By: Lauren Hodges
When I think of the summers I’ve spent in Austin, one thing that comes to mind is that first, frigid leap into Barton Springs Pool. Barton Springs,which include four natural springs, are essential to both our images of Austin and our lifestyles here. In addition to forming a beloved swimming hole, the springs also serve as a source of drinking water for more than 50,000 Austin residents- a little over 5% of the city’s population. Additionally, two endangered salamander species inhabit the springs. But like any fragile natural resource in the periphery of a growing city, Barton Springs are increasingly threatened by development. For nearly three decades, Save Our Springs Alliance has been at the forefront of the battles to protect Barton Springs.
According to Pat Brodnax, Save Our Springs’ Managing Director, the organization’s fight “began over 26 years ago with an all night hearing – which was an uprising.” On June 7 1990, over 800 Austin residents packed into City Hall to voice their opposition to a massive development planned for the banks of Barton Springs. Their uprising successfully halted the development and later influenced the passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance by ballot initiative. This ordinance tightened existing restrictions on development near the Springs, affirming Austinites’ commitment to protecting the waters from pollution and degradation. What began as a loose coalition of environmentalists became “Austin’s water watchdogs,” a fierce and passionate alliance of activists fighting to protect a resource that Brodnax believes “makes Austin, Austin.”
At its heart, according to Broadnax, Save Our Springs Alliance is a “non-compromising” group. Younger advocates weary of the toothless, greenwashed (or, claiming to be “green” while in reality doing little to protect the environment) pattern so many other environmental organizations fall victim to can find a more action-oriented mindset in the alliance. Though Austin has changed since the 1990 uprising, Save Our Springs has continued to stand up to powerful interests to protect a precious, endangered resource.
Bill Bunch, Executive Director of Save Our Springs Alliance, is as fired up as any of the 1990 protesters, but it’s clear that he’s tired from the sound of his voice. He’s part of a coalition that’s bringing a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the two agencies behind the SH 45SW toll road, a project that seeks to connect Austin’s Loop 1 highway (or Mopac) with FM1626, which runs into IH-35. Other members of the coalition include the Austin Sierra Club, the Friends of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and a handful of Austin neighborhood associations.
The Springs are part of what makes Austin special.
Bunch believes that a comprehensive study would illuminate serious environmental issues with this development. Habitat destruction is a major concern – three endemic species, the golden-cheeked warbler, the Austin blind salamander and the Barton Springs salamander, will be threatened by the project. Additionally, it’s likely that the proposed roadway would cross some of the caves and sinkholes where rain seeps into the Edwards Aquifer, many of which are not visible from the surface. And although the toll road is being pitched as a solution to traffic, Bunch notes that its existence will transform Mopac from a road that primarily serves local commuters into a “second IH-35,” adding an influx of interstate traffic and ultimately hurting the Austinites who rely on this road to traverse the city.
From the organization’s early days, Save Our Springs Alliance has been unafraid to use the legal system to fight for Barton Springs. But Bunch is clear that litigation is only one “tool in [Save Our Springs’] box” – and it’s usually seen as a last resort. But after two decades of fighting the toll road project using every other technique available, Save Our Springs Alliance and its allies saw no other option.
One of the lawsuit’s goals is to force the toll road’s developers to conduct a comprehensive environmental study on the entire proposed project. The road, he explains, is intended to become a loop around Austin. However, because TxDOT and CTRMA intend to build it in short segments, they argue that studying the environmental impact of each part of the project individually are sufficient. So far, federal judge Lee Yeakel has sided with the plaintiffs, agreeing that such a fragmented system of study is not compliant with guidelines set by the National Environmental Policy Act. The next step, Bunch explains, will be to stop the first phases of construction through an injunction.
When asked why students and other young people should give a shit about preserving Barton Springs, Brodnax has plenty of reasons. The Springs are part of what makes Austin special – for one, summers simply wouldn’t be the same without them. As both a source of drinking water for 5% of Austinites and as a gateway to the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to some 1.5 million more Texans, the Springs’ waters are a vital natural resource, too. Though we might not think much about the salamanders in our day-to-day-lives, I think we can all agree that we should try our best to avoid wiping out an endangered species. And with thousands of new arrivals settling in Austin each year, the stakes are only getting higher.
Though we may live Earth-friendly lives in many ways, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re part of the problem. And for that reason, as both Brodnax and Bunch emphasize, we have to be part of the solution. One of Save Our Springs’ goals is to help residents become “stewards” of Barton Springs – to ensure that we understand why this place is so special and worthy of protection. In addition, Brodnax tells me that Save Our Springs is dedicated to helping “the next generation step up and become activists.” And as Bunch reminds me, this isn’t just about Austin. He believes that the fight against global climate change has to start right here at home, with advocating for the natural resources in our backyards. So while another uprising may not be in the cards (yet), Barton Springs is undoubtedly a place worth fighting for.