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At Independence Creek Preserve, swim in a spring-fed lake

Nature Conservancy property helps protects water quality of Pecos River

Pam LeBlanc
Independence Creek Preserve features two spring-fed lakes, including this one fed by Caroline Spring. The Nature Conservancy property opens to the public four or five times a year for swimming, camping and hiking.

Funny, this doesn’t feel like the desert.

I’m standing at the edge of a dock, contemplating a plunge into a giant spring-fed pool so clear I could be in the Bahamas. A couple of bufflehead ducks paddle past, and I take a flying leap.

It’s brisk, like Barton Springs. But when I break the surface and look around, I don’t see crowds of sunbathers or towering shade trees like those at the Austin swimming hole. I see deep-cut canyons and scrub-covered mesas, and just out of eyesight lies a prairie dog village with fat little pups that pop up their heads and chirp an alert when I stroll past.

Welcome to Independence Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property located near Sheffield, in the transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the Chihuahuan Desert. The preserve covers almost 20,000 acres near the headwaters of Independence Creek, just above its confluence with the Pecos River.

It’s an important chunk of real estate, environmentally speaking.

Caroline Spring, located at the preserve’s headquarters, produces 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of water per minute. That water, held in check by a small dam that predates the conservancy’s ownership, forms two lakes — a 3-acre pool with a stone retaining wall along one side and a more natural 11-acre one that’s nearly four times the size of Barton Springs.

Water that passes through the lakes washes into Independence Creek, which doubles the flow of the Pecos River where the two converge.

“From an ecological standpoint, Independence Creek Preserve is a powerhouse,” says Laura Huffman, Texas state director of the Nature Conservancy, which owns 38 properties in Texas. “It protects the most important freshwater tributary of the lower Pecos River, which is Independence Creek, and safeguards more than 19,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert. It really represents one of our best efforts of at-scale conservation in West Texas.”

The preserve periodically hosts researchers and university students, but it also opens to the public four or five times each year. On those days there’s no charge to camp, fish, hike or swim. The next open weekend is May 15-17.

“During the day, you can hike the mesas, then cool off in Caroline Spring, which has water so clear you can see straight to bottom. And at night, you can camp out under a desert sky so clear the stars practically jump out at you,” Huffman says. “People love it not only because they know it represents conservation at its best, but because it is remote and wild and wonderful — a true testament to the enduring beauty and magic of nature.”

I was entranced at first sight, especially by those two swimmable lakes.

The Nature Conservancy of Texas bought the preserve in two parcels, in 2000 and 2001, for water quality protection and habitat conservation. It also has a conservation easement on about 700 additional acres just downstream. It doesn’t own the land just above the preserve, at the headwaters of Independence Creek, but has a good relationship with the property owner.

“It’s unique to have this much water in the desert,” says Corbin Neill, who manages the preserve. “And with the water comes all sorts of things that are rare.”

He’s talking about the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird, and the proserpine shiner, a small threatened fish that is slowly disappearing from the Pecos River due to vanishing habitat. But this place is a haven for plenty of other critters, too. So far I’ve spotted a pair of javelinas, a vermilion flycatcher, a fast-swimming nutria, deer, a slithering snake and lots of woodpeckers, ducks, herons and hawks.

Earlier today, we piled into Neill’s truck for a trip up a mesa within the preserve. As we bounced along, we spotted uprooted junipers at the side of the dirt road — signs of the conservancy’s ongoing work to remove brush and return the plateau to a grassland. From a stone pavilion at the top, we got a good view of the lakes and wetlands below. Neill pointed out where fields of Bermuda grass planted by the property’s former owners have been replaced with native grasses that are more water efficient and nutritionally beneficial to wildlife.

He also drove us to another significant site — a grove of oaks along the creek that are at least 200 years old. The root mass of those gnarled and leaning trees, he says, dates back 1,500 years. We listened to woodpeckers and watched as a great blue heron flapped overhead. This riparian zone provides an important stopover for migrating birds and monarch butterflies.

“It’s easy to comprehend the value of the water when you see it,” says Jason Wrinkle, who oversees half a dozen Nature Conservancy properties in West Texas, including this one. “The challenge is to ask where that water is coming from and what are the threats to that source? That’s a big, complex question, and the Nature Conservancy is looking at that.”

One worry? Degrading pipes from abandoned, nonproducing wells in the area.

After a swim in the lake, it’s time to relax. We fire up a grill and cook burgers, watching the sun set and the moon rise. It’s quiet, except for the occasional chirp of a bird or rustle of leaves.

We’re five hours west of Austin, but might as well be a million miles away.