Dallas Morning News

Unlikely environmentalists work to clean up the Brazos
Conservative and business oriented, they reveal a shift in attitude toward quality of life

Published: December 10, 2005

POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE, Texas - When Eddie Garland was a kid, he spent hours in the arms of God.

That's the translation for the Brazos de Dios - the river that runs through Garland Bend, his family homestead - and that's how it felt.

"Absolutely idyllic," he reminisces. We "fished in it, swam in it ... drank it."

Mr. Garland's smile fades.

"Don't do that now," he says, complaining of cloudy water, a clogged riverbed and an ungodly stink.

State officials say the Brazos is in fine shape and any changes are "naturally occurring," but Mr. Garland doesn't buy it. And instead of sitting on the porch in retirement, he decided to do something about it.

Mr. Garland joined the Brazos River Conservation Coalition, a group that some observers say represents a growing new environmentalism in Texas.

These aren't the stereotypical tree huggers. Rather, they're veteran businessmen and women, often retired and frequently conservative in their politics. Some of them have money, time and friends in high places - they can get results.

That alone sets the Brazos coalition apart from traditional environmentalists, said Luke Metzger, advocate for the Texas Public Interest Research Group: "It's usually the rich and powerful who are pushing in the other direction."

One researcher says the unlikely environmentalists are part of a shift in Texans' attitudes.

Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg said Texas' long tradition of exploiting the land through businesses such as cotton, cattle and oil is giving way. "The business community ... is coming to understand that the strategy that worked so well for Texans in generating wealth in the 20th century will not work in the 21st century," Dr. Klineberg said. "Quality of life, becoming a place that people want to live, has become critical."

He said business and environmentalism are no longer incompatible.

But some who have taken up the cause are still wary of being labeled environmentalists, including Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, a Texan who is one of the richest people in America.

"I'm a capitalist," Ms. Walton told Texas lawmakers last spring. "I'm not a crazy environmentalist."

Her funding and testimony helped pass regulations that will make opening new rock quarries along a stretch of the river - in Palo Pinto and Parker counties west of Fort Worth - virtually impossible for the next 20 years.

With that small victory in hand, this fledgling group is hungry for more.

'A Texas thing'

To some people, the Brazos is a sacred place.

"It's a Texas thing," said coalition supporter John Kimberlin of Dallas.

Historically, the Brazos was the cradle of Texas liberty: The new republic signed its Declaration of Independence along its banks in 1836. Geographically, the river cuts across the heart of the state.

In 1960, the Brazos became emblazoned on the Texas psyche through John Graves' elegiac work, Goodbye to a River.

Mr. Garland says the Brazos is not what it was when Mr. Graves canoed downriver. To his eye, the once-deep fishing holes are filled with sediment, and the sandbars - once big enough to land a small plane - are covered with cattails. And, he says, the river mud is streaked with suspicious black goo.

"You live 75 miles from town, there ain't a neighbor within five miles, and it stinks so bad you have to close your windows," Mr. Garland says regretfully.

One of the problems, according to the coalition, is increasing sedimentation from mining along the Brazos. Members first brought it up with state officials two years ago but say they got the brush-off.

The Brazos River Authority, which monitors water quality and sells river water, says the quality is "outstanding." The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality agrees, citing a full assessment in 2002. "We didn't show any concerns," said Linda Brookins of the commission.

The odor that coalition members complained about? Decaying vegetation. The black muck? Naturally occurring. Vegetation growth? Varies according to river flow. Disappearing sandbars? About the same since 1953.

"We haven't seen a lot of change," Ms. Brookins said.

The coalition hired its own expert, who concluded that increased mining caused large amounts of clay and silt to wash into the river during storms. That dirt nourished "aggressive vegetation," which covered sandbars.

State officials sympathized but said they weren't responsible for monitoring sedimentation. Coalition members decided to make someone responsible.

Not stereotypical

Despite his folksy patter, Mr. Garland and other coalition members are not easily placated rustics. Mr. Garland traveled the world as an employee of Brown & Root before joining another company, then retiring in 1996.

He commutes between Garland Bend and London, where he owns another home. Tony Goodwin, a former coalition president, is a retiree from the military and hospital administration. As business veterans, they know how bureaucracies work. Still, they knew a bunch of unknown rural residents wouldn't get much attention in Austin. They enlisted someone who would: Ms. Walton.

The billionaire heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune is no ringer. She has lived on the banks of the Brazos since 1998 and raises cutting horses on her Rocking W ranch.

"The river is why I bought this ranch," she said in a telephone interview. "It was beautiful, it was clear. It had beautiful white sandy beaches and was wonderful to swim in."

Now, Ms. Walton has canceled plans to open a children's camp in the area because of the river's condition. "It can't be here," she said.

When Mr. Goodwin approached her in 2003, she took her boat out to examine the damage herself. She remembers sitting in the Brazos and crying.

"It was like it wasn't even the same place I had bought," she said.

So, Ms. Walton joined the battle and has borne much of the coalition's cost herself. She declined to say how much.

At first, she made a few phone calls. Then she organized "flyovers" for state officials. A statewide study of quarries was initiated, which showed more than 100 mines operating without a permit - several along the Brazos.

In 2004, Attorney General Greg Abbott sued a half-dozen companies for violating permit rules. Some quarries closed, and others modified their operations.

Coalition members were pleased but not satisfied. When the Legislature met in January, they pushed for more stringent regulations on quarries in their area. Again, Ms. Walton lent her influence, even testifying in Austin on behalf of the bill.

"When it comes to things like this, I don't think you can write a check and get it done," she said. Lawmakers took notice, passing regulations that set new standards for sedimentation and operations along that 115-mile stretch of the Brazos.

"Without her involvement, that bill would have never seen a hearing," said Michael K. Stewart, president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association.

John Hofmann, government and customer relations manager for the Brazos River Authority, theorizes that urban retirees moving into rural Texas are changing "the way we interact, and the way we think about our space and our property" because they're used to city land use regulations.

Retirees also are often the ones who have the time and wherewithal to focus on quality of life, Dr. Klineberg said, whether that means protesting landfill regulations or pushing for cleaner rivers.

Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the movement's strength has always been "people at the grassroots level who are aware of the problems."

And though affluent conservatives like Ms. Walton may be late to the party, "We welcome all comers," she said.

There's no sign the coalition plans to leave the party soon.

Members have vowed to keep tabs on enforcement of the new legislation. They also turned their attention to a sewage treatment facility they suspected of fouling the water.

Environmental commission officials said the plant was in compliance with permits. Nonetheless, the coalition protested when the wastewater permit came up for renewal.

Ms. Walton's attorney represented the coalition in mediation, and within a few weeks the developer agreed to clean up trash, implement sediment control and monitor the water quality.

Michael Skahan, attorney for Double Diamond Utilities Co., said the company was in compliance with regulations but agreed to the settlement because it "won't be that great a hardship."

A movement catching on

Coalition members acknowledge their victories affect only two of 254 Texas counties. "We did what we could, when we could," Mr. Goodwin said.

But they hope their work will spread at least up and down the Brazos, from the Texas Panhandle to the Gulf of Mexico.

They've already begun working with another group, the Friends of the Brazos, which formed last spring.

The coalition was "an inspiration to me to do something," said Ed Lowe, owner of Celebration restaurant in Dallas. Mr. Lowe formed Friends of the Brazos out of concern about low water levels along part of the river. Mr. Lowe is a veteran environmentalist who already has used several plays from the coalition playbook. For example, the Friends of the Brazos requested a hearing on the Brazos River Authority's permit to manage the water along that section. The group also has recruited a big name to boost its effort - author John Graves.

Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Lowe say they expect others to join the cause.

E-mail djennings@dallasnews.com

PHOTO(S): (LOUIS DeLUCA/Staff Photographer) As a child, Larry Jones fished from a ledge along the Brazos. Now, silt allows him and his dog to walk along the river. MAP(S): (TROY OXFORD/Staff Artist) Brazos River

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