In the fall of 2010, Ellen Weinacht of Balmorhea went on a birding trip with some friends to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. As she was watching hundreds of sandhill cranes feeding in the wetlands along the Rio Grande, she thought, “I want a place like this at home.” Now she has one. It is called the Sandia Springs Wetlands, and I spent a day last week visiting it with Weinacht and one of the people who helped her create it, David Hedges of Fort Davis.
The Sandia Springs Wetlands is actually a land restoration project. Four hundred years ago Balmorhea was what the Spanish called a cienega, a marsh. Antonio de Espejo used that word to describe the area when he camped there in 1583 on his way back home from an expedition to New Mexico. The cienega was fed by six springs, now called Phantom Lake, San Solomon, Giffen, Saragosa, and West and East Sandia springs. These springs all rise from a five-hundred-foot-thick layer of Cretaceous limestone that underlies Balmorhea, a layer of rock that is riddled with fissures and caverns that hold water. The largest of the springs, San Solomon, which now empties into the swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park, has historically flowed at about twenty million gallons a day. Phantom Lake spring, several miles west of San Solomon, issues from a cave in a limestone bluff and produces about three million gallons a day. Add in the other four springs, and that’s a lot of water. When Espejo arrived he found the Jumano Indians using it to irrigate fields of corn and beans.
In the 1850s, Mexican settlers from Chihuahua arrived and built irrigation ditches leading from San Solomon spring to their fields. They called their settlement, which clustered around the base of the little ridge that runs just east of present-day Balmorhea, Indio. A large cross on top of the end of that ridge, easily visible from the Carrasco store across the highway, marks the spot today. They probably also gave San Solomon spring its name, which is something of a mystery since there is no San Solomon on the Catholic calendar of saints. The name probably comes from an Indian word that sounded like “San Solomon” to those settlers. In 1896 a post office was established at Indio and the name was changed to Brogado, supposedly in honor of Father Brocadus Ecken, the Dutch Carmelite priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Fort Davis who held services in Indio. The name Balmorhea did not appear on the map until 1906, when a town site by that name was platted between Indio and San Solomon spring by three land promoters named Balcum, Morrow, and Rhea, thus Bal-mo-rhea.
In 1871, Fort Davis entrepreneur and land speculator Daniel Murphy established a farm near San Solomon spring and dug a canal that diverted the water to his vegetable crops, which he sold to the army at Fort Davis. The adjacent landowners objected, and a series of lawsuits that kept the courts busy through most of the 1870s and ’80s resulted in a ruling that Murphy had to share the water with his neighbors. Eventually a network of irrigation canals and ditches grew up around all six springs, and by the time Lake Balmorhea was built and the Reeves County Water Improvement District Number One was created in 1915, the marshes had been drained and turned into fields and pastures.
Weinacht and Hedges have taken a small step toward reversing that process. They have created three small ponds, fed by the Sandia Canal, and are building a fourth pond the size of the first three combined. When completed, the wetlands will cover about six acres and will provide a habitat for migrating shorebirds. The ponds are easily accessible to the public from County Road 313, which runs south from State Highway 17, just where the state highway turns west after crossing under Interstate 10. There are three inviting picnic tables beside the ponds.
The morning that Hedges and Weinacht and I were there was sunny and pleasantly cool. There had been a severe hailstorm the previous evening, and shredded leaves from cottonwood trees covered the ground around us. Shorebirds were already arriving. As we sat at one of the picnic tables and talked, a flight of half a dozen or so western sandpipers skimmed over the water and settled on the pond nearest us, immediately standing up in the shallow water and plucking organisms out of it with their long bills. “They are on their way to Alaska, where they nest in the spring,” Hedges said. “I’m surprised that they have any feathers left after last night,” Weinacht said, adding that eight inches of hail had fallen at Saragosa, just up the road. We also saw several families of northern shoveler ducks on the other side of the pond, and as we walked between the ponds, scared up a green-winged teal that was resting in a clump of grass on the bank. She flew off to join a cinnamon teal and a blue-winged teal paddling on the water. These birds, Hedges pointed out, were just the beginning of the spring migration.
The remarkable thing about the Sandia Springs Wetlands is that Ellen Weinacht and her husband, Don, created it themselves, on their own land, with absolutely no aid from the federal, state, or local government, and they have made it available to the public. When they first got the idea they consulted Hedges and Madge Lindsay of Fort Davis, who are fellow birders and naturalists. Hedges helped them pick the site, using a soil map of Reeves County to locate a patch of clayey soil that would hold water. They have enlisted the Tierra Grande chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists to assist with the planning and development, and the master naturalists have created committees of volunteers to help with water management, interpretation, and plant species. But the project is pure, uncluttered, non-bureaucratic private enterprise, done in the straightforward Texas way. The Weinachts had a good idea and went ahead with it. As the Gary P. Nunn songs says, “When a Texan fancies he’ll take his chances, chances will be taken.”
Excerpted from ‘Texas People, Texas Places: More Musings of the Rambling Boy,’ TCU Press; prs.tcu.edu. (Original column: April 26, 2012)