Monday, March 17, 2008

The Sprawl Effect

Barton Springs in Austin, Texas was once a thriving body of water and a favorite spring-fed swimming hole for locals. When Texas developer Gary Bradley announced plans to transform the natural hill country around the springs into a massive subdivision some 30 years ago, it sparked a major ecological outcry in Texas, one that was supported by then-governor Ann Richards. Critics of the development believed that leveling the natural ecosystem would destroy the water. This galvanized property rights proponents and the backlash helped usher George Bush into the Governor's seat.

Roadways, sewers, and waterlines now meander through the hill country of Austin as much as natural waterways.

A new documentary by director Laura Dunn tracks the story of the war to save Barton Springs. LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan says the filmmaker takes this story and turns it "into a microcosm of land use issues everywhere."

"The Unforeseen unfolds like a tragic who-dunnit with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime," Turan said recently on NPR's Morning Edition.

A rancher traverses barren land under a highway overpass in the documentary. (Anyone who lives near the Jones Falls Waterway in Baltimore understands the damaging impact that a road can have on a stream.)

The development did, in fact, cannibalize the watering hole. "So now instead of having a healthy stream, you have a drainage ditch that's either bone dry and largely dead or it's a raging flood channel," says one man in the film. "Instead of having this healthy stream you have these boom and bust cycles that really destroy the ecology."

You can see a trailer of the documentary here and you can read a longer critique of the film from Turan in the LA Times.