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Sept. 29, 2003
Del Rio Protects San Felipe Creek for People, Wildlife
DEL RIO, Texas – A watershed that was the setting for a devastating flood that destroyed homes and claimed lives five years ago is being reborn as a stretch of urban parkland that will protect one of Texas’ clearest spring-fed creeks.
This month, officials announced a plan to aid a rare West Texas native fish by responsibly developing and managing the San Felipe Creek corridor inside the city limits.
The threatened Devils River minnow depends upon San Felipe Creek for life itself. Del Rio residents and "winter Texans" depend on it for water, for golf, for bird watching and agriculture. More than 350 species of birds in the vicinity also rely upon the creek.
And although the creek and the springs it comes from have been fine on their own for thousands of years, they now depend upon the people of Del Rio to keep them clean and free from urban encroachment.
The City of Del Rio and the San Felipe Country Club, where the golf course encompasses a good portion of the creek and springs, have committed to protecting the creek area. The city and golf course were aided by state and federal wildlife officials, who say the project is a model for how to create urban green space and protect wildlife at the same time.
The Devils River minnow is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as a threatened species. The fish survives only in a few rivers along Texas and Mexico, one of which is San Felipe Creek. Gary Garrett, Ph.D., a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist, has been working to conserve the Devils River minnow project since before the species was placed on the threatened list. As with most rare species, he says the point is not so much the individual species in question, but how it indicates water quality, good or bad.
"Given a good quality environment, this fish does extremely well, better than most other fish, but when its environment is degraded, it does really poorly really fast," Garrett said. "These fish are important because they indicate environmental quality. More than just water quality, it’s habitat quality—water volume, water quality, substrate, vegetation, the whole works."
But Garrett says the story goes beyond wildlife conservation. It’s about urban rebirth, about a city embracing a creek that was once the scene of tragedy. A 1998 flood wiped out entire neighborhoods along the creek’s path and killed nine people. More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed.
"Unfortunately, people had to be moved out of the floodplain," said Sylvestre Sorola, a TPWD wildlife biologist in Del Rio. "If there was another flood, they’d be right in the path."
But the devastating flood had a silver lining.
"It provided this open green space," Sorola said. "We can provide wildlife-friendly recreation like bird watching or hiking a nature trail. It really, really was a sad event, but there was that one good thing that came out of it."
Del Rio received a federal transportation grant in 2002 to help fund a $575,328 project to create hike and bike trails along the creek. The city has purchased land along the San Felipe’s banks to make parks near neighborhoods once vulnerable to floods. The greenbelt will beautify the city, give land back to native wildlife and plants, and avoid future flood damage to surrounding areas better than man-made structures.
The city and golf course management plans list ways to preserve San Felipe Creek, including reducing use of fertilizers and pesticides and leaving some areas natural and un-mowed.
"That is the main thing," Sorola said, "to allow native vegetation to exist and to not mow it all down."
The city is going to try to rid the creek of exotic plants like African river cane by using herbicides in ways that won’t harm other vegetation. Then it will let native species take over.
The San Felipe County Club is also actively preserving the creek that runs through it. Except where it would make it impossible to play golf, the creek area will remain un-mowed to allow native vegetation to grow back and filter contaminants. The course will also reduce use of pesticides, fertilizers and exotic plants.
Course Superintendent Andy Dayton says it isn’t that much different from what he’s already doing—he likes the natural habitat that surrounds the golf course, and is enthusiastic about working with TPWD on the management plan. "We can have a wonderful golf course without harming Mother Nature’s animals," Dayton said. "We just manicure what God’s already put out there."
With cities, nature usually loses in the battle between concrete and open land. But officials say the Del Rio Project shows urban areas can flourish side by side with the environment and even benefit from conservation.
"Once we get the hike and bike trail completed in 2005, we plan to promote tourism," says Del Rio city manager Rafael Castillo. Nature tourism is the fastest growing tourism industry in Texas, and with its greenbelt and birds, Del Rio has high hopes of becoming the next hot travel destination.
"Besides the potential for outside tourists coming in, we in Del Rio are going to have future generations that will be able to enjoy this," Castillo says. "Nature is being taken over by metro areas, and we’re going to have nature itself running through our downtown."
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