Golf course civics lesson: Texas Latinas foil PGA plans

San Antonio is home to the world's most pristine aquifer and a group of women who worked hard to protect it.

Settled by the Payaya Indians more than 300 years ago, San Antonio was originally named Yanaguana, or "place of refreshing waters," because of the richness of the resource.

In those abundant waters, local developers recently saw the potential for emerald golf greens and 800 permanent jobs in recreation. But here, where water has always been fiercely protected, the idea of building a huge golfer's paradise atop the Edwards Aquifer was controversial from the get-go.

What surprised many residents was that the battle, in the end, may have been swayed by a group that is hardly known as the local power brokers: Latina women.

The 2,600-acre project, known as the PGA Village, would have been set over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, one of the world's most pristine and profuse aquifers. At 180 miles long, it is the water source for 1.7 million people.

Concerned about possible water contamination, Latina community leaders organized house parties to discuss the issues. Neighbor-to-neighbor conversations resulted in new coalitions.

Environmentalists joined with neighborhood associations, limited-growth advocates united with churches, and scientists teamed up with social-justice organizations. The momentum eventually unseated a developer-friendly city council.

"They refused to give up," says George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist for the Edwards Aquifer Authority, who won a seat on the authority, with support of the Latinas, during the upheaval.

Not everyone sees the result as a win for San Antonio. The city, after all, lost a lucrative development that other cities are now vying for.

What is clear is that for some Latinas here, what began as a battle over water has become a lesson in civics, and in the power of grass-roots activism.

Clean water is particularly important to Hispanics, as many have immigrated from countries where it is not always easily accessible. And for Hispanic women especially, who are the traditional caretakers of health issues in the home and family, clean water is a hot-button topic.

"People who come from Mexico don't take clean water for granted. It's very important to them," says Annalisa Peace, a board member of the Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas in San Antonio. "In this case, some incredibly strong Latina women stepped up and did a very good job educating the community on the issue."

One of those leaders was former councilwoman Maria Antonietta Berriozábal.

"The water issue in San Antonio divides the men from the boys and the women from the girls," she says. "I lost a mayoral election [in 1991], not because I'm Latina or because of money, but because of my track record on water."

The national cachet, not to mention the jobs, would have been a major boon for San Antonio, say supporters. But opponents tapped into the growing frustration over tourism and service-industry jobs as the city's economic driver, and last week officials for the Professional Golfers Association declared the deal dead, citing the "churning political environment."

"The PGA name and brand is very important to them," says City Councilman Carroll Schubert. "They basically decided that they didn't want their name associated any further with negative controversy."

Other cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are now gunning for the prestigious development, which includes a golf school, two 18-hole golf courses, a luxury hotel, and hundreds of homes.

In San Antonio, geologists warned that the development could block recharge and contaminate the water with chemicals from runoff. But city officials said the deal had strict environmental regulations that would protect the aquifer. Regardless, any development over the Edwards Aquifer sparks immediate controversy in Texas' third-largest city.

The issue escalated two years ago when opponents began a petition drive to force a referendum on the project.

They collected well over the 68,000 signatures needed, but the city council circumvented the election by quietly signing a new agreement with a frustrated PGA.

Councilman Schubert says the city did nothing illegal or underhanded. He believes the small group of people who collected the signatures did not explain the issue with any complexity. "I think they said, 'Sign this petition if you don't want your water poisoned.' "

In the end, it may have been simple economics that killed the deal, says Carlos Guerra, a columnist with the San Antonio Express-News who was the first to make the deal public three years ago. The PGA still had not secured the financing for the luxury hotel as of May. Still, he admits the Latina leaders played a significant role in proving that developers don't always win.

"We came out of this effort with a new sense of leadership and understanding," says Joleen García, a community advocate with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio. "We proved that what has been done by the male-led organizations for centuries can be done just as successfully by women-led organizations."

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