A new summer camp designed to be accessible to children and youth of all ability levels also will become a hub of water education centering on the importance of the Edwards Aquifer. 

The 102-acre Morgan’s Wonderland Camp under construction north of Evans Road on the far North Side will become home next year to the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s new educational outreach center, EAA and Morgan’s Wonderland leaders announced.

Edwards Aquifer Authority General Manager Roland Ruiz said Tuesday the space will help educators introduce more children and youth to San Antonio’s main drinking water supply and the importance of protecting it.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority manages groundwater pumping permits and other duties related to the Edwards Aquifer, a vast limestone rock layer that holds the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region. Since the authority’s creation in 1993, its focused has shifted towards science, outreach, and education.

“We’re done fighting with each other over water,” Ruiz said. “Now we’re actually putting real solutions in place and coming up with programs that can actually educate the next generation and generations to come, so that years down the road we’ll be even further down the path of sustainability for this resource.”

The center will be far from the only draw to the camp located over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where a $28 million investment led by philanthropic giving will create enough space for 525 campers. Visitors will be able to stay in cabins for one to 10 days, Hartman said. 

At the media event Tuesday at a former home that will be converted to a medical center for the facility, Hartman described the vision as an “ultra-accessible, fully inclusive camp” that will feature horseback riding with about 20 horses and five different swimming pools, including one designed for campers who are sensitive to extreme temperatures. The camp will also feature a zipline designed for people “who maybe never thought they would be able to zipline,” Hartman said. 

“If you were to call around to camps not only in Texas but around the country and start asking questions in respect to somebody who has a special need, you would quickly find that there are very few places people can go,” Hartman said.

Local businessman and philanthropist Gordon Hartman is the founder of Morgan’s Wonderland.

The summer camp is an outgrowth of Morgan’s Wonderland, a fully inclusive theme park in San Antonio designed for children with disabilities and named after Hartman’s daughter that opened in 2010. 

The camp also will include a challenge course, arts and crafts space, a nature area, a petting zoo, and a library, Hartman said. Construction is set to begin shortly, and the camp likely will be open within about a year, he said. 

The property was cobbled together from three different previous owners, any of whom could have drastically altered the project if they had said no, Hartman said. He also credited Valero Energy as a “founding partner” in creating the camp, with the San Antonio-based refiner contributing $15 million over six years, the largest such corporate gift in its history. 

“We decided to get involved because the mission of the camp is undeniably compelling,” Valero CEO Joe Gorder said in an April news release. “The camp allows those with disabilities to enjoy the same activities as others in an environment free of limitations and restrictions, and to share this experience with those without disabilities.”

The idea for housing the EAA’s educational outreach center at Morgan’s Wonderland Camp came about because of the property’s enrollment in the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, Ruiz said.

General manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority Roland Ruiz

Under that program, San Antonio City Council in April approved the expenditure of $8.5 million in sales tax revenue to Morgan’s Wonderland Camp for conservation easements that permanently block large-scale development of nearly 250 acres around the future camp. 

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we had a presence out there,’’’ Ruiz said. “Knowing Gordon, we reached out to him. Once we talked, things started happening really fast. … It just seemed like a natural fit.”

Morgan’s Wonderland Camp will build and own the outreach center, with the EAA leasing the space. In August, the EAA board approved a 20-year lease on the building for $3.15 million. 

For Sarah Valdez, an EAA educator for approximately 15 years, the site represents an opportunity to inspire thousands more young people than she’s currently able to reach.

“People aren’t going to care about something unless they understand it,” Valdez. “Once they understand it, then they can start helping us take care of it, because it’s their water as well as ours.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.