The creeks and tributaries that feed the nation’s rivers are often forgotten in the grand scheme of things. Yet these small ribbons of water that meander through our backyards and funnel underneath our roadways provide us with everything from drinking water to a nice, cool spot to escape to during the summer. For many communities, they are also a source of food, recreation, tourism, and many other activities that benefit local economies.
On a national level, they are a source of drinking water for millions of Americans, a fact that the EPA has underscored in recent weeks by reasserting its authority to regulate water quality throughout the nation’s bodies of water, including lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.
The EPA’s new rule will apply to 60% of all bodies of water in the country, including those found in the Edwards Aquifer, a vital source of drinking water for over 2 million people living in the Texas Hill Country, including Austin and San Antonio. In the Austin area, there are six creeks named Barton, Bear, Little Bear, Onion, Slaughter, and Williamson, all of which have an important part in recharging the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. During the mid-70’s, this watershed in particular became threatened by a booming construction industry. The city of Austin itself grew rapidly during this period, raising the prospect of added groundwater pollution as natural soil was paved over with new streets and parking lots, allowing storm water to sweep contaminants directly into the aquifer.
In response, many communities within the Barton Creek watershed formed local groups to campaign for better pollution controls and to protect their local creeks; the home of many different species of fish, birds, mammals, plants, and insects, as well as being the source of the Barton Springs Pool, a watering hole frequented by many during the hot summer months. Together, these local groups pushed for a new ordinance to limit construction activity in the Barton Springs Zone, where the flow of water is most susceptible to direct contamination. The Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) was founded in 1979 as part of this early push to reign in development along Barton Creek and to push for better water controls throughout the aquifer.
On a June night in 1990, the fight to protect Barton Creek came to a head as 800 local residents stormed city hall to demand the City Council vote against a proposed 4,000 acre subdivision that was to be built along the creek. This event, popularized as the “Barton Creek Uprising”, was a watershed moment (pun intended) for the Austin environmental movement. Just two years later, SBCA and other local groups successfully passed the Save Our Springs Ordinance, a comprehensive plan for protecting the Barton Springs Zone from excessive development. The ordinance was unique in that it was passed via a citizens’ initiative, or public referendum. Previous ordinances, such as the “Composite Ordinance”, were created by the City of Austin in order to provide some protection to local watersheds, but they were universally condemned as ineffectual by environmentalists and citizens alike.
With the new SOS Ordinance, SBCA and its allies succeeded in establishing far stricter land development rules in the Barton Springs Zone, rules that would ultimately form the basic tenets of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan. For residents of Austin, the ordinance ensured that continued development within the Barton Springs Zone would be properly contained, minimizing urban runoff and potential sources of pollution. In the recharge zone itself, where surface water seeps into the table and replenishes the aquifer, impervious cover (concrete & asphalt pavement) was restricted to a total surface area of 15%. Likewise, developments on lands within the contributing zone, including those around Barton Creek, were limited to 20-25% impervious cover.
These types of restrictions are common in areas with vulnerable watersheds as they prevent surface contaminants from being swept directly into creeks and rivers through storm drains. Unpaved surfaces allow more water to trickle into the ground, which also helps to filter out some of the oils and pesticides that are commonly found in the environment of developed areas. This natural filtering process is doubly important for aquifers like the Edwards because of the prevalence of limestone in Central Texas’ bedrock. As a sedimentary rock, limestone is quickly eroded by groundwater, resulting in the creation of large underground channels that allows groundwater to flow faster than normal. Therefore any contamination along its recharge or contributing zones can quickly spread to other watersheds, quickly turning a local pollution problem into a regional one.
Saving Barton Creek
All of this makes the SBCA’s overall mission ever more important. In the years since the Barton Creek Uprising, development around the Austin area has continued at a fast clip, introducing more avenues for pollution and environmental degradation. Fortunately, as these threats have grown, so too has SBCA. The group maintains a number of programs, as well as partnerships, to both protect the Creek and educate others about its importance to the surrounding community. The SBCA directly holds conservation easements and actively supports other conservancies that work with private landowners to ensure that their lands are protected from development in perpetuity. These easements are a legal tool used by many conservation groups to establish permanent land use restrictions on properties vital to local ecosystems.
Outside of the legal realm, SBCA engages with members of the public to educate and increase awareness of the problems facing Barton Creek. SBCA volunteers regularly lead tours along the creek, both on foot and by kayak, providing a picturesque journey through the delicate greenbelt. During these tours, SBCA volunteers are keen to point out the number of endangered species that inhabit Barton Springs. There are at least seven species of plants, as well as a handful of creatures, including the tiny Barton Springs Salamander, that only exist within the 809 acre Barton Creek Greenbelt. These species are endangered primarily due to declining water quality caused by non-point source pollution.
SBCA is working hard on that last part, encouraging locals to curb their use of polluting products, such as pesticides, around the home. Fertilizer use is also a big contributor to declining water quality, which the SBCA recommends using sparingly in order to keep excess nutrients out the local watershed. Too many nutrients contribute to a buildup of algae, which spells trouble for both waterborne and land-dwelling organisms, as well as local drinking water. Alternatively, SBCA suggests Xeriscape landscaping to help reduce waste usage and eliminate the need for fertilizers altogether. This method of landscaping replaces green lawns and perennials with mulch and cacti. Planting hardy flora instead of flowers or other traditional plants goes a long way towards keeping the greenbelt healthy.
Though pesticides and fertilizers are a central concern for pollution, there is still the persistent problem of litter. Plastic bags, water bottles, even bits of clothing, end up washed out into creeks where they cling to branches and old barriers. Part of SBCA’s mission is to keep these channels clear of litter by organizing volunteer cleanups. Its most recent cleanup was just a few weeks ago, on June 6th. Volunteers from all around Austin converged on the 77 acre Shudde Fath tract of the Barton Creek Greenbelt to pick up all the debris that has built up along its banks. These volunteer efforts are a significant help in keeping Barton Springs clean, especially as the rainy months roll in. Cleaning everything up beforehand prevents all the plastic bags and other detritus from being washed into the Springs, polluting one of the most popular destinations for Austin’s residents.
SBCA is an enduring example of what can be accomplished when citizens and activists work together. From the Barton Creek Uprising, to educational outreach, SBCA has led the charge in protecting Austin’s greenbelt for decades. As the years go on, and their vision for a greener, healthier Barton Creek comes closer to reality, Save Barton Creek Association will be there to carry on the legacy of Austin’s environmental movement.
For more information about Save Barton Creek Association, volunteer opportunities, programs, and more, please visit www.savebartoncreek.org.