sprawling live oaks. Along with Merritt and Emma Lindrose-Siegel, the project’s chief development officer, we walk south until we hit Dante’s Trail, a well-trod pathway through Purgatory Creek Natural Area. It’s likely, Skrobanek says, that the Great Springs Trail will sweep along the eastern edge of the natural area, including part of the existing trail.

Much of the hundred-mile contiguous trail envisioned by the Great Springs Project will involve the linking of trails that already exist or are already being planned. It’s a lot of logistical work: making sure local governments along the corridor are talking to one another about their trail plans, and asking them to nudge alignments east or west so that they might connect. Where no trail exists yet, the project will try to get right-of-way access from private property owners. On April 11, Great Springs Project released its master trail alignment, showing for the first time the specific path it plans to cut between Austin and San Antonio. As the nonprofit continues to refine this plan, part of Skrobanek’s job is to survey the landscape, climbing through culverts and scrambling up slopes, trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of existing segments that will connect to form a greater whole. “It’s working with what we have and then figuring out how to incorporate a trail,” he says. “We need to work with those landowners and make sure that we have everybody on board.”

That’s a monumental challenge in a state where 96 percent of land is privately owned. There are basically two ways to preserve privately owned land as open space: buy it outright, or ask a landowner to donate or sell his or her development rights through a conservation easement, a legal agreement that permanently restricts land use. The Great Springs Project is using both strategies. “Every landowner with whom we’ve spoken, they already have a stack of letters from people saying, ‘Do you want to sell your property?’ ” Merritt says. He scours real estate listings every day, looking for parcels to acquire. “We’re out there paying market prices. No one is giving us a discount.”

This is expensive work. A few weeks before our hike, the nonprofit had put under contract an 844-acre ranch just north of the trailhead that was listed for more than $8 million. In this instance, the Great Springs Project doesn’t own the land—it facilitated the deal with conservation-minded buyers—but the organization still must have ample cash on hand for transactions. So how much will the Great Springs Project cost? Merritt hedges, unwilling to commit to a budget. It depends on the proposed trail alignment, how much public funding becomes available for parks, and how willing landowners are to donate land or sign conservation easements. The ultimate cost, he allows, is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars. The goal is to complete both the trail and conservation work by 2036, the Texas bicentennial. Three years in, the nonprofit has conserved roughly five thousand acres, 10 percent of its goal. 

Back on the trail in San Marcos, Skrobanek stops suddenly in front of an amphitheater-shaped hole in the ground. Layers of limestone and brush give way to an opening in the earth so tidy, it looks man-made. Had it rained today, we could have watched as water filtered through the brush and poured into this recession, known as a karst feature, named for the landscape formed from the erosion of limestone and other soluble rocks. If the aquifer is a bathtub, recharge features like this one are the faucets.

“This is fundamental to why we’re doing the work that we are,” Merritt says. These features, which can be as small as a fist or as big as a pickup, are concentrated in the twenty-mile-wide band of the aquifer’s recharge zone. Paving over this area means covering the thousands of faucets that supply the aquifer. New construction also strips the land of its natural filtration system of foliage and topsoil, threatening both water quality and quantity. And more development means that less water can enter the aquifer during heavy rains, increasing the risk of flooding for everyone living on this vast, fragile system.

Most of Texas operates under a legal doctrine called the rule of capture, which basically means if you can pump it, you can keep it—landowners own the rights to the groundwater below their land. One exception is in the eight thousand square miles of land under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the agency tasked with keeping the Comal and San Marcos springs flowing. After it began operations in 1996, the EAA focused on regulating water coming out of the aquifer by issuing permits and making sure wells were being maintained. Over the past couple of years, the agency has shifted its focus to input. The EAA now uses a similar approach to that of the Great Springs Project, working directly with landowners to buy property outright or put conservation easements in place. On the EAA’s 151-acre research park outside of San Antonio, geologists study the best land management practices to maximize recharge on the land the agency controls. One of these is relatively simple and cheap: building berms and swales, which are low retention walls and broad, shallow bowls designed to slow water down as it rushes downhill, increasing infiltration into the aquifer.

After our hike, I head three miles northeast to San Marcos Springs, one of the most prolific outflows of the Edwards Aquifer. Here at Spring Lake, hundreds of small fissures release more than 100 million gallons of water every day, which pools into the lake before flowing south as the San Marcos River. Indigenous people in Central Texas have long performed religious ceremonies at these springs, where archaeologists have documented evidence of human habitation going back at least 11,500 years, making this one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in North America.

The springs were—and are—considered sacred, says Mario Garza, an elder of the Miakan-Garza Band and the founder of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, based in San Marcos. “When we lost the land, we lost all our sacred sites that were on the land,” Garza says. Today, if tribal members want to access the springs to perform religious ceremonies, they have to abide by the same rules as everyone else—be out by nightfall, no fires or smoke or loud noise (which precludes singing and drumming). His colleague Maria Rocha, also a member of the Board of Elders, sits on the equity task force for the Great Springs Project. The trail can help Indigenous people in Central Texas regain their access to the springs, she says. Because the Great Springs Project is working directly with city and county governments, “it gives us a voice at a table that has a lot of influence.” She says cities have often refused to make exceptions for Indigenous people to use the springs for ceremonies, saying: “ ‘Well, if we make an exception for you we will have to make it for everybody.’ But that’s not legitimate. You are making exceptions for us because you stole our land. . . . The fact that we now have a project that’s going to try to unite all four springs again as a sacred unified water entity, that’s really important to us.”

The big question is whether the Great Springs Project team can pull off an effort of such massive scale and cost. Jeff Francell thinks so, though he knows from experience just how hard it will be. When Francell started acquiring land for the Nature Conservancy in the late 1990s, he was buying parcels just outside of Austin for $4,000 or $5,000 an acre. Now, he says, acquiring land for conservation costs five to ten times that, between $25,000 and $50,000 an acre. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted that land values would have done what they’ve done,” Francell says. And land conservation isn’t just expensive; it’s time-consuming. “Each piece of land you want to acquire for this trail, you’re dealing with an individual that has [his or her] own needs, wants, desires, eccentricities,” says Francell, who is now the director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas. It can take years to convince a single landowner to put a conservation easement on her property, let alone offer up right-of-way for a public trail. 

Much of the land Francell was focused on buying up in the early 1990s extended over the Barton Springs recharge zone. The Nature Conservancy helped the City of Austin preserve 15,000 acres with bond money approved by voters in 1998. Today, much of that land surrounds the Violet Crown Trail, a planned thirty-mile stretch that will likely become the first segment of the Great Springs Trail leaving Austin. The City of Austin recently began construction on a missing link of the trail, which already extends thirteen miles from Zilker Park to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, using funds from voter-approved bonds. 

That’s a good model for the Great Springs Project, Francell says. “In my experience, most of the funding for land conservation in Central Texas has come from cities and counties stepping up and voters in those cities and counties supporting them.” The region has a strong track record: in 2020, 70 percent of voters in Hays County approved $75 million in bonds for parks and open space. In 2018, 84 percent of voters in Austin approved a $72 million bond to acquire land for water protection. And since 2000, the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, ​which is funded by a one-eighth cent sales tax, has dedicated more than $180 million to preserve nearly 173,000 acres over the recharge zone extending west into the Hill Country. 

Part of the effort includes education about why upstream conservation matters, says Phil Hardberger, a former mayor of San Antonio who now sits on the advisory board of the Great Springs Project. “I remember when we started buying land to protect the aquifer. People didn’t really understand what you were trying to do,” he says. “We were buying easements on land as far away as Uvalde.” Hardberger recalls San Antonians asking him, “ ‘Why are we giving that money to a bunch of ranchers in Uvalde? Hell, that’s ninety miles from here.’ But believe me, it’s the same water.” 

There are other hurdles, too. Ironically, although voters in Austin and San Antonio have overwhelmingly supported taxing themselves to fund conservation work outside their cities’ boundaries, they have so far failed to incentivize the denser development that would reign in the sprawl threatening the aquifer. In Austin, the city’s land development code all but prohibits developers from building anything but a single-family home in most neighborhoods, pushing new construction over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and accelerating the increase in property values in cities like Kyle and San Marcos. 

Hardberger almost single-handedly raised $10 million to build a land bridge spanning Wurzbach Parkway in north San Antonio, connecting the two hemispheres of Phil Hardberger Park for humans and wildlife. He says that, perhaps surprisingly, conservation has strong bipartisan support in Texas. “I have found that you don’t get hung up on too much politics with environmental projects,” he says. Far more important, he believes, is endurance. “You’re going to have to pound a lot of leather and you’re going to have to knock on a lot of doors.”

While still in its early stages, the Great Springs Project has already garnered some strong endorsements. U.S. congressmen Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) and Chip Roy (R-Austin) have both supported the project. Its board of directors includes former Texas secretary of state Hope Andrade, a Republican. John Mackey, Morin’s husband and the cofounder of Whole Foods—a vocal Libertarian—sits on the nonprofit’s advisory board. (Hardberger says he suspects some of the Whole Foods fortune is financing the Great Springs Project—the company sold to Amazon for $13.7 billion in 2017. Lindrose-Siegel declined to comment on Morin’s financial involvement.) Even Matthew McConaughey is on board, having narrated a short promotional film released in December. 

Last year, Merritt came to Way with a proposal: he’d figured out a way to purchase the parcel of land in Kyle that Way had mentioned years before. He just needed the financing to help make it happen. So Way convened a group of investors to become co-owners of the property, much of which will be preserved through a conservation easement. This parcel is now one of the hundreds of pieces in the Great Springs Project’s hundred-mile-long jigsaw puzzle between Austin and San Antonio. If all goes well, a hiking trail will soon run through the property.