By Paige Lambert
Six kayaks glided up the river, heading to where they docked the afternoon before. As early morning traffic filled the nearby roadways, the kayaks’ owners were busy driving green rods into the riverbed.
The rods were tools in an annual cooperative survey to check the health and growth of the Texas wild rice beds, which only grow in the San Marcos River.
With leaves up to 45 inches long, the plant seems to blanket whole sections of the riverbed.
“It’s a Texas native, part of our Texas heritage, you could say,” said Chad Norris, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) scientist.
Unfortunately, it is also endangered because of its exclusive location. That’s why TPWD started the annual survey to monitor the plants’ well-being.
Each year, teams from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, city of San Marcos, TPWD and local volunteers spend a week and a half recording information about each plant.
The survey is part of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan (EAHCP), which commissions multiple entities in Central Texas to care for endangered species.
Scouts drive long green stakes into the river, marking the heads of rice plants in that area. A GPS on the kayak then records the head and draws a box around the entire plant.
Based on the height, width and depth measurements of that box, the team is able to find the percent coverage of each plant.
“The depth helps us see critical stands, which are stands that are in shallow water,” Norris said. “It helps us know if that stand is a really healthy stand or if it’s sparse.”
In order to be a healthy stand, it has to be located in flowing, clean water and submerged by at least a half meter, said Josh Roberts, TPWD intern.
Once the survey is completed, it will be added to a database containing 22 years of wild rice observations.
That database will be used to predict growth trends and identify critical habitats, or unhealthy stands. Should the water level drop, conservationists would know which plants to aid first, Roberts said.
“Those would be the first plants we would take out of the ground and put somewhere else in the river so they can survive,” Roberts said.
The survey also shows where transplants, grown in local facilities, need to be placed to encourage growth in that section of the river, Roberts said.
“Right now there is also a lot of restoration and replanting of the wild rice, to try and get the areal coverage up,” Norris said.
Jeff Hutchinson, TPWD scientist, said the EAHCP’s ultimate coverage goal is 12,000 square meters. As of 2013, the coverage was at 5,000 square meters.
Rods poked through the river in multiple places, similar to the candles of a great-grandmother’s birthday cake.
Roberts said there has been a large coverage growth since last year, because of this summer’s 10 inches of rain and the continued conservation efforts.
While the surveyed section mainly flowed with wild rice, the team still keeps an eye out for exotic plants.
“If you look around there are a lot of species that aren’t supposed to be here, and if they take over, you’re going to have mass erosion,” Roberts said.
The wild rice roots help the bank stay intact. If a heavy rain came through and there wasn’t any wild rice, it would wipe the banks out, Roberts said.
The rice not only holds the riverbed together, but creates a habitat for native species, protecting them from other invasive species.
If the wild rice became extinct, the river’s condition would not only decline, but an image of San Marcos would be gone.
“It’s definitely part of San Marcos. People go down the river and they see it all the time. If they stop seeing it they’ll wonder where it went,” Roberts said. “Plus, it kinda sucks to see a species die out.”