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APD Is Enforcing the Doggone Spillway Ban

Police and Parks Department crack down on hot spot for dogs and swimmers

By Amy Kamp, 4:10PM, Mon. Aug. 4

APD Is Enforcing the Doggone Spillway Ban
photo by Jana Birchum

When David Thornberry arrived at the Barton Springs spillway with his two dogs, Ranger and Skip-Bo, on Friday, Aug. 1, he was surprised to find that no one was in the water. Thornberry has been coming to the spillway with his dogs for about 15 years. He, like many other visitors, enjoys the cold, clear, moving water.

Unfortunately for Thornberry and his dogs, last week APD began enforcing a ban on swimming and off-leash dogs at the spillway, after years of turning a blind eye.

The crackdown comes in response to a dramatic spike in crime, says APD Lt. Art Fortune. Twenty-three thefts and burglaries took place in the Zilker Park area between July 1 and Aug. 2, and many of the items taken were phones and wallets left either in cars or on the shore of the spillway while their owners were swimming.

Crime has been increasing this year in South Central Austin parks, especially at Zilker: Since January, there have been 91 reported crimes for the area’s parks, compared to 51 in Central West Austin parks, the area with the second-highest number of crimes.

Police have told would-be swimmers that they plan to continue enforcing the ban for the next three months – after which the chilly weather would presumably take over duties from the police. Fortune understands the frustration of longtime fans of the spillway. He says that APD’s purpose is to educate, not to issue citations – although they will cite repeat offenders and others who refuse to comply with the officers’ instructions. While APD has received a number of complaints about off-leash dogs, Fortune doesn’t believe that it’s swimmers – including dogs swimming on leashes – that are causing the problem, and he knows that it can be a big surprise to see the ban being enforced, seemingly out of nowhere.

However, an increase in the number of visitors to the area – combined with PARD’s decision to allow alcohol at the spillway – has created an opportunity that some thieves find irresistible. While people may believe they’re protecting themselves by stashing their valuables out of sight, Fortune cautions that criminals will watch the area, waiting for people to leave their belongings unattended. Once in possession of a credit card or phone, thieves not only use them to make purchases, but will sometimes also commit identity theft.

Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley feel that it’s important to find a solution that allows people to continue to swim in the spillway with their dogs. After all, dogs aren’t allowed in Barton Springs proper. “If you can’t cool off in Barton Springs with your dog or your family, then what kind of place are we becoming?” Martinez asks. Martinez and Riley are considering either amending the ordinance currently in place to allow off-leash dogs and swimming at the spillway, or to ask that APD not enforce the ban. He says that he had hoped to add an item to this week’s agenda, but that staff had requested a few weeks to study the spillway’s water quality and write up a report.

City staff is studying the water quality because, in addition to concerns about the spillway’s sometimes-rambunctious atmosphere, there are also questions about what the presence of so many dogs in a small area of water might mean for the environment. Lt. Fortune recalls Bull Creek’s past problems with high pathogen levels, and notes that APD has received several complaints about dog feces at the spillway, which is a more densely populated area than Bull Creek. Robert Corbin, a board member of the Save Our Springs Alliance and a dog owner, sent a letter to PARD earlier this year asking them to enforce the ban at the spillway.

Although police plan to enforce the ban until further notice, APD and PARD are continuing to evaluate the issue, and are likely to issue an official statement later this week. Regardless of what happens, APD can only devote so many resources to preventing people from swimming at the spillway with their dogs. While park rangers have also been at the spillway to remind people of the rules about dogs and swimming, PARD only has about nine rangers on duty citywide, and the rangers don’t have the authority to write citations.

Around 4pm on Sunday, Aug. 3, many visitors were blissfully unaware of the controversy: The spillway was filled with families, canoes, bathing-suited swimmers, and dogs on and off their leashes.

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