A Race for the Aquifer

The outcome of two contested races for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District could recast the board's current 3-2 environmental majority -- up or down. Two incumbents running for re-election -- board president Craig Smith and longtime member Don Turner -- face contenders with philosophically opposing viewpoints on the board's responsibilities.

The differing opinions break down in a Catch-22 sort of way: The pro-environment majority trio generally sticks to the mandated principles of "conserving, protecting, and enhancing" the Barton Springs portion of the aquifer. In doing so, they oftentimes rankle water corporations -- and developers -- by controlling the amount of water they withdraw from the aquifer to service proposed new developments. Those on the other side -- water suppliers and developers -- argue that the board majority oversteps its mandate by trying to control development over the aquifer.

Smith, who represents Pct. 5 (south and southwest Austin), is among the environmental-leaning majority. This explains why he drew Felix Manka, a civil engineer who works closely with big developers and water suppliers -- including AquaSource, which ranks second among the district's largest water pumpers. Manka has thus far refused to address the question of how his livelihood would not interfere with his decisions as a board member. He didn't respond to a Chronicle request for an interview. The race is crucial for obvious reasons, given the growing number of conservative voters in Southwest Austin. Smith's roots in the community should run deep enough for him to win, assuming his South Austin constituency turns out to vote. A bankruptcy attorney by profession, Smith is also a past president of the Austin Sierra Club and the Save Barton Creek Association, and serves on various other business, transportation and environmental committees.

The Pct. 2 race in far south Travis County (and a small portion of Hays) shakes out almost the same way, except incumbent Turner makes up the so-called "development minority" and his opponent, David Carpenter, would likely team up with the current majority. Carpenter -- a little-known candidate facing a community old-timer and 12-year board member -- says he would draw on his science background (he holds a master's in environmental health and a doctorate in biomechanics) when weighing decisions on the board. But, he says, it doesn't take a scientist to understand the board's challenges. "I'm more concerned about conservation right now," he says. "It's so important that this water becomes a reusable source."

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