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San Felipe Springs

San Felipe Springs, located in Val Verde county on the outskirts of Del Rio, are the fourth largest in Texas.  There are a group of ten or more springs that extend for over a mile along San Felipe Creek on the grounds of the San Felipe Country Club and on several ranches to the north.  A groundwater divide near Brackettville separates this portion of the Edwards Aquifer from the central portion and the larger springs in San Marcos and New Braunfels.  In 1849, Captain S. G. French described San Felipe Springs and correctly noted they are the most western of a whole series of outflows from the Edwards. He wrote:

To the north of the road, and half mile distant, there is a beautiful spring of water, fifty feet in diameter at the surface, the sides of which incline towards a centre, like an inverted cone, and then, sinking in a cylindrical form to a depth of twenty-eight feet, through a soil of hard clay, afford a passage for the water to rise. The water comes to the surface with a slight ebullition, and flows off in a volume that would fill a cylinder two feet in diameter. This spring is the source of the San Felipe; as it flows on, the volume of its water is increased by other large springs, on either side; until it becomes a creek, when it empties into the Rio Grande, eight miles below the crossing, some thirty feet wide and several feet deep. Near its junction with the Rio Grande, its banks are shaded with large groves of pecan, maple, elm, and mulberry trees.

Other early explorers described seven deep, clear pools at San Felipe Springs, with many large fish, surrounded by hackberry trees, grapevines, and cattails.  Gaspar Castano de Sosa may have been the first European to visit in 1590.  By the late 17th century many other Spanish explorers and settlers became familiar with the Springs, since the the Kings Highway to San Antonio and El Paso passed right by.  Between 1672 and 1783 several attempts by the Spanish government of New Spain to establish settlements in the area were not successful.  By the mid 1800s, mounted cavalry units and stagecoaches made great use of the Springs. The first permanent settlement was established in 1862 by James and Paula Taylor, and development along the Creek was rapid. Irrigation canals and dams were built to water vineyards, orchards, and gardens, and spring water was hauled and sold in town until 1900 when a water system was installed.  In 1882 two gristmills were using the water for power, and by 1901 there was also an electric light and ice plant (Brune, 1981 and San Felipe Creek Commissioners, 2007).

In 1896 R.T. Hill and T. W. Vaughan wrote:

The westernmost of the line of fault springs are the San Felipe springs near Del Rio.  They break out at the edge of the Edwards Plateau, 2 miles northeast of Del Rio and about 5 miles from the Rio Grande.  The pool is almost as large as that at the head of the San Antonio River.  From the deep-seated rock at its bottom the water can be seen welling up in a great column, and has the same peculiar greenish-blue color as that of the other streams of this class.  No trees surround it; it is alone - a fountain in the desert.  The rocks from which it bursts - the Fort Worth limestones - have the same kind of joints and faults as are found at San Antonio and Austin.  The outflow from the pool forms a bold, rushing stream that runs off to the Rio Grande, some 5 miles distant.  The spring stream, in addition to running a mill and supplying the village with water, is partially utilized to supply 15 miles of irrigation ditch and to irrigate 5,000 acres, and can furnish water for the irrigation of several thousand acres more.  Mr. Babb's measurements make a total discharge of 19 second-feet, or about 12,000,000 gallons per day. 

San Felipe Springs still supply the city of Del Rio and Laughlin Air Force Base. Although much of the area downstream from the Springs is now urban, about 3,000 acre-feet per year are still delivered via the irrigation canals and used for agriculture. Swimming holes at Horseshoe Park and Lions Park are very popular cooling-off spots. For a discussion of whether the filling of Lake Admistad has increased flows at San Felipe Springs, see the Goodenough Spring page.



In January 2004, scientists announced the discovery of a new species of fish in San Felipe Creek, the first new fish discovered in Texas in over 30 years.  The San Felipe gambusia was first noticed in 1997 by Gary Garrett, a research biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  He asked biology professor Robert Edwards to help him identify it, and the two spent years reviewing existing collections before writing a scientific paper documenting the discovery.  They gave it the scientific name of Gambusia clarkshubbi to honor renowned UT Austin fish expert Clark Hubbs.  Garrett and Edwards said the fish had probably been in the Creek for many years, but by 1997 it had became easier to find because its numbers increased due to efforts by the city of Del Rio and the San Felipe Country Club to improve the Creek's habitat.

San Felipe Creek Master Plan

In 2007 the San Felipe Creek Commissioners completed a Master Plan that calls for a balance between recreation, development, and preservation of the natural beauty. Click on the link or image to download.

In 2014, a major new study was completed to determine correlations and potential impacts of groundwater pumping in local springflows, lake elevations, and groundwater levels. The study found that, in general, pumping decreases springflow.

This area is not covered by a groundwater district to manage pumping. Jerry Simpton, who serves as vice-chair of the Texas Water Development Board Region J Water Planning Group, said “I’m very, very pleased with the results of the study. They were able to take 45 years of data, a lot of it from the International Boundary and Water Commission on well elevations, and compare that to springflow, lake elevation, rainfall and develop a model that most groundwater conservation districts never have and sure don’t have during the first years of their operation. So if we decide to form a groundwater district, we now have the basic tool that any district needs to make decisions about rules and thresholds to cut back."

Val Verde Hydrogeological Study, 2014

Download the study here.

Mexican blindcat near Amistad 

On June 17, Christine S. Sinatra reported news from the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin: the university's curator of ichthyology Dean Hendrickson had identified two live fish collected in a deep limestone cave near Del Rio as Prietella phreatophila, the rare Mexican blindcat. The fish grows to only about three inches in length and is adapted to a unique ecological niche where things like eyes, pigmentation for camouflage, and speed are not needed. Instead it has evolved extra-sensory abilities to survive in total darkness. It is slow-moving and a pale pink color because its blood can be seen through translucent skin.

The discovery brought to three the number of blind catfish species known in the United States. The other two are the Toothless blindcat (Trogloglanis pattersoni) and the Widemouth blindcat (Satan eurystomus), both found only in wells more than 1,000 feet deep underneath San Antonio (see the discussion of Deep Water Biota on the Intro page).

There had been rumors of sightings of blind, white catfish since the 1960s in the area of Amistad National Recreation Area, but none had ever been confirmed or scientifically identified. Jack Johnson, a National Park Service resource manager at Amistad, spotted some of fish in April of 2015 and assembled a team of biologists that succeeded in netting two specimens where groundwater rose to fill a deep cave. They were removed to the San Antonio Zoo where they will be maintained alive in a facility specially designed for cave and aquifer species.

The discovery lends support to the theory that water-filled caves below the Rio Grande connect the Texas and Mexico portions of the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer.

Others involved in the discovery were Andy Gluesenkamp and Ben Hutchins of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Gary Garrett and Adam Cohen of UT Austin, and Jean Krejca of Zara Environmental.

Mexican blindcats found in a limestone cave near Del Rio. Photo by Danté Fenolio.

San Felipe Springs photos and postcards

San Felipe Spring #3

This is Spring #3 in the graphic above. Water bubbles up from the depths and runs out of this chamber, filling the swimming hole in Horseshoe Park. The massive pipes sticking into the Springs extract water for municipal supply. Spring #3 and Spring #2 just to the east are the only water source for the city of Del Rio and Laughlin AFB. Because of homeland security concerns, one can no longer just walk up and take pictures. I took this photo and the one below in the mid 1980s.

San Felipe Spring #3, circa 1930s

When I took the photo above in the mid 1980s, the water supply infrastructure looked pretty much the same as decades earlier when this Real Photo postcard was made.

Discharge from Spring #3

Photo taken from the other side of the wall in the photo above, showing the discharge of Spring #3 toward the swimming hole, minus what is being taken for municipal use.

Spring #2, circa 1906

A very rare Real Photo postcard of Spring #2 before the municipal water supply pumphouse was added.

Real Photo postcards were introduced in 1906 by Eastman Kodak and made it possible for anyone to have a postcard made using their own photograph. As such, they were usually produced in very limited numbers. The style of the back of the card dates it to pre-1907.

Spring #2 pumphouse, circa 1930s

A Real Photo postcard view of the pumphouse at Spring #3.

Horseshoe Park swimming hole, early 1990s

A view of the swimming hole in Horseshoe Park in the early 1990s. The old railroad bridge suspended above the creek is still in use.

Horseshoe Park swimming hole, 2009

The situation is exactly the same more than two decades later - when the summer sun blazes in the dry Del Rio sky, this is still a very popular cooling-off place.

Another view of the swimming hole, early 1990s 

From the opposite bank and looking in the opposite direction from the photo above. Notice Highway 90 suspended over the swimming hole in the background.

Blue Lake, early 1990s

Water leaving Blue Lake, which is fed by Springs 1, 2, and 4. Notice how discharge from the Lake is split. Water flowing to San Felipe Creek is running over the spillway on the right, and the Acequia Madre Canal is on the left.

Acequia Madre Canal 

The headwaters of the Acequia Madre canal just below Blue Lake.

Historical Marker for the Canal System of Del Rio

The sign says:

Crude irrigation systems, drawing water from San Felipe Springs and Creek, were first devised by Indian and Spanish inhabitants of this area. Anglo-American settlers also saw the need for irrigation in this arid region, and about 1869 a group of landowners formed the San Felipe Agricultural, Manufacturing & Irrigation Company. Among early stockholders were W. C. Adams, Donald Jackson, Joseph Ney, Randolph Pafford, James H. Taylor, and A. O. Strickland. They dammed San Felipe Creek just below the Springs, and by 1871 had built canals diverting water to 1,500 acres of land.

Under an 1875 irrigation law, the company received a 99-year state charter which authorized the digging of two canals: five mile long "Madre Ditch", and mile-long "San Felipe Ditch", plus lateral canals. In 1876 the state inspector reported that the San Felipe Company had irrigated about 3,000 acres. Land grant provisions of an 1876 law awarded the Company 5,000 acres of state land for the total mileage of its canals.

In addition to promoting agricultural development, the work of the San Felipe Company stimulated the growth of Del Rio, since the irrigation canals provided water to the city as well. Today this vital water supply system is still in operation.

Lions Park, 2009

Below Horseshoe Park, Lions Park has another very popular swimming hole.

The San Felipe Creek Walk, 2009

Between Horseshoe and Lions Parks, the San Felipe Creek Walk offers a delightful stroll along the banks of the clear and cold steam.

Bridge jumping, 2009

One time my mother asked me what I would do if my friend Tommy jumped off a bridge. If I had lived in Del Rio, my answer might have been "I'm going first!" Jumping off the Gillis Avenue bridge is a popular pastime here. Who am I to judge.

Historical Marker for San Felipe Springs 

Located at Spring #3, the marker says:

Oasis for explorers, soldiers, freighters - from 1542 onward.

In 1675 priests named the 7 springs for King of Spain.  In 18th century Comanches camped here on their war trail into Mexico.  In 1808 a mission was established 3 miles downstream, on San Felipe Creek.  By 1856-57 springs were on the 1470-mile San Antonio-to-San Diego mail route and on Chihuahua Road for wagons hauling silver and gold from Mexico to Indianola, then chief port on Texas coast.

After settlers came in 1864, irrigation "Mother Ditch" was dug:  soon Del Rio was founded.

San Felipe Springs postcard, circa 1915

The back says:

Pub. for W. G. Muter, Taxidermist and Curio Dealer.

It was never mailed, but W. G. Muter was active as a taxidermist in the early decades of the 20th century.