New Braunfels residents will decide Tuesday whether they want to ban disposable containers on local rivers, an ordinance that has divided the town where the economy and character heavily rely on tourists taking to the water and tubing.
The Hill Country town about 40 miles northeast of San Antonio has been embroiled in the can ban battle since August, when the New Braunfels City Council voted to prohibit disposable containers on the Guadalupe and Comal rivers.
Opponents quickly formed the "Can the Ban" political action committee and gathered enough signatures to force a referendum, arguing that the council's estimate of how much trash is collected from the rivers is wrong and that the measure is really a veiled attempt to ban drinking on the waterways -- something they say will kill tourism.
Supporters also gathered quickly, forming the SupportTheBan.org committee and raising $23,500 -- nearly double the amount collected by their opponents.
It appears the efforts have paid off. By Thursday, the Austin American-Statesman reported some 4,800 people had already headed to the polls in early voting. That is 14 percent of the town's registered voters, and more than double the total votes cast in the May election, which included races for three council seats, said City Secretary Patrick Aten.
The outcome, however, won't be known until after polls close on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Krueger, spokeswoman for SupportTheBan.org and the city's former mayor pro tem, said her people are still calling and emailing voters.
Mayor Gale Pospisil, who supported the ordinance, dismissed the criticism, which included arguments that the city cannot back up its claim that 700,000 gallons of waste are cleared annually from the rivers. She noted it makes no difference exactly how much trash is floating down the rivers, but rather that there is any litter.
City officials note they are required under state and federal laws to protect the rivers, which provide drinking water to Texans and a habitat for endangered species.
"We've all seen the amount of litter in the river," Pospisil said. "The exact number didn't have anything to do with my decision."
The town has long struggled with regulating river tubing, banning glass and restricting the size of coolers in 2007. In 2000, the council abandoned a plan to ban alcohol, partly because the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sent a letter reminding the town that the state -- not cities -- regulates alcohol on public waterways.
A coalition of tubing-related businesses sued the city over the ordinance, arguing it is unconstitutional and an attempt to bar alcohol on the rivers.
"At the end of the day, it's about banning alcohol," said Shane Wolf, a spokesman for Can the Ban and general manager of outfitter Rockin' R River Rides, which is one of the businesses involved in the lawsuit.
Wolf said the lawsuit will be dropped if voters overturn the ordinance.
The mayor wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but said the issue has torn the town apart.
"It has been very contentious," Pospisil said. "Some people on either side are very emotionally involved in it. ... Come Tuesday, when the vote is in, whether the ordinance stays in place or doesn't stay in place, we'll all have to work at getting back together or work for the betterment of the city."