The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, formerly Aquarena Springs and later the Aquarena Center, is a San Marcos, Texas-based educational center dedicated to preserving Spring Lake’s unique archeological and ecological resources. This lake, formed by more than 200 artesian springs, is one of the world’s largest aquifer-fed systems. This state antiquities landmark is also said to be one of North America’s longest continually inhabited locations.
The Meadows Center offers educational events, relaxation, hands-on activities, and collaborative projects to help tourists, scientists, and students to learn about the habitat of Spring Lake, endangered animals, and water/environmental resource management challenges.
There are glass-bottom boat excursions, and the Discovery Center has educational displays where visitors can see native creatures and fish. Snorkeling and diving programs with an educational emphasis are available, as are interpreter-led field trips.
The Meadows Center creates programs and approaches to ensure the sustainability of water, economic resources, and ecological health. Texas State University State University uses the Center, and its diverse departments are active in water resource management studies and research.
The Texas Stream Team, a volunteer organization that monitors the water quality of freshwater systems across the state, is housed in the Meadows Center in Spring Lake Hall.
Texas State, then Southwest Texas University, purchased land that had previously been utilized as an amusement park, including Spring Lake, which was then an artificial freshwater reservoir, in 1994 and constructed the Center.
The San Marcos Springs are the San Marcos River’s headwaters.
Because the springs are home to the fountain darter, Texas Blind Salamander, San Marcos Salamander, San Marcos gambusia, and Texas Wild Rice, Aquarian Center was listed as a “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. The San Marcos gambusia may be extinct, as no sightings have occurred since 1983.
The first settlements
The site, which contains over 200 springs with water from the Edwards Aquifer and discharges an average of 123 million US gallons (470,000 m3) of water daily, is one of North America’s oldest continually inhabited areas. Artifacts recovered during digs between 1979 and 1982 date back 12,000 years.
The springs were most likely discovered by Spanish explorers around 1689. The springs were an important halt on the Chisholm Trail and the Old San Antonio Road. Former Republic of Texas vice president Edward Burleson bought the land surrounding the river’s sources in 1847 and erected a cabin on a hill overlooking the headwaters. Burleson built a dam right below the springs two years later to power a mill. This dam, which formed Spring Lake, is still in place today.
Famous people who have visited Spring Lake include Robert E. Lee, Jay Gould, and Helen Miller Shepard.
A.B. Rogers bought the land in 1926, and his son, Paul, built a hotel and introduced glass bottom boats to the lake in 1928.
Construction of a submarine theater and a big spillway at one end of the lake to create a swimming pool in the 1950s resulted in the creation of Aquarena Springs, an entertainment park, at the location in 1951. The Alpine Swiss Sky Ride (a Von Roll skyride), an Intamin 220 foot Sky Spiral that went vertically above the lake and turned 360°, and “Ralph, the Famous Swimming Pig” and “mermaid” entertainers who could be seen from the undersea theater were all attractions at the park. The park also had a coin-operated arcade where human guests could “compete” in games like Tic-tac-toe against chickens whose “moves” in the game were controlled by pecking lights that only appeared on the chicken’s side of the machine. Aquarena Springs attracted 350,000 tourists each year at its height.
Aquarena Springs appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics and in Life.
Bob Phillips created a documentary, Aquarena Springs and Ralph the Swimming Pig, in 2011 following the demise of Aquarena Springs.
The Mermaid Society of Texas, created in 2016, currently organizes an annual river promenade and event to honor Aquarena’s mermaids.
The Texas Congress enacted Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 9 in 2021, designating Aquarena Springs, the Aquamaids, and Ralph the Swimming Pig as the Mermaid Capital of Texas, as well as San Marcos.
Center for the Environment
Texas State University-San Marcos purchased the property in 1994. Soon after, the Aquarena Springs facilities were demolished, with the Submarine Theater and Sky Spiral being the last to go in 2012.
The new Meadows Center was designed with habitat reclamation and environmental concerns in mind, including the addition of a Wetlands Boardwalk in a shallow region of Spring Lake. The recycled plastic lumber boardwalk floats on the water and circles a marshy area showcasing the plants and fauna of a wetland habitat.
The center’s primary goal is research.
The MCWE is involved in underwater archaeology. It explores caves in Mexico, Spring Lake, and shipwrecks in quest of Henry Morgan’s missing fleet.
The center employs unmanned aircraft (UAVs) to take images and collect data for initiatives involving fisheries, wildlife, and watershed management and restoration.
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