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Floating Tubes Hit NIMBY Rapids

City looks for ways to regulate Colorado River

By Elizabeth Pagano, Fri., Aug. 9, 2013

East Side Tubes owner Dan Walker
East Side Tubes owner Dan Walker
Photo by John Anderson

It's been a while since "Secret Beach" was an actual secret, but even with that cat out of the bag, the scene on the eastern leg of the city's Colorado River was mellow this past Sunday. The river looked a lot like it has looked for the past year or so – aside from a few orange tubes slowly making their way further east. It's those orange tubes that have some neighbors seeing red.

Red Bluff Road's MOC Kayaks/East Side Tubes has been renting kayaks for about two years. It wasn't until Memorial Day – when the business started renting tubes – that the city started to take notice. Under current regulations, the city can't do much about it. But prompted by a few loud neighborhood complaints, the city is now looking into changing that.

Dan Walker, who owns East Side tubes, thinks the backlash is elitist. He says no one cared when kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards were using the water, and that the complaints are coming from only a handful of neighbors, who are trying to paint the operation with a broad brush by characterizing it as a "frat party on water."

"It's crazy what so few people can do," says Walker, of the complainants railing against his business. One is Daniel Llanes, chair of the River Bluff Neighborhood Assoc­iation. Llanes spoke at a recent Parks and Recrea­tion board meeting about his concerns, and explained that he's been working with the city and neighbors in the Montopolis, Govalle-Johnston Terrace, and Holly Street areas to remedy the situation, said to be contrary to the neighborhood vision for the corridor. Llanes opposes "commercialization" of that area, saying that neighborhoods, the Parks and Recre­a­tion Department, and the Lower Colorado River Authority have worked for years to establish that area as a sanctuary and wildlife corridor.

Walker thinks this is a bit absurd, pointing out that the area just south of Cesar Chavez Street is still home to heavy commercial zoning and ongoing operations. He says that news reports that have focused on images of trash from swimmers under the Montopolis Bridge are only recording a longstanding bit of grossness that has nothing to do with tubers. In fact, he says, his company has been working with Keep Austin Beautiful to clean up trash in that section of the river, providing kayaks and joining monthly cleanups.

Walker also says that declared concerns about safety issues surrounding sudden discharge of water from the Longhorn Dam are disingenuous. While it's true that the dam is not on a set schedule, Walker says he has about 24 hours' warning from the time upstream Mansfield Dam discharges to prepare for the subsequent opening of the Longhorn. Besides, he says, swimming in that section of the Colorado is perfectly legal. Isn't it better to provide flotation devices to people?

Currently, PARD does not regulate the section of the Colorado River that's between the Longhorn Dam and the Montopolis Bridge in the same way that it manages Lady Bird Lake. There is a very specific protocol in Town Lake Park, but the Eastside is largely unregulated. Though the Parks Department technically has purview over the recreational use of the water in that section of the river, it cannot require concession licenses for businesses on private land. And city ordinances are silent on inner tubes, addressing only boats.

At the most recent Parks board meeting, PARD Director Sara Hens­ley explained that, bereft of enforcement options concerning the tubes themselves, park police have stepped up their patrols and are looking for alcohol, drug, and parking abuses – all enforceable now – on the land that the city does control. As a longer-term fix that would give the city more control over what happens on the river, the city is now looking into amending the code to address the use of inner tubes. That would require a public process and, ultimately, approval by City Council.

Walker would prefer the city to focus on the positive effects of the approximately 500 tubers his business hosts each weekend – of whom he estimates fewer than half are frat boys. "We've been pushing so much tourism here, with the five or six hundred people that come on the weekends," says Walk­er. "All of them are asking where to stay, where to eat, what to do. I would say maybe 60 percent is local, and 40 percent is probably out-of-towners. That is huge for this economy. Because everybody is taking a taxi, everybody is staying in the hotels Downtown, and we're sending them to all of the cool restaurants on the Eastside and Rainey and Downtown. It's a lot of economy that we're bringing, besides just our sales dollars."

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