When the Water Runs Dry

Real County is experiencing its second worst drought in over a century. How does that affect the Frio River Canyon?

A creek trickles along the east side of Windsong.

It’s an inch or so deep at its quickest flow and barely more than mud at its slowest. Where the clear water’s nearly still, you can make out tiny ripples where impossibly small bugs are looking for food that’s somehow even smaller.

Most summers, this creek isn’t here—it’s submerged by the Windsong waterfront, over 800,000 gallons of 10-foot-deep water.

Drought conditions in Real County were harsh heading into the summer. Silver Creek, the flowing body of water that serves as a waterfront to Windsong and one of the many tributaries to the East Frio River, is nearly dried up for the time being. By the end of July, 2022 had been Real County’s second driest year-to-date in over 128 years. The county is one of many throughout the southern and western United States in an “exceptional drought,” the National Integrated Drought Information System’s highest level of drought severity.

“I’ve heard anecdotally that people haven’t seen Windsong this dry,” says Kevin Wessels, the Foundation’s director of stewardship.

The only drier year-to-date on record is 2011. Silver Creek was low then too, but not like this. The recency of that drought is playing into the intensity of this one.

Kevin notes that the Canyon is resilient through the natural swings between drought and flood, but the compounding drought effects are testing that resilience now. There are dry spots in the river road where water typically flows, water levels at Headwaters are a couple inches low, and Kevin is worried for some cypress trees. But all things considered, the part of the East Frio River on the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp property is doing well for now.

Some of those cypress trees, which were planted by Mary Holdsworth Butt decades ago, are part of why the Canyon is adapting so well to the drought. Their roots and others have helped develop a strong riparian zone: the area where water meets land that reinforces riverbanks and holds and filters water.

ACCORDING TO KEVIN,
“THE HEALTHIER YOUR RIPARIAN IS, THE MORE ROBUST YOUR WHOLE SYSTEM IS.”


Tree roots grow so densely along the riverbanks that they stabilize the soil, which, in turn, prevents runoff, reinforcing a strong and healthy riverside ecosystem that promotes water quality and quantity.

“They hold water like a sponge,” Kevin says, “which promotes water quantity… It minimizes erosion because roots are holding in the soil along stream banks. It even affects the impact of flooding, absorbing and slowing down floodwater as it moves downstream.”

When the Frio River Canyon and nearby areas flooded in October of 2018, most of the Canyon’s river vegetation laid flat rather than being uprooted, holding up to the natural process. Kevin cites 2015 flooding near Blanco as an opposite example, where over-manicured private land led to scoured riverbanks, making it more difficult for the land to recover.

Silver Creek is holding up. The bugs and grass have adapted well to the little brook that still babbles down the creek bed to about a foot of water pooled at the Windsong dam.

However, the almost-empty waterfront is a 10-foot straight drop in some places, making the space treacherous enough to call for the closure of Windsong for the summer. Executive Assistant Janet Bizzell had the tough job of calling H. E. Butt Foundation Camp groups and letting them know the bad news.

“The majority of people were very understanding, but this was the third year in a row some groups had to be canceled or postponed,” Janet says.

“People love Windsong. It’s small and intimate, and people have been going there for years.”

Inevitably, the drought will end and Windsong will reopen. Unfortunately, there’s no telling when.

Much of the southwest United States is in a similar boat, dealing with drought issues on a grander scale, considered a “megadrought” by many. In an article for National Geographic, Alejandra Borunda says that, according to a measure of tree rings, average soil moisture in southwest North America is the lowest it’s been for at least 1200 years. General drought problems are increasingly present, like higher wildfire risk, potential water shortages, lower air quality, agricultural depletion, and shocks to flora and fauna. Human carelessness, she says, is turning these droughts from bad to worse. Kevin echoes the sentiment.

“Everything in the natural world is interconnected,” he says. “A cycle of poor land stewardship can cause soil erosion. Less soil means less medium for vegetation to grow, therefore less opportunity for water infiltration and percolation which helps recharge the aquifer. Less water infiltration means more stormwater runoff which creates more erosion…The cycle continues until all the soil is eroded and infiltration is reduced.”

Kevin often consults Steve Nelle, an independent natural resource specialist and wildlife biologist, on the state of the Canyon. In a report back to the Foundation on his findings, Steve wrote:

“With each trip I continue to be favorably impressed with the overall stewardship priority for the property. It is a great challenge to juggle the heavy human use and infrastructure with the responsible care of the wildness of the property. It is clear that the leadership and staff are working very diligently to be in sync as much as possible with the natural ecological character of the property.”

Although the land longs for rain, it’s resolute. Rain will return. Silver Creek will refill. Camp will continue. Campers will inhabit Windsong again and cannonballs into the waterfront will, as they’re meant to, resume. With continued hope, good stewardship, and a lot of rain, the Frio River Canyon will recover like it has before.

“The programs are completely rooted in this place,” Kevin says, “and this place was meant to be used by the programs.”

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