INTERVIEWEE: Bill Bunch (BB)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 10, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
[Please note that the numbers mark time codes for the interview recording.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s November 10, 2018 and we’re at the home of Bill Bunch, and we have the opportunity to visit with him about his long and illustrious career as an environmental attorney and community organizer here in Austin, who’s focused on many conservation issues but, in particular, efforts to protect Barton Springs, Hill Country, the Edwards Aquifer and so on. So thank you very much for spending time with us.
BB: Certainly. My pleasure.
DT: We usually start these interviews with a question about your childhood and a query about whether there was somebody in your early days—a parent, a friend, a teacher—who might have influenced an interest in the outdoors, about conservation, natural world. Is there anything like that that you can recall?
BB: Yes, indeed. I was born in San Antonio but I grew up in Arlington up Dallas-Fort Worth way. And I was lucky to live next door to a man who was the scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop. And so he let me hang around with the scout troop and his two sons who were older than me when I was too young really to participate. But that influenced me heavily into getting into camping, getting out of the suburbs and into the woods. And then those older boys—so this was, you know, early ‘70s—the first wave of, you know, green environmentalism with the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act, and I just absorbed it from the older boys that were in scouting.
DT: So were there— there camping trips that you recall?
BB: Oh yeah, plenty. Mostly—the most fond ones were to Worth Ranch which was a scout camp on the Brazos River near Mineral Wells.
BB: And then later, a big trip to Philmont, which is the big scout camp in New Mexico.
DT: Tell us a little bit more about Philmont.
BB: Well I was just barely old enough to go. And my troop was not going so I went with a different troop, which actually turned out to be a great experience. I didn’t know anybody but I made a whole new raft of friends on that trip. And I was a competitive swimmer at the time so I was in great shape. So even though I was one of the youngest, you know, I was keeping up with people quite well.
DT: So I—I think I understand that swimming and being in the water is—is a theme in your life. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your early days swimming and—and how that might have affected your life in years to come.
BB: I followed my older sister into competitive swimming, starting when I was eight and I swam all the way through my first year in college. We were lucky enough to come down to Austin and New Braunfels and San Antonio for swim meets when I was quite young. And I guess trips to swim meets at Landa Park—at the pool there—were the ones that were most influential because that’s where Comal Springs is—the—the largest spring in Texas. And I’d never seen water like that ever before. You know, we have cl—clean water up in North Texas but it’s not clear.
You know, the—the geology, the soils are clay soils so even if the water’s clean, it’s murky. And when I got to New Braunfels the first time for a swim meet when I think it was eight or nine, I just could not believe how beautiful it was.
DT: So you’re talking about being a competitive swimmer and—and I was curious if you experienced the difference between not only clear water and murky water but between concrete, plaster, and tile pools and natural water streams—lakes, things like that?
BB: Right. Well I came to love both quite a bit. And with the swim team, we would go out on adventure swims as well. On the Guadalupe River, in various lakes—years later, in the mountains as well up in Colorado and, you know, the structured pool is great for swimming and keeping time and—and doing that sort of disciplined swimming. But I just loved the natural water. And with goggles, you know, what you can see below the surface and the wildlife and fish and crawdads and aquatic plants, I just came to really love the life under the water.
DT: We—this may be one step backwards because you—you had earlier talked about Philmont and scouting with your scout master neighbor. But I understand that you’re an Eagle Scout and I know, for a lot of people, that is a very big accomplishment if they get that far. And I was wondering if it had any influence on you to achieve that level?
BB: Well I worked hard at it to get it done. And—but I loved it all the way. It was—it was—it went along—it seemed to go along with the swimming. And I just, from an early age, I was just drawn towards, you know, outdoors and learning how to be comfortable and—and feel like I know—knew what I was doing out in the woods, even if I was by myself.
DT: Can—can you recall any camping trips or long hikes that you took as a young person?
BB: Lots of them at Worth Ranch and then the—the big backpacking trip at Philmont was particularly memorable. And then I ac—I did a Christmas, five-day, backpack trip with an Explorer group at Big Bend National Park. And all of those were—were particularly powerful to me just being out in the wilderness in landscapes that were so completely different than what we—what I had at home. And always was the idea that, you know, you leave a place better than you found it.
And the whole scout motto of, you know, be conservation minded was—was embedded in my existence. And then I was fortunate enough in high school to go with my swim coaches on a backpacking trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons. And that was incredible as well. We were on the top of a mountain—a small one—but we just happened to stumble upon Willi Unsoeld and his daughter. He pioneered the West Ridge Route on mountain—now I’m blanking out—the highest mountain in the world—what is it?
BB: Everest—the West Ridge Route on Mt. Everest. And his daughter was a very accomplished mountaineer as well. She was named Nanda Devi Unsoeld, which is the second tallest mountain in the world and she actually died climbing the mountain that she was named after a few years after we met her on that trip. It was kind of a interesting coincidence.
DT: Well so this—this carries us through your teenage years and—and I understand that—that, after you got out of high school, you went to the University of Colorado and you studied there and—and majored in environmental biology, right?
BB: Yes, I—I started out as a engineering major but my first day of classes, I did not like the—the male to female ratio of students. And so I engaged my first battle with the burea—a big bureaucracy and I dropped and added my entire course load to switch to environmental biology major. And I was very glad that—that I was aggressive and—in making that early course correction. But Boulder’s a spectacular place. I went up there with a good friend from high school who was a serious rock climber.
And I was never serious but, you know, he enter—entertained me a bit and would drag me along. And then later we had another very serious climber roommate from New York City that we lived together for—off-campus—for a couple of years that was, you know, they were both very inspiring to me.
DT: Would y’all go bouldering or hiking?
Yeah, we’d do hiking. We’d ski in the winter, which I had never skied before and learned to love it very quickly. And then I would go with them climbing. And if they were doing something that wasn’t too crazy, I’d do it with them. And if they were, I’d just, you know, take my books and hang out and let them climb. But we were, you know, we were reading Edward Abbey at the time and—and other books that were inspiring us to love—love the outdoors and—and be committed to protecting it.
DT: Well and—were—it sounds like a lot of your experiences with—with your roommates and classmates and friends, but were there also teachers who might have been influential in your interest in the outdoors?
BB: Yes, there were—there were a few of those. Probably the most influential was my ornithology professor, Olwen Williams. She was almost eighty at the time. She was way past retirement but re—retirement age—but she kept doing it. She had earned her PhD, you know, before Watson and Crick had discovered the double helix DNA. So just this unbelievable career. But, on the first day of class, we showed up and here’s this ancient woman, this almost a—a caricature of older sort of kind of, you know, not frail but, you know, shrunken woman, and she had a hawk that was mounted on a, you know, a limb that was, you know, from the museum.
And she’s like petting this—this—this—this specimen and explaining why, you know, birds are by far the—the most amazing creatures that there are. And that whole course was oriented towards going on birdwatching trips on Saturday mornings and doing lab work and, you know, doing things other than just, you know, reading books and—and memorizing, you know, certain things—learning bird calls.
Anyway, she was—she was incredibly inspiring. And then I had a environmental economics professor that was—was really good and a political science professor who was, you know, very challenging—that we—we dove into environmental issues in that class as well. So I was blessed with a number of—of inspiring professors at—at UC Boulder.
DT: So this—this environmental economics professor, was he starting to talk and think and explain about externalities and—?
BB: Yeah, I was—it was a upper level course and I had almost no background in economics so I was—I was just soaking it up. But doing cost benefit analysis and how does that make sense in economic frameworks, externalities, yes, the whole market failure that results when you don’t, you know, count all of those costs that are imposed on society and the environment when you’re producing, you know, a good or service. And it really helped me later in my career to have that grounding in economic analysis on—of environmental issues.
DT: And—and it sounds like you—you—you got good lessons about understanding biology and analyzing economics. Was there a teacher who was also giving you a, you know, advice about conservation and advocacy and activism or encouraging you to move in that direction?
BB: My—the political science professor, Steve Paulson, he was an activist and we read Philip Slater’s Earthwalk and that book that was not a famous book. He was better known for his book, The Pursuit of Loneliness was the hit that he wrote. So he was this—basically a sociologist. But that inspired me towards, you know, valuing things other than money I guess and sort of living, you know, for a purpose rather than for material gain. And then in law school, I was blessed with having Joe Sax as a professor.
And he’s sort of the godfather of environmental law—al—almost invented the field. And that was a law school in Berkeley.
DT: Well did you decide to go to UC Berkeley for Law School for just general good education or because you were already interested in environmental law?
BB: Well I started in environmental biology thinking I might go into environmental advocacy. I’d had that idea from high school and it wasn’t like I ever decided, yes, I want to be an environmental lawyer advocate but nothing else ever, you know, you know, jumped out at me. So I just sort of started going in that direction and I kept going. The law school at—at Berkeley had a strong environmental program there, the first environmental law journal, Ecology Law Quarterly, was there.
And all the big national groups, you know, had office—big offices in either San Francisco or Oakland, Berkeley, so I knew there’d be some opportunity to do internships there as well. And it was just a great, overall law school and I got in so I went. And, of course, the Bay Area’s a nice place to be as well. I loved it there.
DT: And did you stay there for long or did you come back to Texas almost immediately?
BB: I—I—I almost stayed but I came back for two—the two summers between first and second and then second and third year—to work in Austin. And then after law school, I was—I had a good offer to stay in San Francisco but I felt like, you know, the whole environmental advocacy world was incredibly well-established at the time in California, whereas in Texas, there was almost nobody doing it. So I knew that if I came back to Texas, I could do stuff that nobody else was doing, you know, immediately and sort of, you know, step into a leadership position, rather than sort of work my way up.
And there was just an incredible need here because so few people were—were advocating for environmental protection in Texas.
DT: Well so if—if I’ve got this right—in 1987, you come back to Austin and—
DT: ’86, I’m sorry—and you go to work for Henry and Kelly, is that right?
BB: Yeah, Stuart Henry—I had clerked for them in the summers of ’84 and ’85 and then I came back to work with them after I finished law school, you know, fall of ’86.
DT: Can you tell a little bit about that firm because it’s—it’s pretty distinctive place and still—it still exists, of course.
BB: So Stuart Henry was the senior partner. He was pretty much the first lawyer in Texas doing environmental law and making a living on the side of the environment, rather than, you know, representing, you know, corporate or development interests, who were, you know, wanting permits and approvals to do what they wanted to do. And just by happenstance a—a friend of mine from—from high school had a older sister who was in law school with Stuart’s partner, Tom Mason. And I just made a connection there.
That first summer, I just cold-called them and said hey, do you need a law intern? And Austin’s economy was booming. At the time, I thought well if I don’t get a law, I, you know, roof houses or do something, make a living. Here’s some great live music, eat some Tex-Mex, swim in Barton Springs—but it worked out that Stuart hired me that first summer and we hit it off. And so then I—I worked with them the second summer and then came back after law school.
DT: Well and—if—if I understand this, you were there through about 1990, is that correct?
DT: And you worked for a whole variety of private landowners and environmental groups like the Hill Country Foundation, the Sierra Club, and Travis Audubon, Texas River Protection Association. Can you talk about some of the cases you took on and the role that you played?
BB: Yeah, so we represented a lot of landowners, mostly in rural areas, who were threatened with dams and being flooded out and literally forced off of their—their land. Others who were threatened with having municipal landfills located, you know, next to them that would threaten their health and their property values. So we did a number of fighting reservoirs, landfills, and then I did quite a bit of work working for landowners in South Texas where there was a uranium mining industry that was—people were very concerned about—threatening their water wells primarily but also, you know, other, you know, air quality and just exposure concerns as well.
DT: These were uranium leach mines?
BB: Yeah, most of—most of them were the leach mining, where they’d drill wells and sort of push the fluids around in the—the formation that are actually aquifers that have the uranium in there and they—they change the chemistry to, you know, sort of have the uranium released into the water so they can, you know, pump it up and then extract it that way. There was some remnant surface, you know, strip mining of uranium as well that we dealt with a little bit and then some big dumps of the mill — mine tailings that we were trying to get cleaned up.
Most of that was in Karnes County near Panna Maria, which is the oldest continuously occupied Polish-American community founded by the—the Polish immigrants in the 1850s. That was very interesting experience there and that community’s effort to engage first Chevron—that had been the original miner—and then some other players that came in later.
DT: If I remember this, the—the Catholic Church was pretty deeply involved in organizing in Panna Maria?
BB: Yes. I mean, the Catholic Church was really the heart of that community and they had a—an activist priest at the time, who was really trying to help the community protect themselves from being sort of overrun or harmed by these big, giant corporations that were doing this sort of little known uranium mining process that was a risk to their health.
DT: As—as—as I read it, you—you worked for a lot of these nonprofit groups though and private landowners, you know, these communities, but also in environmental advocacy groups. Can you talk about some of those cases you took on?
BB: Yeah. So did some early work for the Texas River Protection Association trying to keep river flows in the Guadalupe River on a—where Kerrville was wanting to divert more water out of the river, San Marcos River Foundation—did some work for them trying to clean up the San Marcos Sewer Plant that discharged into the San Marcos River. And I’m still doing a lot of work with that group today. That started a great relationship.
A lot of volunteer and—and, you know, greatly reduced rates of work for—for the Sierra Club, and then a lot of volunteer work also with Earth First, which was sort of the—the radical environmental group that was active in Austin at the time of which I made a bunch of friends with those folks and trying to protect the endangered species that lived right here but people hadn’t really paid much attention to them before then.
DT: What—what type of animals—creatures were they?
BB: Well so the black-capped vireo was listed endangered I believe in ’87. That was the first one in this area. And that sort of woke people up to the idea that, you know, protecting endangered species wasn’t something, you know, we needed to pay attention, you know, in South America and the rain forest or the whooping cranes down on the coast, but that we had some unique species right in our own backyard that warranted protection and were threatened by Austin Growing, even at that time. So that was the first listing.
And then we did some real advocacy to force the listing of the golden-cheeked warbler as endangered. So both of those are migratory songbirds that nest here in Central Texas and, for the warbler, nowhere else in the world. This is their entire nesting range right here in Central Texas. And then we also forced the listing of five—what we call cave critters—small invertebrates that were found in a handful of caves in northwest Travis County. And it—
BB: And then years later, we did work to force the listing of the Barton Springs Salamander as endangered. But in that sort of late ‘80s, into the early ‘90s period, the—the focus was on the—the songbirds and the cave critters.
DT: So how would you press for a listing with Fish & Wildlife? How did that work?
BB: Well with the—with the warbler, there had been a propo—it had been a candidate for a long time and there’d been a proposal to list it and also with the cave critters from Travis Audubon Society years before I arrived. And it was just sort of sitting on a shelf. And we—we found out about that and then we’re seeing that there was major construction happening out in that Four Points area of northern Travis County that were directly threatening the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat in the world in the Upper Bull Creek Watershed and then also a number of caves that are in that exact same area that—that were home to these cave critters.
So under the Endangered Species Act, there is a—a mechanism for citizen enforcement actions to force listings of species if there’s imminent danger to their survival. So we filed notice of intent to sue letters saying, you know, you got to—you got to move. You got to list these critters right away. And I partnered with a lawyer from the National Wildlife Federation in their—their national office up in D.C. to help with that, in particular, on the warbler listing. And the Earth Firsters were out in the field, you know, documenting the sort of strategic destruction of habitat because developers knew that the species was—could be listed any day.
And the most well-known of this incident—H. Ross Perot—who had later ran for president—he had bought a bunch of land for development up in northwest Austin and had started, you know, clearing—bringing in these giant, you know, tree-eating machines to just, you know, bulldoze and—and destroy this old growth, mixed oak, cedar woodlands that’s the warbler habitat. And he did so without a p—any sort of permitting. And so the Earth First activist discovered this, reported it to the city.
The city red-tagged them saying hey, you know, you’re doing de—pre-development constructing clearing. You’ve got to get a permit. And then we also alerted the Fish & Wildlife Service that this was going on. Perot’s people said oh, they were clearing for agricultural purposes, not for development and they brought some goats out there. So—so we talked about Mr. Perot as the—the billionaire goat herd of Travis County. So that didn’t fly too well.
So after we filed this intent to sue for emergency listing, they did actually publish an emergency listing within a couple lea—weeks for the golden-cheeked warbler and then later followed it up with the—the—the normal endangered listing.
DT: Well it—it’s interesting that you talk about this situation with the goat herder and—and the—some of your partners were with large national organizations like National Wildlife Federation and you’re, I guess bureaucratic, sometimes foe, sometimes partner at U. S. Fish & Wildlife, but—but it—it’s interesting to me that you also were working with Earth First and it was sort of on the ground doing direct action I guess. And could you talk about your involvement with Ve—Earth First over the years, including that case?
BB: Yeah, well I had first become aware of them in college in Boulder when Dave Foreman was doing his national, you know, Earth First Road Shows and rounding up and inspiring people to protect nature for its own sake. And that was sort of their biocentric worldview that, you know, nature has its own rights and its own value rather than protect it in some sort of utilitarian purpose, you know, for the benefit of humans. So there was a—there was an intellectual component but it was also this sort of, you know, rowdy, you know, have fun, you know, get out there and do it and, you know, don’t get tied up in court.
But later when I was in Austin, you know, we sort of combined the two. So you had some of the Earth First who I—Earth Firsters who I became very good friends with—dated one of the—the leaders—doing, you know, occupying caves, for example, that were being threatened with being bulldozed and there was a famous cave-in where a couple of the Earth Firsters camped out in a cave—actually Tooth Caves—that the owner, who was a developer and dentist, was threatening to—to fill that cavity.
And they actually blocked that threat from happening and, again, got the cave critters listed on a expedited basis, in order to protect those habitats and—and it’s protect—Tooth Cave is now in a—in a preserve that’s managed by the city today. So it was a ver—it was—it was fun to sort of combine the sort of, you know, using the—the legal tools that are there under the Endangered Species Act with the—the willingness of, you know, these college kids basically to, you know, go out and stomp around and see what’s going on and—and document what was—what was happening at the time.
DT: Well you’ve—you’ve talked some about legal actions, whether it was, you know, water treatment or uranium mining or landfills, reservoirs. I understand that—that, from—I guess this is the late ‘80s—’89-’90, you also were doing research and some of it was about the Resolution Trust Corporation and this effort to call back properties that were held from failed savings and loans. And I was hoping you could tell about that because that was such an active effort here in Austin.
BB: Yeah. Well so when—when we were sort of waking up to the idea that there were these incredible habitats that were important to these indigenous species that lived here and nowhere else in the world, it was right after the whole, you know, savings and loan deregulation by Reagan in the early ‘80s and the boom that that—that fueled by unleashing all this capital to be very speculatively invested in development. And then the bust.
And so all these financial institutions in Texas, across the country but especially in Texas, had gone under and the federal banking insurance agencies had taken over these failed banks and savings and loans and then—and—and their assets quite often. You know, they’d foreclose and now they owned all this property. And even though Texas is a private property state, at the time, the federal government owned vast—I mean, I can’t remember the percentage, but a huge part of Travis County was owned by essentially the federal government.
And so we started figuring out that this—this was an incredible opportunity—that if we could just get some of these assets out of the management of the bank insurance agencies, FDIC, and then the Resolution Trust Corporation that was set up specifically to deal with the savings and loan failed bank—sa—failed S&Ls and their assets and into state govern—state park land or local park land or even federal park land, that there was just an incredible opportunity there. And so we got some funding through the Texas Center for Policy Studies to really work on this idea of, you know, let’s grab some of these bank assets and get them into conservation.
A lot of them should have never been targeted for development in the first place. It was—there’s a lot of bank fraud. They were just—they were fake developments really—some of them. And then others were just so ridiculously speculative that, you know, they were never going to survive anyway. Or w—you know, they might build out thirty years later but the—they were being financed as if they would build out, you know, in two or three years. So we—we had this first idea of anywhere in the country to—this idea of sort of debt for nature swap on a domestic level.
There had earlier been iteration where some developing countries had gotten into big financial straits with the World Bank and the other inter—multilateral development banks. And they were trying to say okay, we’ll write down your debt if you’ll, you know, preserve big swaths of rain forest. It’s like well if—if that concept works, you know, in—in the—in the Amazon, you know, why not right here in the United States.
And so we actually managed to get a little bit of legislation through and adopted by congress that gave conservation buyers the first shot at acquiring assets that were more than fifty acres, that had conservation value, that were being held by either FDIC or a Resolution Trust Corporation or were being overseen by a trustee of one of the failed institutions that they were managing. And so a lot of land got protected here and nationally through that—that program but it was just—it—it was a tiny fraction of what it should have been.
It wasn’t a—a complete bust and it was actually meaningful but it could have been, you know, order of magnitude more land protected had it been taken seriously. But the—the—the bankers, the financiers who controlled those agencies and those processes—they weren’t interested in seeing those assets go into conservation. They wanted to flip them back out into the development market. And—and a lot of the people, the federal government hired to manage those failed assets were the exact same people, you know, that caused the problem in the first place.
And so they—they—they real—it was a sort of a big revolving door thing where okay, we—we tried it once, it failed. We dumped the debt on the taxpayers but when—then we sell the off cheap to the same people that, you know, took the money and ran the first time and then start the development back up again. And we—some of those failed at—properties are still being developed now today and, you know, it’s what thirty years later.
But we got a bunch of them saved. So vast preserve land in Barton Creek Watershed were failed bank assets that went into the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Preserve System.
DT: This might be a good segue to talk about one of your other encounters with the development community and what I’m thinking of is the PUD back in I guess it’s the early ‘90s and the sort of uprising at City Council in June of—was that ’91?
DT: ’92, I’m sorry. And—and your role in—in—in leading that—that response and—and the, I guess the origins of the Save Our Springs Coalition and Alliance in the years to come. Could you sort of take us back to that time and—and how this group got started?
BB: Yes, so, you know, the—the boom and the bust had happened and vast lands that had been targeted for development along Barton Creek and along the, at that time, not—incomplete Southwest Parkway had gone back to the federal government through these failed development loan processes and this big multinational mining corporation, Freeport-McMoRan, based in New Orleans and led by a former UT football player, Jim Bob Moffett, had bought up the old Barton Creek development that former Governor John Connally and his partner, former
Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes had tried to develop actually two prop—well one property was a big Barton Creek development and they put together several others that they bought for dirt cheap, you know, pennies on the dollar from FDIC and—and RTC—five thousand acres—and they repackaged it into a new development and then take it th—to the city to get that five thousand acre PUD, Planned Unit Development, approved. A lot of the land was going to be low density development, you know, single family, you know, high end homes, which there was some concern about that.
But a big chunk of it was going to be massive commercial development, three million square feet of commercial development so basically three Barton Square miles plus thousands and thousands of units of—of multi-family. So it was the biggest development pro—proposal that had ever come to the city and here it was right on the banks of Barton Creek. So once the word got out about it, people were concerned and all of the sort of active environmental groups came together to—to oppose it with Save Barton Creek Association and the Local group of the Sierra Club being sort of at the forefront.
And I—I jumped in, you know, just as a volunteer, at that point, to help sort of organize that opposition. It all came to head on June 7th of 1990. Actually we—we said ’92. That was the Save Our Springs Ordinance which followed from this. So it was actually June of—June 7, 1990 was an all-night hearing at the City Council meeting where hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to testify against this Barton Creek, five thousand acre, development. The Council ended up voting at like 6:30 the next morning, voting it down.
So it was a big—a big victory but it just started—the—the battle continued for years after that. But it was that galvanizing event that led to the formation of the Save Our Springs Coalition as a political entity because we saw pretty quickly that the city ordinances were not sufficient to protect Barton Creek and Barton Springs from these huge developments and we knew this was just going to be the first one of others and that we needed a much stronger ordinance to protect water quality, limit impervious cover and—and keep development at a—a much smaller footprint, in order to—to keep the water clean that flows to the springs.
DT: This might be a good chance to just talk a little bit about Barton Springs and what it means to Austin and to you, in particular.
BB: Well it’s the fourth largest spring in Texas. It’s—it’s a—a significant reason why they located the Capitol here because it provided a reliable source of water for both drinking water and for milling, you know, economic development, energy. And also, you know, it was a central location is what they were looking for for the Capitol. But before we had the Highland Lakes and those dams built, Barton Springs was the reliable source of water because upstream the river would go dry or barely—very nearly dry.
And so they built the—the—the original Austin on the north bank of the river but right where the spring flows—entered the river and pushed across to that north bank where the city could build its first water treatment plants there. So the city’s here, quite literally, because of Barton Springs. You can say the same thing for San Marcos and San Marcos Springs, New Braunfels, New Braunfel—Comal Springs. San Antonio was located at the—the—the Great Springs of—of the San Antonio Springs and San Pedro Springs.
And all of these emerged from, you know, the Edwards Aquifer. So that underground river, the Edwards Aquifer, is the life source for the whole region and is why we’re here literally—sitting here today because of Barton Springs. It’s underground so while people have some awareness of it, it’s still very hard for people to visualize, you know, where it is or how it works or, you know, what the threats are. So that’s a challenge.
But, for me also, I bought this house because it’s close to the Springs because I wanted to go swimming every day or as—as often as I could and it’s just, you know, it’s spectacularly beautiful. It brings nature into the heart of our city. The snorkeling’s spectacular in the springs and then in the creek downstream of the springs. So and I’ve made it my life’s work to—to try to protect the springs.
DT: You talked a little bit about the—the uprising and—and the—the vote against the PUD and—and then you’ve—your discovery that the ordinances that were on the books were really not adequate. And—and so there was a effort with SOS to try to prepare ordinances that would be effective in protecting Barton Springs and the whole creek and watershed. Can you talk about that effort to both draft—get them passed and then get them defended?
BB: Yes. So—so after the big all-night PUD uprising, you know, what came out of that was ag—agreement that the—the ordinance on the books, which was the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance, which we discovered was sort of the comprehensive loophole ordinance—that we needed a stronger ordinance. And the—so there was a process led by Mayor Bruce Todd to write a stronger ordinance in—in a sort of collaborative process that went for about a year after that.
But after nine months or so, we sort of figured out that, you know, they’re not going to have the political fortitude to actually do what needs to be done because the developers just had too much influence with counsel and—and staff. So we came up with the idea that we could write our own ordinance under—and—and—and petition it onto the ballot under the—the City Charter. Texas does not have statewide initiative and referendum but the—the larger home rule cities, most of them have in their charter, initiative and referendum for ordinances and then the constitution allows for initiative and referendum on charter amendments. So we wrote our own ordinance.
We—we created the Save Our Springs Coalition. We wrote the Save Our Springs Ordinance with a lot of input from technical experts—Lauren Ross was our go-to expert but we got—we got a lot of help drafting it and then petitioned it onto the ballot. There was a huge campaign around it in—leading up to the vote in August of ’92.
And it was sort of a seminal moment in that the Chamber of Commerce spent enormous sums of money fighting it saying that it was going to chase away jobs and industry by being too restrictive and that if we were going to—you know, we were basically, you know, telling companies to go somewhere else, that we didn’t want them here, you know, that it was no growth and they would destroy our economy. And our argument in favor was the opposite is that no, people want to live here.
And our economy, long term, depends upon us protecting the—Barton Springs and that this is actually the very best thing we can do for economic—a sustainable and healthy economic development. And the voters agreed with us. The vote was about 64 percent in favor. It was almost 2 to 1 in favor of Save Our Springs Ordinance. And then, after that, sort of the—the chamber adopted the argument and—and embraced the idea that okay, protecting the environment is good for the economy. That’s how we can market Austin.
Unfortunately, they just adopted it, in my view, more as a marketing message rather than, you know, a real value to be upheld. There were subsequently legal attacks on the validity of the ordinance and it was initially stricken down at the district court level but then that was reversed at the Court of Appeals and then the Texas Supreme Court eventually ruled that it was a valid municipal ordinance. And it’s still on the books today. So all that was great.
But, on the downside, the developers then went to the state legislature to win passage of a grandfathering ordinance that took a whole lot of development back to pre-SOS standards. They initially passed it in the legislative session of ’93 but Governor Ann Richards vetoed that legislation but then she was defeated by George Bush and they brought it back the next session—essentially the same bill and passed it and then Bush signed that. So all of Texas now has this very draconian grandfathering statute whereby developments and other economic development projects are able to go forward under week standards from the ‘80s or even the ‘70s.
And we still see grandfathered projects coming through in Austin today.
DT: And I think I understand that—that some of these grandfather projects were sort of cocktail napkin scale plans.
BB: Yeah, some of them were sketched out, you know, very rudimentary and—and filed right before the election and—and the developers did manage to delay. The vote was supposed to be in May of ’92 but the council re—r—r—refused to abstain and refused to call the election. We sued to force it onto the May ballot but it—they managed to delay it to August. And in that three-month window, you know, thousands of acres of development were—people filed stuff.
But the other thing that happened is the grandfathering legislation was so draconian that they—a lot of them were able to go back to these completely bankrupt filings that had been, you know, filed with the city in the early ‘80s and then literally gone bankrupt and, you know, and were moribund. But while they didn’t have to pay their debts on the land, they could still claim the rights under those filings from, you know, the S&L deregulation era.
DT: From what I’ve heard, there—there is a sort of commonality between protecting the—the vireo and the warbler and the—the cave critters and the salamanders and protecting water quality. So and that—that the—the overlap is—is then trying to preserve intact habitat. Is that—is that so and—and if that’s true, what sort of strategies did you take and to try to protect land in other ways besides going to court?
BB: Well so—so, you know, this is Texas. You know, we’re private property rights state and we don’t like regulation. And, unfortunately, you know, pre-Reagan, there was broad consensus, Republican/Democrat, that protecting the environment was a good thing. And that meant regulating development, regulating industry to not pollute our waters or destroy endangered species habitats. Reagan changed that entirely for the Republican Party, with the idea that all regulation was bad and was hostile to economic health.
And so now it’s—there’s sort of been this divide. So—and that idea of being hostile to environmental regulation is very much ingrained in Texas. That’s why the grandfathering legislation got passed overwhelmingly. So we realized that we couldn’t reg—we couldn’t, through regulation, protect the springs or protect these endangered species.
So there’s been a huge amount of advocacy since the ‘80s to re—get public dollars brought to the table to buy land to preserve it for—for wildlife habitats, but also to preserve it for watershed protection, preserving that natural—those natural processes the rain falling on the land, m—m—going into the aquifer clean, and coming out at the springs. So we just, you know, last week voted another 72 million dollars—the voters of Austin—to buy more watershed preserve lands in the Barton Springs Watershed, so that it would never be developed and will be permanently preserved to help us protect the water quality.
So it’s—it’s regulation and then the sort of permanent protection by either buying land outright or buying conservation easements that, you know, restrict development of the land.
DT: And this—this money that you mentioned, the—the 70 odd million dollars, that’s municipal bond money from the City of Austin? Is that correct?
BB: Yes, yes. The first one the city did was in ’98 under Mayor Watson that was specifically for buying land for water quality protection and not for parks but—but for protecting water quality. And that was a 65 million dollar bond. And then we did a couple of smaller ones between now and then and then we just did this additional 72 million dollars. So we’re at about 250 million dollars the voters have spent preserving Barton Springs Watershed land, which sounds like a lot but my understanding of the price tag for the—for the 290 and I35 Interchange—a single highway interchange—is double that—500 million.
So, you know, where—where are our values really today? Had we spent more and preserved a lot more land, we would not have been needing to expand South MoPac or expand 290 out to Dripping Springs. It is literally much cheaper to save Barton Springs than to pave the springs watershed. We haven’t quite gotten that message out there yet but we’ve at least made some—some significant progress.
DT: And I—I think that you’ve been really deeply involved in trying to block the extension of—of roadways such as state Highway 45 into the Barton Watershed. And can you give us a kind of, you know, 101 lesson in why you were involved in that, why that’s important to protect the watershed?
BB: Well, you know, development follows the infrastructure. And since this is Texas, counties don’t have zoning powers. Cities have very limited land use control powers, in part, because this grandfathering notion that we talked about. And so the way you can sort of manage and steer development in the areas where you want it to go and away from areas where you don’t want it to go, is by where we put our—our public dollars for roads, water, and sewer infrastructure because those are the essentials for development.
And so we’ve focused a huge amount of effort in trying to steer where those public investments of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars go because the highway dollars are mostly controlled by TexDOT. We haven’t had that much luck on just, you know, influencing the decision up front. So we have had some litigation under the National Environmental Policy Act, challenging their failure to look honestly at alternatives and have a fair alternatives analysis of—of these projects.
The courts—the federal courts in Texas and the Fifth Circuit have been incredibly hostile to environmental plaintiffs. So we’ve lost those cases. What we have done is manage to get higher levels of mitigation measures in—engineered into those highway projects, toll road projects, some of them now. So there’s been some benefit. And then we’ve—we’ve slowed down the—the massive expansion of MoPac that would go over Ladybird Lake and it stretched down to Slaughter Lane. So that—that was their rushing forward on that and that’s been put on hold.
And so we’re getting some traction there to try to scale that down to something that’s not quite so painful. But pollution runoff from highways is incredibly nasty so that’s a concern directly but it’s more the concern of the development that these highway projects spawn by providing, you know, opening up more land further out into the watershed for urban and suburban development.
DT: I think you—you—you mentioned this one kind of infrastructure—roads and streets—and the extension into the watershed but I think you’ve also been involved in—in—and you mentioned—trying to limit the extension of other kinds of infrastructure like water treatment and wastewater treatment and I was hoping you could talk about water treatment plant #4, which you were pretty deeply involved in.
BB: Yeah, that was—that was a huge fi—fight. So the city has had two water treatment plants at the time. They had—and one of the biggest errors of the city in his—in the city’s history, in my view, had shut down their original green water treatment plant on Ladybird Lake right downtown so they could be redeveloped for private development. They had an incredible opportunity to—to embrace a—a new technology that could have shrunk the footprint to 25 percent of the—the previous footprint and redevelop the other 75 percent and utilized all those pi—you know, the intake pipes, the distribution pipes, and all that infrastructure was in place.
And people—most cities never shut down water treatment plants for that very reason—you—your distribution system’s in place, you—you up—you—you rehab it forever. Same with sewer plants. You never actually shut them down. You just, you know, you—you repair them as needed. And—but we did this very stupid thing and shut down the green. At the time, they were going to build a new one in East Austin, where our development would go but then the politics pushed us—pushed to instead build this plant out on Lake Travis Northwest with the idea that we needed additional treatment capacity.
We did—we had solved our treatment capacity problem for almost free by going to a two-day per week watering schedule where your address number is assigned the day that you can water. So it leveled out the demand whereas before, what you would have is you’d have these huge spikes—peak demand—when everybody’s watering their lawn on Saturday and Sunday morning, you know, in August. And so the city was still thinking that we needed to accommodate these incredibly high peak demand days by building a half a billion dollar, you know, five hundred million dollar water treatment plant to accommodate these peak demands as a problem, again.
We had already shaved those peaks. We will never get to the peak—I don’t think we’ll ever as a city get to the peak daily demands that we had in the early ‘90s before we instituted the watering schedule and leveled out, you know, the water usage across all seven days of the week. And then and when we get in drought conditions, you’re cut back to, you know, one day a week. Actually I think maybe—I don’t even remember—maybe we’re at—at one day a week right now full-time. I don’t water my lawn so I’ve forgotten.
But it was—we fought the plant on just straight up economic turns, you know, phenomenal waste of money, don’t need it, we’ll take money away from investing in water efficiency investments, and—and really pushing us to keep our water level even—level—even as population grows, which we—we’ve done as a city, as a state. You know, our population’s booming but we’re using essentially the same amount of water we were using 20 years ago.
And we can keep—we can keep that pace going, keep it—that flat demand with just a little bit of attention. And spending money on a giant treatment plant was instead, you know, maintaining this mindset that we meet future water needs that are going to be higher than today by expanding capacity of treatment, expanding access to water supplies.
DT: So, Bill, we talked about your work on water treatment plant #4 and just this whole issue of infrastructure and drinking water supplies. And I—I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about this—or flip side of it in the—the effort to try to upgrade wastewater treatment standards and—and, you know, whether it’s point source discharges or land application or septic tanks or drain fields, I mean, you’ve worked on every one of those. And—and I was hoping you could give us some examples of those.
BB: Well the, you know, the big effort with the Save Our Springs Ordinance, the focus of the ordinance, and a lot of our work has been on the non-point source pollution threat. So that’s all the nasty stuff that runs of—off of our streets and parking lots and lawn and golf course landscaped areas and the chemicals and pollutants that go with that. That’s been a big part of our effort. But the other one is wastewater.
The City of Austin had adopted a policy to help protect the springs of not extending water or sewer service into the Barton Springs Watershed and trying to focus those investments on our preferred growth areas along the Interstate 35 corridor. But, unfortunately, the Lower Colorado River Authority and others stepped in to deliver some of those—that water and sewer infrastructure to facilitate development outside the city. So Bee Caves and then out 290 to Dripping Springs.
So they’re delivering the water from Lake Austin primarily and then the sewer service, until recently, has been with treatment plants that—that treat the wastewater and then irrigate it on land, either fields or golf courses where, if it’s done right, the plants and soils assimilate the remaining pollutants and it doesn’t get into—to our streams. And this is what the original Clean Water Act that congress had in mind, from 1972, is to eliminate discharges, that we manage our wastewater in a way that we’re not discharging pollutants into our streams, our rivers, our lakes, and reservoirs.
Those plants have caused a lot of pollution because they’re not operated properly or managed properly. They irrigate when the soils are saturated and they should be st—just storing it and waiting until the—the soils can ab—absorb it again. Pipes break and it’s—they stay broken. The irrigation is not done evenly over the irrigation areas. It gets concentrated and so instead of being a no discharge operation, it’s basically indirect discharge.
So there’s very good science now from the U. S. Geological Survey and City of Austin Research that those plants serving developments out 290 in the Bee Cave area primarily, are delivering nutrients into the streams that’s then recharging into the aquifer and coming out at Barton Springs. And what that basically is is fertilizer and fertilizer in the water does, like it does on the land, it stimulates plant growth. And so we get this nuisance algae blooms and then that can lead to lower dissolved oxygen.
But, on the whole, it’s far preferable to do that sort of irrigation, no discharge approach than to just treat it and dump it directly into the streams. And, for years, nobody even tried to do that because it was understood that would violate Clean Water Act standards, that you simply cannot dump sewage into these crystal clear Hill County streams without just messing them up, degrading the water quality.
But there’s been such a push of deregulation at the state and federal level that now some development interests, including the City Council at Dripping Springs, feel like well it might violate Clean Water Act standards but the state’s not going to—they’ll—they’ll give us a permit anyway. And so now there’s a push to—do disch—to go for permits that allow direct discharge into the streams that feed Barton Springs and the other Edwards Springs. So it’s—it’s—it’s a—it’s a huge battle now over how we—we manage wastewater that is generated by the development that—that takes place in the watershed.
So we’re fighting those permits through the legal, administrative hearing process with our staff lawyers at—at Save Our Springs, and then if—if we have to—to go to the courthouse, we’ll do that as well.
DT: I think a number of years ago, you—you had worked on some of these wastewater discharge issues outside of Austin. I think that you’d worked in San Marcos, in the City of Castroville, and maybe you can talk about some of those efforts.
BB: So in the—the San Marcos case, the city’s discharging into the river but downstream of the springs and downstream of the aquifer but it’s still a spectacular stretch of river, you know, going—going southeast towards the coast. And so they were expanding their plant. And we wanted to force them to upgrade the treatment standards. And so I represented the San Marcos River Foundation in a—a permitting process, an administrative, legal process.
And we were successful in forcing the city to put on phosphorous removal that would help, you know, limit the algae growth that would be generated by this discharge and—and do—and some other protective measures as well. It had a tremendous effect on the river. The river was—has been much cleaner below that discharge than it had been before that time. Now that was right around 2000. Since then, the technology’s gotten even better. And that’s another big part of the overall battle is—is forcing both the older plants and new plants to use the currently available best technology.
There’s tremendous resistance against it because it does cost a little bit more but it’s not that much more. At Castroville, there they were—had a permit where they were irrigating an agreement with the farmer—they were using the treated wastewater to irrigate hay pastures and they wanted to switch towards discharging it into the Medina River. And, again, I worked with the—the—no, actually that was the Texas Rivers Protection Association where we fought that and ultimately negotiated a settlement with the city so that they would continue the irrigation process and not discharge into the river.
DT: Well this work you’ve done in San Marcos and Castroville sort of remind me of how you’ve become sort of holistic about this, where, you know, you started working a lot in the Austin and Barton Springs Aquifer Zone but—but you’ve—you’ve helped build this Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance to try to bring together a lot of communities that face very similar things that are happening here in Barton but up and down the Edwards Plateau. And I—I was hoping that you could talk about the Alliance and—and some of the efforts to try to make this a kind of regional environmental effort.
BB: Yeah. So the—so the initial focus of Save Our Springs Alliance, which we incorporated after the ordinance was approved by the voters in ’92, to help defend the ordinance because we knew we couldn’t rely on the city to defend the ordinance that we had to force upon them in the first place. We—within a couple of years, we sort of expanded our scope of work to the—the larger Edwards Aquifer Region, you know, which is the—essentially the Hill Country Region. And we’re even doing work, you know, east of and downstream of—of the aquifer as well as the—our own group, but we also realized we weren’t the best voice for these other communities.
So we helped found the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, which is based in San Antonio and is doing very similar types of advogat—advocacy work there as well. And then we’ve been doing a lot of work in close partnership with the San Marcos River Foundation to get more land bought and preserved over the recharge zone on the west side of San Marcos.
And then just this last year, we helped sort of spin off or incorporate another regional group, the Great Springs Project, that will focus on land conservation with the idea that we will he—try to establish a national park scale conservation corridor that would go from Austin to San Antonio over the recharge zone and just preserver as much of that land as we possibly can from a regional perspective rather than just each community looking at it, you know, on their—their piece of it.
And then, along the way, several—lots of other local groups have sprung up to fill a void that, you know, we’re still a small nonprofit—we can’t do it all. So the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association was created with Jim Blackburn and others to fight some of these proposed pumping permits that threatened to drain spring flows at Jacobs Well and—and some of the other Trinity Springs that—that feed the Edwards.
The Hill Country Alliance was established to be kind of a voice also for the region and also more of a forum for bringing together both business and government and environmental groups to—to sort of think more holistically about protecting the whole region, not just water, but dark skies, you know, preserving some of the rural character of the Hill Country so that it—it’s not just one giant exurb and especially so that we don’t replicate the I35 corridor over on the 281 corridor, which there are definitely some development interests who would like to do that.
DT: You’ve also I think turned to education, in addition to litigation and trying to buy land. And I was hoping you could talk about some of the maps you’ve produced, the Barton Springs University, some of those efforts.
BB: We—we have. We haven’t done near enough of it. You know, one of my regrets is, you know, being a lawyer, I was drawn towards the law because that’s what I feel competent in. I wish I had spent more time on the sort of community education and organizing and community building processes but we are trying to catch up on that.
So about four years ago, we created this Barton Springs University Program to be sort of the brand for doing water education work, targeting primarily high school students but also the general public with the idea that folks should know enough about what are the water management challenges, what are the resources we have, why are they special, what—how are they threatened, both by over-consumption and by pollution and how they can be a citizen and—and steward of—of our area’s watersheds.
So with Barton Springs University, the last couple years we’ve produced one big day event at the springs. We’ve had about 900 high school students attend, most of them with their environmental science teachers, you know, on a field trip for a whole day of outdoor learning at the springs with teaching sessions and—and hands-on experiential learning led by, you know, academics, government experts, and, you know, private sector, nonprofit experts. We’re expanding that into sort of a year round education program.
Along the way, we’ve produced a number of maps and back in 2007, I believe it was, we produced the—the Hidden Heart of Texas Edwards Aquifer map that actually Sarah Mitchell made the map, but it’s a fantastic guide—I’ll brag on it—and it’s still really the best map out there of the whole Edwards Aquifer region in—in my view.
And highlighting some of the other critical resources, not just the water, but the endangered species, the—the caves that are available—some of them are tourism show caves, but also the other sort of under, you know, smaller caves that we need to protect as both conduits for infiltrating the water and delivering the water, but as the sort of unique underground ecosystems in their own right.
DT: I think one thing that—that you’ve been involved with for a good while is—is not just the—maybe the symptoms of environmental harm, you know, of water pollution or over-development of land, but the process and—and open government, open meetings processes, you know, zoning—CodeNEXT. Could you maybe touch on some of those efforts that you’ve been en—engaged with?
BB: Well a whole lot of being able to advocate for environmental protection is having access to information and, in particular, you know, government documents where, you know, whether it be at local, state, or federal level, where entities that need permits or government approvals or filing their information and trying to make their case as to why, you know, their project that—that may threaten the environment needs to be approved. So we have gotten very aggressive about collecting that information under the Federal Freedom of Information Act and the state version of that the Texas Public Information Act.
And we regularly get stonewalled. And so, you know, if we have to, we sue to try to get that information because otherwise, you know, you—you can’t—you can’t be an effective advocate. As a nonprofit charitable organization, Save Our Springs Alliance, cannot get involved in candidate politics But, as an individual and separate from my work, I have been a citizen activist trying to help elect good people to—to make good decisions as—as any citizen should as well.
And then there’ve been particular battles over using this initiative and referendum process like we used for Save Our Springs to advance measures that the elected officials, you know, just won’t do. You know, there’s—there’s too much influence of money and politics, in my view. And that’s not just in Washington or just at the state level. It’s at the local level too. And so we’ve been involved in various initiative processes.
Ju—just lost one last week on the CodeNEXT issue which was around the city’s move to completely rewrite its land development code in a way that is supposed to implement our comprehensive plan, but the direction it was going in in—in our view, was—was not consistent with the—the—the comprehensive plan. It was trying to increase density, which is generally more efficient patterns of growth.
But it was especially trying to force that increased density on the central city while, at the same time, allowing development in the suburbanizing, you know, green field areas on the perimeter to continue building just standard issue sprawl subdivisions rather than have that new development be in this more sort of compact and connected is the term or, you know, more walkable communities where development is clustered and is sort of the old—old of—where cities were built before we were a hundred percent dependent on the automobile.
That’s going to be—continue to be—be a battle that—that we’ll be involved in as the organization. At the state level, you know, the—it’s just gotten worse and worse. The Republican Party has continued its ho—hostility towards environmental protection. It shouldn’t be a bipartisan—or a, you know, party—one party versus another issue but, again, since Reagan, it largely has been with the democrats not necessarily being really strong on the environment but not committed to dismantling the environmental protection laws that we do have on the books at—at the federal and state level.
So hopefully we’re starting to see that change with—with the selection from last week.
DT: You—you—you’ve I think struggled with the—the development pressures in Austin and really throughout the Hill Country. And I was wondering if you could talk about what population growth, in general, means for Austin I think and—and the—the changing of the community. I mean you’ve said that—that as more people move in here it becomes more expensive to live here. And so a lot of the old conservation community either ages out or moves on because it’s, you know, they—they’ve just gotten to old, they’ve moved to an old age home or they’ve moved out of town, whatever. And you get new people coming in who maybe aren’t aware of some of the—the conditions and the concerns of—of Austin and a lot of these towns in—in this area. Could you kind of touch on that?
BB: So yeah, that—that growth has—is just relentless and incredibly challenging. And, you know, our Chamber of Commerce and our city continues to market Austin as this, you know, great, green light on the hill and that, you know, we’re sustainable and we protect everything and it’s a good reason to move here. So a lot of the mo—newcomers are very sympathetic to environmental protection and sort of think of themselves as being, you know, environmentalists. But they’re not taking the next step and getting educated about the local resources.
A lot of people moving here today are coming for a very big paycheck and that’s the primary draw that—that Austin is a green city, has great live music, great Tex Mex, you know. That’s—that’s a plus but he draw is a big paycheck and that’s completely different from seventies, eighties, nineties, when people realized I want to be in Austin. I’m willing to take a pay cut and earn less than I could make, you know, in Dallas or Denver or Houston because this is the type of community I want to live in where we have places like Barton Springs or—we have Barton Springs.
We have live music. We have people who value, you know, culture and community over maximizing, you know, the paycheck. And so it’s a tremendous challenge now. In this bond election, the—the—the 72 million dollars that was in a larger 184 million dollar proposition that included flood mitigation, water quality land, and open space protection—it passed higher than all the other measures. It was 84 percent. So the newcomers share the sentiment but they don’t share the understanding of what’s going on.
And so there’s not the accountability that we had at one—at one time with day-to-day decision making by our council and our staff and then also similarly at the county level. So it’s—we haven’t kept up. We haven’t found a way to have those newcomers be educated and be engaged citizens. And even if they think of being a—in Austin for just a short period of time, that they still act like it’s their home and that they have a right to vote and they have—they’re—they’re invested enough that—that they need to—they need to help us protect what’s important about Austin rather than just come and earn the paycheck and eat at expensive restaurants until they get a better offer, you know, somewhere else.
DT: Well and you talked about people who’ve come here recently and you’re different. You’ve been here for over a quarter of a century now and—and I—I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about resilience because you have been committed to a place that’s important to a lot of us, but you really stake your career on it. And—and it hasn’t been easy and then SOS went bankrupt at one point and you’ve pulled it back and put it back together again. I was just hoping you could talk about what it takes to continue on.
BB: [laughing] How stupid could I be? Is that the question?
DT: No, how—how—how brave and patient—yeah?
BB: I’m just—yeah, I’m just kidding.
DT: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Burnout happens but I’ve learned to manage it much better. I have a beautiful nine year old daughter. So I—I balance my work with family life and that’s—that’s also focused my attention more. So I’m a lot more effective and efficient when I am working. I al—remind myself of a saying from Robert McCurdy, who had the Clear Clean Colorado River Association many years ago and is still a—a big patron of the—the Nature Conservancy here in Texas. And he—he taught me the idea that, you know, let heartbreak be your rocket fuel.
That setbacks, you know, have to push you forward and—because sometimes it is hard. But we’re making a difference, not as much as we should be but we’re making a huge difference and so we keep doing it. And I feel incredibly lucky to be doing it. I also feel like the best work for the environment does come from people who are rooted in a particular place and that, you know, we need the big national groups to be advancing policy, you know, in congress, at the state houses.
But without the small groups that are really paying attention to, you know, their own neighborhood, their own watershed, their own creek, those big groups, you know, would—would not be effective at all because you can pass all the laws in the world or the policies but if it’s not really being implemented, you know, acre by acre, then, you know, it—it’s kind of—it’s—it’s—it’s a—it’s a mirage. It’s—it’s not real. So, you know, I made myself stake here and I’m staying here at least for the foreseeable future.
DT: Well you—talking about this sort of rootedness, is—is there a—a favorite place that you enjoy going to—or maybe multiple places—that just give you solace and comfort and just remind you of why you work on these things?
BB: Well, I mean, Barton Springs, of course, is at the top of that list. I mean, I bought this house in the mid-90s in large part because it was, you know, we’re eight blocks from the springs, nine blocks, something like that. I actually got a city map and cut a string and stuck a pin in Barton Springs and drew a one-mile radius circle to—to identify, you know, where I would look for a place to live. And—and I—I’m glad I did and held onto this place because I—I couldn’t afford to buy a house in this neighborhood today.
But Barton Springs is at the top of that list, the creek—the Green Belt is spectacular and we’re so blessed to have that and then San Marcos Springs and the San Marcos River. Floating the San Marcos River in mask and snorkel is just, you know, it’s magical. And I do that as often as I can and I—my daughter loves it as much as I do so, you know, we do it. And she learned to snorkel before she could learn to swim. So—because you don’t have to lift your head up and breathe.
You know, you can—you can stay flat and the breathing part is the hardest part of learning to swim. So literally she was a very good snorkeler before she was a good swimmer.
DT: Well speaking of—of Basia and—and, you know, young people, in general, is there some kind of a—a message that you would want to convey to younger people about why this is important, why it’s valuable—the—the things that you’ve been doing—and how they can find some access to be engaged themselves?
BB: Well I think that with the threat of climate change being sort of overarching existential crisis for us as a species, folks are—are more focused on the idea of dedicating themselves to meaningful environmental protection efforts and that addressing climate change includes at home, you know, and local because we’re not getting the leadership we need in Washington where, you know, the environment has gotten a tiny fraction of the charitable dollars that are out there. They mostly go to, you know, academic institutions, hospitals, those big institutions—religion, you know, churches. I think we’re seeing a shift in that.
There’s tremendous opportunity to pursue careers I believe right now in conservation. These are as a scientist or an advocate or educator. Environmental education is being integrated into corporate behavior, corporate accountability, the private sector, and to lots of other areas where, you know, folks are realizing that, you know, they’re—as a Old Earth First sign on the—the abutment below, in the creek below MoPac, there’s no jobs on a dead planet. So I think it’s incredibly rewarding for people who want to do environmental work in—in some form or fashion.
It’s definitely try to mentor interns and young lawyers and young environmental study students at SOS and—and outside SOS as well. And to encourage folks to, yeah, you need to make a living but you don’t have to pursue the big bucks to have a rewarding, you know, life and meaningful life.
DT: One last question occurs to me and sort of based on what you said in a note a few days ago, you know, your story today is one way of getting a message out but you also work with local newspapers and radio stations and TV stations and I—I think that you had said that you have a concern about fake media and this sort of media vacuum that—that you think has—has become a problem. And I was hoping you could kind of elaborate on that.
BB: Yes. There’s—I mean, so much fragmentation of news and then, you know, with internet and social media and so much fake news but also just distraction with every kind of distraction imaginable that’s out there.
But we’ve seen a real diminishment in our local media educating people about Austin issues, environmental issues, social and economic justice issues, public health issues, that a number of us have seen that there’s a real void there in that we need some sort of online or other news source that—that serves the function that the Austin Chronicle used to serve where when they had, you know, a real focus on local affairs and then recr—including local environmental issues, which they don’t have any longer and then with the Statesman just being bought out by a new, you know, big corporation that’s laying off people and downscaling their local news coverage.
So a lot of—in a lot of cities now, you see online a news that are in a nonprofit mode that are coming together to fill that void. So I’m—I’m working with a number of other folks to try to see if we might launch a—a—a community news outlet that would not just do environmental issues but other issues and wouldn’t just be a news service but would be a place where you could have online discussion that wasn’t just, you know, throwing bombs but was, you know, moderated in a way that would—would be sort of productive dialogue.
And I just—just seeing what has happened this last election where there was so much misinformation, not just, you know, in the federal races but, you know, in the local—local issues. I just think that Austin’s in big trouble if there’s not something done to provide a real source of local information and local community dialogue where—we won’t survive as a community without it. I don’t know if we can be successful trying to do that but—but we’re going to give it a try.
DT: I—I don’t have anymore questions myself but I was hoping that you might have something to add or any other thoughts?
BB: Well the one thing that—that I have really been trying to think about and struggle with and—and it’s a theme that’s sort of central in—in Laura Dunn’s mov—documentary The Unforeseen, is the idea of growth in that we’re often attacked as no growthers but the—the arguments we’ve made almost always were, you know, protecting the environment is good for economic development, good for growth, in that they’re compatible. But now I think with climate change and with resource depletion globally, you know, I wo—you know, there’s a lot of science coming out saying, you know, we can’t keep growing.
You can’t grow forever and that there’s got to be a way to come up with a way to have healthy economics so people have a living but we’re not consuming our natural resources, destroying our natural resources, destroying out atmosphere in how we live. And that—that these really tough issues, growth being one of them, is something we need to talk about, you know, other than just you’re for it or you’re against it because we have to find a way where we—we grow in ways that aren’t physical destruction of our resources.
And that’s starts right here but it’s, you know, we’re a global city now and so, you know, if we’re going to be an environmental leader, we—we have to think about these things and—and figure out a way to—to try to move our city to a—a way that’s truly, not just sustainable growth, but sustainable survival and—but—but not stagnant—that we’re growing and, you know, in arts and healthy living but not in—in consumption of land and water and resources.
DT: Sort of redefining how growth and progress?
BB: Yeah, yeah, and—and—and I think people are—people are questioning that this whole sort of, you know, ultra-capitalist, you know, more and faster growth is already better. People get it that there’s something wrong there. But we don’t know what the alternative is. And there’s—there’s not a clear path that takes us to something different. And so there’s—there’s fear. I don’t know what the answer is but I th—that—that issue is out there right now and—and I think a lot of folks are—are realizing that, you know, we’ve got to figure out how to—how to talk about it, how to think about it.
DW: [inaudible] thought about that because we interviewed quarter of a century ago, [inaudible] I both David Brower and Paul Ehrlich [inaudible] in two days.
BB: Wow, interesting. Those guys are amazing.
DW: And well here’s the discussion they were having in 1998. So the discussion I’ve just heard from you has to do with an adaptation that—in other words, growth is somehow inevitable but either the framework changes or the adaptation or the definition but understandably, both Brower and Ehrlich said the same thing…someone needs to have a sit-down with the Pope, that population, at that time, before even climate change was acknowledged—was considered by then and even Theo Colborn—we saw her like the week later but a number one issue. It wasn’t about how we adapt to it or mold an economic thing. It was the too many people, in general. And I ‘m wondering how the environmental movement has changed? That was seen—population was seen directly as the number one environmental problem by these leaders [inaudible] movement. Is it now we don’t talk about that, we don’t use that kind of language, because it seems that that’s not the discussion that those same people were having a quarter of a century ago? Wh—do we dance around that as an issue in the environmental movement? I—I’m not sure. I just wonder if you’ve had this experience? And you can address David as the—?
BB: Yeah, I—I would say, you know, there’s some people that focus more on population growth as being a challenge. And others are saying, you know, that there—there is a fear there of wading into, you know, cultural issues there of—of telling people they can’t have children or they can only have one or two. We haven’t wanted to do that as a society. And focusing on well, okay, consumption growth. Personally I think it ha—you know, we have to talk honestly about both of them. But, I mean I th—the last I heard the—the figures are, you know, a child being born in the United States will consume something like thirty times the natural resources of a child being born, you know, in Mexico or a lot of countries in Africa.
So, you know, I don’t know too many African families or Catholic families in Latin America who are having thirty children. So, you know, it’s—it’s—there’s—there’s a challenge on both fronts, population and consumption. In my view, you know, there are too many people on the planet and, you know, already and it keeps going up and, you know, it’s starting to level off, which is a good thing. But, again, these—these issues were talked about 25 or 30 years ago but not by many.
And if you see in the mainstream media and the—the mainstream environmental groups, you know, are still not addressing, you know, can we really tackle climate change without tackling, you know, growth consumption, driven by, you know, our—our capitalist model of—of—of our society. So I don’t know if that fully answers it. I—I know it doesn’t fully answer the question but—
DT: That there may be these sacred cows or third rails or whatever the metaphor is that you just can’t discuss those although they’re at the root of a lot of the other symptoms, yeah.
BB: Well and—and on the political side—so, for years, and—and still there, you know, the third rail things you can’t talk about—the three G’s, you know—God, guns, and gays. Well add growth to that. I mean, the issues that we need to talk about and where I th—personally think, you know, people who are caring and loving, you know, want to figure out these issues together, you know, whether they identify themselves as conservative or liberal or libertarian or whatever, but, you know, hiding from the tough issues doesn’t—doesn’t get them resolved on either a personal level or, you know, as a society or, you know, as a—a global—as a species that’s, you know, dictating the future of the whole planet at this point.
DT: Well tha—thanks for engaging in a [overlapping conversation] tough issues. No, it’s just—this is important and thank you so much for taking this on and—and sharing with us how—how you, you know, confront these things. So thank you very much. Appreciate your time.
[End of Interview with Bill Bunch – November 10, 2018]
INTERVIEWEE: Bill Bunch
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: November 10, 2023
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
SOURCE MEDIA: M4A, MP3 audio files
TRANSCRIPTION: Trint, David Todd
FILE: BartonSpringsSalamander Bunch Bill AustinTX 10November2023 Reel4180.mp3
David Todd [00:00:02] Okay. Good afternoon. I’m David Todd.
Bill Bunch [00:00:06] Hi.
David Todd [00:00:07] And we are with Bill Bunch, and I wanted to thank him, first of all, for giving us some of his time today to share some of his thoughts and memories.
David Todd [00:00:17] With his permission, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of a non-profit group, the Conservation and History Association of Texas, and for a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press, and finally, for an archive at the Briscoe Center for American History, which is at the University of Texas at Austin.
David Todd [00:00:37] I want to emphasize that he would have all rights to use the recording, as he sees fit.
David Todd [00:00:43] I want to make sure that’s okay with Mr. Bunch. What do you think?
Bill Bunch [00:00:46] Yes, indeed.
David Todd [00:00:47] Okay. Well, great. Thank you again. Let’s get started.
David Todd [00:00:51] Again, my name is David Todd. I’m representing the Conservation History Association in Texas, and I am based in Austin. We are conducting a remote interview with Bill Bunch, who is also based in Austin. It is Friday, November 10th, 2023. It’s about 2:25 in the afternoon, Central Time.
David Todd [00:01:12] By way of introduction, Bill Bunch is an environmental attorney as well as the founder and long-time executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. In addition, he has worked as counsel for Sierra Club, Hill Country Foundation, Travis Audubon Society, Texas Rivers Protection Association, Texas Center for Policy Studies, San Marcos Foundation and other conservation non-profits. He’s also been a leader at other non-profits, including the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.
David Todd [00:01:42] As part of his effort to protect the Hill Country and Texas springs, in particular Barton Springs, he has been heavily involved in ensuring the future of the Barton Springs salamander, which is going to be kind of the core of what we might be talking about today.
David Todd [00:01:56] So with that, again, thank you, Bill.
David Todd [00:02:00] And I would like to just start by asking you about your childhood and if there might have been some events or people who launched you on your interest in animals and law and conservation.
Bill Bunch [00:02:15] Well, I grew up in Arlington. I was born in San Antonio, grew up in Arlington. My older sister was a competitive swimmer, so I followed her into competitive swimming and did that through my, so starting when I was about eight years old through my first year in college. So, I was a water guy from way back. I loved swimming in pools with lane lines on the bottom, but also wild waters as well – creeks and rivers and gulfs and oceans.
Bill Bunch [00:02:54] And then I also had the good fortune to grow up next to a family that had some boys a little bit older than me. And their dad was a scoutmaster. And so, I went into scouting, following them. And just that got me out of suburbia of Arlington, Texas, and into the woods and paddling rivers and canoe trips and whatnot, and just really did connect with nature at a, you know, in my youth.
Bill Bunch [00:03:30] And this was the seventies when, you know, there was the big first phase, or maybe there was an earlier phase, but the first time when there was this widespread push to adopt a range of federal laws to protect our environment. You know, Earth Day was 1970. So, you know, I was ten years old at that point. And then you had Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, all being adopted roughly around that time when there was a broad consensus – Democrats, Republicans – everybody were conservationists and understood that we had to get a handle on the pollution and overdevelopment of some of our landscapes.
David Todd [00:04:28] Good. That’s great.
David Todd [00:04:31] Let’s talk about your schooling. Were there any teachers or coaches or classmates that might have also influenced you?
Bill Bunch [00:04:42] Well, certainly some of my friends in swimming. We would go to meets, but then we would try to sneak off and jump in a river or find a spring-fed swimming pool or someplace fun to swim that wasn’t just an Olympic-size 50-meter pool, a racing pool. Let’s see … a number of the kids I was in scouting with were very inspirational along those lines.
Bill Bunch [00:05:14] One of my swim coaches was into backpacking, and so when I was in junior high, I was invited to go with a few coaches and older swimmers on a trip to Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone and did some backpacking up there that was truly spectacular. I’d never really been outside of Texas to the big wilderness in other places. So that stuck with me as well.
Bill Bunch [00:05:52] And then, so this is, you’re talking right now about grade school, junior high, high school. What about college? And then, of course, you went to law school at Berkeley in California. Anybody there? Teachers, classmates, again, who might have said, “Bill, this is good stuff. You should you should spend more time and interest in it.”
Bill Bunch [00:06:17] Yeah, Well, so, I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder following a friend of mine who was a hard-core rock climber who was going there, and he suggested, “Well, maybe you should go too.” And I checked it out. I was like, “Wow, yes, I want to do this.”
Bill Bunch [00:06:35] I started out as an engineering major because I was pretty good at math and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And my father was an engineer. But, I went to the first day of classes in the engineering building, which was separate from the rest of the campus, and there were like all guys and virtually no girls.
Bill Bunch [00:07:00] I said, “No, I’m not doing this.”
Bill Bunch [00:07:03] So my first effort at, you know, fighting big government bureaucracy was, you know, my first three weeks of freshman at University of Colorado at Boulder, fighting the bureaucracy to completely drop my entire class schedule and add, you know, a whole new schedule as an environmental biology major.
Bill Bunch [00:07:30] And so, in that environmental biology program, I definitely had some very inspiring teachers. Alwen Williams was in her seventies. She was an ornithologist. You know, she had won her Ph.D., you know, before Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, and showed up for the first day of class, this sort of tiny, ancient woman with these sparkly eyes. And she had a museum specimen hawk, mounted, you know, clutching a limb with its wings out. And she’s petting this stuffed hawk while she’s telling the class, you know, why birds are, you know, the best animals to study.
Bill Bunch [00:08:31] And it just, it hit me hard. So, that definitely spurred my love for birds.
Bill Bunch [00:08:39] But a bunch of that class was going out birdwatching. You know, we’d get up early and meet and pile into vans and go out in the hinterlands around Boulder to birdwatch. So, that was a real inspiration.
Bill Bunch [00:08:56] And I think even in high school, I had already started thinking maybe I wanted to pursue something in the conservation field, and that was why I chose environmental biology as a major. And so, I was open to connecting with the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, you know, which is incredibly different than the North Texas Cross Timbers district that I grew up in.
David Todd [00:09:29] Well, so was that part of the experience at UC, the fact that that there were classrooms, for sure, but there was also this whole landscape of national parks and national forests that you could explore?
Bill Bunch [00:09:42] Yeah, absolutely – camping, hiking, rock climbing, skiing in the winter. I’d never skied before, but I started doing, you know, I learned my freshman year and enjoyed it while I was there. I don’t do much anymore, since I’m back in Texas.
David Todd [00:10:02] But, yeah, it was just it was wonderful and a whole lot of my, you know, fellow environmental biology students were all into it. At Colorado, they had the two biology departments – Molecular, Cellular and Developmental – and there were all the hard-core pre-med students. And then all the hippies who wanted to hike in the mountains were in the Environmental, Populational, and Organismic Biology department. And just really made fast friends with a fair number of those folks.
David Todd [00:10:40] It’s interesting how people get sorted up by their disciplines and their hope-for careers. Sounds like that was your experience.
Bill Bunch [00:10:49] Yeah. So then, you know, I was thinking I might go to law school and, you know, be a public-interest environmental advocate. That was, I never like made a solid decision to do it, but it was kind of in the back of my mind. So, I kept going that direction. And then when I finished, you know, my undergrad degree in Boulder, I applied to some law schools, and was accepted to go to law school in Berkeley, California, at University of California.
Bill Bunch [00:11:21] They had a strong environmental law program there. All the big environmental groups had offices in the Bay Area where I knew there might be some opportunities for internships and might make those connections. So, I went there for college. Ah, excuse me, for law school.
David Todd [00:11:47] And again, you know, were there people that, you know, you really glommed onto who were, you know, faculty members on campus or maybe administrators in some of these offices of conservation-minded NGOs in the Bay Area?
Bill Bunch [00:12:05] So yeah, I made some really great connections there. John Dwyer was my environmental law professor, and he was super open to engaging with the students who were interested in and along those lines and you know, we’d go out and drink a beer or see a movie or something, and that was super encouraging.
Bill Bunch [00:12:31] And then I was extra blessed when Joseph Sax, who’s sort of the godfather of environmental law, who was a law professor at the University of Michigan for many years after being sort of pioneering environmental law on behalf of the Sierra Club for a number of years. He came and was a visiting professor at Berkeley for a year, and then at Stanford. He was going to move to the Bay Area and he was trying each of those out.
Bill Bunch [00:13:03] So I had Joe Sachs for Public Lands Law and we did some amazing field trips to some of the national monument lands around the Bay Area.
Bill Bunch [00:13:19] And then I did an internship with the Environmental Defense Fund. Their office there in Berkeley had Tom Graff and some others who were really pushing hard at this pioneering effort to make compelling economic arguments in favor of environmental protection with cost/benefit analysis approaches and trying to, you know, address this concept of externalities, and how that was resulting in the markets not working properly because people making stuff were able to externalize their costs through polluting the environment and not paying for those costs that the rest of us would absorb.
Bill Bunch [00:14:10] So, I was super blessed to work with those folks on a full semester internship.
Bill Bunch [00:14:19] And I almost stayed in the Bay Area when I finished. But I felt like the there were lots of people doing really good environmental protection work in California, whereas there was almost nobody doing it back in Texas. There was a handful of folks doing public interest environmental advocacy in Texas. So I knew that if I came back here that I could immediately be doing stuff that nobody else was doing and also doing things that really needed to be done, because, you know, the population was booming and, you know, pollution and other issues were very real here back in Texas.
Bill Bunch [00:15:05] And I knew I could come to Austin to do it. And Austin, I knew from my days as a competitive swimmer growing up, coming to swimming meets here, that Austin was a nice place to be. And part of that was Barton Springs, and great Tex-Mex, and of course, the live music scene here.
Bill Bunch [00:15:25] So, rather than staying in the Bay Area, I came back to Austin.
David Todd [00:15:31] Fortunate thing for a lot of the rest of us.
David Todd [00:15:36] Well, another thing that some folks attribute their interests and enthusiasm for environmental stuff is a, you know, sort of general media – books, TV shows, movies. Were any of those important to you?
Bill Bunch [00:15:58] Well, I did … Yeah. I would say my freshman year in Boulder, I read Edward Abbey’s, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” – classic – which inspired, you know, the whole establishment of the Earth First movement, and then his other book that’s rather well-known, “Desert Solitaire”, where he documents sort of a memoir of his time as a firewatch park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah.
Bill Bunch [00:16:37] I’m sure there were others, but those are the ones that that really come to mind as inspirations. Yeah.
David Todd [00:16:46] And anything in the moving pictures world – videos, TV shows?
Bill Bunch [00:16:55] Hmmm. Let me think about that. Not that’s really jumping out at me. I guess Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson” film. That was inspiring to me.
Bill Bunch [00:17:08] Let me think. I’m sure there was others. I don’t know. I’m not coming up with any others right now.
David Todd [00:17:21] Let me throw one out that someone mentioned to me. Did you see Koyaanisquatsi?
Bill Bunch [00:17:27] I did. Yes. I’m glad you mentioned that. Absolutely. That was incredibly inspiring, as well. Magical movie. I’d love to see it again. It’s been too long.
David Todd [00:17:46] Yeah, well, this is all good.
Bill Bunch [00:17:49] And well, and then later there was “The Milagro Greenfield War”. That was super fun. And ” A River Runs Through It”. That was also later. Yeah, I guess those are the ones that stuck with me.
David Todd [00:18:09] Okay, well, these are great little touch points. And so, if there are others that come to mind later, then mention them. But that’s a great introduction.
Bill Bunch [00:18:19] Okay.
David Todd [00:18:20] So, let’s talk a little bit about the Barton Springs salamander. Do you recall the first time you might have seen one of these guys?
Bill Bunch [00:18:35] I’m pretty sure the first time I saw one was actually in, at the zoo in Fort Worth, I believe. It is the Fort Worth Forest Park Zoo. In their aquarium. Um, not very, not particularly sexy, but they’re rather elusive. You don’t see them in the wild. You’ve got to dive down. And they’re small. And they hide under rocks so they don’t get eaten by fish.
Bill Bunch [00:19:16] But then I did, you know, go to the Springs a time or two when the City biologists were doing salamander surveys, you know, with their SCUBA gear, and they would, you know, catch them and, you know, measure them. And so I saw them. That was the first time I saw them in the wild, was with the help of City biologists.
David Todd [00:19:41] Okay. So, my understanding is that people knew that there were these salamanders in Barton Springs, but they weren’t actually described until the early nineties. Do you recall that early process of, you know, trying to give them some taxonomic description?
Bill Bunch [00:20:04] Yeah. So, you know, I’d gotten involved on local conservation work with folks in Travis Audubon Society, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the local Earth First activists initially in trying to protect the black-capped vireo, which was the first species locally to Austin that was listed endangered.
Bill Bunch [00:20:31] And then we came to learn that there were five or six cave-dwelling invertebrates that had been petitioned to be listed some years back by some cave biology enthusiasts. And that that was just sort of sitting on the shelf at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So we advocated for that.
Bill Bunch [00:20:56] And then similarly, we came to learn that the golden-cheeked warbler was a candidate and certainly should be listed because of its very limited and specific nesting range right here in central Texas.
Bill Bunch [00:21:14] So those were the species that we worked on first, but I think it was roughly about that same time – the early nineties – when the whole Save Our Springs movement, you know, came to being in Austin, that we learned that, yes, some U.T. faculty biologists had caught some salamanders and done some work on the species so that it was clear that it was in fact a distinct species. But there had never been any work to actually, you know, write a describing article and name the species, you know, in the scientific literature.
Bill Bunch [00:22:02] So, one of the folks that jumped in on the whole Save Our Springs effort was Mark Kirkpatrick, who was a biology professor at U.T. And he was not particularly studying, you know, he wasn’t a herpetologist, you know, studying amphibians or salamanders. But he tracked down the folks at U.T. who were.
Bill Bunch [00:22:29] And sure enough, some of them picked up that earlier scientific work and moved towards, you know, publishing and describing the species, naming it, so that it could be officially protected.
David Todd [00:22:48] And so, the folks that he was working with, I guess, would have been David Hillis and Andrew Price, Paul Chippindale?
Bill Bunch [00:22:54] Yes. Yeah. David Hillis. Yes. David Hillis and the folks in his lab at U.T. And then they did end up, you know, naming the Eurycea sosorum, so as a tribute to the Save Our Springs community that was working at that point. Several years of hard work to protect the the home of the salamanders, Barton Springs.
David Todd [00:23:25] That’s a very nice tribute.
David Todd [00:23:28] Well, tell us a little bit about the Barton Springs salamander. I think you mentioned a little bit about its niche in the springs, hiding under rocks, hoping not to get eaten. Can you tell us like a, you know, basic sort of lay description of the life history of these creatures and the niche that it fills?
Bill Bunch [00:23:49] Yeah, they’re super interesting. There are others that have a very similar morphology and life history. They’re quite small, just, you know, 2 to 3 inches as adults.
Bill Bunch [00:24:07] They have reduced eyes. They still have some ability to see or detect light. But because they’re mostly in the aquifer or right around the spring openings, you know, light perception is not so important to them.
Bill Bunch [00:24:26] They have these fabulously beautiful, bright red external gills coming out of their sides of their necks, and a sort of flattened snout. And they have different color variations, but mostly they kind of have a fleckling – I’m not sure the right word – purplish, kind of spotted, a little bit see-through in the skin, and then the reduced eyes, and very thin little legs that they use more as like kind of, you know, to poke themselves along the bottom.
Bill Bunch [00:25:09] So they live on the bottom. They’re bottom-dwellers. They eat little, small aquatic insects and other aquatic arthropods and aquatic invertebrates.
Bill Bunch [00:25:22] They hide from the fish.
Bill Bunch [00:25:25] They have a very slow metabolism. So, they live a long time. I think there’s been some in the aquaria here in Austin now that are at least 20 years old, maybe longer at this point.
Bill Bunch [00:25:43] So, yeah. They’re sweet. We like them.
Bill Bunch [00:25:52] They are also, you know, because they have these external gills and this very thin skin and they’re adapted to this constant-temperature, cold spring water that is extremely clean and clear, high in dissolved oxygen, low in turbidity, and low in nutrients.
Bill Bunch [00:26:20] And so, all of these features, you know, make them very sensitive to changes in water quality. And because they’re on the bottom, you know, there’s particular concern about their exposure to hydrophobic pollutants – so polluting chemicals that are attached, you know, to particles that would settle on the bottom. So, not the pollutants that might dissolve in the water column, but those that attach to the sediment set on the bottom.
Bill Bunch [00:26:59] And then, the salamanders are either exposed to those pollutants directly or those pollutants may harm or even kill their prey species. So, a number of these prey species of small aquatic inverts are extremely, even more sensitive to pollution than the salamanders themselves.
Bill Bunch [00:27:28] So they, you know, they are an indicator that the springs are healthy as long as they’re there. And we like to say, you know, “may salamanders forever swim in your water supply”. That’s our blessing that we give to all that we know.
David Todd [00:27:49] That’s a very nice blessing.
David Todd [00:27:52] Well, and then tell me a little bit about the habitat and range of these Barton Spring salamanders. Where do you find them?
David Todd [00:28:01] Well, so, the Barton Springs salamander is found mostly right at the openings of the springs. We know they’re farther down in the aquifer, but this slab, these chunks of limestone, where the springs flow out of, you know, the water’s flowing rapidly through these open channels. And so, the salamanders are in those open, water-filled channels.
Bill Bunch [00:28:31] They, we know they’re farther down in there, but we don’t have a good idea of how extensive. It’s, you know, they try to estimate their population, but they can’t really. You know, that’s some fair amount of guesswork.
Bill Bunch [00:28:48] They do not metamorphose like other, you know, amphibians, other salamanders. So, they live their entire life cycle, you know, in the water. But they need they need the clear, moving water to keep the cobble rock where they live, you know, clear and not embedded with, you know, sediment, mud.
Bill Bunch [00:29:19] So sediment loading, and we get a ton of, you know, sedimentation of the aquifer, especially when there’s big construction projects and a lot of the earth is exposed. We have these intensive downfalls of rain. You know, we’re in the flashflood alley. So, there are incredibly powerful storms that can, you know, erode an exposed hillside very quickly and wash that water, sediment loadings into the aquifer.
Bill Bunch [00:29:49] And then that settles out and can completely basically fill in the cavities where the salamanders would be living and bury them. Or at least, you know, they can get entrapped there. But if they get out, then, you know, their living areas is now, you know, destroyed by that.
Bill Bunch [00:30:12] Initially, we thought they were only right at Barton Springs. But over the years they have been found at other springs in the Barton Springs watershed further south on the recharge zone down, you know, west of Buda and Kyle, in northern Hays County.
Bill Bunch [00:30:35] And then they’ve actually been found and Trinity Aquifer springs, up in Onion Creek and South Onion Creek in Dripping Springs. And that’s, that was kind of surprising because, you know, these aquifers are interlaced, but they, you know, the geologists do identify them as distinct, you know, rock and aquifer zones.
Bill Bunch [00:31:10] So, they have a broader range than we thought. But it’s still a fairly small area of the planet’s surface, you know, right here in central Texas. That entire area where they have been found is growing rapidly. So, you know, they were listed endangered because, you know, they’re in harm’s way with the urban growth that’s been rapid, you know, since the eighties and seems to almost never let up, you know, over these last 30 years or so.
David Todd [00:31:51] Gotcha. Well, that was actually something I thought you might tell us a little bit more about. What sort of trends are you seeing in these salamanders? I mean, I guess you’re describing the range seems to be expanding, but have there been concerns about their vulnerabilities, you know, anything you can tell us about impacts on them?
Bill Bunch [00:32:13] Yes. So, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule, you know, listing the species as endangered, you know, they identify several of the threats to the survival of the species. So, and most of those threats, you know, trace back to the urbanization of the watershed, and the threats that that urbanization poses to both polluting the water and the sediments in the water, the bottom structures, and pumping excessive pumping of the waters.
Bill Bunch [00:32:54] And so, more specifically, some of the pollutants that they identify as threatening the survival of the species are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are basically byproducts of, you know, combustion engines, you know, automobile travel across the watershed, some toxics from, you know, brake linings wearing off from automobiles.
Bill Bunch [00:33:23] And these are some of the toxics that also get in our air and are a threat to safety, you know, we inhale them as tiny particles. So, copper from brake linings, various plastics and petroleum chemicals from tire wear and tear, and then, you know, the droppings from gasoline, antifreeze, you know, oil, engine, oil, etc.
Bill Bunch [00:33:55] So, those were all identified as threatening the survival of the species, both directly and then, you know, as a threat to the survival of the prey species.
Bill Bunch [00:34:09] Also, when we get into drought times, like we have been now, the chemistry of the water changes in the aquifer. The dissolved oxygen drops. And the salt content goes up because just the dynamics of the subterranean flows of the waters change, and we get water coming in from the east, east of what they call sort of the “bad water zone”, which if you go further east on the Edwards, it’s saltier water.
Bill Bunch [00:34:47] And so, what happens during those drought conditions is with those chemistry changes of saltier water with lower dissolved oxygen, the species pretty much stop reproducing. So, they don’t die, but they’re stressed, and they can’t reproduce during those periods. And we know that because they’re, you know, they’re finding them and, you know, they don’t see, you know, the juveniles, you know, if you have a drought that lasts more than a short period of time.
Bill Bunch [00:35:23] So thankfully, we have the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District that has some legislation that authorizes it to limit pumping from the Barton Springs pool of the Edwards Aquifer. So, that helps greatly reduce the threat of de-watering the aquifer and drying up the springs under drought conditions.
Bill Bunch [00:35:49] But the District’s powers are not absolute, and their protocol for reducing pumping of their permitted pumpers during drought conditions will help, but if we have really severe drought, it won’t help enough.
Bill Bunch [00:36:10] So, theoretically the springs could still be pumped dry or extremely low to the point where, you know, the survival of the species could be threatened.
Bill Bunch [00:36:23] What we do see, though, when we’re outside of a drought, they’re still finding quite a few salamanders. So, the populations seem to be staying pretty healthy.
Bill Bunch [00:36:37] Occasionally, they’ll find some that have some deformities that are probably triggered by pollution.
Bill Bunch [00:36:48] But as best as we can tell, they’re hanging on at this point.
David Todd [00:36:57] Okay. Well, considering their limited range and this whole list of possible impacts, I gather there was an effort in ’97 to list the species as endangered. And it’d be great to hear your views about how that petition was, you know, prepared and submitted and then some of the pushback. That was held against it.
Bill Bunch [00:37:32] Yeah. So, yeah, we had been working in those early years of the Save Our Springs movement where there was a big push that was successful, where a group of environmental leaders from different groups came together to draft our own ordinance that would strictly limit development in the Barton Springs watershed, at least that part of the watershed that’s under the City of Austin’s jurisdiction to regulate.
Bill Bunch [00:38:05] We drafted our own petition to limit that development, and it was called the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Under the City Charter, we petitioned it, or pursuant to City Charter’s provision for initiative and referendum, we petitioned that ordinance onto the ballot and it was approved by Austin voters in, by a landslide, basically 2 to 1 in August of 1992.
Bill Bunch [00:38:34] We knew that the rest of the watershed, the other two thirds were outside the city of Austin’s jurisdiction, and so that that wasn’t going to be enough to really protect the springs. We also knew that the developers were going to be attacking the ordinance both in the legislature and the courts, and that there needed to be more.
Bill Bunch [00:39:00] And so, when we learned that, yes, these scientists at U.T. had in fact identified the salamander as unique to Barton Springs, we knew then, you know, that it would warrant listing as endangered because of its narrow range and its vulnerability to the urbanization of Austin.
Bill Bunch [00:39:23] And so, at that time, Mark Kirkpatrick, the biology professor at U.T., was serving on S.O.S. board of directors as a volunteer, and he joined with his wife, Barbara Mahler, who at that time was working on her Ph.D. at U.T. in hydrogeology. And they joined together to draft an official petition to list the Barton Springs salamander as endangered.
Bill Bunch [00:39:59] Under the Endangered Species Act, it specifically calls for people to petition a species on to the list if they believe that the facts are such that the species is threatened with near-term extinction, and to lay out, you know, the science and facts that would support that.
Bill Bunch [00:40:22] And so, they drafted that petition, and I worked with them and helped them sort of put it in the legal framework. And they filed that petition. I want to say that was ’94-ish or thereabouts. I could look that up.
Bill Bunch [00:40:39] But in any event, it got filed and then there’s a series of timelines that happened where they were supposed to do an initial review within 90 days and then a second round of review in the following 12 months. And then, after that initial sort of 15 months of review, they’re supposed to either move towards listing and officially publishing a listing rule in the Federal Register, or making a finding that the species is not warranted for listing, that the science and facts or the evidence available doesn’t support that.
Bill Bunch [00:41:20] So, of course, they drug their feet and we had to sue them.
Bill Bunch [00:41:26] And the Act also calls for citizen enforcement of the Act. And so, S.O.S. and Dr. Kirkpatrick came together. We sued to force the agency to make a determination.
Bill Bunch [00:41:45] They finally did, in response to that litigation. And they made a decision to well, let’s see… They missed the first deadline and we sued. And so, then they did propose it for listing as endangered based on their own biologists’ review of the information and support for it.
Bill Bunch [00:42:19] And then that’s when the politics got involved. And they were sitting on that. So, we had to sue a second time to get a final listing decision. They were refusing to make that decision.
Bill Bunch [00:42:39] And then, when they finally did, they decided not to list it, because they had, at the 11th hour, Fish and Wildlife entered into an agreement with the State of Texas under the auspices of then-Governor George Bush, that the state would take various measures that would protect the species. And under this last-minute agreement, the species would be protected without the listing.
Bill Bunch [00:43:14] And so, we were still in the courthouse under Judge Lucius Bunton, the late Lucius Bunton, who was a rather colorful federal judge (which we can talk about that if you’d like). We immediately petitioned to say, “Hey, this last-minute agreement doesn’t really protect the species under the Service’s own criteria”.
Bill Bunch [00:43:43] A whole bunch of it was just voluntary, sort of vague things like, “We’ll try to do this and we’ll try to do that”. And yet what the agency itself had already written in its proposal to list the species identifying all these threats, the agreement that they’re now using to justify not listing didn’t address those.
Bill Bunch [00:44:09] So Judge Bunton said, “No, sorry, you know, this does not meet the dictates of the statute,” which is you have to make that listing decision based on the best available scientific and commercial information.
Bill Bunch [00:44:28] Now, the judge can’t tell them what the right answer was. He can just tell them that the answer they gave was wrong.
Bill Bunch [00:44:37] So, Judge Bunton kicked it back to the agency to try again with a different answer.
Bill Bunch [00:44:47] At that point, we had learned that development interests in Austin had a direct path of lobbying into the White House and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, which is kind of an overseer of the other federal environmental agencies. And these were powerful Texas Democrats who had direct and longstanding ties with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt.
David Todd [00:45:28] And that that’s where the real resistance was coming, that these powerful Democrats, in partnership with Governor Bush and Republican-leaning or associated development interests were trying to block it.
Bill Bunch [00:45:45] So, that’s when we all got involved in the politics side.
Bill Bunch [00:45:52] Jerry Jeff Walker, famous Austin musician, singer/songwriter. He and his wife Susan, who was his business manager, and they had pioneered the idea of independent production of their own music. They had done tons of benefits for Democratic candidates around the country, had tremendous, you know, support for the Democratic Party for years, never asking a single thing in favor, you know, in return for that support. Unlike a lot of political people who get involved, they’re getting involved because they want something back for themselves out of it.
Bill Bunch [00:46:41] And so Susan and Jerry Jeff basically got a hold of Al Gore and said, “What the hell was going on? This is not okay. We’ve never asked for a single thing in our life. Your own scientists are telling you what the right answer is under the science. And the law requires you have to make the decision based on the science. You need to list the species.”
Bill Bunch [00:47:08] “And oh, by the way, Earth Day is coming up. And how about let’s do a big press release where Secretary Babbitt could make a news splash and announce the listing of the Barnes Spring salamander as endangered on Earth Day?”
Bill Bunch [00:47:26] And that’s what he did.
Bill Bunch [00:47:29] And so, that that ended the lawsuit and the species got listed, and it’s still listed today. It was officially published in the Federal Register as an endangered species rulemaking a little bit later on. I believe it was April 30th, 1997.
David Todd [00:47:53] So…
Bill Bunch [00:47:54] That’s a long answer to your question.
David Todd [00:47:56] No, this is great.
Bill Bunch [00:47:58] I hope that’s okay.
David Todd [00:47:59] This is wonderful to hear, and you know, from somebody like yourself who was intimately involved in it, it’s priceless.
David Todd [00:48:07] Now, this is sort of trying to put your feet in other people’s shoes, but I understood that one of the arguments that was pushed was one of private property rights and that this listing and the development controls that would be implemented would fly in the face of private property use in the state.
David Todd [00:48:35] Can you talk a little bit about that argument?
Bill Bunch [00:48:39] Yeah, sure. So, I guess the market forces who are worried about environmental protection laws, including endangered species protection, you know, infringing on property rights, they tend to take what I would say is an extreme view of what “private property” means. And that is one that, you know, “It’s my land, I own it, I can do whatever I want. And if you’re trying to tell me what to do with my land, then you have to pay me for it. You know, you’re infringing on my property rights and that’s a taking or, in this instance, perhaps a regulatory taking.”
Bill Bunch [00:49:27] So, you know, the steps that are needed to protect the salamander are based around the idea that you need to keep most of the watershed that is privately owned in a undeveloped state, you know, not covered with pavement, you know, parking lots and highways and rooftops, and not develop, you know, with lawns, with, you know, fertilizers and whatnot.
Bill Bunch [00:49:55] And so, you know, that was their concern.
Bill Bunch [00:49:59] But our laws have always recognized the right of the government to regulate the use of private property in the public interest, especially where public resources are threatened. And our water is a public trust resource that we all own and we all depend upon. It’s not a private property right. It’s a public property right. And that comes first and foremost above private property rights.
Bill Bunch [00:50:33] So, we have every right to regulate the use of private land to protect our water and to protect our wildlife. Wildlife is also recognized as public trust property, if you want to call it property, rather than, you know, fellow beings on this planet that we share the water and the air with.
Bill Bunch [00:51:02] But that’s certainly our view, that the law is 100% justified to regulate, and even very strictly regulate, what someone can do with their private property, if there’s, where there’s a legitimate public purpose. And here, you know, protecting water is at the top of that list of legitimate public interest in restricting private property.
David Todd [00:51:32] Okay. So, some of the conservation efforts that flowed out of the listing, what did they require? I think there’s in development controls…
Bill Bunch [00:51:50] Yeah.
David Todd [00:51:50] Land acquisitions, daylighting of some of these spring runs, maybe you could talk about some of those measures.
Bill Bunch [00:51:57] Yeah. So, just back up a little bit, to get some of the context.
Bill Bunch [00:52:01] So, you know, we had some good protections with the Save our Springs ordinance, and our local officials in Austin generally being more pro-environment.
Bill Bunch [00:52:14] But then, at the state level, you know, Texas is a private property state. And we have very weak state environmental protection laws, by and large, and great hostility even, to protecting the environment, especially where it might cause some additional costs or restrictions on economic development.
Bill Bunch [00:52:43] So, the push to get the salamander listed endangered at the federal level was in part to try to trump that hostility from the state government, and bolster protection of these incredibly vulnerable waters where we find the salamanders live with the federal law.
Bill Bunch [00:53:07] Now, that has not given us near as much protection as we were hoping for when we were working to get the salamander listed.
Bill Bunch [00:53:18] And there’s a few reasons for that. The largest one being that these threats, it’s not like we’re, you know, in the oil patch where, you know, a single stream of really nasty pollutants, you know, can be readily identified if there’s an oil leak or a discharge of toxic chemicals out of a factory, you know, a plastics plant or something.
Bill Bunch [00:53:45] The threats to our water quality are of a more general nature from urbanization. And so, trying to make that causational link between this pollution that’s dispersed and coming from all of our activities on the surface, or at least from, you know, more than one person or one place you can identify and trace that pollution to harming a specific salamander when they’re down in the aquifer is very challenging thing to do.
Bill Bunch [00:54:31] And the courts have unfortunately adopted over the years this idea that you have to, you need to show that sort of strict causation chain between this activity on the landscape, you know, causing this very specific kind of harm, even though we know it’s happening. And the science that’s summarized in the listing rule for the salamander, you know, lays that out.
Bill Bunch [00:54:59] It’s a different thing when you’re trying to implement protections.
Bill Bunch [00:55:04] But, what we have gotten out of it is we’ve gotten mitigation requirements on big highway construction projects. The salamander listing has meant that the City of Austin has to have a permit and be careful about how they actually manage Barton Springs pool as a recreational swimming pool for, you know, over a million people these days per year.
Bill Bunch [00:55:34] The salamanders help make sure that the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District does in fact limit the pumping and require its permitted pumpers to cut back during drought conditions to help protect the species, you know, under those drought conditions.
Bill Bunch [00:55:57] So we’ve had some real benefit, but it hasn’t helped as much as we’d hoped.
Bill Bunch [00:56:07] The biggest example right now is this horrible construction project. If you drive out 290, you know, through Oak Hill, towards Dripping Springs, there’s this mega highway construction project happening right there at the Oak Hill Y, which we fought off for, off and on, for 20 years. But then they finally, you know, pushed it through. And TXDOT, our highway department, was able to convince U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they could build that because it didn’t really pose a threat to the species.
Bill Bunch [00:56:45] In our view, that was totally unjustified or unsupported in science. But they made that finding and the project went through. We sued, but, you know, we lost.
Bill Bunch [00:57:04] Part of that was an endangered species argument. Part of it was on other environmental issues.
Bill Bunch [00:57:10] But Texas is in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court for our federal courts. And the Fifth Circuit is well known for being rather hostile to pro-environment plaintiffs. Environmental groups like us that try to sue to enforce our laws don’t, very rarely have much luck at the Fifth Circuit.
Bill Bunch [00:57:42] So that’s, those are some of the issues. I’m not sure if that was what you were looking for.
David Todd [00:57:48] Very helpful.
Bill Bunch [00:57:49] Are there other components of that that you were interested in?
David Todd [00:57:59] So, to what degree do you think land acquisition in the basin has been linked back to the species listing?
Bill Bunch [00:58:10] Yeah. I’m really, yeah, I’m really glad you asked that. Yeah, we recognized early that these regulatory efforts, you know, getting the Save our Springs ordinance approved and into place, and then getting the salamander listed endangered, both were sort of regulatory measures to help protect the Barton Springs watershed.
Bill Bunch [00:58:39] But, the environmental folks, activists, realized that was not going to be enough, that we really did need to permanently protect and just take out of the development pool as much land in the Barton Springs watershed as we could.
Bill Bunch [00:58:57] So, there have been a series of efforts to do that – buying lands for specifically for endangered species protection, not so much for the Salamander itself, but for golden-cheeked warbler habitat and for endangered cave critter habitat, which directly affects and helps protect Barton Springs salamanders.
Bill Bunch [00:59:26] And then some bond measures that have been approved by voters in the City of Austin, Hays County, Travis County. Travis County voters just approved another $276 million for buying parkland, and specifically buying land for watershed protection. That was approved by voters this Tuesday of this week, and approved, I think it was a 77% “yes” vote for that measure.
Bill Bunch [01:00:02] Hays County has had a couple of bond measures over the years to protect land, park land, but also land specifically for the purpose of protecting water, twice over the years.
Bill Bunch [01:00:16] And so, we’ve taken a big chunk of the recharge zone for Barton Springs out of the development pool forever.
Bill Bunch [01:00:26] We need to do more. It’s not enough.
Bill Bunch [01:00:29] We’ve had some private landowners who’ve donated conservation easements and have really helped. Other private landowners who’ve sold conservation easements for reduced price to the City of Austin or Travis County or Hays County. So, that’s been a huge part of the overall effort to protect the springs and the salamander.
Bill Bunch [01:00:57] At this point, roughly about half of the watershed is either permanently protected or already developed, and then about half of it is still up for grabs. And that’s mostly the upper watershed, the upper parts of Barton Creek and Onion Creek watersheds and the Dripping Springs area in particular, the upper north-northwest Hays County.
Bill Bunch [01:01:28] So you know, the future of the salamanders and Barton Springs is still really very much up for grabs, both in terms of pollution issues and development, and then also pumping.
Bill Bunch [01:01:43] The Barton Springs Edwards is pretty well capped and like I said, mostly protected, although if climate change translates into a whole different regime of much less rainfall, it could it could be a very different future for the springs and the salamander.
Bill Bunch [01:02:06] But the upper part of the watershed is the Trinity Aquifer. And the pumping pressure there is tremendous. And the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, the Southwest Travis County Groundwater Conservation District, those two districts don’t have the legal powers, the authority, as strongly as does the Barton Springs Edwards Conservation District. And they’re also not near as well-funded.
Bill Bunch [01:02:46] So, there’s a bunch of pumping from individual home wells, from agricultural wells, that’s unregulated. And that pumping is proliferating. And we see it, with the small springs literally drying up and disappearing during extended dry periods.
David Todd [01:03:12] Okay. What about work at the pool itself? It sounds like there’s this balancing that goes on between being able to enjoy the Springs as a place to go swimming and diving…
Bill Bunch [01:03:30] Yes.
David Todd [01:03:30] But then also recognizing it’s a home of endangered species. And I understand there’s been efforts to change the way the pool is managed and cleaned, and there’s been daylighting that’s gone on some of the spring runs. Could you touch on those things?
Bill Bunch [01:03:48] Yeah, sure. So, yeah, swimmers do disturb the bottom habitat. And so, that’s why there’s incidental take or incidental harm to the species, and that’s why the City was required to get a permit to manage the pool and allow the swimming to continue.
Bill Bunch [01:04:13] But the conflict between human enjoyment and protection of salamanders is less than you might think. They are, as I said, mostly found right at the spring heads. So, the big spring in the pool is quite deep. And so, it’s not where you have a bunch of people stomping around wading, you know, and destroying their habitat directly. It’s too deep for them to mess with.
Bill Bunch [01:04:45] They’re quite small and secretive. So, even if you have a mask and snorkel and dive down and try to hold your breath a little bit, you can almost never find them that way.
Bill Bunch [01:04:57] The other two springs that they’re found in at Barton Springs – the Sunken Garden Springs and Eliza Springs – those are fenced off and the City is required to manage them as salamander preserves. So, there’s no disturbance from people there.
Bill Bunch [01:05:18] And then with Eliza Springs, they did reconfigure, they spent quite a bit of money to reconfigure the outflow from that spring into a sort of manmade surface little creek run, small creek run, whereas before it was just in a pipe. So, there’s been some habitat restoration there.
Bill Bunch [01:05:44] The most amazing thing, though, is how the City was forced to change its management practices to protect the salamander. And those changes made the pool vastly more wonderful for human swimmers as well.
Bill Bunch [01:06:05] So, before the listing, the City was using chlorine, not to chlorinate the water, but as a cleanser and algaecide to scrub on the walls to kill algae. And it’s highly toxic stuff.
Bill Bunch [01:06:26] They were also actually dragging a heavy chain across the bottom to kill and remove any sort of native aquatic plants that might take root in the bottom of the pool.
Bill Bunch [01:06:41] So, they were trying to manage it as if it was your standard, you know, municipal public park swimming pool, which is crazy.
Bill Bunch [01:06:52] And what was happening as a result of those tactics, with additional fertilizer and wastewater in the watershed, the nutrient loading to the pool and into the aquifer and springs has really gone up.
Bill Bunch [01:07:12] And so we started getting these really nasty algae blooms in the pool. There was a couple summers, actually, where the pool, you couldn’t even swim in big chunks of it because there was just giant, nasty algae mats.
Bill Bunch [01:07:29] And this was all before the salamander was listed. Once we got it listed, then they came in. The biologists were like, “Well, we need to restore the native aquatic plants. And we have to stop chaining. We have to stop using chlorine. And we have to start managing this pool as a natural, a nature preserve, that is a nature preserve that lets people, you know, enjoy it, too.
Bill Bunch [01:08:01] And Laurie Dries, who’s a Ph.D. environmental biologist from U.T., came to lead the City’s effort to restore the native plant life in the pool. So, they brought in plants from other springs and planted them. And she worked her butt off to reestablish that plant life.
Bill Bunch [01:08:25] And lo and behold, what they found was the plants, the rooted water plants that are beautiful and provide fish habitat, displace the algae growth. And then the other thing that the plants did, and this was another huge problem, is the pool would be crystal clear early in the morning. But then as the swimmers came in, they would stir up all the silt and sediment off the bottom and suspend that back into the water column.
Bill Bunch [01:09:02] Well, with most of the pool, large chunks of the pool, being now repopulated with native plants, it was not only displacing the algae, but it was holding the silt down, where it could not be resuspended.
Bill Bunch [01:09:23] And so, by managing the pool for salamander habitat and for other, you know, natural aquatic life – fish, water birds, etc. – it became way more beautiful and wonderful for humans to swim in.
Bill Bunch [01:09:48] And that’s the path they’re still on. And none of it would have happened if we hadn’t had listed, hadn’t gotten the salamander listed.
David Todd [01:10:00] Great. So, one last question about the pool and maybe the way it’s managed. I guess there’s always a concern that there’s going to be some catastrophe, some sort of terrible episode, where the little salamanders are going to be wiped out. And so, I understand there’s a refugia, a colony of Barton Springs salamanders that are kept offline, sort of …
Bill Bunch [01:10:30] Right.
David Todd [01:10:30] To make sure there’s a population reserve. Can you talk about how that came about?
Bill Bunch [01:10:38] Yeah. So, the City is required to maintain a captive breeding population, which they have over in the Austin Nature and Science Center, on the west side of Zilker Park. And they have an aquarium there where you can see a few of them there.
Bill Bunch [01:11:00] And that’s really critical, although, you know, so far we’ve been blessed and not had to resort to needing those folks.
Bill Bunch [01:11:10] I know that from the biologists who do some of that work, there is some concern that, you know, if you release them back into the wild, you know, would they thrive or not? Because apparently they do, you know, they’re not having to hunt for their own food in an aquarium. They’re being fed and they’re protected from predators, obviously. So, there’s some question about, you know, how well would they do, you know, if it came to us needing to repopulate them back into the springs, you know, post, you know, a pipeline broke or a truck spilled or something like that.
David Todd [01:12:02] Okay.
Bill Bunch [01:12:03] But yes, that is an effort. There had been some captive breeding happening also down at a lab in Texas State. I’m not sure if that’s still happening. Fish and Wildlife Service has a fish hatchery in San Marcos. And then they had some up in the Dallas Zoo some years back. I’m not sure if they still do.
David Todd [01:12:29] I see. Okay.
David Todd [01:12:33] So, the way you describe these, these salamanders makes them very appealing little guys, but I imagine that they’re not as dramatic and charismatic as some creatures, you know, you’re arguing to save a blue whale. And I’m curious if you find it a challenge to sort of go to bat for a 2 to 3-inch long salamander.
Bill Bunch [01:13:06] Well, you know, I don’t. Yeah. There are people who, you know, they don’t get it. They’ve never seen the salamander. Some of them don’t even know what one is. We had one of our federal judges on a salamander case describe it as a reptile – a little bit challenging.
Bill Bunch [01:13:36] But, you know, for me, we, you know, we’re part of nature. And it’s terribly arrogant for us to think that, you know, one species or another doesn’t matter and isn’t important or is not as important as us.
Bill Bunch [01:13:56] We’re enriched by a rich and diverse and healthy ecosystem with all of its component species.
Bill Bunch [01:14:06] I believe, you know, nature has a right, salamanders and other species, have a right to exist every bit as we do.
Bill Bunch [01:14:16] For those who may not follow that line of thought, they are incredibly useful to us as an indicator: you know, the canary in the aquifer. As I was sort of alluding to earlier, if we have salamanders in our springs and in these cavernous limestone aquifers, we know the water’s good and when it’s good for them, it’s good for us. And so, protecting the salamanders is protecting us.
Bill Bunch [01:15:01] And Barnes Springs is the life source for the city. I mean, Austin literally would not be here, but for the Springs. The state capital was located here because the Springs was the reliable source of water supply. We now have the dams on the Colorado River in the Highland Lakes, but the river will dry up and is not a reliable source without those dams. The Springs have never dried that we know of. And our city water rights and water supply, even though we’re getting it from the river now, are based on Barton Springs.
Bill Bunch [01:15:43] Those reservoirs are silting up. And with climate change reducing inflows, and potentially reducing inflows rather severely in the watersheds further to the West, because the Barton Springs watershed is further east than the watershed for Lake Travis, Lake Buchanan, there’s already good reason to believe that it’s a more reliable source going, you know, in the face of climate change as well.
Bill Bunch [01:16:24] So, we need we need the Springs protected for the city, for our economy, for everything we do.
Bill Bunch [01:16:34] And, you know, it’s the spiritual and cultural center of the community as well. It’s one of the few places in the world, literally, where you have this spectacular, beautiful natural spring coming out in the heart of a city, that, because of the watershed is further out in the Hill Country, it’s still very clean, high-quality water, except, you know, right during and in the few days after a big storm where it can get pretty nasty from the urban runoff.
Bill Bunch [01:17:12] And, you know, if we lose the Springs, we’re not going to be too far behind.
Bill Bunch [01:17:20] So, that would be my pitch for it being worth it to make the investment to save the Springs.
Bill Bunch [01:17:31] And while we’ve done really well buying some of the watershed lands, I mean, the total amount we spent, to-date, as a community, buying Barton Springs watershed lands, I believe, is between four and 500 million. I mean, there’s one intersection on I-35 at 290, that we spent more than that on one intersection. We spent close to a billion dollars building Water Treatment Plant 4 which we never even needed and we still don’t need. We’re looking at spending, you know, in the ballpark of two billion dollars to build a convention center that almost nobody will ever use.
Bill Bunch [01:18:21] I mean, the list of of boondoggles where, you know, our political machine has delivered to us as priorities for spending is rather sad.
Bill Bunch [01:18:39] And there’s a powerful case to be made that we need to find a half a billion dollars real quick to buy up as much of that half of the Barton Springs watershed that’s still up for grabs as we can possibly buy up, before it’s too late.
Bill Bunch [01:19:00] And that’s cheap compared, even with the phenomenal real estate values these days, compared to not doing it and losing what this means for us.
David Todd [01:19:17] And so, speaking about what these salamanders mean and what the springs mean and the aquifer, I wonder if we could sort of drill a little bit to what the salamander might mean. And I think you touched on, you know, its right to exist and that there was a spiritual quality. And I was wondering if you would go so far as to say that a salamander has a soul, that an individual, two or three inch salamander has some sort of metaphysical value to it.
Bill Bunch [01:19:58] Yes, I would. I mean, I think that, you know, as science advances, we’re learning that, you know, animals and even plants, you know, have an ability to perceive and learn and share a whole lot of our characteristics, more so than we ever imagined.
Bill Bunch [01:20:26] And especially with these species that are long-lived, that are clearly learning, you know. They know where they’re supposed to be. They know how to feed themselves. They, you know, they reproduce and have their young.
Bill Bunch [01:20:45] You know, that’s not my field of study. But I look at them, when I look at them, you know, in an aquarium or when the biologists let me look at them in the shallow water inside the protected Eliza Spring where you can, that’s the easy place to see them because it’s only four inches deep. And since it’s protected, there’s no fish in there. So, they’re not hiding as much. They’ll hang out, you know, where you can see them. They look like individuals to me, you know, with personalities.
Bill Bunch [01:21:24] But that’s just me.
Bill Bunch [01:21:28] I did have the good fortune to travel to Slovenia in Europe, which is known for having what they called the “classical karst”. So, it’s a cave-forming limestone region, you know, like where these springs come out of here where, you know, there’s lots of caves.
Bill Bunch [01:21:57] But it’s where these Slovenian scientists and some German scientists first figured out the whole process of how the slightly acidic rainfall dissolves the calcium carbonate rock and creates, you know, dissolves it and then redeposited when the chemistry changes ever so slightly. So, that the rock dissolves out to create caves. And then you get these spectacular cave formations – stalactites, stalagmites, speleothems, etc.
Bill Bunch [01:22:38] And they have some spectacular caves there, one of them being a UNESCO World Heritage site, where they have the Slovenian giant salamander. Proteus anguinus, is the scientific name.
Bill Bunch [01:23:00] And the legend has it, back from the old days (they have castles there), that these cave salamanders … They look exactly like the Barton Springs salamander, only instead of being, you know, three inches there, they’re like 13 inches. They’re huge. And they live, they’ve been known to live 100 years, and perhaps longer. And they just sit there and, you know, maybe they get a water bug comes by that they eat, you know, once every nine months or something like that. So incredibly slow metabolism that equates to long life.
Bill Bunch [01:23:44] But the legend was that they were dragon larvae because, you know, they would wash out of the caves, you know, the underworld, when there was big storm events and they’d get flushed out. And, you know, they looked so weird and they have these long arms, you know, almost like human arms, and their nickname there is “human fish” because the arms and legs look like human arms and legs. And then the body is kind of like a human body.
Bill Bunch [01:24:22] But they, you know, those are fully cave-adapted. So, they have no eyes at all. They can’t see, you know, they have limited pigment.
Bill Bunch [01:24:33] But when you see those salamanders, it’s like, “Wow, this is amazing”.
Bill Bunch [01:24:39] And the Proteus anguinus, it’s the bald eagle of Slovenia. It’s their national mascot. They have songs about the salamander. They celebrate it in lots of ways.
Bill Bunch [01:25:00] And it’s really interesting because, you know, a fabulous example of parallel evolution where, you know, they’re not related to our salamanders. But they evolved to be almost the same, just a lot bigger. And because that karst is connected, it’s much more developed karst, there’s only one species.
Bill Bunch [01:25:27] Whereas, you know, we’ve been talking about the Barton Springs salamander, but now there’s been many other species of salamanders discovered in our Hill Country karstic aquifers, cave-forming aquifers. And they have one big one because those caves are all connected. Whereas here, we have pockets of karst that are isolated from other pockets of karst. And so, each spring area almost has its own species.
Bill Bunch [01:26:04] We just petitioned another one to be listed endangered last year that’s from a few springs out on the Pedernales River, near Hamilton Pool.
Bill Bunch [01:26:16] But I’m not sure why I brought up the Slovenian salamander, but it inspired me that our salamanders could come to be recognized as special to us in an environmental sense and a cultural sense, like they have, like the Proteus anguinus has been in Slovenia.
David Todd [01:26:45] I get you. Yeah.
David Todd [01:26:48] So, you know, we talked mostly about the Barton Springs salamander, but I’m wondering, like with the listing that you’ve proposed for another salamander near the Pedernales, is the Barton Spring salamander part of a whole suite of species that have similar problems and concerns?
Bill Bunch [01:27:10] Yeah. These, you know, morphologically these species are very similar, but the scientists, you know, mostly at U.T., but also some at Texas State, and there’s some now up at the University of Texas at Arlington as well, I want to say there’s 8 to 10 species now that are fully understood to be their own species in the different pockets of springs and different pockets of karst in the Texas Hill Country.
Bill Bunch [01:27:50] And there is sort of a common pattern which we now see at Barton Springs, where there’s one, like the Barton Springs Salamander, that’s mostly right around the spring openings. And then another one that’s evolved that’s more fully aquifer-adapted, so down deeper in the aquifer where they have completely lost their sight, you know, the eyes are not there at all, and pretty much completely lost the pigment. So, they’re adapted to the entire life being in the dark.
Bill Bunch [01:28:34] But again, morphologically, functionally, lifecycle-wise, very similar. Long-lived, similar, you know, feeding, reproduction. You know, they don’t metamorphose. They’re in the water the whole time. And they all require this, you know, beautiful, clear, constant-flowing water that we have here in the Texas Hill Country.
David Todd [01:29:06] Okay. Thank you.
David Todd [01:29:10] So. I noticed that, and I think you brought this up earlier, that the Barton Springs salamander’s formal name is Eurycea sosorum is named after the Save Our Springs movement. And I was wondering if you feel like, you know, this political and legal campaign that you’ve been associated with for so long is pretty much locked in, tied in, with this salamander. You share a name, in a sense, and an origin story.
Bill Bunch [01:29:48] Yeah. Yes, we are inextricably linked. And we’re still committed to protecting the salamander as well as it’s, you know, spring and aquifer habitat. We want, we love the water, we love the wildlife. The fish in Barton Springs are incredible, the waterbirds that live there. I mean, we really have an amazing natural system that’s hanging on, you know, right here in central Austin, in spite of, or despite the, you know, the incredible urbanization that we’ve seen already and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
Bill Bunch [01:30:44] And, we, you know, we have gotten off on some other issues, but we do need to be circling back now, especially with the groundwater pumping in the upper watershed from the Trinity, where there’s definitely some harm that’s happening to the species, where even though the courts have been more strict about causation in looking at endangered species implementation, Endangered Species Act implementation and enforcement, I do believe there’s some legal threats to the species that we need to be paying closer attention to that we’ve not followed as closely as we should have.
Bill Bunch [01:31:32] And I do see the salamander playing a critical role in helping us keep those smaller springs flowing in the upper part of the watershed that then send water also down to Barton Springs itself.
David Todd [01:31:50] So, I think some of us think of S.O.S. and we think of Bill Bunch, and we think of them as wed very closely. And I was wondering, you know, after 30-plus years of this, how you manage to continue forging on. You know, you are not a nonprofit. You’re a living, breathing human being that has other interests. And I’m just curious how you manage to stay focused and stay positive. It can’t be easy.
Bill Bunch [01:32:31] Well, sometimes it’s harder than others. There’s definitely been times when I’ve felt pretty burned out and more discouraged. But we’ve had a community of supporters, donors. I mean, most of our funding comes from individual donors. You know, we haven’t tried to grow into being a big, giant non-profit.
Bill Bunch [01:33:03] But, you know, we have the expertise and the institutional knowledge now. We have the science. We have a small staff of lawyers with, you know, environmental educators working with us. And we’re continuing to make a difference. You know, not as much of a difference as we should, but we make a difference. And so, because of that, we keep doing it and we feel blessed, or I’ll just speak for myself: I feel blessed to be able to continue doing this, you know, and making a living. I mean, I’m certainly not getting rich at it, but I’m providing for myself and my daughter and enjoying it.
Bill Bunch [01:33:52] And, you know, I live in Zilker Park, so I get to go swimming in Barton Springs almost every day in the summer, and then maybe two or three days a week in the winter. And so, yeah, I’ve, you know, sort of decided this was my home and, and, and I want to do what I can to protect those parts of our natural heritage that are at greatest risk of being lost.
David Todd [01:34:25] So one last question. You mentioned that you live in Zilker Park or near Zilker Park, the Zilker neighborhood, and you manage to go swimming. And so, I’m wondering if you feel some sort of personal affinity as a swimmer from the age of eight to the current day with this other little creature that enjoys the same place that you like to splash around in?
Bill Bunch [01:34:57] Yeah, I think I do. They’re cool critters. I don’t see them that often in person, but I love knowing they’re there. And when I do get to see them, I’m pretty excited about it. And occasionally I do get to go along with some of the biologists who are counting and doing the monitoring. And I love that. And they let me tag along and they get to do the science on them. And I can watch.
Bill Bunch [01:35:38] But otherwise, you know, I don’t want to bother them. You know, some wildlife observation, you know, innocent as it might be, can be, you know, disruptive and and extractive. And I try to avoid that, being in that situation.
Bill Bunch [01:36:01] So, yeah, sometimes it’s just nice to know that they’re right down there on the bottom of the pool and I’m swimming over them, and I don’t need to see them. I just need to know they’re down there and hopefully they’re happy.
David Todd [01:36:19] Okay. Well, Bill, this has been lovely. We talked about a lot. But is there something that that we gave short shrift to, that I just skipped over, overlooked, that you’d like to mention?
Bill Bunch [01:36:36] I guess one thing I’d mention is, you know, sometimes, you know, and I’ll even catch myself being grumpy about, you know, our government institutions not working the way they should. But there have been really critical junctures, including, you know, when we were trying to get the Barton Spring salamander listed as endangered, that you had scientists inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at the City of Austin, at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, that had incredible integrity, who were making the frontline recommendations and observations that, yes, this species is at grave risk of extinction because of these development pressures and the side effects from urbanization of the watershed.
Bill Bunch [01:37:42] And if we didn’t have those people working inside our government institutions, not for much money, often being maligned as, you know, bureaucrats and etc., you know, we’d be in bad shape.
Bill Bunch [01:38:01] So, I really have tremendous appreciation for our young folks, especially, and those who stick it out over time, to stay in public service where, you know, rarely are they getting a pat on the back. And they’re certainly not making huge piles of money, but they’re also doing something that they love, that’s, that’s important. And they were so critical along the way to have the species protected like it is, and to have Barton Springs pool, be, you know, changed in its management to more of a nature preserve rather than, you know, a city swimming pool.
David Todd [01:38:49] Got it. Well, Bill, always nice to spend some time with you. Learned a lot.
Bill Bunch [01:38:57] Well, I hope that got, that did what you were looking for, more or less.
David Todd [01:39:04] It’s a great story and it’s very inspiring. And I wish you many more years of good deeds.
Bill Bunch [01:39:11] Yeah, well, thanks. Appreciate your interest as well.
David Todd [01:39:16] It’s a pleasure. Thanks a lot.