The citizens of Austin, Texas, consider Barton Springs a civic jewel. The eighth-of-a-mile-long, spring-fed pool is not just beautiful, it is significant on several counts—historic, scenic, environmental, recreational. In the 1700s, Spanish missionaries camped in the magnificent watershed feeding the pool—264 square miles of Texas hill country. The watershed falls in the habitat of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, the only bird that nests solely in Texas. More than 240,000 people visit Barton Springs every year.
This year, to the frustration of many, the pool has been closed 23 days because of fecal coliform bacteria or sediment pollution or for water-quality testing. Anger boiled over at a Texas Water Commission hearing on May 15 when city officials admitted that the Springs should have been closed for an additional three-day period in April when more than 1,000 people used the pool. Buck Wynne, chairman of the water commission—and one of the unfortunate swimmers—responded: "Obviously, the best way to protect the public from contamination is to eliminate the source of the contamination."
There are arguments over the cause, or causes, of the pollution that is plaguing Barton Springs. Heavy rains, sewage treatment facilities and road construction have all been pointed to, but many people are convinced that a major culprit is the game of golf.
There are three 18-hole golf courses within the Barton Springs watershed—two at Barton Creek Country Club and one at Lost Creek Country Club. All are irrigated, at least partially, with recycled water from sewage treatment facilities that service the clubs' facilities and adjacent housing developments—up to 300,000 gallons a day. That is not an unusual arrangement, but the Barton Springs watershed consists of steep hills, sparse vegetation and a very thin layer of topsoil. The theory is that this combination results in large amounts of a runoff ending up in Barton Creek, which then percolate down to the underlying Edwards Aquifer and resurface at Barton Springs. An 11-year study, released by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1990, showed that during high-water conditions, Barton Creek was being contaminated by phosphorus, nitrogen and fecal coliform bacteria, common constituents of sewage. In 1989, the Texas Water Commission had declared the 150-square-mile Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer "the most susceptible" watershed to pollution in the state.
The golf courses are owned by subsidiaries of ClubCorp International, the largest private club operator in the U.S., with 140 golf courses. The chairman of ClubCorp is Robert Dedman, a Dallas multimillionaire who also is a member of the three-man Texas Highway Commission. Dedman has denied that his clubs' treated effluent is harming Barton Springs. Another company, Freeport-McMoRan Inc. of New Orleans, is pressing plans for further development in the watershed, including two golf courses.
As efforts to pinpoint the source of the pollution continues, so does the fight between golfers and environmentalists. The Barton Springs Coalition thought it saw an opportunity to publicize its crusade this spring when the Legends of Golf tournament, a Senior tour event, was held at Barton Creek Country Club. In an echo of the Shoal Creek protest at the 1990 PGA Championships in Birmingham—which forced the PGA Tour to confront the issue of racial discrimination at its tournament sites—the coalition called on the Seniors to play elsewhere. When that suggestion went unheeded, the coalition organized a demonstration. Perhaps 25 protesters appeared at the tournament, and one was arrested.
The issue has taken on an elitist aspect. "Barton Springs is the one place in Austin that everybody goes to," says Robert Bryce, environmental editor of The Austin Chronicle and a regular user of the water hole. "It's heaven, beautiful beyond words—deep green water, picnic places, scenery. And all for $1.75 a day." By contrast, the initiation fee at Barton Creek Country Club is $22,500. Says Bryce, "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."
The group that could curtail that flow is the seven-member Austin city council. In October the council will vote to adopt new provisions to the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance. If passed, these rules could make the construction of new golf courses within the Barton Creek watershed impractical. "Things'll stay hot until that vote," says Bryce. "And actually, come to think of it, they'll stay plenty hot after the vote."