by Daryl Slusher
About a week ago Bill Bunch, the Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA), contacted me and reminded that we are approaching the 30th Anniversary of the Barton Creek PUD uprising. That happened Thursday June 7, 1990 when Austinites rose up and swatted down a development proposal for a massive subdivision, commercial and golf course development on some 4,000 acres along Barton Creek — around seven miles upstream from Barton Springs.
The lead developer, Jim Bob Moffett, came straight from central casting. Moffett was a former University of Texas football lineman who had made it big — first in oil, then in gold and copper mining. He was then CEO of Freeport McMoRan, headquartered in New Orleans. Freeport owned and operated one of the biggest, if not the biggest, gold mines in the world, in Indonesia. Moffett and partners had recently bought the Barton Creek Country Club and some surrounding acreage out of bankruptcy and foreclosure — claiming he was returning to help his college town escape from the late 1980s economic bust.
A huge number of Austinites, however, saw it a lot differently. After an all night public hearing, the City Council, previously thought to be leaning toward approval of the PUD (Planned Unit Development) voted it down unanimously. Moffett could have won an Academy Award as the villain except he wasn’t acting. He once even threatened to “bankrupt the City” if he didn’t get his way. But this was not a movie. So the saga did not end the moment Council turned down the PUD and the springs were not eternally protected after the one night uprising.
Instead the struggle went on for several years. Moffett ended up getting to build portions of his proposal before finally leaving town, or at least the spotlight. He and allies also succeeded in persuading the Texas Legislature to pass a series of bills weakening Austin’s development regulatory powers. The people of Austin kept fighting though and ultimately resulting from that 1990 uprising was the passage of the citizen initiative Save Our Springs Ordinance in August 1992. Following that came a series of victories in Council races, ultimately leading to the City now owning some 28,000 acres of Water Quality Protection Lands in the Barton Springs Zone and the institutionalization of environmental values into City government.
The 30th anniversary though slipped up on me, sort of like the last 30 years. Bunch called to let me know that SOSA would be posting a digital copy of an Austin Chronicle cover story I wrote back then which played a role in stoking that uprising. SOSA will also post a lot of other material related to the PUD uprising. Bunch additionally suggested that I might want to write something for the Austin Independent about the anniversary and about that 1990 article. He in particular suggested that I offer a little insight on how that story came to be at the Chronicle.
Bunch and I are old friends and neither of us have ever deviated from our commitment to save the springs. In the 30 years since June 7, 1990, however, he and I have sometimes had strategic disagreements on how to go about meeting that shared goal. So it was nice of him to contact me and make those suggestions. I’m taking him up on it. In particular I want to note some people at the Chronicle who deserve to have their role mentioned. Then I will briefly discuss what I see as some of the biggest challenges to the survival of the springs.
The Battle to Protect Barton Springs Did Not Begin With the PUD Rebellion
First though, let’s go back just a little bit further in history. While this year marks the 30th anniversary of the PUD rebellion, it is also the 50th Anniversary of an ad placed in the then Austin American by a group of folks called the Austin Environmental Council (AEC). The AEC called on the City Council to pass ordinances protecting all creeks in Austin, but also focused on the particular significance and fragility of Barton Creek. The ad also featured a description of Barton Creek that in my view has still not been matched — and that still clearly explains why so many Austinites have fought so long to protect it: “There are not — there cannot be — very many cities of the size of Austin around the world that are blessed with such an extraordinary enclave of wilderness so close to town. A free-flowing stream with rapids, with pools that reflect percipitous bluffs a marvel of variety in colors, textures and shapes, a place to see flowers rarely seen in a city, to hear bird songs rarely heard by city dwellers — these are assets of inestimable value.”
In addition to calling on the City Council to pass ordinances protecting all Austin creeks, the signers of the ad also called for the City to buy land and establish a Barton Creek Park, including a trail from Barton Springs to Highway 71 where it crosses Barton Creek. A lot of the trail called for in the ad became reality; although it didn’t make it to Highway 71 because the Lost Creek subdivision rose and blocked it off. The owner of that property, realizing its geological and natural importance, came to the City during the 1960s and offered to sell for $300 per acre. His wife was ailing and he needed the money. Tragically, he was told that he was asking too much and the the City didn’t have the money. He was sent packing. Ultimately he sold the property for development.
So when the Barton Creek PUD rebellion occurred it built on at least 20 years of citizen efforts to protect the creek and springs. Some saw the threats to the creek coming even before then. For instance in the mid-1950s, the Austin naturalist, Barton Springs swimmer, and writer Roy Bedichek helped set the tone in a letter he wrote to a friend: “I will fight to the last ditch for Barton Creek, Boggy Creek, cedar-covered limestone hills, blazing star and bluebonnets, golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and so on through a catalogue of the natural environment of Austin, Texas.” Fittingly, Bedichek is immortalized in a statue outside Barton Springs along with his friends and contemporaries J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb.
Realizing that the battle for Barton Creek and Barton Springs has been raging for at least 50 years can make one wonder what the state of the creek and springs will be 50 years from now. With that in mind I will later lay out the biggest threats to the survival of the springs as I see them. But, first let’s return to Mr. Bunch’s suggestion and talk about how the 1990 Chronicle story came to be.
Austin Chronicle 1990
I began working on that story one day in May 1990 after Robert Bryce, my fellow Chronicle reporter at the time, handed me a promotional packet from the would be PUD developers. It was about an inch thick and even as I first thumbed through it I realized immediately that this was a major threat to Barton Creek and Barton Springs — and that it came from a major corporation.
I talked to then Chronicle editor Louis Black and still Publisher Nick Barbaro. They quickly said it should go on the cover and we decided that on this one we would go beyond our normal practice and encourage readers to call the Council and demand that they turn down this looming disaster.
Louis had the idea to pull in readers with a cover based on the then famous National Lampoon cover featuring a gun pointed to an adorable dog’s head with the caption, “Buy this issue or we’ll shoot this dog.” It was a parody magazine, OK.
Art Director Martha Grenon then put together the cover with the skull and bones beach ball floating in an empty Barton Springs Pool, and with individually cut out letters, in a ransom note style, reading, ““If You Don’t Read This Issue We’ll Poison Barton Springs.” I wrote the story and, as usual, my immediate editor Michael Hall made suggestions to greatly improve my initial draft. We also ran a picture of long time social justice advocate and environmental leader Shudde Fath with a pull quote from her: “I consider Barton Springs as the canary in the coal mine for Austin and Central Texas.” Below that we noted that Fath was 74 years old. Thirty years later Shudde is still very strong and still paying close attention.
We put in a small box at the end of the article with Council phone numbers. There was no email yet. After my article came one on Freeport’s mining operations in Indonesia by Scott Henson and Tom Philpott, then publishing a hard hitting radical newspaper at UT called The Polemicist.
The issue was dated June 1, 1990, but, consistent with Chronicle practice, hit the Chronicle racks around town on May 31.
The Scene on June 7
Well before the Chronicle article hit, environmental groups were organizing to stop the PUD. It was a time when there were long established environmental groups, in particular the Save Barton Creek Association as well as fairly new to the scene environmentalists and groups like Earth First and like Bunch. So there was a lot of organizing going on and then the Chronicle gave that a jolt by reaching thousands of people at once. Also, John Aielli from KUT highlighted the Chronicle article and the upcoming issue on his show.
Estimates at the time were that around two thousand people called Council offices demanding that they stop the PUD. At the June 7 hearing 900 people signed up to speak — the overwhelming majority of them opposed to the PUD. Hundreds demonstrated in front of City Hall. The chants of demonstrators and the sound of car horns honking in solidarity wafted into the Council Chamber every time someone opened the door. An overflow crowd gathered down the street at the music venue Liberty Lunch and listened to the radio on the speakers from which music usually blared. Many more watched on City Channel 6.
Around four o’clock that afternoon, Austinites got their first glimpse of Jim Bob Moffett. As the applicant in the case Moffett and his lawyer got to go first. He quickly slammed the Chronicle articles, using legal terms for libel such as the articles were “misleading, unfair and contain(ed) material falsehoods,” the Chronicle was “guilty of reckless disregard for the truth,” and that he was “dismayed by the malice” in the articles.
Moffett then tried to pivot to the positive. According to his own lore, and a letter from the then Mayor of New Orleans, Moffett was very popular there in his home base, and had done a lot for New Orleans. He quickly realized, however, that he had already developed a very different image in Austin. He told the crowd that he “graduated with the highest grades” of any UT football player. He then stepped back slightly from the podium as if expecting applause. Instead the room erupted in uproarious laughter. Moffett soon drew more scornful laughter along with some jeers when he said that none of Freeport’s board, “including Henry Kissinger” would ever violate “environmental standards.” (No, of course a man who helped lead the daily napalming of Vietnamese jungles would never do anything to hurt the environment).
It only got wilder from there. Moffett spoke shortly after four o’clock in the afternoon. His partner Robert Dedman, head of Club Corp, waxed about how good the PUD would be for water quality, and read a Rudyard Kipling poem. Now it was time for public speakers. Then until around five o’clock the next morning Austinite after Austinite strode to the Council Chamber microphone and waxed about how much they loved Barton Creek and Barton Springs and how the City Council had a responsibilty to preserve both. Among many others, the speakers included Shannon Sedwick and some of her colleagues from Esther’s Follies who performed at the Council that evening. As I wrote the next week in the Chronicle, “One by one, using logic, research, emotion, humor and ridicule, the people of Austin tore the Barton Creek apart.”
Just before six the next morning, a Council originally thought to favor the PUD, voted unanimously to reject it.
As noted earlier, the story did not end there. Today, thanks to 50 years of citizen efforts, the springs and creek are still clean enough for swimming, But, also the springs are still endangered. And, long time swimmers attest to a definite drop in water quality or clarity. So let’s end by looking at a few of the biggest threats to Barton Springs and Barton Creek being clean enough for swimming 30 years, or 50 years from now; and what we can do about it.
The Biggest Threats to Barton Springs
- Pollution from existing sprawl. Massive development in southwest Austin means multitudes of yards, roads, and parking lots from which pollutants can run off into the aquifer. Efforts need to continue, and expand, to inform homeowners and business owners in this large area of the fragility of the environment and how quickly pollutants can enter the aquifer and then show up at Barton Springs. Vigilance also must continue over the coming decades to ensure that the Save Our Springs ordinance stays in place.
- Development Outside Austin’s Jurisdiction. Only around one-third of the Barton Springs Zone lies within Austin’s jurisdiction. That means the SOS Ordinance and other Austin ordinances do not apply in two-thirds of the Barton Springs Zone. Protections there are much weaker, although some progress has been made. Over several decades now, growth has sprawled into these outlying areas. Advocacy in Hays County has strengthened over the years, but there must be strengthened efforts to find a regional solution. This is made harder by the indifference or outright hostility of the Texas Legislature. If a regional plan could be developed, with widespread agreement among regional leaders, it is a long shot possibility that a future Texas Legislature might approve protections just for that unique area. It’s worth a try.
- Wastewater Disposal. One of the greatest danger comes from wastewater disposal. Within Austin, wastewater goes into sewer lines. Outside Austin, it’s a different story. The Lower Colorado River Authority LCRA, for example, around two decades ago, built a water pipeline into the Barton Springs Zone, It is now managed by the West Travis County Public Utility Authority ( WTCPUA). Water was sent in, but no provisions were made up front for dealing with wastewater. This was left for individual developers and communities to figure out after they were proviided with water. Methods include irrigation and septic tanks for individual lots. These methods can pollute, but are not as bad as what is proposed, and in some cases, already approved. Dripping Springs and some developers seek to release treated wastewater directly into creeks that contribute water to the springs. This is perhaps the biggest threat to the springs and hill country streams. Such battles are serious and ongoing.
- Highways. State Highway 45 across a large swath of the Barton Springs Recharge Zone recently became a reality despite years of opposition. The Texas Department of Transportation is currently conducting heavy construction work along MoPac through Circle C in the heart of the Recharge Zone. And, plans have now been approved to turn Highway 290 into a super highway through Oak Hill. The City of Austin does not have authority over any of these roads and they are not built under SOS standards. Ongoing pressure could possibly play a role, however, in making these roads less damaging.
- Over Pumping. Weak to non-existent Texas rules on ground water pumping leave the aquifer vulnerable to over pumping. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District does an excellent job, within its limited powers, to protect against such over pumping. This is still, however, an area for vigilance as the years go by.
- A sentiment that defending the springs does not fit into the current emphasis on racial equity. Different forms of this issue have arisen over the years and there is no doubt that groups working to save the springs have been, and remain, primarily white. The same was true of the crowd at the June 7, 1990 hearing. This is a reality, but it does not mean that people should stand down from trying to save the springs. For one thing, I have found that minority citizens who get actively involved tend to focus on economic and social justice issues rather than the environment. Those issues are usually more pressing in minority communities. I have also found that many people in minority communities who focus on other issues will still support efforts to protect the creek and springs as long as those fighting to protect the creek and springs support their priorities as well. That is consistent with what has always been my core theme; that environmental protection, social equity, and financial responsibility can all work together. Also, if one goes to Barton Springs on a summer day, the group of folks joyously swimming there, especially the kids, can be a very diverse gathering of people.
- Loving it to Death. Still another problem plagues Barton Creek and the Barton Creek Greenbelt today. Barton Creek is being loved to death. Huge throngs pack swimming holes like Twin Falls any time the water flows and the weather is right. The problem is that many do not have the respect for the creek that previous generations of Austinites did. Many drink beer from glass bottles that can shatter and cut people’s feet. Hundreds of dogs run loose and defecate near the creek. Jam boxes disturb the peaceful beauty and sounds of gurgling water.
- Need for a new generation of advocates. Defenders of the creek and springs are aging, although most remain involved and dedicated. They are aging, though. You don’t celebrate 30-year anniversaries without having aged. Ultimately the fate of the creek and springs will depend on whether new generations step forward to carry on the battle.
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