Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

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The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment
Formation 1994
Legal status Nonprofit
Purpose Study, preservation, and presentation of freshwater ecology
Headquarters San Marcos, Texas, U.S.
Region served
United States
Executive director
Andrew Sansom

The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, formerly Aquarena Center, is an educational center in San Marcos, Texas, dedicated to the preservation of the unique archeological and biological resources of Spring Lake. The mission of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is to develop and promote programs and techniques for ensuring sustainable water resources for human needs, ecosystem health, and economic development. At Texas State University-San Marcos, the Meadows Center serves as an integrating mechanism for the university’s multidisciplinary expertise in aquatic resources. Texas State is home to a distinguished array of departments and research centers engaged in critical scholarly work on water management issues. The Meadows Center’s projects create new opportunities to disseminate this significant repository of knowledge and information to the community at large. The Meadows Center at Spring Lake Hall is further home to the Texas Stream Team, a volunteer program dedicated to monitoring the water quality of freshwater systems through the state. Aquarena Center was established in 1994 when Southwest Texas State University purchased land previously used as an amusement park, including Spring Lake, an artificial freshwater reservoir which contains several of the San Marcos Springs.


Spring Lake Hall. This converted hotel is now home to the The Meadows Center For Water And The Environment

The San Marcos Springs are the headwaters of the San Marcos River. This site, where more than 200 springs bubble up from the Edwards Aquifer and discharge an average of 123 million US gallons (470,000 m3) of water daily, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. Artifacts discovered in digs conducted from 1979 to 1982 date back 12,000 years.

A view of the San Marcos River downstream of Spring Lake
Antique glass bottomed boat tours are available daily and last about thirty minutes.

The first Europeans to visit the springs were probably Spanish explorers in 1689. The springs were an important stop on the Old San Antonio Road and the Chisholm Trail. In 1847, former Republic of Texas vice president Edward Burleson purchased the land surrounding the headwaters of the river and built a cabin on the hill overlooking the headwaters. Two years later Burleson built a dam just below the springs to power a mill. This dam, which created Spring Lake, still exists today. A.B. Rogers purchased the property in 1926 and his son, Paul, developed a hotel there in 1928 and introduced glass bottom boats on the lake.

Spring Lake has been visited by notable individuals including Robert E. Lee, Jay Gould, and Helen Miller Shepard because of its beauty.[1]

In the 1950s, construction of a submarine theater and large spillway at one end of the lake to produce a swimming pool led to the opening of Aquarena Springs, an amusement park, at the site in 1951. Other features of the park were the Alpine Swiss Sky Ride (a Von Roll skyride), an Intamin 220 foot Sky Spiral that moved vertically above the lake and rotated 360°, and "mermaid" performers that could be viewed from the submarine theater.[2] The park also included a coin-operated arcade in which human visitors would "compete" in games like Tic-tac-toe against chickens, whose "moves" in the game were determined by pecking lights which appeared only on the chicken's side of the machine. The chickens often won.

By far, the most popular attraction was "Ralph, the Famous Swimming Pig." Ralph swam in the "Underwater Show" performing tricks and his famous "swine dive" until the park closed. At its peak, Aquarena Springs attracted 250,000 visitors annually.

The Wetlands Boardwalk surrounds a shallow water habitat on Spring Lake

The center added a Wetlands Boardwalk in a shallow area of Spring Lake. The boardwalk, made of recycled plastic lumber, floats on the water and circles a marshy area that showcases the flora and fauna of a wetland ecosystem.

Aquarena Center has been designated as a "critical habitat," subject to the Endangered Species Act, because the springs are home to the fountain darter, the Texas Blind Salamander, the San Marcos Salamander, the San Marcos gambusia, and Texas Wild Rice. It is feared the San Marcos gambusia may be extinct as none have been seen since 1983.

Plans call for the removal of most of the old amusement park structures as funds become available. These include the submarine theater (removed May 2012), Sky Spiral, and Swiss Sky Ride. However, the glass-bottomed boat tours will remain.


Since 2002, The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment’s faculty and staff have brought multi-disciplinary expertise to complex, real-world, water-related challenges. They are geographers, biologists, engineers, social scientists, urban and regional planners, strategists, and experts in community engagement and public policy. They are dedicated to helping our partners find economic, social, cultural, and environmental resilience. In 2012, The Meadows Foundation contributed a transformational gift to Texas State University, providing endowments for three chairs, two professorships, research and scholarships. This gift has proven invaluable to their team and to the organizations and the people they serve. And as a result of that partnership, today their work stretches from West Texas to West Africa. The Meadows Center is the only organization of its kind in Texas. Their headquarters are located on the site of an environmentally, culturally, and archaeologically significant resource, Spring Lake, which serves as a living laboratory, a community center, and an irreplaceable educational resource. As a vital part of Texas State University, The Meadows Center brings together departments and research centers to both engage in scholarly inquiry and to provide practical science-based opportunities for faculty, staff, and students. Further, they are committed to sharing that knowledge and information with the community at large. Their future depends on water. The Meadows Center is steadfast in its mission to find and share holistic, multi-disciplinary, practical, and science-based solutions to real-world challenges. Across Texas and around the world, their work is water. The MCWE completes that work through research, stewardship, education, and service.


Research is the foundation of all they do. It informs their programs in stewardship, education and service. They are renowned for their research into environmental flows and many other crucial topics. Their multi-disciplinary team brings diverse expertise to complex scientific and social questions. The MCWE's applied research is crucial for communities who are creating and implementing Watershed Protection Plans. They research the sustainable management of water systems for human prosperity and quality of life and environmental health. They address the balance of economic and environmental sustainability. Their stakeholders rely upon our research as they make critical water-focused decisions across Texas and around the world.

Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle (UAV)[edit]

We put unmanned aircraft to work for projects related to fisheries, wildlife, and watershed management and restoration. The versatility, low cost, instantaneous acquisition, and high-resolution multispectral digital imagery gives the UAV broad applicability.

Underwater Archaeology Exploration[edit]

The MCWE searches for Henry Morgan’s lost fleet. We explore caves in Mexico, shipwrecks elsewhere, and our own Spring Lake. We investigate archaeological sites to preserve an otherwise inaccessible cultural heritage. We learn how our predecessors interacted with water so that we can help shape how we interact with it today.

International Watershed Studies[edit]

The Meadows Center is dedicated to the sustainable management of the world’s freshwater resources. Our team leads multidisciplinary research projects that result in integrated, ecosystem-based management practices that meet human needs and maintain ecological integrity. In doing so, we address scientific, technical, governance, economic, and social issues related to water.


Spring Lake gives life to the San Marcos River, to San Marcos and downstream communities, and to The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Two hundred springs bubble up to form one of the largest aquifer-driven spring systems in the world. Human history here stretches back 12,000 years-making this possibly the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. The lake is also home to eight threatened and endangered species, one of which-Texas Wild Rice-is found nowhere else on earth. Meanwhile, Spring Lake is a vibrant center and beloved resource for our community. The Meadows Center is honored to be the entrusted stewards of this place. It is at the heart of all they do. The MCWE is dedicated to understanding, protecting, and sharing it.

Spring Lake management[edit]

They oversee the Spring Lake Management Plan, which is designed to protect healthy ecosystems, provide research and educational opportunities, and offer access for service activities. As active partners in the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, they help ensure minimum continuous spring flows of the Comal and San Marcos Springs.


Their diving program partners with select scuba divers to protect and preserve Spring Lake’s abundant natural, historical, and cultural resources. They train citizen scientist divers and, in return, they volunteer their time to one of the most unique habitat restoration projects in the country.


The Meadows Center engages more than 125,000 people each year in environmental education and outdoor learning activities at Spring Lake and elsewhere. Their learning programs engage people of all ages, teach them about Spring Lake and the importance of water to all living things, and inspire them to become stewards of our natural resources. Their programs offer access to glass-bottom boats, glass bottom kayaks, Discovery Hall, Wetlands Walk, a 251-acre Spring Lake Natural Area, scuba open water checkout dives, special events, citizens science training, and more. The Meadows Center is proud to give people from all walks of life access to nature so they may experience the physical, emotional, academic, and social benefits thereof.

Field Trips & Private Interpretive Tours[edit]

The MCWE have customized field trips to help most any group from pre-school to post-retirement-explore Spring Lake. They make sure these interpretive outings meet each group’s specific goals for experience and learning.

Glass-Bottom Boats & Kayaks[edit]

Since 1946, people have come from across the country to explore Spring Lake on a glass-bottom boat. These historic boats are ever the visitor favorite and are integral to the Spring Lake tradition. The MCWE's glass-bottom kayaks also honor that tradition.


Published every two weeks by The Texas Tribune and The Meadows Center, the Trib + Water online newsletter provides timely and insightful information about one of the most important issues of their time: water.


The Meadows Center is proud to share their culture of service with communities and organizations across Texas and around the world. The need of a stakeholder determines their approach, but MCWE serves in many ways. They operate one of the largest, longest running, and most successful water quality citizen science programs in the country: Texas Stream Team. The MCWE serves on a range of relevant boards of directors, in steering committees, and in leadership roles for local, national and international organizations. Stakeholders also have access to their collective expertise and resources through their Watershed Services initiative. In each instance, they bring a multi-disciplinary perspective, science-based solutions, and a dedication to the sustainability of their water resources.

Texas Stream Team[edit]

Since 1991, Texas Stream Team has trained 8,000 citizen scientist who monitor some 450 sites along 83,000 miles of waterways in partnership with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Watershed Services[edit]

The MCWE offers research, stakeholder facilitation, water quality monitoring, watershed modeling, GIS, planning, environmental assessments, and more. We help communities develop Watershed Protection Plans and partner on private sector corporate social responsibility and research and development projects.


The following books are among those that been have sponsored or were written by The Meadows Center faculty and staff: • Canoeing and Kayaking Houston Waterways by Natalie Weist, • Exploring the Brazos: From beginning to end by Jim Kimmel, • Flash Floods in Texas by Jonathan Burnett, • Freshwater Fishes of Texas by Chad Thomas, Tom Bonner & Bobby Whiteside, • Green in Gridlock: Common goals, common sense, and compromise by Paul Hansen, • Hillingdon Ranch: Four seasons, six generations by David Langford & Lorie Cantu, • Money for the Cause: A complete guide to event fundraising by Rudy Rosen, • Neches River Users Guide by Gina Donovan, Richard Lange & Adrian van Dellen, • On Politics and Parks by George Bristol, • Paddling the Guadalupe by Wayne McAlister, • Paddling the Wild Neches by Richard Donovan, • Paddling Texas by Shane Townsend, • River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado by Margie Crisp, • Southern Plains Bison: Resurrection of the lost herd by Andrew Sansom, • Texas Riparian Areas, edited by Dr. Thomas B. Hardy and Nicole Davis, • Texas Water Atlas by Lawrence Estaville & Richard Earl, • The Living Waters of Texas by Ken Kramer, David Langford, Dianne Wassenich, Myron Hess, Janice Bezanson, Mary Whitworth, Susan Kaderka, Ben Vaughn, Mary Kelly & Ann Hamilton, • The San Marcos: A river story by Jim Kimmel, • Water in Texas: An introduction by Andrew Sansom,

Also, see two series sponsored by The Meadows Center: Conservation Leadership and River books


The Aquarena Springs Amusement Park was the actual location of the resort in the 1978 film Piranha, directed by Joe Dante.


The following are individuals and institutions who support the work of MCWE and share in their success therewith: Acer Water Tanks, Amarillo Independent School District, Andover Group, Inc., Angelina & Neches River Authority, Ark-Tex Council of Governments, Austin Canoe & Kayak, Burdine Johnson Foundation, City of Bryan, City of College Station, City of Dallas, City of Denton, City of Grand Prairie, City of Irving, City of San Marcos, City of Wimberley, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, Collins Academy, Communities Foundation of Texas, Coypu Foundation, Dan Pearson, David & Becky Gochman, Edwards Aquifer Authority, Edwards Aquifer Research & Data Center, Global Environment Facility, Greater Lake Palestine Council, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, Gutter Pros 4U, Harte Research Institute Foundation, Hoblitzcelle Foundation, Houston Endowment, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Instituto Mexicano de Tecnología del Agua, Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation, James A. “Buddy” Davidson Charitable Foundation, James M. Schultz, John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, Lavaca Navidad River Authority, LBG-Guyton Associates, Lower Colorado River Authority, Lower Neches Valley Authority, Magnolia Charitable Trust, Matt & Peggy Winkler, Michael & Pamela Reese, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin L. Cox, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation, One Texas Water, Organization of American States, Oshman Foundation, Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society, Public Strategies, Inc., Rainwater Tanks 4U, Inc., REI, River Legacy Foundation, Sabine River Authority of Texas, San Marcos Convention & Visitor Bureau, San Marcos River Foundation, Sul Ross State University, Student Conservation Association, T.L.L. Temple Foundation, Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Commission on the Arts, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department-River Studies Program, Texas Water Development Board, Texas Water Resources Institute, The Association of Water Board Directors, The Bass Foundation, The Clayton Foundation, The Colorado River Watch Network, The Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, The National Science Foundation’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program, The Nature Conservancy, The Reese Foundation, The Texas Tribune, The Trull Foundation, Tim and Karen Hixon – The Tim and Karen Hixon Foundation, Town of Flower Mound, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México, Walter Umphrey, William H. Hitchcock, William Reaves Fine Art, Winkler Family Foundation, Yeti Coolers


  1. ^ Finty, Tom; Editorial Staff (1904). Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide. Harvard University: Belo & Company. pp. 286–287. 
  2. ^ "Mermaid Theater." Popular Mechanics, June 1952, pp. 71-73.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 29°53′35″N 97°55′53″W / 29.89304°N 97.93128°W / 29.89304; -97.93128