DREW JOSEPH, San Antonio Express-News
ZEKE MACCORMACK, San Antonio Express-News
SPRING BRANCH, Texas (AP) — Vidal Mendoza scanned the upper Guadalupe River, looking for the right spot to measure the flow of the water. Or perhaps more accurately, Mendoza, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologic technician, was searching where the river should have been.
The riverbed was mostly dry Tuesday, slowly baking and cracking in the sun, and the pools of the water that remained were shallow and still.
It's the third time in five years that stretches of the Guadalupe above Canyon Lake have effectively gone dry, conditions not seen in the preceding five decades.
Hoping to find a trickle, Mendoza, 49, trudged through the water, the pools barely coming up to the calves of his thigh-high waders. But the only movement was along the surface, where bugs danced and a breeze occasionally created ripples. Paw prints dotted the mud, perhaps from a raccoon or opossum taking advantage of the absence of water to cross the riverbed.
"This is what you call dry," said Mendoza, who has worked for the USGS for 25 years. "I don't think I've ever seen it like this."
Finally, Mendoza spotted a trickle, or what amounted to a trickle at this point. He placed his Flow Tracker into the water to pick up a reading, but the flow was so weak the device failed to pick up a measurement. Mendoza was left estimating how little water was passing by.
At Spring Branch, the Guadalupe River has a historical median flow of 78 cubic feet per second for Aug. 13, but now the flow was at zero. The water in most places was stagnant and ugly, with a film glistening on top and plenty of muck clouding the few inches of water.
Nearby at Comfort, where the median flow for Aug. 13 is 58 cubic feet per second, there also was no flow. Some of the water heads underground, but very little is making it to Canyon Lake.
"For all intents and purposes, the river's dry," Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1cMbcrW ).
The drought, well into its third year, has hurt businesses and limited recreation, and this week prompted a ban on watering lawns with sprinklers in Kendall County in addition to sucking the Guadalupe dry.
"Dry is the new normal," said Tommy Mathews, president of the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District board, which voted Monday to enact Stage 3 drought restrictions.
Besides limiting lawn watering to once weekly with a hand-held hose, the measures aimed at reducing groundwater consumption by 30 percent also prohibit its use to fill swimming pools or ponds.
"It's time for folks to start practicing some good conservation," Mathews said Tuesday. "The groundwater level has dropped precipitously in the last month and almost all of our streams are dry."
The regulations, more stringent than current drought restrictions in most other San Antonio-area communities, don't apply inside the city limits of Boerne. Residents there are under the city's Stage 2 drought restrictions, which allow lawn watering twice weekly on designated days.
Monitoring wells used by Cow Creek show the Trinity Aquifer level is at its lowest point in a decade, said Micah Voulgaris, district general manager.
"It's 2 feet lower than it was in 2011 and 30 feet lower than in 2007," he said, citing the average elevation of 1172.9 feet above sea level of the 14 wells by which he has tracked the aquifer level since 2003.
Not surprisingly, the drop in the aquifer directly correlates to the absence of rainfall, said Voulgaris, noting only 16 inches of precipitation has been recorded in Kendall County this year.
The lack of rain, the falling water table and cessation of flow in the Guadalupe River factored into the decision Monday to enact Stage 3 restrictions, he said, one step shy of declaring a "drought emergency," under which all watering of lawns is banned.
The aquifer level's drop has left many well pumps in the area dry, forcing homeowners to hire someone to lower pumps. When pumps are lowered as far as they can, drillers are called to dig wells deeper.
"We're very busy with 'no water' calls," said Mel Vogt, secretary at HW. Schwope and Sons Water Well Drilling in Boerne. "A lot of it is because people just won't stop watering" their grass, she said.
Violators of the Cow Creek drought restrictions face a fine of up to $500 if they don't heed the first warning, said Voulgaris, who prefers not to perform the duties of water cop.
"We want to use this as an opportunity to educate people about water conservation, not to be punitive," he said.
Efforts to conserve water at Guadalupe River State Park meant that a row of purple portable toilets stood in front of the closed restrooms Tuesday.
The park shut off water Monday after the river dropped to such a point it no longer was permitted to draw water for toilets, showers and other uses. For now, the park is planning to rely on well water to keep two of its three campgrounds open this weekend when it has the most visitors, and then to turn the water off again next week to allow the wells to recharge.
"We need to all do the rain dance," park superintendent Scott Taylor said.
At the park, the river was crowded Tuesday with sunbathers and swimmers, and while it was deep enough to swim, it was not offering speedy tube rides.
"The water's not moving a whole lot," said Scott Barr of Killeen, who was camping at the park with his family. The Barr family arrived Sunday, and when they heard the water would be turned off Monday, they bought jugs and buckets to fill up and store water. Barr even built a make-shift shower at the campsite.
Over at Guadalupe Canoe Livery, the people who rent kayaks and canoes normally have four miles of river to paddle, but as of now, they have to walk for about a third of the stretch, said Michelle Wertheim, who runs the campground there.
"It's drying up considerably and fast, too," she said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.