About 6,200 words

Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images

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From the beginning there were land, air, water, creatures. Eventually people arrived in what is now called Central Texas. At first they mostly lived off the land and didn’t have the means to do great damage. Now we do, and have. Our air quality borders on unhealthy and is getting worse. Our wildlife is being forced to the brink of extinction. Our natural waters are deteriorating. Little of this degradation comes from factories and power plants that spew garbage into the air. We have no tanneries and slaughterhouses dumping waste in our waterways. The polluters are you, me, and everyone else who lives and works here. The burden of our presence creates stress for land, air, water, creatures.

Each new visitor falls in love with the natural beauty of the hills, the lakes, the soul of the city that is Barton Springs. Each new resident brings the need for shelter and—because we have not wanted to live cheek by jowl—for transportation. In a pattern as old as urban civilization, tens of thousands of acres of rural land are gobbled up each year for roads and rooftops that stretch farther out toward the horizon, a sprawling tide of population growth that will not be stopped, short of an economic bust or the outlawing of air-conditioning.

The economic engine roars ahead, creating jobs and, for some, wealth beyond imagination. It’s a powerful magnet that pulls people here. Council Member Daryl Slusher says, “The biggest problem we have is 20,000-plus people a year moving here. We welcome them to town, but it puts an incredible amount of stress on the environment.”

Not only has the population increased but the rate of its increase just keeps skyrocketing: From 1960 to 1970, Austin grew from 186,545 to 251,808, an average of 6,526 per year. From 1970 to 1980, the city grew to 345,890, an average of 9,408 per year. By 1990 the city had hit 465,622, an average of 11,973 per year for the decade. Our current population estimate for 2000 is 642,994, meaning the average influx of newcomers during the nineties was 17,737 per year.

The sleepy old-economy enterprises of government and education are still here for our daily bread, but the caviar and champagne are delivered mainly by high technology. The number of millionaires in Central Texas has more than doubled in the last five years to 30,700, many of them thanks to the high-tech boom, according to a July 22 article in the Austin American-Statesman.

New arrivals look to the future. Through no fault of their own they are ignorant of local history and unaware of how our mere presence and our choices of lifestyle contribute to degrading the natural environment. The impact is akin to water dripping on stone, each drop gently eroding a tiny bit of a seemingly impenetrable surface. Though one cannot measure the impact of a single drop of water on stone, or of a single person on the environment, the long-term effects of our increasing population have been charted. More cars burning fossil fuels spray out the air pollution we have no choice but to breathe. Runoff from more parking lots, rooftops, and roads erodes the soil and sluices sediment and toxic residues into streams that deliver this deadly mixture into the groundwater.

South of Austin, the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for some 45,000 people who have no access to treated surface water. Ron Fieseler, field operations program manager for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, says on average the aquifer discharges thirty-four million gallons of water daily at Barton Springs, which is the only known habitat for an endangered salamander protected by federal law.

The salamander is protected only because of multiple lawsuits brought by the Save Our Springs Alliance and its predecessor, the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund, to force the U.S. Department of the Interior to list the salamander as an endangered species.

The Texas Legislature and state regulatory agencies that should be working to protect our land, air, water and creatures are all too often part of the problem, not part of the solution. In the main they have worked to restrict Austin’s ability to exercise the will of the people for the environment’s sake, and they have thwarted local government at the behest of powerful economic interests.

“All we’ve been trying to do for the last fifteen years is get some local control,” says George Cofer, this year’s winner of the Beth Brown Boettner Award, presented by the City of Austin’s Environmental Board for his dedicated efforts to save the natural character and resources of this community. “That’s where we’ve been crosswise with the Legislature. And the courts have said, ‘You’re right-you have the right to make laws and enforce your laws.'”

Many have watched with alarm as the impact of each new suburban housing subdivision, shopping center, office building, and major roadway reduces the odds our natural resources can be preserved in the face of an onslaught. Others have not only watched but mounted a defense against these assaults on sustainability. Neighborhood residents often struggle to limit development projects that directly impact their well-being. Environmentalists have weighed in on some of those projects, but they also strive on a broader scale to protect our land, air, water, and creatures. They have strategized and struggled to preserve our quality of life. They fear that uninformed citizens may not notice the demise of our quality of life until it’s dead and buried—may our souls burn in hell.

The struggle has been going on for at least a quarter century. The seminal event was the Austin Tomorrow Goals Program, which spanned two years in the mid-seventies. It involved 3,500 people who participated in producing the Austin Tomorrow Goals Report, a thoughtful but tedious and often contradictory wish list. The city’s planning department translated the goals into a series of policy statements that became the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, better known as the master plan. Adopted by the City Council in 1979, the master plan remained basically a conceptual document, despite the amount of work that went into it.

Because the master plan is merely policy, not law, it needed a web of supporting ordinances to be fully implemented. Over time, the council took steps in that direction: It passed watershed ordinances to regulate development in sensitive creek areas; it invoked capital recovery (tap) fees to help make growth pay for itself; and it adopted a water district ordinance that set limits on what costs a developer could finance with privately issued bonds, allowing financial incentives for projects within preferred growth areas.

But there were notable failures in trying to implement the master plan—I know, because I was here and wrote about it in a cover story for Third Coast magazine in May 1983. In a number of cases, the council acted to facilitate development in areas, particularly to the west, where the master plan says growth is less desirable. Motorola, for instance, convinced the council in the early eighties to not only approve its plans to locate a new plant in Oak Hill but also to give the company a high-priority status for obtaining a crucial necessity—water—from the city. The project greatly accelerated development in an environmentally sensitive area. The trade-off was that Austin got the jobs and the new citizens that Motorola brought.

One of the most important contributions of the master plan was that it identified the environmental characteristics of the land in and around Austin. Land to the west was deemed poorly suited for future growth because of its steep slopes and the danger of polluting the Lake Austin watershed and the Edwards Aquifer. The area to the east was identified as unsuitable because of its large flood plains, agricultural production, clay soils, and the noise of Bergstrom Air Force Base. The land between these two extremes, an elongated slice on either side of I-35, became the growth corridor—the most suitable location for Austin’s growth. But utility service in areas targeted for growth lagged behind. Major water and wastewater projects languished because voters failed to approve the necessary bonds.

SOS Ordinance rallies public support

The Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club had formed in 1969 and the Save Barton Creek Association in 1979, but it was not until 1991 when the Save Our Springs Coalition kick-started a broader public campaign that the tide began to turn in favor of environmental protection.

The SOS Coalition was started in reaction to the City Council’s enactment of weakened ordinances for protecting sensitive watersheds. The Coalition drafted the Save Our Springs Ordinance, launched a successful petition drive to get it on the ballot, and then waged a monumental political battle to win support at the ballot box. Voters approved the ordinance in 1992 by an overwhelming margin of sixty-four percent to thirty-six percent-despite opposition by the majority of the City Council, which delayed the SOS Ordinance election and then put its own alternative ordinance on the same ballot, and fierce campaigning against the initiative by business and real estate interests.

The thumping victory stemmed in part from a deep-seated vein of resentment to development over the aquifer. Strong emotions welled up during the infamous all-night hearing in which some 800 people signed up to oppose the massive Barton Creek Properties project. Longtime political consultant David Butts says, “When we had the June 7, 1990, meeting and kept the City Council to the wee hours of the morning, a watershed moment occurred, as unorganized as it might have been. Fortunately, people seized the moment and made it happen, and that changed Austin’s direction as much as anything I can think of.”

GREENPOWERbrigid-sheaThe wide margin of victory for the SOS Ordinance showed there was abundant public support to protect the environment. That sentiment was roused again in 1993 to sweep onto the City Council both Brigid Shea, founding director of the SOS Coalition, and Jackie Goodman, former president of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA).

But 1994 elections were a major setback for environmental candidates. Incumbent Mayor Bruce Todd narrowly defeated Austin Chronicle Politics Editor Daryl Slusher, who was an ardent defender of the environment in his writings; Ronney Reynolds beat environmental stalwart Mary Arnold to keep his council seat; and businessman Eric Mitchell bested Ron Davis of the East Austin Strategy Team to succeed Charles Urdy on the dais.

Environmental fortunes changed in 1996 when Slusher and Beverly Griffith won council seats, followed in 1997 by the election of Mayor Kirk Watson, along with Council Members Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis. Finally—for the first time in Austin’s history—all seven members of the City Council were brought to power with the strong support of Austin’s environmental groups.

A throwback to the divisive rhetoric of the eighties still occasionally surfaces in a City Council election, as in 1999 when Chad Crow promised to all but tar and feather environmentalists. “As a member of the council, I will do everything in my power not just to shut down the SOS empire but to run them out of town,” Crow said. Instead, Crow was soundly thrashed at the ballot box by incumbent Slusher. Crow was young and energetic, and he and his supporters knocked on thousands upon thousands of doors to spread his message. If ever there was a candidate who spoke harshly enough to rouse an anti-environmentalist sentiment—if there is one—it was him.

Crow’s poor showing once again indicated there is no popular support for paving over the aquifer.

It’s been a long slow struggle for environmentalists to gain political power in Austin, to both influence elected officials and to hold public office. In addition to those previously named, environmental activists now holding public office include Council Member Raul Alvarez, who was environmental justice director for the state Sierra Club and a longtime volunteer for PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources); Ron Davis, now a Travis County commissioner; Craig Smith, board chair of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) and vice president of the SBCA; and BSEACD board member Jack Goodman, director of the Colorado River Watch Foundation and an SBCA board member. Another notable office holder who rose from the environmental ranks is Frank Cooksey, who served as SBCA president before being elected mayor in 1985.

Obviously, public opinion has changed drastically over the last decade. Today nearly everyone seems to think of themselves as an environmentalist, even if they do nothing more than silently agree with the hundreds of people who actively work to reduce the harm. Even the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce now concedes that a clean environment is good for the economy. Jim Marston has been director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) since it opened in 1990. He says, “The Chamber of Commerce has made some wise choices and recognized that being for the environment is good for business. It’s not an either-or choice.”

The Real Estate Council of Austin is so satisfied that it has withdrawn from the political process and embraced the City Council that RECA’s members once spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose at the ballot box.

Political consultant Mike Blizzard says, “The greatest thing the environmental movement has done over the past five to eight years is to move the political center. That is an incredible accomplishment. When we talk about the environmental community becoming mainstream, that’s the wrong perspective. Those values the environmental community have held for a long time have become valued by a large percentage of the populace.”

Ken Manning, environmental policy manager for the Lower Colorado River Authority, agrees. “If the pendulum has swung, it’s that the Austin business community is far more environmental than it was five or ten years ago.”

For many businesses, going green has been made profitable. The City of Austin is now paying large companies to do the right thing and stay out of the Drinking Water Protection Zone. Environmentalists are reinforcing the incentives by trying to educate companies about the need to protect the land, air, water and creatures, and reminding businesses of the political and legal muscle that makes ignoring this advice unwise.

The combination of stick and carrot has reaped successes. Motorola—which in the early eighties was the first major Austin employer to build over the aquifer—announced in late 1997 that it intended to build more facilities in the Oak Hill area at Circle C Ranch. Instead, Motorola was convinced to build in the Desired Development Zone (DDZ) and got an incentive package worth $1.3 million from the City of Austin. Other major employers that have opted to build new facilities in the DDZ—in exchange for incentives far larger than Motorola’s—include Dell Computer Corp., Computer Sciences Corp., Tivoli, and Intel. Environmental leaders and especially Robin Rather, former chair of the SOS Alliance, initiated discussions with many of these firms to persuade them to stay off the aquifer.

Council decisions splinter environmental movement

The watershed year of 1998, in which the business community and environmental groups joined to gain passage of a total of $922.3 million in bonds in two separate elections, was a honeymoon for environmental groups and the City Council. Soon, however, these relations began to sour. Major issues pushed their way to the fore and disagreement surfaced over how to proceed. Differences among environmental groups played a part as well.

To illustrate the point, consider the abbreviated case histories for how two major issues played out: the Forum Planned Unit Development project and the Bradley Settlement.

The Forum PUD

The first big issue that distanced the SOS Alliance from the City Council was the Forum PUD, which the council approved on first reading November 19, 1998—just two weeks after passing a $712.3 million bond package backed by all environmental groups. A planned unit development (PUD) is an agreement between the city and a developer to assure certainty of regulations over the long-term buildout of the project. The Forum PUD proposed to develop 118 acres of land that straddles South MoPac Expressway at William Cannon Drive, with 1.6 million square feet of offices and commercial structures plus 420 living units.

To offset this massive concentration of impervious cover, property owner Catherine Brownlee proposed to set aside for perpetuity 312 acres of environmentally sensitive land off-site. Netting out the development with the preserve would yield about ten acres less impervious cover than strictly following the SOS Ordinance and developing each tract to the maximum allowed. The Forum site, however, is in an area subject to the SOS Ordinance, which strictly limits impervious cover tract by tract—and makes no provision for off-site mitigation.

Part of the preserve land offered up contained a hole in the ground big enough for Cave Management Society members to descend 254 feet below the earth’s surface to stand directly atop the aquifer. Nico Hauwert, until recently a hydrogeologist with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, testified that water entering these caves discharges at Barton Springs within two days.

GREENPOWERrobin-ratherThe SOS Alliance was adamantly opposed to the proposal. Robin Rather warned the council it was “trading predictability for chaos” if it bypassed the SOS Ordinance. Hampering the SOS Alliance’s argument, however, was the defection of engineer Lauren Ross, who had helped draft the very SOS Ordinance that would be overridden if the Forum PUD was approved. In working for the Forum PUD developer, Ross proposed to use innovative engineering solutions she said would protect the aquifer.

Another crack in the opposition came when Save Barton Creek Association President Jon Beall announced that his board had “voted unanimously in favor of not opposing” the development. The matter came to a head at the April 8, 1999, City Council meeting.

Earlier the same day the City Council had approved on first reading an SOS Mitigation Policy. It was the Forum PUD that had triggered development of the policy, with its innovative proposal to set aside for perpetuity other land to offset the massive impervious cover over the aquifer that is expressly forbidden by the SOS Ordinance.

Still, the Forum PUD did not comply with the new policy. Council Member Daryl Slusher had voted for the mitigation policy itself but faulted the Forum PUD for not complying with it because the development would far exceed the limits on maximum square footage. “I have to stick with the SOS Ordinance and vote no,” he said. The rest of the council voted for the Forum PUD, however, giving it the necessary six votes to override the SOS Ordinance.

SOS Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch said at the time, “This is deal-making at its classic, which is what (the) SOS (Ordinance) was to stop.” He went on to say, “Every square foot of office space you approve out there is competing against what we want to go into the Desired Development Zone. You’re defeating…your own Smart Growth proposals, which is just a restatement of the Austin Tomorrow Plan unanimously adopted by two councils and two Planning Commissions. I thought we elected a council that understood this.”

GREENPOWERbill-bunchWhich gets at the heart of the growing dilemma for the environmental movement. Austin environmentalists were good at organizing and raising hell when the city was ruled by a council that was anything but green. So good, in fact, they got their own candidates elected. But electing candidates friendly to the cause has not cured all the problems they perceive with environmental protection. The problem is exacerbated when the environmentalists can’t present a unified front, leaving the council to pick and choose which environmental voices to heed, and which to ignore.

The Bradley Settlement

The final straw that splintered the SOS Alliance was Gary Bradley’s proposed deal that would settle multiple lawsuits with the city and establish development regulations for 3,000 acres of land over the aquifer. Bradley had been a brass-knuckles opponent of the SOS Ordinance, hiring private investigators to check for criminal records among proponents of the ordinance.

Bradley had a checkered personal history of his own. Taxpayers had been soaked for $80 million due to his defaults to a lender and a $53 million judgment had been upheld against Bradley by the US Supreme Court.

Bradley’s wars with the City of Austin are legendary. In 1995 he got the Texas Legislature to pass and Governor George W. Bush to sign a bill that in effect allowed him to renege on a contract with the City of Austin, a contract in which his Circle C Ranch had agreed to be annexed in return for being authorized some $40 million in bonds for water and wastewater service. The city sued, the courts overturned the legislation, and in late 1997 the city annexed Circle C Ranch.

The proposed Bradley Settlement surfaced in August 1999. The complex deal evolved radically over the months as Bradley negotiated with the city. Bradley personally escorted environmentalists on tours to show them what his development would look like on the ground. Fast forward more than seven months and the City Council voted unanimously on March 23, 2000, to approve the settlement.

Helping to seal the pact with Bradley was the defection of Robin Rather and SOS Alliance Board Member George Cofer to support the settlement. A letter signed by Rather and Cofer was delivered to the City Council on March 9, 2000—just ten days after the SOS Alliance board had voted unanimously to oppose the settlement. The letter urged the mayor and council to “seize the opportunity to do whatever it takes to finish the job and settle our differences with (Gary) Bradley…Please do not lose this chance to control 3,000 acres over the Recharge Zone while you still can.” The letter came as a jaw-dropping surprise to environmentalists in the audience that night, some of whom were visibly dismayed.

Once again the environmental camp was divided. Craig Smith, vice president of the Save Barton Creek Association, said his group supported the Bradley Settlement. Also supporting the settlement was Roy Dalton, board president of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. The Hays County Water Planning Partnership, which was primarily concerned that a water well for Bradley’s proposed golf course might deplete the wells of area residents, focused mainly on that issue. Rather’s crossover left Vice Chair Mary Arnold, Executive Director Bill Bunch and Staff Attorney Grant Godfrey to carry the torch for the SOS Alliance. All spoke against the deal, but in the end it was futile.

Daryl Slusher, who while politics editor at The Austin Chronicle had written scathing articles about Gary Bradley, agonized aloud, but in the end even he voted for the settlement. “What I can’t accept is that just because you’ve had a disagreement with someone that forever you have to have that disagreement and not heal it. Otherwise we would never end conflict except by total annihilation of the other side,” he said.

Looking back on Rather’s defection from the SOS Alliance to support the Bradley Settlement, Mary Arnold says, “Betrayal? I can’t use those terms, certainly not…I think she saw the council was going to approve a deal so she was trying to get as much as could be gotten. Part of the problem is that she had not had as many years of dealing with Gary Bradley as some others of us had, and she was a lot more trusting of his words, rather than being cognizant of his deeds.” As in the case of the Forum PUD, the inability of the environmental groups to reach broad consensus gave the City Council no clear direction as to what it should do. The city used its considerable resources to negotiate the deal and to scrutinize it for environmental protection, and then decided to heed John Lennon’s advice to give peace a chance.

What’s next for environmentalists?

It should come as no surprise that there will be differences of opinion among environmental groups as to the best course of action on a given issue. The leaders of the major environmental groups are intelligent, articulate, strong-willed people who are genuinely concerned, and their respective organizations have different objectives. Green comes in all shades.

Political consultant Dean Rindy goes way back in the environmental movement. He co-chaired the Austin Tomorrow Committee with Mary Arnold in the mid-seventies. As a professional he has worked to put many environmentally backed candidates in office. Assessing the current situation, Rindy says, “Regardless of any one faction, the environmental movement remains very strong because it remains the way most Austin voters think. Protecting the environment is one of the main goals now of the business and high-tech community because it’s such an important economic asset, and they talk about it that way.”

Jon Beall says that recognition has brought a positive impact. “All these developers who come to the city with their own little dream that their project is going to achieve the American Dream are now trying to fit their projects into what the rest of us think Central Texas should be,” Beall says. “Whereas before the City Council would be lobbied hard by skilled and sophisticated people and the end result was the rest of the community was left slightly dysfunctional, with development and the cost of infrastructure and services going places that were to the detriment of the rest of us.”

Brigid Shea says, “The debate’s over. Everybody’s in agreement. Now the environmental groups need to think about a new level of work.”

Jim Marston talks of the future this way: “It’s going to require the environmental movement to change from being cries in the wilderness about problems to solving problems. Our task is no longer to say what’s wrong. We’ve got to show folks how to deal with complex problems.”

Grant Godfrey of the SOS Alliance says part of the new mission should be educating people. “There is phenomenal and outrageous growth happening. People are coming to the city who don’t know much about issues, and certainly not the history of ten years or so in the environmental movement. The environmental community needs to go out and educate these newcomers on how Austin has become such a nice place to live, and how to keep it that way, and why we have to fight about it.”

The environmental movement is in a sense groaning under the weight of its own success, grappling with how to help govern effectively, and redefining itself to operate in a radically different future.

Daryl Slusher says, “We have won because we’re no longer in the opposition, but trying to get the job done as part of the governing coalition. That’s been one of the challenges, going from being in the opposition to actually implementing what you want to get done. The latter is much more difficult. It’s a challenge to adapt to that. I have had to adapt to that myself and think I’ve done well at it, but it’s for others to decide.”

The things needed to save the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs are moving beyond the City of Austin’s reach, and it will take regional planning and cooperation with folks in Hays County to finish the job started in Austin. The City of Austin has bought some 15,000 acres of land and development rights over the aquifer to preserve, but it’s a financial impossibility to buy all that’s needed. “The basic weakness is money,” says Shudde Fath of the Save Barton Creek Association. “If we had enough money, we could buy up that land and quit fighting about it.”

Erin Foster was the founding mayor of the Village of Bear Creek and now chairs the Hays County Water Planning Partnership. “It’s sad to realize that what goes on out here in Hays County could undo what’s been done for the last ten years in Austin—the water’s going to be polluted before it ever gets to Austin,” Foster says with alarm. “That’s why I quit being in an environmental group in Austin (the SOS Alliance) and started this one. It isn’t just to save Barton Springs Pool—it’s to save our drinking water.”

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas since 1985, says, “Most of the decisions that will protect the watershed will soon be made in forums other than the Austin City Council, and we have to refocus on both the (Hays) County Commissioners Court and the Texas Legislature in order to protect the watershed.”

Environmentalists must not only wrap their minds around a larger geographic area but also face a broader range of issues with environmental implications, such as Smart Growth, light rail, major roadway projects, affordable housing, and more.

“The next set of issues coming up will be transportation-related and will be related to long-term sustainability of our community,” Public Citizen’s Smith says. “We’ll be focusing on how we manage growth as a region and whether we need to be developing regional government structures like they have in Nashville or Indianapolis.”

Mike Blizzard says of the transportation issue, “A lot of communities are learning you can’t build your way out of crisis. You have to change land-use patterns. Those will be some of the battles of the future. And neighborhood protection. How will we grow in the central city and preserve the things we care about and not make it a dumping ground for development?”

Mark Yznaga until recently worked as a political consultant in most City Council races involving green candidates. “The way I look at it is we’re in a major transition time and there’s a lot of confusion and reassessment on issues and tactics and strategy. During this transition there’s going to be a lot of disagreement,” he says. “During the transition we have new players and new people in decision-making roles in environmental groups and otherwise. It’s like going back ten years in time to the beginning of the nineties again. People are looking for direction.”

David Butts says, “I think that the overriding sense of pessimism about Austin’s quality of life declining—and quality of life entails more than just the natural environment, but natural environment’s a big part of it—is going to spark a real grassroots environmental, protect-our-quality-of-life movement in this city and I think it’s coming sooner rather than later. It’s in the wind. The spark hasn’t been lit yet, but it’s coming. I don’t know what it is. I’m not trying to be coy, but I can smell the kindling. It’s in the air and waiting for the right moment, so we can say, ‘They ain’t seen nothing yet.'”

The SOS Alliance has gone through major upheaval with the departure of Brigid Shea, who has started a consulting practice to advise high-tech companies on the environmental lay of the land, and Robin Rather, who resigned as chair after the Bradley Settlement.

Rather is now active in the Austin Network, a group of top high-tech CEOs dedicated to helping Austin solve some of the problems that have happened because of our extreme growth. She’s also helping lead the Hill Country Conservancy, whose mission is to acquire land and development rights for preservation.

“It became very clear for me to continue doing the work for the community, I needed to jump-start these other groups,” Rather says. “I learned that buying land and preserving land is probably the last best chance we have to preserve water quality and preserve the Hill Country that defines us. SOS is a litigation group…Strategically I felt we needed a broad-based, high-intensity open-space group to do the job. As much as I hated to leave, I still feel I’m very much on the same mission, just approaching it a little differently.”

Kirk Mitchell preceded Rather as chair of the SOS Alliance and is widely credited with reviving its predecessor, the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund, and raising funds to keep it alive, mainly by recruiting board members who would pay for the privilege of serving. He sees the SOS Alliance continuing to take a hard stance in the future.

“The community has this brand-name image of SOS (Alliance) being uncompromising, so it’s doubly dangerous for SOS to endorse some compromise deal,” Mitchell says. “If we say it’s okay, then that’s the outer edge. They expect us to be more principled. We were dragged into that over a two-year history, to give cover to political compromises that must occur—but it’s not our job.”

Bill Bunch totally agrees. He said the proof the aquifer is not being saved by deal-making is as obvious as the green scum that floats to the surface of Barton Springs pool every afternoon nowadays. “The council does back flips to get Computer Sciences Corp. off the banks of Barton Creek and then does the Bradley deal to extend water and sewer to do a mega-development on the recharge zone. How do you square those two things?” Bunch adds, “Because the boom has been so intense, there is enormous public support for slowing things down and protecting the environment—and the council doesn’t get that.”

Environmental leaders who have moved into elective office and are in policymaking roles see things differently. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman says, “If your position is always there is no treaty with the enemy, you will never have peace. If you believe it’s best for the environment to fight everything and lose everything, that’s a position for some people. For me it’s not. For me the aquifer and creeks are the thing, not my standing with some people.”

As for the future of the environmental movement, Goodman says, “We’re all alive and evolving into the kind of groups that can meet the issues, that can strategize in different ways, to make a difference just as we always have. Nothing stays static—they change or expand or shift. I think everybody is ready to continue being an advocate for this region for the preservation it needs. It’s not the same, but that’s good. We’ve learned a lot and are probably better prepared for it.”

Many in the environmental camp are frustrated with policymakers they helped elect but who seem unresponsive. Karin Ascot, conservation chair for the Sierra Club, says, “We’re growing like wildfire. This is a boomtown for developers. Anyone who thinks environmentalists hinder development—where have they been for three years? We’re still building like crazy over the aquifer and every other area. We’ve got a bond issue for roads (coming up in November) a mere two years after we just approved a bond issue for roads. It’s ironic if people think this has happened because of a green council.”

Mark Tschurr, who in July was elected chair of the SOS Alliance, says perhaps the “biggest threat” to progress is a City Council that’s recognized as an “environmental council.” “The old saying is it’s not your enemies but your friends you have to worry about,” Tschurr says. “People tend to become complacent when they think their council members are on the same side of an issue, and they don’t pay attention. To some extent, you almost want to know the people on the council are opposed to your view, because it galvanizes people to participate.”

Susana Almanza, director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) and a Planning Commission member who expects to be replaced any minute on that appointed body, says maybe environmental groups ought to spend more time talking to each other and less time worrying about the City Council. “In the future it’s going to be real important for the mainstream environmental groups and the environmental justice groups to sit down and have a dialog about these issues. There always seems to be disagreement, but we have a lot more in common with environmental groups than the rest of the city. It’s necessary that we work together because there’s always changes in the City Council. If we don’t work together, a lot of the work we try to do could easily be erased.”

At root, the environmental movement is not monolithic and will never speak with one voice, except on galvanizing issues on an order of magnitude equivalent to the SOS Ordinance election or another bond election for preservation of more land.

Week in, week out, the kind of advice that environmentalists are going to give to public policymakers will provide a smorgasbord of environmental opinions for consideration. On most issues, even those as controversial as the Forum PUD and the Bradley Settlement, there’s unlikely to be a unified environmental mandate that overwhelms and forces policymakers in a given direction. Individuals and groups will continue to do their good works and pray that somehow the collective effort will deliver Austin into the kingdom of environmental heaven.

This article was originally published in The Good Life magazine in September 2000