The "Blue Hole"

The "Blue Hole"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

I'm happy to say there are a few echoes in this Preface with the Pope's Encyclical on the Environment, released today.  This piece brings his message home about our human relationship to creation -- especially in this special place at the head of the San Antonio River that has been entrusted to our care... More reflections to come on the Pope's powerful message.

The Water & Culture Reader (2011)
Fountainhead Press, compiled & edited by UIW English Department
At the Congregational home of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (San Antonio) is a famous artesian spring known as the San Antonio Spring, or more commonly the Blue Hole.  To indigenous peoples, the springs were called Yanaguana, which in the Coahuiltecan language of these earliest Texans means Spirit Waters, or up-flowing waters of the Spirit.  Native American creation stories describe how Yanaguana rose up giving birth to all Creation.  The Spirit Waters were the source of all being, which helps explain why Yanaguana is the most oft sung word in the Native American Church.


According to early accounts, this great spring was once a fountain spring rising many feet in the air.  Gunnar Brune in his definitive book, The Springs of Texas, ranked the San Antonio Springs 6th largest among the Great Springs of Texas.  Other Great Springs include Comal Springs in New Braunfels, San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, and Barton Springs in Austin, all of which were also described as fountain springs. 

Gary Perez, custodian of Native American Church Trust in Mirando City (the peyote “Gardens”) has found these same four fountain springs depicted in a rock wall painting known as the White Shaman Panel located in the Lower Pecos.  This would put these Great Springs on a 4,000 year old map of Texas. 

All the Great Springs of Texas – the Spirit Waters -- issue from a common water source, the vast Edwards Aquifer, that flows underground along the Balcones Escarpment from west of Del Rio to north of Austin.  They all rise up into life-giving rivers around which human communities have formed over thousands of years.  

Evidence of human presence in the headwaters of these rivers suggests that Paleo-Indians were drawn to these springs nearly 12,000 years ago, signifying the importance of these deeply spiritual water places to early human civilizations.  History shows that humans have occupied the area around these Great Springs ever since.

In relatively recent times, but before the drilling of artesian wells in the late 1800’s, Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame visited the San Antonio Springs and described in 1857 how “the whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth . . . The effect is overpowering.  It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.” 

1764 Map of San Antonio showing the 
San Antonio Spring as the source (labelled Ojo de Aqua at far left)

The San Antonio Springs were thought to be “the source” of the San Antonio River, or as William Corner wrote in 1890, “the key to the situation, the Ojo de Agua, the birthright of the city.”  Today the population of San Antonio and the other Great Springs cities along the edge of the Balcones Escarpment is in the millions, and growing fast.  All who live in this region are dependent on water from the same source aquifer, the Edwards Aquifer, riddled now with thousands of artesian wells that artificially draw the ancient sacred waters out of the ground for mostly human consumption, use – and waste.

Whether you see these Great Springs pragmatically and hydrologically as the headwaters of rivers that became the lifeblood of thriving cities, or as Yanaguana – up-flowing Waters of the Spirit, Source of all Creation -- these Great Springs have had enormous cultural and spiritual significance to people over many thousands of years: pre-historic First Americans, Spanish explorers, early European settlers, citizens of the 21st century.  But what of the future?

While the Blue Hole and much of the San Antonio River headwaters are now “protected” in the 53-acre Headwaters Sanctuary (created in 2008 by the Incarnate Word Sisters who have lived in the headwaters since 1897), there is little doubt the San Antonio Springs are endangered.

Sadly, today, and plain for all to see, the Blue Hole is dry.  This “overpowering” spring has not flowed since 2011.  Exceptional drought and more disturbingly a growing human population dependent on groundwater withdrawals have literally sucked dry this once prolific spring.  The Blue Hole -- lifeblood of the city with the river running through it – has at least for now retreated into the dark womb of the Earth from which it came. 

What might this tell us about the condition of our human relationship to the Earth and Earth’s resources on which we depend for our very survival?  What might it tell us about the state of our human relationship to the rest of Creation? 

Today, 2.5 billion people live in countries with moderate to severe water stress.  Over 1 billion people lack access to clean water.  2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation.  

Waterborne infectious diseases claim 3.2 million lives every year, about 6% of all deaths globally. 

Over 3 billion people -- almost half the world’s population -- live on less than $2.50 a day, and 80% live on less than $10. One in two children live in poverty and are far more likely to suffer the ravages of dysentery and preventable diseases.  21,000 die every day, mostly from hunger and related causes.

As Earth’s climate is undeniably and devastatingly altered, and as Earth’s life-giving, life-sustaining resources are extracted and consumed by the world’s ever growing population... the Earth itself is crying out for relief at our hands...

...we must wake up and embrace the reality that ecology, peace and justice are inseparable, and that we will not have peace and justice in the world until we have healthier, more resilient ecosystems.  And we won’t have healthier, more resilient ecosystems until we, the human species, learn to live in right relationship with the Earth, with all Creation. 

When water is unfit to drink, air is unfit to breathe, soils wash out to sea, landfills leak toxins, forests disappear, species go extinct, oceans inundate coastal zones, agriculture fails, habitat fragments, hurricanes terrorize, rock formations “frack,” when wars are fought over oil and increasingly over water, we must conclude that the Earth and our relationship to it is horribly out of balance.  How are we to face these seemingly overwhelming challenges of the 21st century?  It’s easy to despair, to turn our thoughts to technological fixes.

But we mustn't despair, despite the evidence, or look only to science and technology for answers.  As we endlessly debate and seek political solutions, as we innovate and create new technologies, as we learn to cooperate and pool our global resources, each of us must also attend to that underlying spiritual challenge, asking ourselves how we are going to live in sustainable relationship with the Earth and each other.  How must we live to be in right relationship with the Earth, and all creation?  How can we heal this broken relationship that gives rise to so much suffering and injustice?  

I'm now convinced that wrestling with these questions is a matter for the human heart, and it is the work of the Spirit that dwells within and among us and all Creation.   

Are we listening?

Are we aliveAlive enough to care?  

Will we respond?! 

Here’s a thought:  Go find your patch of the Earth, and “dig in.”  For the Earth’s sake, and for your own.  If you are open to it, you will find food for the soul, and spiritual sustenance from working the land respectfully, working to care for the Earth.  You will show others the way. Take seriously all the many ways we each can use less energy and water, create less trash, teach our children, let them teach us, and become more mindful of the needs of others, in both our local and global community.

The Headwaters at Incarnate Word is a place in time and space, as well as a sanctuary for nature, people, and spirit. It is a place to enjoy, to be alone in nature, or not.  It is a place to tend the Earth and tend our relationship to it. 

It is place to teach the children.

With healing hands and loving hearts, people are nursing this sacred place to ecological health, and in our own little, localized way, we are restoring right relationship within ourselves, with the Earth, and all creation.  We are paying tribute to Yanaguana, place of the up-flowing Spirit Waters.  And praying for the rains that will give life again to these sacred springs....praying that all of us will learn to live well with less, especially water.   
We are clearly being called to WAKE UP!  Let’s not turn a deaf ear.  Instead, let’s:

Tend to the Spirit that moves through all Creation.  

Tend to the Earth.

Tend to each other.


For if we do not, we humans may pass from this earth as surely as the dinosaurs.  
Nature will have her way.

Believe in the ultimate resilience of Nature.  Believe in the resilience of Us.
Engage in cultural (r)evolution.  

Emulate the self-healing capacities of Mother Earth.  

Embody hope.

And know this simple truth in every aqueous cell of your being:
Water is life.  Aqua es vida.  Maji ni uhua水是生命

Friday, February 7, 2014

STORY in PHOTOS - Great Oak Trail


Photos by Ed Segura

Here is the story, in photos, of one day in the life of our volunteers and staff during a special Volunteer Work Day.  Our goal this day was to finish clearing the Great Oak Trail, a half mile foot trail through the western portion of the Headwaters Sanctuary.  The trail winds past a number of 400+ year old "heritage" live oak trees.
Helen and our amazingly cheerful volunteers haul out loads of invasive (weedy) brush, thus “liberating the natives,” improving the ecology, and opening our new trail for others to enjoy.

 Richard cuts the last “ceremonial” Ligustrum stump closing the gap and completing  the trail. We'd cut the trail half way up from one trailhead, then started up from the other trailhead to meet in the middle, "closing the gap" on this celebratory day.

This is what it looks like in one section of the trail.  Soon it will all be covered with mulch, keeping it a natural foot trail.  All of our mulch comes from recycling the brush we’ve cleared out of the woods. We haul it out, pile it up and later chip it in a big noisy wood chipper.  The chipped wood then goes out on the trail as mulch.

Keri, with her Headwaters volunteer t-shirt, helps Richard tackle that huge stump while Natalia, a UIW student in a red cardinal t-shirt, looks on, enjoying a bit of rest from her labors.

Howard, our Volunteer Coordinator, follows up with careful use of herbicide on the stump.  This prevents regrowth.  The blue helps us see where we’re spraying, and will fade away just like the stump, which will return to the soil.

Trail finally open….it’s champagne time!  Yes, I sneaked a nice iced bottle of champagne up into the woods for a surprise celebration of this milestone in the development of the Headwaters Sanctuary.  This is not a regular feature of our volunteer work days, but this day was extra special.

Drinking a small but grateful toast to our fun, hard-working team who, along with those not present, have left a vital piece of themselves in this new trail.  This project unfolding in the headwaters of the San Antonio River is about communion with nature, and with each other -- community.  It's about hard work and its inevitable rewards.  It's about restoration -- of the land and of our spirits.  It's about honoring the heritage of this historic place, and investing in the millennium.  And it is so much more.

It's about FUN!  Fun, which sometimes borders on silliness, such as our improvisational Great Oak Trail Dance led by Charlotte.  Join us.  We're making history. You can, too.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Faith in the Workplace

Faith in the Workplace

Last Sunday, I was Lector in church and read aloud the following passage from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians.

The First Lesson—Ephesians 5:8-14
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light--for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

This bit of scripture spoke directly to a situation confronting me in my place of work at the Headwaters.  The situation is one of those ethical dilemmas that confront us in our everyday life, except this one was a really big one involving very powerful forces.  For some time I'd been asking myself:  do I avert my eyes, close my mind, squelch my heart, avoid controversy, be silent and try to ignore the consequences?  Or do I use what I know, find courage, act on what I believe is right, speak my truth, risk making enemies, and in the process, put other peoples' lives into turmoil along with my own?

What to do?  Answer:
"Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,
but instead expose them."

My job as Headwaters Director is rooted in incarnational spirituality:  the Incarnate Word, the Word made flesh; God's Word lived out in the flesh and blood of our daily lives.  The Incarnate Word Sisters work through prayer and action to bring God's healing love into the world.  This is their founding charism (or spiritual character) and it permeates every ministry they have ever founded.
Sometimes, the spiritual turns political, and then even judicial. 
And when it does, look out.

Last week, the Headwaters Coalition with the support of the Incarnate Word Sisters joined the River Road Neighborhood Association in a legal attempt to restrain the San Antonio City Council from voting on the construction of a massive storm sewer in the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park below the Hildebrand Bridge.  Council's agenda included a $12 million contract to begin construction as soon as Mulberry Street is reopened to through traffic, possibly later this month (April).  Judge David Berchelmann denied our request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), but only because he did not believe he had authority to interfere with the legislative process when no immediate “irreparable harm” would ensue from the vote itself.  Fair enough.

The City attorneys, the Judge and our own counsel, led by trial attorney Matt Wymer and attorney Bebb Francis, then agreed on the spot to a Temporary Injunction hearing set for Monday, April 11, just ten days hence.  A Temporary Injunction (TI) hearing is an evidentiary hearing with witnesses, but the Judge's decision regarding a TI centers on whether it is essential to maintain the status quo (i.e., no construction) while a trial on the merits is pending.  If successful, a TI would temporarily prevent construction on the storm sewer until the case is heard.  Success at the later trial would result in a Permanent Injunction, stopping the Hildebrand outfall from ever being built.

And that, my friends, is our #1 goal in all this:
to keep the giant storm sewer
out of the sacred headwaters
of the San Antonio River.

A panoramic view of the San Antonio River at its northernmost point in Brackenridge Park where the city wants to put two 6x9 foot box culverts with a 70-foot concrete wall in this narrow, natural, historically very sensitive part of the river.
An existing 48" drainage conduit can be seen next to the Hildebrand Bridge at left.
Miraflores Park, a federally protected National Historic Place, is in the background.
Remnants of the old Spanish colonial acequia system are just behind the viewer.

This is one of those historic moments
when as a community we can choose...

to hold on to something truly unique, something ennobling to our spirits and fitting to our San Antonio heritage, something that lifts up and cherishes our river all the way from its physical and spiritual source to its living Mission churches in the south, something that honors our history, protects our central public park, restores our river's natural beauty, and preserves the public trust.

On the other hand, if we act with fear, we can choose to let it go, to stand aside while a destructive force is loosed on and in our river at its most vulnerable, historically rich, sacred location in the headwaters basin.

To hold on to and work together to realize the vision of a final “Spiritual Reach of the San Antonio River” is a golden opportunity that will be lost.  It is an opportunity to complete with an exclamation point ( ! ) the historic community-wide effort to restore our relationship with our river, still the lifeblood of our community.  It is an opportunity to “put the head on the headwaters” of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, and to connect physically, spiritually, symbolically for all times a historic vitally important institution in San Antonio –the Incarnate Word Sisters – with the rest of the city, by way of the river!  The same river that brought the Incarnate Word Sisters to San Antonio in the first place.

How? A very broken relationship between the citizens of San Antonio and their life-giving river led to outbreaks of cholera (water borne disease associated with sewage) that killed hundreds of San Antonio's early citizens.  One of those cholera epidemics brought the founding Sisters to San Antonio in 1869 to establish the city’s first infirmary, which became our first hospital and which is now CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System.

The Sisters, through the Headwaters, have now offered a place, a project and the encouragement to help us heal our broken relationship with nature and the river
at its physical and spiritual source.

Map used at Visioning Workshop on the Spiritual Reach
June 25, 2010

The vision for a Spiritual Reach of the San Antonio River acknowledges the historical significance and long-standing relationship of the human community to this river, for good and for bad. It celebrates the historical significance and long-standing relationship of the Incarnate Word Sisters to the City of San Antonio.  The Spiritual Reach vision – if given the opportunity to be well executed -- benefits everyone:  the river at its sacred source, the community at large, and the Sisters and all their ministries at the "Head of the River": university, retirement center and nature sanctuary.

To squander this evolving opportunity with a misguided ugly potentially illegal drainage project in a revered part of the river is intolerable.  We will all live to regret it if the project goes forward.  This is what this challenge is all about for us.

And if our legal challenge is successful,
the river will be protected, and that sacred public trust
between government and citizens
will be preserved.

These are both values worth standing up for.  Even when the cost of doing so is high.  The city’s Hildebrand drainage project is quite simply not the bond project voters approved.  Not even close.  To let it go unchallenged is to risk grave injury to the river at its headwaters in our public park -- and to give carte blanche to the City for any and all of our bond committee-vetted and citizen-approved bonds.  That we believe is a very dangerous precedent.

We hope you will stand with us in standing down
this unfortunate mistake.

Come watch and be a supportive presence.
No eligibility requirements necessary!

Come to the old County Courthouse on
Monday, April 11 by 9:00 am
and join us for the hearing in
Judge Berchelmann's courtroom.

So what's the Alternative?

So, what if the Hildebrand drainage project is permanently enjoined (stopped)?  

We believe the City will find even better alternatives for meeting our community's needs.  Where one window closes another opens.  We would suggest for starters:
  • Un-bundle the street and utility projects from the (illegal) drainage project;
  • Fund the desirable add-on projects (street reconstruction, under-grounding of utilities) on schedule using 2007 bond savings, or other city money;
  • Revise the Broadway Corridor - Phase IIIA drainage project to take stormwater down Broadway to the river at Carnahan (as originally intended) or better yet to the river at Tuleta, 0.10 mile further south; and
  • Plan to extend the Catalpa-Pershing drainage channel up to the river at Tuleta as part of the 2012 bond program (something the City has already committed to doing).

We believe the City can design a stormwater system that would drain
 the 100-year flood event off the Broadway-Hildebrand intersection
 according to the original limits of the bond while
not sacrificing the river at its headwaters 
nor risking irreparable harm 
to sensitive historic resources in and between 
Miraflores and Brackenridge Park.  

Take a look at the two drainage project alternatives the city considered (the only two).  Here is the original bond project as approved by the voters:

Note: full title and scope of bond project does not mention Hildebrand.  
Broadway Corridor - Phase IIIA (Carnahan to 150 feet north of Davis Court)

Now look at the redirected Broadway Corridor - Phase IIIA bond project:  
the "Hildebrand alternative."  

NOTE: Yellow lines coming down Broadway south of Hildebrand show how the project drains water from this southeast corner of Broadway-Hildebrand (at Broadway Tower) and back-flows north ( ! ) into the Hildebrand drainage culverts where it eventually dumps into the SAR. The stormwater from north of Hildebrand makes a hard right angle turn, as the City Engineer says, to follow the existing flow pattern.

It does not take an engineer's certificate to see that these are not the same project in scope or intent.

With a modest refinement to the original voter-approved bond, the city could avoid any impact to the Witte property at the existing Carnahan drainage channel by extending the new drainage culverts one-tenth of a mile down to Tuleta at the lower south end of the Witte property. To do so would involve only one landowner, the Witte, aka the City!  

From the river at Tuleta, a long sought pilot channel -- perhaps as a 2012 bond project -- could divert up to 1,500 cubic feet per second of flood water to the Catalpa-Pershing drainage ditch where it would then flow into the big tunnel at Josephine, typically arriving before the flow coming down the meandering main stem of the river through the Park.  This sequences the timing of peak flows entering the tunnel thereby improving the system's overall capacity to carry that 100-year storm event.  Such a holistic approach would not only address the problem of street flooding at the Broadway-Hildebrand intersection in a manner consistent with the voter-approved bond, but also  help remove valuable property and homes from the 100-year floodplain in the River Road neighborhood and along Broadway.

Design of pilot channel and series of ponds connecting the Catalpa-
Pershing drainage channel (at far left) to the river at Tuleta.

You can find descriptions and technical details relating to most of these ideas in the City's (or County's or River Authority's or River Improvement Project's) own engineering studies, reports, and conceptual designs.  The point is there are other, much better options than the hugely destructive one at Hildebrand.  

Doing this step-wise approach towards the holistic solution of stormwater drainage and flood control along Broadway would leave the pending street improvements on Hildebrand without an immediate source of funding.  But please remember that the street improvements were only incidental to the drainage project if the City is to be believed.  Broadway drainage  bonds are after all the current funding source for the now desirable Hildebrand street  improvements (for which there was no 2007 bond project).

The Headwaters Coalition and the Incarnate Word Sisters want to see the street improvements at Broadway and Hildebrand go forward on or near the current schedule, if at all possible.  We drive that intersection every day and know it could use help, but it is not essential  that the street work happens right now.  To get the street improvements now  as part of the city's redirected (possibly illegal) Hildebrand drainage project means sacrificing the river at the top of Brackenridge Park:  at the northern terminus of the current San Antonio River Improvements Project!  

And that is simply not acceptable.  

If the City cannot allocate funds to continue the street improvements on schedule -- and we believe they can* -- we may just have to wait for the 2012 bonds.  

* remember the impressive $47 million in bond savings the City Manager is managing!