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City reaches milestone for cave site restoration plan

Thursday, October 3, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City staff members have completed a draft land management plan to protect the city’s natural resources at the William H. Russell Karst Preserve, the 191-acre Southwest Austin site previously known as the Blowing Sink Research Management Area.

The natural features of the land, which was formerly used as a livestock ranch, have been subject to decades of abuse, posing a threat to the Edwards Aquifer as well as several vulnerable wildlife species. Serving as a formal agreement among Austin Water, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Watershed Protection Department, the draft shared land management plan aims to restore and protect those natural features to improve regional water quality and habitat for sensitive wildlife.

In carrying on the legacy of the late William H. Russell, the most prolific cave explorer in Austin’s history, the plan also lays the foundation for welcoming contributions and involvement from the local cave community and other knowledgeable stakeholders. In addition to monitoring and restoration projects, that work may also include continuing the search for previously filled caves that the community has not yet discovered.

In April 1984, Russell and fellow cave explorer Nancy Weaver discovered Blowing Sink cave, the only known humanly accessible route to the water table within the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer. In total, nine other caves and sinkholes have now been found on the preserve, each feeding into the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

Since the discoveries, Watershed Protection has put $700,000 into the excavation and stabilization of five of the site’s large sinkholes, allowing stormwater to naturally drain and flow into the aquifer again.

According to Justin Shaw, an environmental specialist formerly with Watershed Protection’s cave team, Russell’s discovery and advocacy have been critical for the city’s natural water resources.

“That water that comes out of Barton Springs is not magic; the other end of that system is the caves and the sinkholes,” Shaw said in June. “Truth be told, if it weren’t for William Russell, I would shudder to think what the quality of the water of Barton Springs would be today.”

The discoveries have also allowed the city to help protect the habitat of wildlife living within and around the cave systems. The site has been identified as an important resource for the endangered Barton Springs salamander, and its surface vegetation is a potential habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

The caves are also home to the cave cricket, a species considered essential to the local ecosystem. Balcones Canyonland Preserve staffers are planting and watering new native vegetation, such as Texas persimmon and Mexican plum, around the caves to stabilize the soil and nourish the crickets. Staffers also seek to reduce populations of red imported fire ants and tawny crazy ants, two non-native species that pose a particular threat to the cave cricket.

Near the turn of the century, Russell successfully fought for the property to be donated to the city and dedicated as a preserve for protection and skillful exploration. In February 2000, the original 165 acres was donated to the city, followed by the city’s purchase of the remaining 25 acres for $10 in March 2014.

Before the preserve was dedicated, many of the site’s sinkholes had been plugged with clay to serve as drinking ponds for livestock or as garbage pits. The damage incurred by such practices has compounded drainage problems caused by excessive driving on the property under wet conditions. The draft management plan declares a need for ongoing sediment removal and road repair to restore natural drainage flow.

Today, the bare site contains only a small storage barn. With no restrooms, parking spaces or other facilities, human interference is minimal, but the preserve continues to suffer from trespassing cave explorers, illegal dumping and other criminal activity.

In 2014, the site was used as a camping spot for a group of robbers who had an ATM they had stolen from the Austin Zoo. The robbers also broke into the site’s storage barn and vandalized city work vehicles. The plan cites a need for 4,200 feet of chain-link fencing along the northern and western perimeters to prevent such incursions. Once the preserve is properly secured, staff will consider lifting the gates now installed over the caves, reopening access for bats and other cave-dwelling creatures.

The preserve also remains threatened by oil pipelines running through the area. In the 1970s and 80s, thousands of barrels of crude oil spilled into the ground only a short distance from the property. In August 2013, another 300 gallons of petroleum escaped a pipeline owned by Magellan Pipeline Company, about 7,000 feet west of the preserve.

Three petroleum pipelines currently cross the site, one transporting over 2 million barrels of crude oil east from West Texas to the coast, the other two transporting liquid natural gas. “Any release is potentially catastrophic,” the draft plan states, calling for extreme caution and preparation when performing excavations or other projects over pipeline easements.

In line with City Council’s June resolution, city staff will follow up in January 2020 with a report on all existing feature projects and will simultaneously post an online story map to engage the public on ongoing restoration efforts. In March 2020, staff will execute a memorandum of understanding for management of the preserve and will release the final land management plan.

Photo by Jeremy Perez Photos made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been corrected to change the photo and to note that Shaw is a former Watershed employee.

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