Did SOS Matter?

Has the movement for clean water and democracy fulfilled its promise?

The famous all-night hearing on the Barton Creek PUD in 1990. Hundreds of citizens showed up to speak against development in the Barton Creek watershed and set the stage for the SOS Ordinance.
The famous all-night hearing on the Barton Creek PUD in 1990. Hundreds of citizens showed up to speak against development in the Barton Creek watershed and set the stage for the SOS Ordinance. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

Ten years ago this week, more than 45,000 Austinites -- more than voted for any member of today's City Council -- voted for the Save Our Springs Ordinance and, it can be fairly said, changed history, at least temporarily. On Aug. 8, 1992, we established two truths to be self-evident: Protecting Barton Springs is an end in itself, a goal rather than a consequence of Austin public policy; and the quest to achieve that end is not a struggle within the "soul of the city," but an actual battle for that soul against forces that would deprive the citizens of their birthright.

Those truths are not well-liked by everyone in town today, but they remain true. Yet at this writing, once again, City Hall is being battered and bruised over expanded development in the Barton Creek watershed, and water quality in the creek and the Springs is still suffering, and growth and sprawl are still marching toward the sunset in the west. So, did SOS really matter?

We can concede that the Springs, so far, have not been saved by the Save Our Springs Ordinance (or Coalition, or Alliance, or Action, or Legal Defense Fund, or other present and past users of the SOS brand name, including Eurycea sosorum, the Barton Springs salamander). But 10 years may be too early to tell if the SOS movement -- a subset of simply "being green," but broader than today's SOS Alliance -- has failed to achieve its stated purpose. Austinites tried for decades before SOS to save the Springs, and they're still trying today. Which goes to show that Barton Springs and Barton Creek are more resilient than past Austin generations had expected and feared.

Eternal, you might say.

High Water Everywhere

What happened 10 years ago was an election, a political moment, and the SOS movement has undoubtedly dominated, if not always controlled, Austin politics since. But it may likewise be too soon to tell whether -- as we and others claimed at the time -- it changed Austin public life forever. Basically, Austin today is a lot like Austin 10 years before SOS, when City Hall was split between "no-growth" and "managed-growth-but-not-pro-growth" forces, when Austin adopted the comprehensive plan we now call Smart Growth, when nobody admitted to be for sprawl or against saving the Springs -- and when the original Circle C Ranch was held forth as an example of growth management, just like its modern-day Stratus incarnation.

"We've got a town with a conscience," Circle C developer Gary Bradley told The New York Times in 1983. ''We will not have another Houston. We have too many safeguards." Among those safeguards were what Bradley "affectionately" called "the granola army ... [environmentalists] who can beat you without money." Little did he know.

The pendulum swung -- or was pushed, by the inexorable tide of growth and "progress" -- from there to the right in the late Eighties. Then, in the Manichean frenzy of the early Nineties capped by SOS, it got pushed back to the left, by an equally strong tide of citizen outrage. And now (or at least until the Stratus deal) it wobbles uneasily around the same center that prevailed in early Eighties Austin, when many players in the SOS saga first arrived in town. This is how most urban politics work. That would be unremarkable -- and, thus, SOS would not have mattered -- if Austin were still the same place it was then. It ain't.

Environmental leaders Ann Kitchen (left), Bill Bunch (center), and Brigid Shea (right) celebrate overwhelming passage of the SOS Ordinance in 1992. Shea would later be elected to the Austin City Council. Kitchen is an Austin state representative.
Environmental leaders Ann Kitchen (left), Bill Bunch (center), and Brigid Shea (right) celebrate overwhelming passage of the SOS Ordinance in 1992. Shea would later be elected to the Austin City Council. Kitchen is an Austin state representative. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

As today's SOS movement licks its Stratus wounds and seethes at City Hall, it may be hard to appreciate the depth of its achievement. By any objective measure, today's Austin is an entirely different place from the city that first assigned its soul to Barton Springs. The Springs should be as obsolete a symbol, as much a relic of Lost Austin, as the Armadillo. Most Austinites have no personal relationship with Barton Springs. It is not the soul of their city. They didn't even live here on Aug. 8, 1992.

Yet they have embraced -- or, so far, failed to reject -- the idea that Barton Springs and Austin are one and the same, that the Springs do incarnate what separates Austin from Everywhere Else, and that living in Austin carries with it an obligation to protect Barton Springs from harm. When Gus Garcia formally announced his candidacy for mayor last October, less than a month after Sept. 11, he singled out two issues: public safety and Barton Springs. "If we do not act now, we run the risk of losing Barton Springs and the [Edwards] Aquifer within this generation," he said. "And I don't want to be part of a generation that destroys this wonderful asset that we have right here."

And that, in a nutshell, is why SOS mattered -- because Barton Springs still matters.

The Quality of Water

We tend to forget today what, at the time, people thought was so significant about SOS as a political statement. One phrase recurs in every news story and press release from the summer of '92 -- that Austin "already has the most stringent water-quality regulations in the nation," but that those weren't enough for the citizens.

Those would have been under the 1986 Comprehensive Watersheds Ordinance, just about the only piece of evidence that the City Council under Mayor Frank Cooksey deserved its pro-environment reputation. The Barton Springs War may in fact be eternal, and it has many signal moments -- the battle over Barton Creek Square in the late Seventies, from which was born the Save Barton Creek Association, was a key event, but it wasn't really the opening round. The CWO is where the SOS saga really starts.

For before the CWO, the Barton Springs debate was less about water quality per se than it was about growth in itself. Before people starting building in the watershed, the creek was clear and the Springs were clean. After Barton Creek Square and South MoPac and all that followed, the creek was cloudy and the Springs were closed after heavy rains. It was that simple. Growth was bad. It wasn't until the CWO that "impervious cover" became a term of art in Austin politics, and that "water quality" became the shield behind which the city could be defended.

Before the CWO, Austin tried to limit growth every which way. Voters rejected infrastructure bond measures, but developers got their utilities from LCRA, so that didn't work. They tried to cut deals with people like Gary Bradley at Circle C Ranch -- which passed for "green building" at the time -- and got taken for a ride as often as not, with the Legislature acting to grease the skids. When the CWO was adopted, Austin finally found a tool it could use to curb sprawl in the watershed, which is how developers saw it at the time. And they weren't too happy about it. "A natural tension exists in Austin between people who want to do what they please without any restrictions on their rights as landowners," Cooksey would later muse, "and those who know they're going to live here a long time and don't want to see these things destroyed."

It was understood then, as now, that thousands of people get their drinking water from the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer, and that pollution in the springs and creek can make people very sick. But ever since the CWO, the greens have been able to say, "We're not trying to stop growth, just protect water quality," and the developers can say "We can protect water quality without stopping growth," and both remain secure within those fictions. The only way to protect water quality is to limit growth, and everyone basically knows it -- but it was taboo to say so at the time, because "limiting growth" had failed, and it remained taboo thereafter because of property rights and this being Texas and all.

Despite the smiles, venom frequently flew between <i>Austin Chronicle</i> journalist Daryl Slusher (left) and Circle C developer Gary Bradley. Now a City Council member, Slusher has tried to bury the hatchet with Bradley by negotiating a settlement deal.
Despite the smiles, venom frequently flew between Austin Chronicle journalist Daryl Slusher (left) and Circle C developer Gary Bradley. Now a City Council member, Slusher has tried to bury the hatchet with Bradley by negotiating a settlement deal. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

Once water quality became the tool of choice, Barton Springs -- as the most obvious barometer of water quality -- became a different kind of symbol, not an index but a metaphor. Before, the state and fate of Austin could be measured by the water quality in the Springs. They were the canary in the coal mine: When Austin wasn't screwed up, Barton Springs was clean, and as Austin got more screwed up, down came the fecal coliform in an easily seen correlation.

After the CWO, leading up to SOS and thereafter, the state and fate of Austin would be determined by the water quality in Barton Springs. Since protecting that quality was the stated purpose of Austin's laws, the water became a metaphor, "the soul of the city." It wasn't enough to limit the damage done by growth -- we needed to keep the Springs pure, or in the jargon of the time seek "non-degradation," regardless of what happened around them. Thus, instead of saving Barton Springs by saving Austin, we would save Austin by saving Barton Springs.

The public's first real look, just after SOS passed, at the Barton Springs salamander -- an icon of innocence if ever there was one -- dramatically reinforced this existing notion of the Springs. (The species had been discovered earlier, but the first science-journal article describing and naming it was published in the fall of 1992; two years later it was first proposed for listing as an endangered species.) The salamander is now protected by federal law, swimming however-happily in the however-pure Springs, because of the efforts of the SOS movement, which filed suit to force its listing as an endangered species. As UT professor Mark Kirkpatrick noted when petitioning for the salamander's inclusion on the list, "An endangered salamander may not be important to most people, but clean groundwater and beautiful springs are. The salamander is our window on that world."

This new attitude had already been ratified in the summer and fall of 1991, when after months of arguing and four straight days of public hearings in October, the City Council (on a 4-3 vote with Mayor Bruce Todd on the losing side) wimped out on strengthening the CWO to achieve the nirvana of "non-degradation" of the creek and Springs -- as the previous, supposedly less green council under Lee Cooke, had resolved to do. By October, Brigid Shea of Clean Water Action was already organizing clipboard jockeys to get that stronger ordinance -- SOS -- on the ballot. When it passed by a 2-1 margin, notice was served that anything less than any-means-necessary was not enough. It would take years of exhausting battles, in court and in the Lege, to defend the SOS Ordinance, before City Hall got worn down to the point where something like the Stratus deal -- better than adequate but less than the absolute -- can still be construed as victory.

Who Let the Salamanders Out?

But even as City Hall holds its nose and deals with Stratus and Gary Bradley, it still must acknowledge that Austin public policy must hold as its primary goal the protection of the Springs, and it must define those deals as the best efforts available to meet that end, even if the deals don't limit or "manage" growth in a broader sense. As the culmination of the battle that started with the CWO, SOS made that possible. But that's only half the story; the other half explains why such efforts are necessary.

It's not the "Protect Barton Springs" ordinance, after all, but "Save Our Springs." Catchy as the brand name is, it's not arbitrary -- they are our Springs, and we must save them from something, or more precisely, someone. The particular someone, of course, was Jim Bob Moffett, the CEO of New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan, whose FM Properties unit became today's Stratus. The first fundraising letter sent out by the new Save Our Springs Coalition told recipients that "Jim Bob Moffett will spend millions for the 'right' to destroy Barton Springs." But Moffett, pain in the ass that he was on his own, also incarnated a larger force that attained new prominence in local politics -- the Bad Guys with a lot of money who were going to kill Barton Springs and, by extension, Austin. Without the anger generated by the presence of a genuine enemy, SOS would never have made it onto the ballot, let alone passed.

This half of the story starts in 1989, when Moffett heard from an old UT football buddy that bankrupt John Connally was unloading his Barton Creek property. A year later, at 6:35am on June 8, 1990, after a 17-hour public hearing featuring more than 900 angry citizens, a shell-shocked City Council voted 7-0 to reject the Barton Creek PUD, assembled by Moffett around the existing Barton Creek Country Club (owned by Robert Dedman's ClubCorp International). The PUD had actually sailed through the Planning Commission and had incorporated a bunch of "protections" demanded by city staff, and Dedman and Moffett whined bitterly and arrogantly -- and not without cause -- that the supposedly green Cooksey council had approved projects in the watershed that were far worse. The Lesser-Evilism that now bedevils the current council has a long pedigree.

So what happened? Two things, really: a relatively new-to-Austin strain of aggressive enviro-activism personified by Earth First!, and the paper you now hold in your hands. The "enviromaniacs" and the Chronicle added what Reasonable People of the time dubbed "extremism" and "emotionalism" to what had previously been a civil, if vigorous, debate between Reasonable People. Even bad-PR magnets like Gary Bradley, and certainly community icons like Connally, had been understood as credible citizens of Austin with their own valid interests. With the Barton Creek PUD, developers became Bad Guys assaulting Austin from outside, as Moffett (though not Dedman) certainly was, and as many subsequent unpopular developers, both in and out of the watershed, have been since.

Freeport-McMoRan CEO Jim Bob Moffett, the original villain in the SOS wars
Freeport-McMoRan CEO Jim Bob Moffett, the original villain in the SOS wars (Photo By Alan Pogue)

To SOS's detractors, the PUD brought an adversarial, "strident" strain of anger-for-its-own-sake that has characterized the movement to the present day, to its detriment. "There has never been a better manipulator at controlling public opinion than Brigid Shea," KVET's Bob Cole would later note of the then council member. "[She] is hate politics, in her absolute vilification of Jim Bob Moffett." But the anger stoked and channeled by Shea and SOS lawyer (now the Alliance's director) Bill Bunch, Earth First! protesters, and Chronicle columnists Daryl Slusher and Robert Bryce had a very real antecedent. Basically, with the PUD, the Barton Springs debate became a class war.

In the Chronicle cover story that helped get those hundreds of citizens down to PUD Night -- "If You Don't Read This Issue, We'll Poison Barton Springs" -- Slusher made clear that this dire fate would take place just "so a few thousand people can live, shop, and play golf upstream." Thus was begotten the Clash of the Austins: one anchored at Barton Springs, the other at Barton Creek Country Club. "Barton Springs is the one place in Austin that everybody goes to," Bryce told Sports Illustrated. "It's heaven, beautiful beyond words -- deep green water, picnic places, scenery. And all for $1.75 a day," as compared to the $22,500 initiation fee at the Barton Creek Country Club. "Some people inevitably feel that this is a case of the rich people living uphill and flushing their, ummm, waste downhill onto the regular folks."

This was, safe to say, a new frame of reference. Many times before PUD Night, and many times since SOS passed, and occasionally during the 26 months in between (including during the intervening debate over "non-degradation"), the easiest way to slap down friends of the Springs was to call them "elitist" -- caring more about the rights of a creek (and, later, of a salamander) than those of people, taking away working people's right to construction jobs, and ignoring more severe environmental threats on the Eastside ... you've heard it all before. We can laugh now at the predictions that SOS would destroy Austin economically -- but at the time, it was a very real fear of Reasonable People who now claim they never opposed the ordinance.

But during those 26 months, the poles were reversed; it was the Bad Guys who wanted to preserve their lifestyle at everyone else's expense, and in a town where money still meant relatively little, the threat of economic disaster left few people quaking in their shoes. On the night before SOS passed, Brigid Shea summed the story up in a sound bite on CNN: Freeport wanted to develop their land, and they felt "all the average citizens of Austin are these irritating little boobs who get in their way."

Average citizens. Power to the people.

The Springs and the Polis

Every ripple effect of SOS felt at City Hall since -- Shea's ascension to the council in 1993, Slusher's nearly unseating Bruce Todd as mayor in 1994 and then being elected to the council in 1996, the Watson-led Green Council sweep of 1997, the Prop. 2 bonds passing in 1998, Raul Alvarez's squeaker victory in 2000 -- has been powered by this populist surge. As have the decisions made by those councils to fight and defend SOS in the face of stunning adversity.

Anyone who thinks the SOS movement is down for the count now needs to think back to 1995, when the ordinance had been thrown out by a Hays County jury, when Austin suffered its most virulent case of bashing at the Lege, when FM Properties won a federal case against the city for trying to hold up the Barton Creek PUD, and when Reasonable People thought it a sure bet that pro-business candidates would sweep the council in 1996. Stratus is a minor setback compared to that. Yet SOS lives. "The very fact that [local media] consistently question whether SOS is still relevant," says the Alliance's political consultant Mike Blizzard, "demonstrates its continued relevance."

It's too romantic to say that SOS has succeeded -- or at least endured -- solely because it represents the grassroots. If that were true, it would remain the 900-pound gorilla of Austin politics today, instead of being at loggerheads with people like Shea, Watson, and Slusher because those folks and their ilk no longer represent those same grassroots and have instead become Reasonable People. Which is inevitable in a town that's doubled in size and changed rapidly in character since this story began. The remarkable part is not that SOS is no longer the biggest name in town; it's that SOS still matters at all, that any movement can still find "grassroots" in this now-sprawling urban jungle.

But no other populist movement, either before Aug. 8, 1992, or after, has emerged and engaged so successfully in public life in Austin -- supposedly a natively populist town, a place where democracy runs rampant and citizens' right to act and influence, though not always exercised, is as essential to local character as is Barton Springs itself. Even with the transformation of Austin into a different, much larger city, that element of local culture has not changed. But only SOS has been able to turn it into real political success. Since SOS passed, only two other citizen-initiative ballot measures have passed -- the Prop. 22 crusade against domestic-partners in 1994, and the 1997 campaign finance reforms. Neither led to a decade of political change, because neither "family values" nor campaign reform has motivated as wide a range of Austin leaders and voters -- including suburbanites, Republicans, business tycoons, and people who play golf -- as well as has Saving Our Springs and, in the process, Austin's quality of life.

In another city, the SOS movement might genuinely have been, or have remained, a fringe group safely ignored by Reasonable People, and in tomorrow's Austin another populist movement may achieve the same sort of power as SOS. But SOS will always have the built-in advantage of its brand name, which is really the power of Barton Springs itself, as a symbol of how Austin feels not just about the environment but about democracy. As a natural landmark, Barton Springs are eternal because God made them that way. As a political landmark, if the Springs remain eternal, it will be because SOS made them that way. end story

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Mike Clark-Madison
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
At some point Austin history will stop looping upon itself. Until next time …

March 17, 2023

Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
It’s going to be sad, so sad, when Mayor Pete’s money comes if Austin’s not ready

March 10, 2023


Save Our Springs Ordinance, SOS, Barton Springs, City Council, Save Our Springs Alliance, Barton Creek, Circle C Ranch, Gary Bradley, Gus Garcia, Comprehensive Watersheds Ordinance, Barton Creek Square, Frank Cooksey, Save Barton Creek Association, Barton Creek Square

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle