Memoirs of a Movement
Remembering the campaign to Save Our Springs
Co-founder and director of the SOS Coalition; elected to City Council in 1993, served one term; this year she ran unsuccessfully for mayor and remains active in environmental causes
Imagine if none of us knew the story of David and Goliath. We'd have no analogy for the triumph of the little guy – the underdog defeating the giant. For many of us, the story of SOS and the saving of Barton Springs is our town's version of David and Goliath. And one of the most remarkable things about it is how little it's told. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Austin's epic battle to Save Our Springs, I look forward to the fleshing out of this amazing chapter in our history. Regardless of which side you were on, you have to admit, it's one hell of a story.
The "David" in this case were the ordinary citizens of Austin, a few political consultants and the leaders of several environmental groups, who just wanted to save Austin's rare environmental jewel, Barton Springs. The "Goliath" was Jim Bob Moffett, ex-UT football player and CEO of Freeport McMoRan, an international mining company that owned the world's largest gold mine. Literally. His plan to develop on the banks of Barton Creek threatened to pollute the Springs.
The story is complete with Moffett's chest-pounding at the city council meeting where he proclaimed that he had the highest grades of anyone at UT (wait for it) ... on the football team. And how he'd parked his lavish RV cocktail lounge outside the back door of the old council chambers, presumably to further underscore his belief that he owned the place. Until the citizens started rocking the RV back and forth and Moffett and company had to flee.
In the end the citizens triumphed, defeating power and money by passing the SOS Ordinance by a 2/3rds margin in one of the highest turn-out elections in our history.
If you want to hear the amazing details of what happened in between, come to the Springs, under the tent by the back gate, for a watermelon social and great story telling, this Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 7 and 8.
SOS Coalition co-founder and legal counsel; today serves as executive director of the nonprofit spin-off SOS Alliance
In launching the SOS initiative, a dozen or so Austin activists sought to defend Barton Springs from the likes of Jim Bob Moffett and others in a long line of growth-at-any-cost corporados. We also sought to give direction to the passion for Barton Springs shown by so many Austinites from all walks of life. Between the June 7, 1990 all-night Barton Creek PUD uprising, and the August 8, 1992 SOS vote, thousands of people volunteered time, money, heart, and soul to save our springs.
Young and old, rich, poor, and in-between phoned, walked, stuffed envelopes, and, most importantly, learned about Barton Springs and what it takes to prevent the growth of Austin from destroying the springs that gave birth to our community.
Enlightened local business leaders helped debunk the Chamber/Real Estate Council argument that protecting Barton Springs would kill job growth with the simple and opposite message – that "SOS is good for the economy." And, of course, it has been good for the economy, more so than anyone at the time ever imagined.
The Austin Chronicle and its writers Daryl Slusher, Scott Henson, Robert Bryce, and others set the record straight every week for months on end once the "RULE" council succeeded in postponing the election from May until August. The music community, led by Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker, Bill Oliver, Joe Ely, Eric Johnson, Marcia Ball, Kim Wilson, the East Texan, Don Henley, and so many others, gave more than you can imagine to the effort. Dean Rindy's TV commercials and compelling 14-minute video sealed the victory on election day. (Watch the video at www.sosalliance.org.)
Twenty years later, the fate of Barton Springs still remains up for grabs. Water quality has deteriorated, but not near so much as it would have if the tide of growth had not been shifted away from the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer watershed. Now we understand that the pressure to pump more groundwater to serve growth in the Barton Creek, Onion Creek, and Blanco River watersheds threatens to drain the springs during times of prolonged drought. The powers-that-be at City Hall and Downtown have been more supportive of protecting Barton Springs since the SOS vote, but there is still not enough action to go with all of the talk about "green" Austin.
As Edward Abbey, the Thoreau of the Southwest, once wrote, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Protecting Barton Springs has always, in part, been about more than just the springs. It's also about saving our city from the temptation of the fast buck at the expense of the future. It's the story of our time. We may be "thinking globally," but we aren't "acting locally" near enough. Civic engagement has declined significantly. It really does take a community to save a community.
Former City Council aide, SOS Coalition co-founder, and campaign manager; political consultant to several former and current City Council members
It was obvious that SOS was something special when I saw a giant pink blow-up King Kong holding an SOS banner on top of Pinkies at Congress and Riverside. I knew we had made it.
Maybe it shouldn't have, but the size and intensity of the campaign came as a surprise. What began as an idea in Shudde Fath's living room became a wave that has washed over much of the city's political discourse for the last two decades. I never thought – in fact it was beyond my hopes – that the wave would last this long. A lot of credit goes to Bill Bunch and all the people who have kept it alive.
Council Member Gus Garcia's role in SOS is not well-known. I was his aide in the days before SOS began. On one particularly long day, a succession of environmentalists came through the office – all with different ideas of how to address the existing watershed ordinance. Listening to them, it was obvious that there was no center and no clear strategy. Because of this, Gus challenged me to think how the environmental community, in his words, could sit across the table from the development community as equals. In some part that was the genesis of the initiative idea.
Few public issues in recent Austin history have permeated the community so deeply. Daryl Slusher's columns in the Chronicle, Statesman stories, daily TV coverage – there was an amazing amount of press that helped establish the central importance of water. The Chronicle deserves a tremendous amount of credit – because a movement that is not reported doesn't happen.
I believe we all owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of people who created their own SOS campaign in a thousand different ways. SOS also brought together political talent: David Butts, Dean Rindy, Jeff Smith, and Robert Hernandez, among so many others who brought a wealth of skills that all the money in town couldn't beat.
But a cast of thousands also meant personal, cultural, and political differences. There were many painful moments during the campaign, but none more so than the decision by the RULE council that resulted in grandfathering thousands of acres for decades to come. Our community will suffer greatly because of their moral failure.
The battle for Barton Springs and SOS set the framework for many of the struggles we have had over the last two decades, and most likely will have for the next two. Because it was and is about how we protect and create a better quality of life for the people of our community. We won't know the outcome of this battle in our lifetime.
How did it feel? Some elation, some exhaustion, and some pain – anything difficult that has value contains those things.
SOS campaign strategist and political consultant to former and current council members and other elected officials
SOS was a watershed in Austin's history. It reshaped the political culture of Austin, and in that regard, the effect on our economic and cultural landscape cannot be underestimated.
The protect Barton Springs movement was truly as organic a people's movement as had occurred since the days of Vietnam protests. It was raw, urgent, and the energy was pulsating. The formation of SOS gave this energy a head as well as a heart.
A majority of Austin citizens knew what they wanted done in the Barton Creek Watershed, even if a majority of the Austin Council did not. The all-night City Council meeting in the summer of 1990 was what I called "the shot heard around the city." This struggle over the next two years finally gave form and force to the Austin Environmental Movement. Prior to this period. I'd say, environmentalists might be consulted, but their concerns were usually ignored.
The SOS victory on August 8, 1992 laid the foundation for a series of victories in the local political arena. What happened, of course, is that those who had lost the SOS fight went to a different arena – the Texas Legislature. Ann Richards vetoed the first attempt to weaken SOS, but her defeat by George W. Bush in 1994 let the developers' efforts to weaken SOS become law.
Out of all of this came a strategy of asking the voters for bond money to purchase outright, or at least the developmental rights, of critical parcels of land over the aquifer. This effort continues to this day.
Did we save Barton Springs? I think the jury is still out. I believe we gave Barton Springs and the aquifer a better chance of survival. The weakening of SOS and the accelerating rate of growth raises serious doubts, though. It may take a revolution to save it. It could happen.
It was a serious honor to be part of this crusade. Thousands of people played a role – this is no exaggeration. People like Mark Yznaga, Bill Bunch, Helen Ballew, Jackie Goodman, Ann Kitchen, Dean Rindy, Jeff Smith, and our honorable spokesperson Brigid Shea helped give it life and form. Daryl Slusher's columns in the Chronicle helped give the story narrative and understanding. Those people who worked as clerks, secretaries and "copy boys" for our opponents – the lawyers, Realtors, homebuilders, financial institutions – but supported SOS, kept us abreast of what the opposition was up to. We dubbed them "the French Underground." And then there were the countless volunteers who walked, organized fundraisers, made calls, and put up signs. They were amazing, and for that brief time we felt we could make a difference. It was a shining moment in Austin's history.
Former AISD board president, city council member, and mayor; currently active in civic and political causes
I was elected to the City Council in 1991, an election that brought the first letter to the now infamous "RULE" coalition, a name that was given to them by a former Chronicle reporter, who later came to serve on the Council. I was never supposed to be an "environmentalist" Council Member, being that I was elected to the "Mexican-American," later Hispanic, and even later, Latino, seat. But what some people did not know was that my families both on my father's and my mother's side owned ranch lands both in South Texas and northern México, and even though they never wore the insignia of environmentalists on their lapels, they respected nature and protected the waterways, the natural environment, and the animals' habitats. So to me, working to protect the environment was just a natural extension to the way of life that I knew growing up.
I enjoyed those difficult years watching the environmental activists taking on folks with names like Jim Bob, Gary [Bradley] and their army of buddies and attorneys. But we were always on the losing side. Until one day when citizens rose up and passed the SOS Ordinance. From my vantage point, it was pure democracy in action. The people of Austin wanted to protect the Springs (some folks called it a Temple of Worship) and a young California-educated attorney and an army of activists provided the energy to help organize the movement that produced the ordinance. For my part, I considered it a great honor to have helped those young and dedicated activists to pass a historic piece of legislation that we all hoped would ultimately protect one of the crown jewels of the "Republic of Austin." The movement also served to solidify the progressive (aka Liberal) community in our great city.
Former director of the Hill Country Foundation, co-founder of Austin Business Leaders for the Environment, and a founding member of the SOS Coalition; currently director of the San Antonio-based Headwaters Coalition
Whenever I tell someone about SOS, I say it's a great example of people-powered democracy, which is redundant: little "d" democracy is people-powered. What passes for democracy in America today frankly isn't, not unless "We, the People" decide to reclaim it. I still feel enormous pride in having been one among many passionate founders and leaders of the SOS movement. It was intense, heady stuff, and took a lot of hard work, devotion, and of course, supporters – but look what we did! This is small of me, but I confess to feeling even more pride when I consider the fact that Karl Rove, who was still in Austin at that time, was a strategist for our opponents. He's very effective at what he does, and yet we the people overcame. It can be done. I credit the springs for giving us all the spirit to join together in their defense. Water is a powerful motivator, especially when it's threatened. So many business and professional people stepped up in support of the cause. They put their businesses on the line for the springs, not just themselves. That took courage, but it was the right thing to do. SOS is still good for business.