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Helen Dutmer

INTERVIEWEE: Helen Dutmer (HD)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 20, 2006
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2353 and 2354

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s February 20th, 2006. We’re in San Antonio, Texas, at the home of Helen Dutmer, who served fourteen and a half years on the city council, and six and a half years on Commissioner’s Court in Bexar County. And through that experience, got involved in a number of debates and controversies over surface water and groundwater and other conservation issues. And I wanted to thank her for taking time to talk about the experience, and some of the insights that she might have drawn from that.
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HD: Well, I’m very happy that—to give you what knowledge I have.
DT: Well, good. Well, let’s see what you have to say. I thought we might start by asking about your childhood, and whether there might have been some early experiences that might have foretold that you’d be interested in water, and wastewater, and other kinds of conservation issues.
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HD: Well, I’ve always more or less been an outdoors person. And I laugh because my mother said she used to dress me the last because invariably I’d find water somewhere, or mud, or something. So she’d dress me last if we were going somewhere. That’s my earliest recollection of water.
DT: And I understand that with your husband, Jack, that you traveled all over. He was in the Air Force…
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HD: That’s right.
DT: But in the ‘40s you moved back to San Antonio.
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HD: That’s right.
DT: …and eventually went to work for a Mr. Peace, a well-known attorney here in town, and I think that he was perhaps your introduction to politics.
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HD: Yes, he was.
DT: Can you tell how you first got involved in the political realm here?
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HD: Well, in the local political realm, my former boss was a king maker, a political king maker. Anyone who was anyone running at the National or State level came through John Peace. And at that time he was a regent for the Us—University of Texas, and he wanted to bring the university to San Antonio. He and five other people were involved in that. Someone at City Hall was trying to stop it. And so he asked me to go down there and find out what was going on. So I started attending the meetings so that I
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could get acquainted, and then slowly became interested in city government and the people therein. And then, of course, my boss dropped dead of a heart attack in 19 and 74. And I just continued going to the—the council meetings and involved because by then I was interested. So I’d show up down there all the time. And then one day our representative made smart remark to me which I resented very deeply. And one of my great faults is when I get very angry, I either cry, or you better get out of my way. So I was in public so, of course, I blubbered, and I told him, I said you have just chosen
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yourself an opponent in the next race. He said, well, welcome to the fray. Well, as it happened, I won, and I stayed there fourteen and a half years. During that time, of course, Lila Cockrell was our mayor. And we had a big problem on the south side with the treatment plant. So I got involved in water through trying—not trying, but eventually being successful in removing the wastewater treatment plant from our area.
DT: Why don’t you tell about that story? What was the problem with the sewage treatment plant, and how did you…
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HD: The sewage treatment plant at that time had been there for a number of—well, it was the first sewage treatment plant that we had in the City of San Antonio. All of its sludge and all of the—the wastewater went into what we called Mitchell Lake. Well, the odors were just unbearable. And the people were complaining come—and, well, as it turned out, it was time for us to build a new treatment plant because we were not complying with the wastewater quality expected by the state of Texas. And so we were successful in moving that way down, five and a half miles to what is now the confluents of the Medina and San Antonio Rivers. The plant unfortunately, to this day, only treats
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the wastewater to advanced secondary, rather than tertiary. It was supposed to be tertiary, but they didn’t have enough money to complete it. The—and that was my first volley into water. And today, we have a beautiful, non-smelling, non-odoriferous lake known as Mitchell, still known as Mitchell Lake, but it’s a bird sanctuary now with a golf course up alongside of it, and homes being built. And so that was my first foray into water. Prior to that, however, I did serve on the San Antonio Water Commission for the San Antonio River downstream. And—but the big—one of my big things was moving that Rilling Road plant down to the—the confluence.
DT: And—and what were some of the tactics and strategies to actually getting the plant moved? It must have been a very expensive (?).
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HD: It was horrend—it was horrendously expensive. And of course, we did have help from the state. We had to have help from the state. And—well, there was no opposition to moving it. There was great opposition to having to raise the sewer fees, you know. There was some great opposition to that. But in the end, we prevailed, and we now have a—a quality water treatment plant.
DT: And you said that before getting involved in the sewage treatment plant that you’d been serving on the Water Board?
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HD: Yes. They’ve—they’ve always looked to the San Antonio River, you know, as a development asset. And it—it was developed and beautified, and everything else, through the inner city. But then it flows south through a—some of our historic parks, i.e., Roosevelt and—and some of the other parks. And so they were looking to improve it downstream. And so naturally, I was from the south side where the wat—river flows through the south side, and so I was made the chairman of that project by Lila Cockrell, who was then mayor. So—to date, it hasn’t come to fruition. But one of the other aspects of it, it’s beautified really doubly from what it was. It was just a creek running through a bunch of brush, and paper and debris and all that. And now they have beautified it to where they’ve cleaned it up. But as far as development, there hasn’t been a great deal of development on the river down this way. I don’t know what else to tell you.
DT: Were you ever involved in the flood control work along the San Antonio River?
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HD: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. It was that. I was there when the big ditch was dug under the city, you know. I hope to God that it never decays or we’re all going to be floating. But, yes, we had a terrible flood here in—well, other than the 1921 flood that was here. But the secondary flood, it was I think somewhere around 19—mmm—let me—I can’t think, actually, of where it—what year it was, but it was somewhere in the—the late ‘70s or ‘80s, somewhere around in there. And they needed flood control because the downtown flooded. I know I was married, so it must have been somewhere around
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the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. I—my head—at my age I can’t remember exactly. But the—the concept was then, we were going to dig a tunnel under the city, whereby this water could bypass the city and come out at the lower end. And that tunnel now exists. It—it was quite a—quite a feat. It was quite an undertaking. And—but at any rate, as I said, I hope they’re keeping an eye on it or we’ll all be swimming. But we’ve—we’ve had some devastating floods, and of course the Olmos Dam was built to—to keep the flooding down. But here lately, even in the last flood, the Olmos Dam did not protect us. And so that’s why they did the tunnel.
DT: And the River Walk, what piece of the puzzle was it? It was also flood control project?
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HD: N—yeah. That was a WPA project, whereby they dug the ditch around the river to—to slow the flow of the river, and it was a work progress. After—you know, we had a terrible depression, and during that depression is when they boarded up, or sided up, or rocked up, whatever you want to call it, anyhow, they—they built the—the River Walk. For years the River Walk was nothing except a pile of brick and a little stream running through it. People don’t realize that the bottom of that creek is concrete. And it’s not ju—it’s not a natural riverbed. And—it—it works. And thank goodness. And—and I
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don’t know who it was, whether it was Mayor McAllister or who it was that devised that River Walk. And whoever it was had a very keen sight, keen vision for San Antonio.
DT: Well, was it both the vision for flood control and tourism?
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HD: Yes. Yes. In the beginning it was nothing but flood control. And then later on is when they started developing the River Walk. So—and now, the flood control is further down where they built the dam, the flood dams, the gates. And—as you know, San Antonio River is not a—a—what we call—as a matter of fact, some of the Yankees that come down here laugh at us for calling it a river. They said it’s a stream. But nevertheless, it’s been a river, it’s been a constant river, and it was the water for the City of San Antonio for many, many years.
DT: Is that right?
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HD: That’s right. That’s right. It supplied water to the city of San Antonio for many, many years.
DT: So there was a time before San Antonio had major wells that the…
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HD: That’s right. Before they did the major wells—everybody had their own well east of town. Now my grandmother lived on (?) Hill, and we had our own well over there. And then when they did put in city water, well, of course we were having to cap the wells and cover them up. But we all had our wells.
DT: Well, it’s interesting, this discussion about flood control. Why does the San Antonio River, which, like you say, is more maybe of a stream or a creek? Why is it so flood prone?
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HD: Well, because it is the ultimate, and the—all of the water of the nation flows from the northwest to the southeast, unless somebody in the science department has misinformed us. But it—it flows from the northwest to the southeast. And I guess it’s just a natural phenomenon that it comes from the Hill Country and flows out through the spring. San Antonio River actually was a spring. The mouth of the river is at Brackenridge Park. But of course, that spring dried up. It’s now pumped into the San Antonio River. But it—it—that spring up there dried up, and it just was a natural spring that formed the river.
DT: And why did the spring dry up?
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HD: Through the terrible drought that we had in the ‘50s. Yeah. We had a terrible drought. This last year has been very dry, and they’re complaining about the dry—you know, the dryness and whatnot. But we had a seven year drought. And that’s when they swore that the aquifer was going to dry up, we would not have any more mon—water. That everybody had better seek out a—a source of water. And I don’t know whether we were supposed to dig wells again or what. But it was. It was—it was very frightening. It—it—it…
DT: Can you remember the experience of living through drought here?
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HD: Oh, yeah. I can. Sure. At my age, yes, I can. But fortunately, I had an aunt and an uncle who lived on a farm east of town. They had a well. And so we didn’t really have too much—I can’t remember too much trouble. And then—let me see. That was in the ‘50s. Yeah.
DT: Was this about the time, and maybe the reason, for the first proposals for Applewhite Reservoir, when this (?)?
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HD: Oh, no. That—that was what—no, no, no, no, no. What they were trying—what the next step was as I recall, now I may not have all of this stuff chronologically in order. But the next thing I remember was they wanted to build dams along the creeks up north. Now I’ve seen this to—believe it or not—I’ve seen the Salado Creek, and they—they call it “Soledo” now, but I’ve seen the Salado Creek at least a mile wide. Yeah. Yeah. That was—that was another tributary to San Antonio. So they were going to put a dam up there. Well, instead of putting it on the Salado Creek to form a surface water entrapment,
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they put it on—mmm—what is the name of that creek? They put it, anyhow, east of that on another creek. And that’s where they wanted to build a PGA golf course. So they did have a dam placed there. I was at that dedication. And I don’t think there was ever any water behind the dam, but there was a humungous sinkhole there that went directly into the aquifer. And that’s why they put it there.
DT: So it wasn’t so much of a storage reservoir as more like a entrapment for the sinkhole?
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HD: For—for the sinkhole to—for it to go into the aquifer. Yep.
DT: So they were thinking that they could store the water better than the aquifer where it wouldn’t evaporate (?)?
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HD: Well, yes, so that it would go through the cleansing, you know. The aquifer cleanse it’s—cleans its own water, and so that it would be stored down in the aquifer. Yeah. That’s what it was.
DT: So the Salado Creek Reservoir was one of the first, and then there were proposals for ones after that as well?
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HD: Well, they never built the one on the Salado Creek.
DT: They moved eastward.
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HD: Yeah. They moved eastward. And then I don’t know what they did. They div—they’ve—I know they have controls on Salado, but I don’t know exactly what the technology was.
DT: What was the next water supply project you remember?
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HD: Going to Canyon Lake. And then that one was killed, too.
DT: Well, tell about the proposal to build, and then I guess it actually was carried through Canyon Lake. But then water from there was not delivered to San Antonio?
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HD: No, no, no, no. What it was, it was a contract with—with Canyon Lake that we would take X number of acre feet from them, buy it from them. And—but if there was a need downstream, then we would not get that portion of the water. And so that’s what voted it down. In other words, we were going to buy—let’s—for just for the sake of argument, we were going to buy five acre feet. But if there was a drought condition down below for the land, you know, ow—owners down below, then we would not get whatever they used. If they used three acre feet of that, then we only got two acre feet, but for the same amount of money. We had to start paying immediately, and pay every—you know. So that’s what killed that. And they all blame Henry Cisneros for that, but I don’t think it was Henry he—particularly. I don’t there were a lot of people in favor of starting to pay that amount of money and not be sure of the water.
DT: And the reservoir already existed when all these negotiations were going on.
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HD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yeah. Yeah. The Corps of Engineers had finished Canyon Lake. It was the downstream users that they were concerned with.
DT: And then what would be the next surface water project that you (?)?
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HD: Oh, dear old Applewhite.
DT: How did that get started?
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HD: Well, they needed surface water. And as I said, we removed the Rilling Road Plant. They had then built the Leon Plant that took care of all the wastewater from the western edge of the city, including the bases. And the object was, and they—they still deny this, but—but it was so obvious. The object was that they would combine water from Medina Lake with the wastewater to put it into a reservoir known as Applewhite Reservoir. And of course, the people down there, parti—in particular, the Walsh’s, and they called me, and I went down there, and right next to them were the—mmm—now you got me on names. Any—anyhow, to make the long story short, they wanted to buy
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up all those ranches down there. And the—they did. Under eminent domain they—they bought up a great number of properties down there. And the Walsh family bucked them. They said no, they weren’t going to—they weren’t going to sell it, and they’d have to take it by eminent domain. And he had some legal things there that others may not have had, or been interested in. But at any rate, they did not take the Walsh Ranch, because it ended before prior to that. Well, I don’t know whether it was rumor or whether it was intent. But at any rate, the story got out that the people from the southern half of the city
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would have to drink this water, and the other people would be on aquifer water. Well, you know, that went over like a lead balloon. And so they had to put it to a vote, and they voted it down. It was voted down. And I admit, I was right in the middle of it, and vehemently opposed to it for, not for particularly for that reason, but the object of these lakes and things are to have water when you need it. When you don’t need water, you don’t need a lake. Well, it had been proven through history that when we needed water, and there was a drought, this was dry down there. The Medina River was dry. Medina
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Lake was sunken almost the bottom. And so what was the use of building a lake for water reservoir when the water wouldn’t be there when you needed it? That was my contention. And they floated around stories about how it was going to be a constant-level lake, which was an impossibility down there in that sandy loam. And—one—meeting that I went to with people down there on the south side, at Southside School, the head of the water board gave us a—and I’m not mentioning names, as you notice—he gave us a
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sp—or she, rather, gave us a speech. And she tried to convince us that it was going to be a constant-level lake. So I asked her how can it be a constant-level lake in that area when the elevation at the top was higher than the elevation at the lower part? And she says, well, what we’ll do is when we need the water, we’ll take it from the lower edge and leave the upper edge as it is. I said how are you going to retain that water as a constant level, when the elevation up there is higher than it is at the lower end of it? Water flows downstream, madam, not upstream. Well, everybody just roared and, you know, laughed
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and everything else, and it came out in all the papers, and all that garbage. And—so anyhow, when the vote came around, Applewhite was defeated. So that’s the story.
DT: And this was a public referendum?
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HD: It was a public referendum. Yes.
DT: And were there more than one? Were there two referendums on…
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HD: Yes, there was. The first one was defeated. They put the second up, and it was defeated, too.
DT: Why did it have to come to a vote twice?
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HD: Well, that’s politics, you know. Somebody found that—that’s just like making a law. You—you pass the law, and there’s two loopholes in that law that some attorney is going to walk through with a Mack truck in front of him. And so somebody found a loophole, and so here we go again, you know. Well, that’s like the PGA thing, you know. That thing was—I—I—I tell you, they—they just play and push and play and push till people say, oh, what the—mmm, you know. That’d do. But that’s why it came to two votes.
DT: Can you explain also what the value was to having a constant-level lake? Was that for development around the rim (?)?
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HD: It was supposed to be for development and enticement to build that lake. That’s what it was. So—I mean there’s just no denying it. There wa—it was an impossibility to have a constant-level lake. In the first place, that land out there is sandy loam. It is not just plain old hard packed dirt, or mud, or anything else. And very doubtful that it would hold all that water. But be that as it may, that—that was a statement of the year. “We’ll take from the bottom of the lake and leave the top as a constant level,” you know. I couldn’t believe my ears. I could not believe my ears. Anyhow, she left the state.
DT: I’d always heard that Applewhite was intended to wean San Antonio off of the reliance on the Edwards Aquifer.
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HD: That’s what I was supposed to do.
DT: But then I heard other people say, no, it was really a development scheme for the land owners and (?).
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HD: Well, I’d—I don’t really—I don’t really think it was a development scheme for our—for our land owners. There had to be a—an overall need for it for them to take land by eminent domain. And then there was a lawsuit filed, too, and I don’t know wh—how many people remember this, that SAWS [San Antonio Water System] did not have the power of eminent domain. And—so then it switched over to the city. I believe that was one of the reasons that they—the thing was voted on twice. It entered in there anyhow.
DT: Can you bring us up to date a little bit about how the land around the proposed Applewhite Reservoir has been used?
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HD: Yes. It’s—it’s basically been farming land. There’s small farms out there. Now the Walsh Ranch was quite large, and it had a beautiful pecan bottom, whereby, you know, the commercial pecan people came in and threshed their trees. And it was really a beautiful situation. But they were all small farms. It was all farmland. The Miller family had a land right across the river from the Walsh Ranch. They still maintain that. And we had another Donny Brook and fight over that here when they’re trying to develop the city south. And I—I really don’t understand why they had to pick that particular basin, and
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there it may be what you were talking about; it may have ha—had something to do with developers. But I can’t swear to that. But I do know that—that the people didn’t want it. Now some day we may be sorry. I hope not. But I still say that water would not be there if they needed it. I—I would almost put my life on the line for that. That water would not have been there in a drought when we needed it.
DT: So the idea was that you would have tapped Applewhite when Edwards Aquifer levels were dropping. And that’d probably be a drought condition?
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HD: Well, not only that, but we probably would have had to been drinking that water on the—the—and I realize that you can treat water. But in a city of this size, that was started here on the south side—there was nothing on the north side. There was no north side to San Antonio. It stopped at—at—not even 1604. It stopped right up there at—mmm—Sam—before Sam Houston, at right across—straight across. There was nothing on the north side. It was all south side.
DT: Well, tell us (?)…
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HD: And in a city of this side—size, why should those who made San Antonio have to drink the wastewater, while the—the newcomers, and there were none up there, would use the pure water? So that—it was quite a fight. It was quite a fight.
DT: Well, you mentioned that San Antonio started really on the south side of downtown.
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HD: That’s right. That’s right.
DT: And that you grew up on the south side.
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HD: Wait a minute. When—no, wait a minute.
DT: Can you talk about what it was like down here then?
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HD: Wait a minute. Yeah. Yeah, I can tell you. But San Antonio, as I remember it as a child, as I told you, my grandmother lived on the east side. My mother was the oldest girl, and my grandmother was a widow. We lived with my grandmother on the east side to take care of Grandma. And that was my mother’s mother. And so in those days, the tradition was the oldest girl took care of Mamma. And—so anyhow, lived over there. I walked that old Hays Street Bridge many, many, many a time. There was nothing to the City of San Antonio except the near east side. And when I say near, it went one block
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beyond New Braunfels Avenue on the east side. When I say downtown, it was Houston, Commerce, there wasn’t even a Durango Street at that time. The streets were gravel. Now I know I’m dating myself, and I’m showing you my age. But at any rate, that was downtown. Then there was the west side where the Hispanic population was. And incidentally, we did not have a black population in San Antonio at that time. They lived out east of the city, but way off east of the city. And the west side was strictly Hispanic and it was a small area of—of Hispania. Then, when in the—after the depression, the
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south side grew. But until that time, it was all small farms. And they had a f—number of great number of homes through here. Just like right here, the old homestead was up there, and alls these little houses here. But that was all that was here. They were farm.
DT: Dairy farms?
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HD: Ye—well, most of them were dairy farms. Yeah. The (?) Pfeiffer Dairy Farm, and our farm, and the—oh, I don’t know, there was the Bakers. Well, anyhow, they were all small farms. The Treywalders, and—oh, all of them—anyhow. And there was no growth. But then the south side started growing. And that’s what San Antonio was. And then until the 1921’s, 22’s, when they started building around Fort Sam Houston, and then after World War II, when things were looking better and up, they started building to the north because the people on the south side would not sell their homes to—wouldn’t sell their properties, their farms to them. When the developer had come around, they’d
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tell them no, you know. And so they went north. And these were mostly people from the north who had been down here in the service, and moved down here because the climate was w—better than theirs up there, and because there was opportunities for them down here at that time. So that’s how San Antonio was born, and it’s been going crazy ever since.
DT: Well, is that why San Antonio’s political decisions were sometimes kind of fractured along the south side versus west side versus north side?
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HD: Versus the north side, yes. North side, south side. Because, you know, they—they used the old ploy that the people of the north side pay more taxes than the people on the south side. Well, of course they do. They had more, you know. They had bigger homes. They had—well, more land and whatnot. They did pay more taxes. But they forgot that it was the south side that paid their taxes until they could get something built up there. And so it—it was not a fair comparison at all. And that’s where, you know, the north and the south, the old Civil War started in—in San Antonio.
DT: So part of the attention was maybe carpet value versus the southern folks (?) already been here?
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HD: You’re absolutely right. Yes. You’re absolutely right. The—well, for instance, and I like to use this, as I told you, if I don’t have fun, I don’t do it. You know, the carpetbaggers came down here, built two-up, two-down sheep sheds, called them condos, and the—and the southerners went crazy to buy them. What—the initial buildings that they built down here were exactly like the—well, I use Morgan Park as a—an example, where we were. And they were two-up, two-down sheep sheds, maybe six of them in a row, you know. No front yard, no back yard. That—you sh—you shared it with your
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neighbor. And they called them condos down here. And that’s what they were. They were two-up, two-down sheep sheds. So…
DT: We’ve been talking a little bit about water supplies, the Applewhite and about how the population changed in San Antonio. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about groundwater, and how that affected the water situation here. I think there was this instance with Ronnie Pucek and the catfish farm.
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HD: Yeah, the catfish farm. Well, I, along with (?), was a chairman of a water commission appointed for the city to study the groundwater and the future of water in San Antonio. And it came to my attention that there was a guy that bought part of the Sunshine Ranch, which is northwest of the city, and (coughing) excuse me—but—and he was coming onto the ranch, and he was going to build a catfish farm for someone, and as I recollect it, and I may be wrong on this, was up east in Maryland. And the object was, he was going to raise our freshwater catfish here, because it is a delicacy, and then ship it
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up north to sell to the restaurants up there, the restaurateurs. Well, I advised them that he was coming, and I was ignored. And they said, mm-mm. No, that’ll be all right. That’ll be all right. Well, then it—looking into it further, they had given him a permit (coughing) excuse me—they had given him a permit to drill a well on the property. But they made sure that it was on the sour waterline. The—the line ran straight through that Sunshine Ranch.
DT: What is the sour waterline?
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HD: That is sulfur water and salt water. (coughing) Non-potable water. And instead, Ronnie moved his well over a hundred feet, and he hit the aquifer water. I’m sorry, but…
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HD: So the end-all, be-all was that Pucek was smarter than they thought he was, and he moved his well over a hundred feet and hit aquifer water. So he had pure aquifer water he was running through there. Well, I think that the reason they gave him, and this is my opinion that they gave him the permit, well, they were going to add this eventually to the Applewhite water. Well, instead they got pure water. But the Applewhite was not approved as yet, and all of this water was going through those—those various pools for the catfish, and it—actually, it was wasted water. The people downstream enjoyed it, and
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that’s fine and good, and they had irrigation rights off of it and everything. But what we needed was potable water, not, you know, vegetables. At any rate, they shut him down. It was a big battle over that. And that’s the story of your catfish farm. But the object is that they knew about that catfish farm. But they never let anyone else know about the catfish farm because they felt secure that it was going to be the bad waterline. And it turned out not to be. Well, it’s—how else can I help you on that one? The whole thing seems to have sort of a piece b—over here, a piece over here, a piece over here. Someone was not coordinating that thing, or they would have all come together, and today we may have had an Applewhite.
DT: And as I understand it, the concern about the catfish farm was it showed how the rule of capture could allow a single well owner to affect the Edwards Aquifer and the source of water for many, many people.
00:42:48 – 2353
HD: That is absolutely right. At that time, when you bought your land, you bought the rights of everything under there. The mineral rights, the water rights, everything was a vested right into the person who owned the land. It’s not so now. That’s when they started working on the vested rights clause of the water quality/quantity at stake.
DT: And so the Underground Edwards Water District came out of this sort of controversy?
00:43:27 – 2353
HD: Yes. Yes, it did. Yeah.
DT: Can you tell us how you…
00:43:30 – 2353
HD: It came out of this, and it came out of the study that we were doing at the time. We felt we needed a—an organization of people who were knowledgeable about water in the State of Texas, in the—the area of San Antonio. We needed a separate organization to control that water or at least to manage that water. And your Edwards Underground, now we have someone there from each and every area of the water concerns. We have someone from Atascosa, we have someone from Medina, we have someone from—from way out west. They’re all interested in water quality. Those that take from the aquifer.
DT: And the district then later became the Edwards Aquifer Authority? Is that…
00:44:28 – 2353
HD: That’s right. That’s right.
DT: The current body?
00:44:30 – 2353
HD: That’s right. Mm-mmm. That’s right.
DT: How did they manage to get permission to cap the amount of water that would be pumped from the Edwards?
00:44:41 – 2353
HD: Well, that was done at state, through state legislation. And of course, with your lobbyists and all the rest of the knowledgeable people, they—they got it through to where it—you were limited to—if you had ten acres, enough water for ten acres, and no more. You couldn’t sell it off or anything of that nature. So—that—that’s—that’s where that came in. But few people realize that the aquifer—we are on a very small part of that aquifer. That aquifer goes all the way out to Brackettville. And as a matter of fact, the aquifer itself could be fed by Medina Lake. Or it may be, I don’t know. They may be
00:45:33 – 2353
taking some of the water now. But the water to the west, and to the northwest, is more plentiful than the water that we have right here, the rainfall and whatnot that we have here. So when it rains, pray that it rains over that aquifer.
DT: Maybe you could tell us another thing about the controversies over groundwater. You mentioned the catfish farm, and how that affected San Antonio. But another issue I think was the lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against Mr. Babbitt involving endangered species. And can you help us understand that?
00:46:17 – 2353
HD: I’m not real familiar with that lawsuit, if you want to know the fact about it. I do remember there was a great fight over the blind salamanders, you know, out west, where they wanted to tap into some of those possibilities for groundwater out west. And there was quite a fight over that. And I’ve never seen a blind salamander. I don’t know what use they are to mankind. But I do know that nature itself eradicates some of its own when they’re no longer useful. So I don’t know what a blind salamander did, unless they
00:47:00 – 2353
were fish food or something I had no idea. They were living back in the caves over there. And there was quite a—quite a brouhaha about that, and I knew (?) that there was a lawsuit filed.
DT: Another issue I guess, touching on groundwater, and groundwater protection in particular, was this ordinance that the city passed. I think it was 48106 that was an attempt to protect the recharge zone.
00:47:32 – 2353
HD: Yes.
DT: Can you explain how that ordinance came about, and the lawsuit that proceeded after it?
00:47:39 – 2353
HD: Well, I can’t give you all of the particulars. Remember, I’ve been out of office now for ten years. And it was six and a half years before that that I got off of the council. But the—as I recall, we needed to protect that recharge zone, because as I told you, we are on a very small part of that aquifer. And that aquifer, the way it runs, runs up north of San Antonio and not all of that water stays here. It flows to the east, to New Braunfels, all the way to up to Hays County. And few people realize that. That the people up in New Braunfels, and all up around in there, are—are on that aquifer also. Well, our very
00:48:33 – 2353
small part of it is mostly over the recharge zone. And if we cut the water off of recharging our s—section here so that it can flow east, we could be in dire trouble. Even though there is maybe fifty years of water in the big aquifer, there is a level whereby it stops running this way. See? There is a lip there, and it starts ru—and it’ll stop running this way over into our small area, smaller area. So the recharge zone is a very valuable tool to the aquifer. And to just randomly build over it and take the chance of polluting what is there, is just unconscionable. It’s—it’s just—why, it’s the most foolish thing
00:49:33 – 2353
there is. But why should the developer care? The developer, when he gets through developing a piece of land, takes off somewhere else, and you’re left with what is there. So you have to be very careful of what you put over that recharge zone. Not everything could be abandoned. But you get all of the—the way they’re going at it now with vast eight, and five hundred, and seven hundred acres, over a thousand acres. I have a cousin that just sold the ranch up above where this PGA course is supposed to be. She sold the ranch up there. Well, that was all fallow land up there, where the recharge zones, it could
00:50:30 – 2353
soak through, it could go through if the dip that it needed to go through. Well, now it won’t be there. So—and as far as pollution, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of in my whole life. That we have not built a treatment plant in case there is pollution up there. It’s proactive, not reactive. If they’d build a treatment plant up there, then you can relax a little bit o—on the fear of pollution of the aquifer, the portion that we are in. But if you polluted the entire aquifer, you’d be in dire straights, not from here, all the way over to El Paso almost. And so it pays to protect that Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
DT: Well, when you first passed this ordinance, I understand that you got a lot of static, you might say, and you actually got sued for, was it seven hundred and fifty million dollars.
00:51:41 – 2353
HD: That’s right. That’s right.
DT: How did ya’ll respond to the lawsuit, and how did it finally get resolved?
00:51:49 – 2353
HD: Well, the lawsuit was dropped after the council reconsidered. And they acted at state then. This was a local deal, you know. And the county entered into this. So, here again, I was involved. But the—it was—it was a bloody battle. But of course, it came out of a group of people who could sit forever and hold a city hostage. So something had to be done. So what they did was lessened the vested right portion of that. We’re having another fight right now on vested rights.
DT: What are vested rights?
00:52:44 – 2353
HD: Vested rights is when you buy a piece of land, you own any—what minerals are there and what water is there. And if you want to drop a well, you drop a well. But you can’t do that anymore unless you are grandfathered in. And grandfathering is the people who own the land, and—and if they were planning on building something, they had to at that time submit to the city a sort of a plan of what the future for that piece of property was going to be before they were vested in the waters.
DT: And so that would freeze whatever regulations applied.
00:53:26 – 2353
HD: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. You’re correct.
DT: And how does that vested rights issue apply both—was this back in 1977 with the ordinance that you were involved with. And then most recently with the (?).
00:53:40 – 2353
HD: Well, that—the—well, let me give you the picture. Before, I moved out to a—a farm, and I just dropped a well. It was free water, you could use as much as you wanted to, you could let it run into a lake. As a matter of fact, some of the biggie-bigs that owned ranches west of the city did form their own lakes on their properties. You could use as much water as you just cared to. And then when it came to these droughts that we had and whatnot, and it came to a point where it was city folk and—and rural folk against each other, the rural folks—or rather the city folks, prevailed in that—that’s where the economy was, and they put a cap on the amount of water that could be taken
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from these private wells, and—so that it would retain water in the aquifer. Well, you can retain water in the aquifer only to a point. After that, if the aquifer is full, it flows out to the sea. But if we don’t have the water going out to the sea, then the estuaries down at the coast die. And they have to have X amount of fresh water in order to survive, the estuaries down there. So it—it’s a very complex thing. And—but at any rate, what it was doing, it was curbing these, what I call, inner city rural farms. They’re not really
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country farms anymore, you know. And so it sort of curbed the amount of water that they would take out of the aquifer leaving it to the citizens who were within the city realm, and the county realm.
DT: So you think there’s kind of a transfer of water rights going on from ranch owners, farm owners…
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HD: Yes. Yes.
DT: …to municipal uses?
00:55:55 – 2353
HD: It—yes. It has every—well, San Antonio would never—could never be a big manufacturing city because of our lack of water, you know. We get—we didn’t have the water supply for a manufacturing city. That’s why they—we didn’t have it. So at any rate, it’s been that way in the State of Texas ever since there’s been a State of Texas. The guy that controls the water controls the territory. And you are going to continue to have water fights one way or the other until they decide who is going to be the Czar of the water. And you know this. You’ve worked at—Texas history, I assume you have,
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where they had all of the gun fights and battles over water. If the big boy didn’t want the little guy down there farming, he wanted his land, he just cut him off his water. And—so I think it’s about time people wake up to the fact that water is life, and that we’re going to have to protect it in some way. And now I will admit, I am not a—a water engineer, shall we say, and I think one of the better engineers, and he’s proving that now up north, was what they called the COPS Organization had an org—argument with him. COPS
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Metro had an argument, and that was Van Dyke. He was one of the best water purveyors that I can read in history. And he’s proving it up north now. With all the troubles they’re having with pollution up there and everything.
DT: What was this discussion between COPS and Mr. Van Dyke?
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HD: Well, COPS and—and Metro did not like Mr. Van Dyke, who was at that time the head of the water here in San Antonio, head of SAWS. They didn’t like him because—well, to tell you the truth, I don’t what the real general cause was, but it had to do with development. Not with water per se, but with development. And jobs. And all the rest of it, you know.
[End of Reel 2353]
DT: Well, let’s pick up I guess the next chapter. When you were talking earlier, you were explaining about some of the rationale for protecting the Edward’s Aquifer by limiting development on the recharge zone. And this was back in the mid ‘70s that this was happening, 1977. The issue has arisen again with PGA Village. And I understand you went and spoke on behalf of the Aquifer Protection Association against that development. I was curious if you could explain why you spoke up?
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HD: My rationale there and in thinking back, at the time I questioned this, and that is I realize that a golf course has a great deal of open space, and a great deal of rough, and some greens, and all the rest of it, where there is no building situated on it. Now my idea on that was that we should curb the use of all of these pesticides, and all of the other things they use on the golf courses, and—such as bringing in the dirt, and all that stuff, and what was going to happen in the sand traps, because water filters through sand very quickly. Those were mostly my concerns for that. But then I coupled it with what they
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called “a village,” I would hardly call a village. It’s another little city is what it is, with that humungous hotel that they wanted to put out there. And then all of the homes that they were going to put on this drew in other developers who were going to build around it to where they were just going to completely cover the—the—that area of the recharge zone out there. And that’s where they built the dam for the—the—the golf cre—course would have been right on this creek where they built the dam for that humungous sinkhole that went directly into the aquifer. So there were my concerns, that they were over-building. Not PGA itself, but because it connected to the surrounding lands who were under development, and there would just be a complete cover over the recharge
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zone in that area. Now that was my concern. And that’s what I didn’t want to occur. Now if they could have curbed some of that building out there, I’d have no problem with a golf course, because you can always control a golf course. But when you—when you’re putting those hum—well, two and three story homes out there, and all the condos, and all the apartments that they had planned out there, and I was serving on the—the zoning commission at that time, and all of the co—the building plans that they had for that area would have completely covered it. And that is not what we need out there. That
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was my concern. And actually, the people we should have heard from for lawsuits should have been New Braunfels, and—and—oh, San Marcos, those people who are drinking that water from that portion of the…
DT: Did you have any concern, aside from the water quality issues, maybe related to the subsidies or the annexation agreements, and so on?
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HD: Well, yes. San Antonio (?) way back there, and I—and this was not—let me see—who was it that was the mayor then? I’ve forgotten who was the mayor. I think it was John—I—I’m not certain who was the mayor. But they made the remark that they were going to annex the entire Bexar County into the city. You know, that’s what Houston did. Houston is—has no more county. It’s all Houston, Texas. And so—no, I—I could not go for that. But in addition to the golf course, and the building and
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covering of it, there would be the people living on it. That would be how many commodes flushing, how many showers running, how many basins running, how many washing machines running? It would have taken a great amount of water for—for this development. Further, they would have had to had roads, whereby that runoff would have been there. You know, automobiles, and—so that was my concern. But—so be it. I’m just Helen Dutmer, Citizen now.
DT: You mentioned just briefly that you served on the zoning commission.
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HD: Yes, I did.
DT: And I was hoping that you might be able to tell about any environmental issues that came up while you were on the zoning commission. I think there was one that I’d noticed about the big tax development that involved asbestos and other kinds of (?). Maybe you can give some insight into that.
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HD: Well, yes. I was serving on the zoning commission. Now it failed every time it came up before the zoning commission. It failed. We did not vote for that. Eventually I think they gave them permission to build that. But again, my concerns were that the railroad was right there alongside the—this complex. There had been a number of accident, train accidents there where trains had doubled over and—and all the rest turned over, crashed. And one of my biggest concerns there was safety, not water quality, although it was right there on the river. And—so my concern was really for safety on that more than anything. And I just didn’t feel that that was the place for it.
DT: Did you ever get into situations on the zoning commission where you dealt with this tendency for the city to just reach out into the outskirts of town, to always (?)?
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HD: Yes. The five mile extra territorial jurisdiction? Yes. Uh-huh. Well, the only—the only control we had over that five mile extra territorial jurisdiction as if it was within a hundred feet adjacent to the highway. See? So that’s all we could control out there. That extra territorial—territorial jurisdiction doesn’t mean it’s just a ring around the city. There has to be—it has to be adjacent to a roadbed of some sort.
DT: Was there any zoning that was done on the inner core of the city to try and encourage people to build more densely here to lessen the pressure on the outskirts of town?
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HD: There is enough—there is enough land, fallow here in the city, and enough homes built that are still good homes, that we don’t need to go to Boerne to build homes, we don’t need to go to New Braunfels to build homes. I attended a—a—with my then boss, General—oh—Walter, and I attended a seminar with him in Chicago, to show you how far this goes, wherein they predicted that by the year 2040, San Antonio and Austin would be one. It would be connected roadbed. That San Antonio to the northwest would be connected to—and this I think is outlandish—it’s almost, but not quite, Kerrville.
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And—let me see. It was up thirty-five to Austin, to Kerrville, and now we’re going to 281, but 281 is not going to connect to anything real soon except for homes and whatnot. But they are building out that way at—but they’re building homes, and not building businesses and things like they are on the Austin Highway and out I-10 west.
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HD: It looks like that might come to pass. Of course, I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. And—but I—I think there are—they’re really getting too congested. And when you get too congested, you defeat your own person—purpose because as you reach out, the heart of the community dies. We’re seeing that in San Antonio now. We—they went out, they built all these malls and all—all of these things where they can just drive in and park and do all of that. They’ve killed downtown except for the River Walk. Actually, they’ve killed the history of San Antonio. People didn’t come here to see glass and brick buildings. They have those at home. They didn’t come here to shop the same stores they
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have up there. Of course, it’s a different lifestyle because of our weather. But they can’t seem to get that the concept of the steady economy is the people who live therein. Downtown was my shopping district. I didn’t need a mall to do it. But that—that’s the way modern cities are being built now u—on the peripheries. But the hearts of the cities are dying. And I have a little problem with that. If—if—I can remember the changes of our city now to what it was, and of course you have to have changes and progress. But
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not to the detri—you don’t kill off your old people so that the young people have room. You don’t kill off your history so that you can have modern s—conveniences. And that’s what’s happening.
DT: Well, what do you think the impetus is to always move out considering that, you know, you have to build more roads and transmission lines, and (?)?
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HD: Well, because there are more people, and it’s more congested. Again, it goes back to congestion. There’s no parking uptown. There’s—now if they could figure out something beside a four-story parking garage that you have to enter in at twelve o’clock at night if you’re a person alone, you know, there’s—there’s certain things that they’re not looking at that they should be looking at. And—for instance, i—if you’re going to build all these things; then have some security in there. But we don’t have enough policemen. We don’t have enough fire personnel in this city. So those are the things
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you have to look at. What are cities for? The health, the safety, and the general welfare of the people. And the general welfare is water, roads, environment, and so forth. So—and that’s all a city is supposed to do. They’re not supposed to be in all this other stuff.
DT: Sometimes the city, you know, is involved in regulating and vesting infrastructure, and sometimes it gets into developing projects that are meant to bring in tourists and dollars. And I think one is the Alamo Dome. Can you tell about your experience with that and what you…
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HD: I told them to take my picture down and everything else in the Alamo Dome. That was a real fiasco. And I’m going to tell you the truth, and if they want to sue me, they can have everything I have in this house. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. I served on the appraisal board back when I was only—I was the city representative. John Holmgreen who—the Holmgreen family were the owners of Alamo Iron Works here. And Alamo Iron Works was a viable business for many, many, many, many years. It
00:15:42 – 2354
would have been there about a hundred years. And John Holmgreen came in raising holy in particular about his—it was evaluated for too much money. Too much money. We had to lower the evaluation on Alamo Iron Works. When we evaluat—reevaluated it, I think we knocked it down to about six hundred thou—taxes. And I don’t—I don’t know. Next thing I knew, Henry Cisneros was talking Alamo Dome at the Alamo Iron Works.
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And I thought, hey, wait a minute. Something doesn’t ring true here. And so—at any rate, it was—the Alamo Dome originally was supposed to be built over on the eastern edge of the city. And now all of a sudden it was changed over here to Alamo Iron Works. And I thought, gee, something’s in the works. Something doesn’t smell right. And—so anyhow, Henry pushed forward with it. And the next thing I knew, the city was going to buy Alamo Iron Works, and under eminent domain, and they were going to give them somewhere—I’ve forgotten what the exact figure was, but it was in the millions.
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And they were going to put the Alamo Dome between the railroad track and the—the expressway. And when they started bringing in the plans, well, to me it looked like a—one of these hangers out at—out—Kelly Field. I said you’re going to put that thing in the heart of the city? And the next thing I knew, Valero Energy had put in fifty thousand dollars to hold an election for the Alamo Dome. And I thought what in the heck is Valero Energy putting fifty thousand dollars in when they and Henry Cisneros had just gotten through with a lawsuit, and a hatred for each other that they were drawing swords
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and looking over the fence at each other. And come to find out, that the head of the Alamo—I mean the Valero Energy Board of Trustees was John Holmgreen, who owned Alamo Iron Works. So let’s guess where that support came from. To make the long story short, in looking back, Alamo Iron Works was on the verge of bankruptcy. And so how do I know? I had a cousin working in there who was up in the upper tier of Alamo Iron Works. And so they proceeded and they bought Alamo Iron Works. Well, it cost
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them so much to clean up the pollution there, that we’re still finding places where they dumped all of that pollution. And I—who’s to say where it—where it—it might be in my backyard. I don’t know, you know. It isn’t really, because I’ve lived here too long. But they dumped this environmentally poisonous dirt all over the city in every vacant lot they could find, every place they could find. One of them right along the bank of the Salado, who flows down to the confluents of the San Antonio River and the Medina River. So at any rate, I beha—didn’t like where the Alamo Dome was going. I didn’t like the properties there. It was bound in. It was surrounded. There was no place they could go
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to—to alleviate. There’re not enough parking there. And I think the concept was then that they would buy the properties around it and use that for parking and for the other things. Well, it didn’t work. Those people were not required to—to sell under eminent domain, because it was not for the common good of the majority of the people of San Antonio to build the Alamo Dome in that one spot. Even though it was for John Holmgreen, and it was for Henry Cisneros who got his broker’s license in two weeks, that it takes other people two years or more to get. Well, there’s a lot of just scandal.
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That’s when he made the remark, he says—when I told him, I says, no, that’s not the place for it. I will continue to be against it. It may pass, but it won’t be on my vote. And so he says, well, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. And that’s when I made the remark that—that my good friend, Casey, still uses. I said, oh, I can stand the heat, it’s the smell that’s getting to me. And, oh, I’m telling you, that Rick Casey picked
00:21:23 – 2354
that thing up and he is still using it in the Houston papers. But at any rate, that—that—that Alamo Dome smelled from the beginning. Who was behind it? Red McCombs. You didn’t know that, did you? No. No. You didn’t know that. They tore the old arena down because he didn’t like it for his Spurs. And so they put them over in the Alamo Dome. Well, to make the long story short, the Alamo Dome did not work out. We didn’t have a ball team, we had a—a good, and I still support, Spurs team, that Red McCombs sold to Pete Holt, and then wouldn’t sell him the concession stands to go with it, and
00:22:14 – 2354
that’s where they make their money. Not selling that seat, but that’s where they make their money. So now we have the SBC, or AT&T Center out at the Coliseum, and Pete Holt has his—his arena out there. And we have the Alamo Dome. And they say the Alamo Dome is paying for itself, but I don’t know how it could. We have very few conventions. The idea of building the Alamo Dome was that we not only would have football there, and basketball there, and other venues that came to the city, but we could get the—well, what do we call them—major conventions here. The Democratic, the Republican, the whatever the hell else they had there (?)—whatever the heck else they
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had there. I’m sorry. I should—bleep that. But I get riled up about it. In the first place, we had more conventions here than we could handle to begin with. We had the auditorium for the lesser conventions. We had the convention center for the more popular conventions. And we were handling them beautifully. We didn’t need these five major conventions. We didn’t need those. But we built the Alamo Dome. Did the
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conventions come here? No. They still are not coming here. So to make the long story short, I opposed it vehemently. The figures were not there. It has been proven that I am right. When a train comes across there, you cannot get to the Alamo Dome in any way or fashion. You can’t hear in the Alamo Dome in any way or fashion. But we have the Alamo Dome today, and we support the Alamo Dome today. And I still think it was wrong to put it there. Period.
DT: I have a sort of follow-up question. You’ve been politically active both as an elected official, you know, the city council, the commissioner’s court.
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HD: Yes.
DT: And as an appointed person with these various commissions. There’s the zoning commission.
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HD: I still serve on them. And I serve at SAWS.
DT: And in SAWS. And then also you often speak out as a private citizen as with some of the PGA Village controversy.
00:25:11 – 2354
HD: That’s right.
DT: How is it different being on the inside, and then just as a regular citizen?
00:25:19 – 2354
HD: Well, it just depends on what your viewpoints are. There are times when they need people like me that speak out, and there are times when they don’t. But I speak out irrespective of—I figure if I am there, and I am representing the people, I go continuously into the neighborhoods now, and I talk to people. How do you feel about this, you know. This is your city. How do you feel about it? And then I voice that representation to the public. It’s not all what does Helen Dutmer want. I am one citizen in this city. And what I am trying to impart when I speak out is what the people of my area that I have the
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jurisdiction with, how do they feel about it, you know. We are all taxpaying citizens. Now you can see, I don’t live in a three story mansion. I could care less about that. I have—I’ve never been envious of anybody. If you have money, that’s great. I’ve had it, I don’t want it. I don’t care about it. It’s not what makes your life worth living. I’m just as happy as a clam.
DT: I think you’ve got kids, and grandkids (?)?
00:26:56 – 2354
HD: I have one daughter. I have three grandchildren. I have—oh, God, let me see how many gre—how many grandchildren—great-grandchildren. Mmmm, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.
DT: Well, when you talk to them, would you have any sort of advice to give them about being a good citizen or about getting involved in conservation issues?
00:27:26 – 2354
HD: Yeah. The world is not made up of one person. It’s made up of a—a varied number of people as well as varied viewpoints of people. There’s room for all. Instead of going underground, talk to these people, find out what do they want, and then do it. They’re the ones that are having to live. They’re the ones that are raising their families here. And I mean it’s not all about one person. I don’t care how high up you are, and I don’t care how much money you have. The world was not created just for you. And if that’s a sorry, naive viewpoint, then I am a sorry and naive person.
DW: Well, you are so busy and so passionate about so many issues; do you ever get very worked up about these things? Is there a place that you like to go to decompress? Is there some sort of natural place, or a country place, or a city place where you like to go just to get some rest and (?)?
00:28:42 – 2354
HD: Oh, well, we had—we had a lake place. We had…
00:28:48 – 2354
HD: We had a lake place. We had a—a country place. We’ve had—and it’s fa—matter of facts, we sold them because—well, we—all we did was go and work our little arms off, and then come home to our little home here. And—you can find solace here. I can find solace going into the—the community, and being with friends, and just a normal life. We’ve been business people here, we’ve been everything. And—and I mean there were just certain things that growing up impressed you, and certain things that didn’t. Now of course I feel empathy and I feel sympathy for people who don’t have quite as
00:29:40 – 2354
much. But I do as much as I can without jeopardizing my own family. And that’s—that’s the story of my life. We are—we’re all in it, none of us going to get out of it any better or any worse than what we are, and that’s the way I feel about it.
DT: Well said. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
00:30:08 – 2354
HD: No, except that I’m very grateful for this opportunity. And—and I really don’t know how you’re going to utilize it. But everything I’ve told you can be verified, can be proven, can be put in chronological order so that it makes sense. But it—it’s all facts. All factual.
DT: Well, thank you. I appreciate your time.
00:30:37 – 2354
HD: Not at all. I appreciate your taking an interest in it. We need interest (?) interested in some of our fight. Now as far as I’m concerned, San Antonio’s the best city that ever developed. And as far as I’m concerned, all of the history of the city of San Antonio lies south of Houston Street, not north. And so the north-south battle continues.
DT: All right. Thank you.
[End of reel 2354]
[End of Interview with Helen Dutmer]