Desert Wetlands

By Russell A. Graves

It’s unusual to see a diver down sign in the middle of the desert. In Toyahvale, Texas, one is prominent on the Desert Oasis Dive Shop. Toyahvale is a sleepy burg located in southern Reeves County where the Permian Basin and the Davis Mountains meet. To the north of Toyahvale, creosote bush flats extend across the parched landscape. To the south and west of the shop, high desert mountains jut from the surrounding scrub. Some of the mountains peak at more than a mile above sea level and are covered in century plants and an occasional ocotillo.

Location, location, location is the mantra of real estate practitioners and just to the east of the Toyahvale store is perhaps the best known of all the Texas desert wetlands and unlikeliest of scuba diving destinations, Balmorhea State Park. Drive past on State Highway 17 on any summer day and you’ll see scores of people enjoying the pool by diving from the two boards or just playing in the water in general.

Pulling into the gates, I mention to my wife that this year marks the 11th year we’ve come to Balmorhea State Park. In my mind it seems like yesterday but looking in the rearview mirror to the backseat, the three-year-old that we had in tow our first year is now a teenager and her little brother sitting opposite of her was still a year away from being born into our family. I have literally watched them grow up swimming in the spring-fed waters of this out-of-the-way park in the unlikeliest of places.

I’ve been an enthusiastic evangelist of the West Texas oasis. When people ask me for a recommendation on a fun but different family vacation, Balmorhea is always at the top of my list. Out on the edge of the creosote bush flats where the western Permian Basin meets the Davis Mountains, the swimming pool at Balmorhea is formed by San Solomon Springs, a 20 million gallon of water per day artesian freshwater fountain that floods the man-made, two acre swimming pool and the water flows out of the pool and downstream to provide drinking and agricultural water to an otherwise perennially parched landscape.

The spring gets its water from occasional rainfall that erupts over the distant mountains to the west and southwest. The water collects and flows through subterranean fissures and bubbles to the surface about two miles west of the Balmorhea city limits proper. Discovered long ago by Native Americans who roamed the mountains and basins region, the spring once consisted of a small pool surrounded by cattails, rushes, and other aquatic vegetation. In the 1930s, however, under the direction of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), the spring and its natural pool were encased by a concrete retaining wall and flooded. When you swim in the pool today, you are the beneficiary of an ambitious project that embarked over seven decades ago.

In the boomerang shaped swimming area, one end is akin to a traditional swimming pool with a flat concrete bottom. In the rest of the swimming pool, rocks and aquatic vegetation line the bottom. Too deep to touch, most of the natural part of the pool’s bottom ranges from about 10 to 25 feet deep. The vegetation, rocks, and algae help keep the water clean even without the aid of modern filtration systems or chemicals. Moving water and a natural nitrogen conversion system designed perfectly by Mother Nature help keep the water crystal clear even at the deepest depths. As such, when you swim, you share the pool with catfish, Mexican tetra, soft-shelled turtles, and the rare Comanche Springs pupfish.

On a perfect June Saturday, I swam with my kids all day long. We snorkeled, jumped off the diving boards and swam around the pool. I even took the time to scuba dive in the crystal clear water and photograph the rare fish species.

To read more pick up a copy of the September 2017 NTFR issue. To subscribe call 940-872-5922.