Seth Searcy III, who wrote Austin’s first rules protecting Barton Springs as a forebear to today’s local environmental movement, died Wednesday at the age of 77.
Searcy had been struggling with cancer that had started in the bladder and spread to his lungs, and it accelerated to fatal stages quickly, said his daughter, Sarah Searcy of Austin.
“He was the kind of citizen who makes Austin a great place,” said former Austin Mayor Frank Cooksey, a longtime friend and fellow member of the Save Barton Creek Association. “He just was relentless in trying to get things done to protect Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer.”
Sarah Searcy said her father came to Austin to attend the University of Texas law school in the late 1950s after moving frequently as the son of a career naval officer. At UT, Seth Searcy met his wife, Judith, and though they lived a somewhat nomadic life in the years following his graduation, Austin — and Barton Springs in particular — had captured their imagination.
Two months from the birth of their first child, the couple drove from Illinois to Austin in August in a Volkswagen Beetle with their dog, cat and no air conditioning. Upon arriving in town, their first stop was Barton Springs, where “everyone, even the cat, jumped into the pool,” Sarah Searcy said. The springs “probably saved their marriage.”
The family soon moved back to Austin, and Seth Searcy took a job with the Texas Legislative Council, where he honed the skill he would use to influence the fate of Barton Springs: writing precise, durable laws.
During the half-decade in which Seth Searcy oversaw the massive revision of the state’s penal code, “he taught me how to get a good bill drafted properly” to survive “the legislative shredding” before it becomes law, said Bill Reid, an intern at the time who would go on to serve as a Travis County assistant district attorney.
In 1979, Seth Searcy was among the founding members of the Save Barton Creek Association, which became Austin’s foremost environmental group. After activists spent years testifying about the effects that subdivisions, office buildings and other developments would have on the quality of the water that feeds Barton Springs, the group began rallying the public and pushing for an ordinance specifically designed to protect the springs. He was on the city committee charged with studying a new ordinance.
Seth Searcy was amicable, understated and precise — cut from a different cloth than the successive generation of environmental firebrands such as Save Our Springs Coalition co-founders Bill Bunch and Brigid Shea, who in the early 1990s organized the civic uprising that culminated in the more sweeping SOS ordinance. But Searcy was nonetheless effective in negotiating the Austin politics of his day, and, in April 1980, the Barton Creek Watershed Ordinance he drafted with fellow Save Barton Creek member Ken Manning was enacted, Cooksey said.
The ordinance was — to use the sort of bad pun Sarah Searcy said her father loved — a watershed moment in Austin’s environmental politics.
It was the city’s first ordinance to explicitly take the quality of the area’s waterways into consideration and “laid the groundwork for all the subsequent work to protect the Edwards Aquifer,” Cooksey said.
Searcy is survived by his wife, sister Sally Henrikson, daughters Sarah Searcy and Mary Marrero, and two grandchildren.