Water Hazard

San Antonio mayor Ed Garza says a proposed $750 million golf resort won't pollute the Edwards Aquifer. Are his greens really that green?

November 2002By Comments

A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, I was sitting in the Military Plaza office of San Antonio mayor Ed Garza as he tried to explain to me how a proposed 2,600-acre Professional Golfers’ Association resort situated on a portion of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone would be a safe project for the city’s sole source of drinking water. “I think anything can be designed to be environmentally friendly,” he told me. “The big question is, Do you leave it up to individual households, with an unknown quantity of homes, or do you leave it up to an organization that will be held accountable for its decisions long-term?”

His assertion seemed fair enough. A development owned by one entity ought to be much easier to strictly regulate than a residential community full of individual homeowners. Still, there was a gap in his logic. To keep their fairways green, golf courses require more water than comparably sized residential communities and use prodigious amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. In a recharge zone—the porous land sitting above an aquifer—these pollutants can easily seep into the groundwater. So although Garza’s argument seemed reasonable, I decided to look into the larger question: Do the PGA resort’s three courses include enough environmental safeguards to guarantee protection of the Edwards Aquifer?

The answer, I’m afraid, is probably not. But before I tell you why, let me explain how Garza found himself in the strange position of championing the environmental merits of a golf course in the first place. Last spring, in a 9-2 vote, San Antonio’s city council approved plans for a $750 million resort north of the city dubbed PGA Village, a joint venture between the Florida-based Professional Golfers’ Association of America and Lumbermen’s Investment Corporation of Austin, the owner of the land in question. To make the deal go through, the city agreed to waive $70 million in the form of a special tax district, believing that the resort’s ability to create jobs and tourism revenue would more than make up for the giveaway. Not everyone agreed. An unlikely coalition of environmentalists wary of the resort’s potentially harmful location, fiscal conservatives against the tax break, and community groups demanding a higher minimum wage for resort workers teamed up to gather more than 77,000 signatures and force a November referendum on the issue.

In early August, however, the PGA announced that it was backing out of the deal and looking into alternative sites in Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, and the referendum was called off. Yet two weeks later, after Garza flew to the PGA’s headquarters to rekindle the negotiations, PGA Village was back on again—only this time, in lieu of a taxing district, the city had proposed not to annex the development for fifteen years, thus saving Lumbermen’s and the PGA at least $40 million in city sales, property, and hotel-motel taxes. In addition, because the city charter does not allow for public referendums on annexation disputes, the new agreement circumvented the need for a public vote.

The revised deal has hardly placated the critics. Fiscal conservatives argue that it still amounts to the largest tax giveaway in the city’s history and point suspiciously to the fact that Gene Powell, the finance chairman for Garza’s mayoral campaign two years ago, owns land adjacent to the proposed PGA Village site and could benefit from a property-value spike if the resort is built. The aquifer’s advocates have even more to be upset about. Many of the safeguards that had been installed in the first agreement have now been weakened or removed altogether. A 1,100-acre public park with hiking trails, for example, has been eliminated, and the allowable amount of impervious cover (such as pavement) has been upped from 15 percent to 25 percent, increasing the potential for pollution runoff.

Garza’s explanation for the new plan is that he had been trying to find a way to satisfy developers, fiscal conservatives, and environmentalists but couldn’t get over the hump. “The PGA just said, ‘Look, we don’t want to have an election, and we don’t want to divide the community.'” So rather than lose an economically viable project with potential as a tourist draw, he said, or worse, risk the possibility that Lumbermen’s might put something more damaging atop the recharge zone, he struck the best deal he could. And from where he sits, the new agreement gives the city plenty of bargaining room to protect the aquifer. “I think what we’re headed toward is to renegotiate stronger environmental protection,” he insisted. “We agree to hold off annexation for fifteen years in exchange for quality-standard monitoring, limiting the impervious cover, restrictions on pesticides, and a lot of other things that are important anywhere over the recharge zone.” In other words, by holding the possibility of future annexation over the developers’ heads, the city feels it can keep the PGA and Lumbermen’s to their word on taking precautions to keep impacts on the aquifer to a minimum.

What is still up for debate, however, is how effective those precautions will be. It’s only in the past decade or so, after coming under increasing fire from environmental groups, that course designers and managers have begun incorporating environmentally conscious features into their projects. One strategy that is now common, and one PGA Village would also utilize, is the use of hybrid turf varieties that can help filter out pesticides and herbicides before they reach the groundwater. “Courses are being designed to capture most of the water on the site, and turf is a pretty good filter,” says Richard White, a professor of soil and crop science at Texas A&M University. “As long as there aren’t flash floods, turf is capable of capturing most if not all of the nutrients.”

As an example, White mentions the three golf courses at Barton Creek Resort, west of Austin and upstream of Barton Springs, the city’s spring-fed pool and ecological crown jewel. The courses, including one designed by Austin native Ben Crenshaw and his business partner Bill Coore, have long been flash points in Austin’s environment wars. All three facilities implemented plans that moved as little land as possible to avoid erosion, installed monitoring wells to gauge pollution levels from runoff, and used buffer zones of native grasses between the course and the creek as a pollution filter. No other Texas courses have since been so thoroughly scrutinized, researched, and monitored. “Our goal is to capture runoff and make sure there’s very little fertilizer or pesticides that get through,” says the resort’s director of golf course maintenance, Ken Gorzycki, who was recognized with the National Environmental Steward Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association last year. “We’re all about minimizing impact. We’re the last ones who’d want to hurt the environment.”

But while Barton Creek Resort’s intentions are certainly admirable, says Nancy McClintock, who works as an environmental resource manager in watershed protection for the City of Austin, the extensive environmental precautions it has put into practice have been effective only in reducing—not eliminating—the pollutants that can enter the watershed. “No matter how effective course management is,” she says, “we’re still seeing an increase in pollutants and algae blooms downstream.” Why? For starters, the flash floods White referred to occur frequently in the Texas Hill Country. Second, even with careful monitoring of golf course runoff, pollutants still manage to soak into the soil and reach the groundwater. “We’re finding that the potential for this kind of infiltration is even higher than we thought,” says McClintock. What’s more, monitoring at Barton Creek Resort gauges the impact of pollution runoff only on the creek, whereas the potential hazard at PGA Village will be runoff into an aquifer. And McClintock is not aware of any thorough studies of the environmental impact of golf course runoff on a limestone aquifer.

To address these concerns, backers of PGA Village say that the resort, whenever possible, will use only organic pesticides and fertilizers and that Lumbermen’s will pay the San Antonio Water System $100,000 a year for monitoring, well testing, and soil sampling. But as the example at Barton Creek demonstrates, even if these measures are some of the most stringent in the country, there’s no fail-safe plan to eliminate pollution runoff entirely—and therefore, no guarantee that PGA Village won’t harm the aquifer. It might be easier, as Garza states, to regulate PGA Village than a residential community, but at best, even the toughest regulations are only calculated risks.

That’s not the only rub. The proposal also fails to address adequately what may be the most important environmental factor of all: water use. A golf course in Central Texas uses an average of 350,000 gallons a day—enough to satisfy the daily needs of at least 2,300 residents. In a part of the state where drought is a way of life and in a city where voters have twice rejected a bond proposal to pay for the planned Applewhite Reservoir, which would provide another source of water, the strictest management of the dwindling resource seems essential. According to provisions of the new agreement, however, PGA Village courses will be exempted from the first three stages of drought restrictions mandated for homes and businesses in San Antonio (stage four has been put into effect only once). Moreover, Lumbermen’s has drilled five wells on the site, which will allow PGA Village to draw all the water it needs from the Trinity Aquifer, an unregulated aquifer several hundred feet below the Edwards, should it exceed the allotment it’s purchasing from the San Antonio Water System. Simply put, without placing stricter water-use regulations on the project, Mayor Garza and the City of San Antonio cannot make good on their claim to be creating an environmentally friendly golf resort.

PGA Village is not a done deal. Several nonprofits—including Communities Organized for Public Service, Metro Alliance, and Save Our Aquifer—have gone to court to try to force another referendum. Beyond their environmental concerns, these critics rightly point out that circumventing the public vote sets a dangerous political precedent. But should the new agreement manage to clear that hurdle, rather than being a safe bet for the city’s drinking water, PGA Village can only be called an expensive gamble. I hope it pays off, because in this game, there are no mulligans.

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