Is Barton Springs Pool Losing Its Soul to Algae?

Swimmers have no trouble scooping up slime at Barton Springs.
Swimmers have no trouble scooping up slime at Barton Springs. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

The waters of Barton Springs Pool are still cool and inviting, but they are rarely clear. The worst algae bloom in modern history regularly turns the pool's once crystal-clear waters into a turbid vat of pea-colored soup. Ten years after Barton Springs became the foremost symbol of Austin's environmental movement, the pool has been overrun by a carpet of blue-green algae known as oscillatoria. Every day about noon, the thick gelatinous algae starts bubbling up from the bottom of the pool and stays at the surface until after sundown. When the algae is disturbed, it breaks into thousands of tiny fragments that are then distributed throughout the water column, reducing underwater visibility to a few feet. And unless something changes soon, the algae problem will likely worsen over the summer. For many swimmers, the idea that the pool will get even dirtier is an unappealing prospect. Indeed, many longtime pool devotees are outraged, and some have even quit swimming at Barton Springs. The principal cause of the algae is the change in the city's maintenance policies since the Barton Springs Salamander was added to the Endangered Species List. In years past, pool lifeguards lowered the pool level once a week and scoured the bottom with high pressure fire hoses, which usually kept the algae in check. Earlier cleaning methods also included the use of diluted chlorine which killed the algae and allowed the pool staff to keep most surfaces in the shallow end of the pool algae-free.

But in 1998, the city agreed to a new maintenance regimen at the pool. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decreed that the city may not lower the pool for cleaning unless the average flow from the springs is at least at its historical average of 54 cubic feet per second. (One cfs equals 7.48 gallons.) The current flow is about 30 cfs, and due to the ongoing drought, the spring flow hasn't reached 54 cfs since last year. So the last time pool maintenance workers were allowed to scour algae from the bottom of the pool was May 18, 1999.

Pointing Fingers

The situation angers many people who are wondering if the long battle for Barton Springs has been lost. And everyone is looking for someone to blame. Some swimmers blame the city. Others blame the Fish & Wildlife Service. Others blame what they say is declining water quality caused by upstream development. Others blame the lethargy of the pool staff, saying they should be doing more to corral the algae with skimming nets. Perhaps it's the law of unintended consequences: Environmentalists thought that federal protection for the salamander would improve conditions at the pool and rally people to the cause. Instead, the listing generated a new regulatory scheme that has outraged many pool users who used to be strong supporters of the efforts to save the pool. Whatever the reason for the current predicament, some of the luster has been lost at Barton Springs.

Although swimmers must now pick globs of algae from their hair and bodies, the new laissez-faire attitude toward pool maintenance is having some benefits. According to Robert Hansen, the city's biologist who monitors the Barton Springs Salamander, the average number of salamanders found at the pool during his surveys has more than tripled since the new regimen went into effect. Before the new maintenance regimen took effect, Hansen found an average of 19 salamanders during each of his scuba surveys of the pool. Over the past 10 months, he's found an average of 68 salamanders each time he dons the scuba gear. Hansen believes the algae bloom is largely due to the decrease in water flowing through the pool. The decreased flow increases the amount of time the water sits in the pool and absorbs sunlight, and that increased time means more opportunity for algae to grow. And without a heavy rain to scour the pool or increase the flow of water from the Edwards Aquifer, the city is stuck. Why? Because, says Hansen, "The Fish & Wildlife Service won't let us lower the level in the pool."

The irony is even thicker than the algae: For years, developers complained that environmentalists were putting the interests of the salamanders over those of the people. Now some of the same complaints are being made by people who were aligned with the environmental movement. "I'm not a birds-and-bugs person, I'm a recreation-for-people person," says Marshall Frech. "While the salamander should live and we should do things to preserve it, I think we've gone too far." Frech's comments have particular resonance, as he was the co-editor of a 1993 book, Barton Springs Eternal: The Soul of a City, which contains essays, photos, oral histories, and the natural history of Barton Springs. Frech's co-editor on the book, Turk Pipkin, is also dismayed by the conditions at the pool. "I rarely swim there any more because I hate the algae so much," says Pipkin. "And I don't think the water in the pool is as clean as it used to be. I used to feel it was a soul-cleansing experience. I don't have that feeling any more."

Declining water quality due to development in the Barton Springs watershed has long worried swimmers and environmentalists. But it appears that the algae problem cannot be blamed solely on water quality. A recent study of the pool's water quality by city officials found increases in turbidity, and some trace chemicals. But they didn't find significant increases in nitrogen, the constituent most often blamed for algae blooms. So while increased levels of nutrients and contaminants are doubtless a continuing threat to Barton Springs, the city's new data appears to provide more ammunition for critics who blame the city's maintenance procedures.

The Barton Springs Polar Bear Club complained in a recent letter to Mayor Kirk Watson that the new procedures have eliminated a great deal of wildlife that used to be found in the pool. The cold weather swimmers point out that in years past, it was common to see carp, bass, large minnows, and even an occasional turtle in Barton Springs Pool. None are present now, and club members have started referring to the bottom of the pool as a "desert."

Some critics say city and federal authorities have been working on the wrong issue. "The focus has been in the wrong places all along," says Mark Gentle, who, until about a year ago, swam in the pool every day. "They focused on restricting the cleaning of the pool when they should have been upstream, restricting land development projects." Gentle, who no longer swims because of the algae, says the pool is "dangerous. It's unpleasant. And it's so tragically sad when you look at it and compare it to what it used to be. It's the irony of the effort to save the salamander. If you save the salamander, you kick out the people."

Even Cedar Stevens, the longtime leader of the local gang of Earth First!ers, says she is dismayed by the current conditions at Barton Springs. "Having swum there in the early Eighties and going back now and seeing all the algae and crud floating in there, it's hard to keep up the motivation to keep fighting for the springs," she says. Like Gentle, Stevens says the listing of the salamander "has yielded zero extra protection for the watershed." But Stevens is not ready to condemn federal authorities for the new policies at the pool. For her, "The salamander has to come first, before the aesthetics."

Bill Bunch, general counsel for the Save Our Springs Alliance, insists the algae problem at the pool can be solved, and that swimmers should not blame the endangered species. "The salamander doesn't have anything to do with it," says Bunch. "The pool staff just needs to skim the algae. There's not any salamanders on the surface. It's real easy, but somebody actually has to do some work." Bunch sent a letter to city officials last week proposing the skimming technique as a short-term fix. Bunch has also asked that the city hold a public meeting to discuss the status of various proposed improvements and management activities for Barton Springs.

Farhad Madani, manager of the city's aquatics department, says city officials have been studying what to do about the algae but have been stymied by the federal restrictions. "The ecosystem in the pool has changed because we can't drain it as much," says Madani. But because of the restrictions placed on the city by federal authorities, he says, "Our hands are tied." Madani points out that algae blooms have occurred regularly at Barton Springs in recent years but the city was able to keep them under control with regular cleanings. Now, the city is looking at other ways to control the algae. Madani said he expects to begin testing some large skimming nets that will collect the algae that lies on the surface of the pool. But that solution may also be problematic as all or part of the pool will have to closed while the skimming is underway.

Ban on Chlorine

The changes in maintenance began in 1992 after some workers at Barton Springs used too much chlorine while cleaning the pool. The resultant fish kill put the maintenance procedures under a microscope and the city stopped using chlorine, even though it had effectively been using the chemical for decades to control algae and keep the bottom of the pool from becoming too slippery. Although the city stopped using chlorine, a new challenge to its policies came in 1998, when two Austinites sued it and the Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court, claiming that the maintenance practices were harming the salamander. Although U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks denied the request for an injunction that would have closed the pool, the lawsuit clearly got the city's attention.

But the lack of good cleaning practices still angered many people, some of whom advocated going back to the use of chlorine. Perhaps the most famous advocate of that position was the late Beverly Sheffield, a revered daily swimmer who headed the city's Parks and Recreation Department for 27 years. Sheffield often expressed his displeasure over the city's change in maintenance policies at Barton Springs. One person he discussed them with was Roy Minton.

Minton, the folksy lawyer who represented both Jim Bob Moffett and Gary Bradley in development lawsuits against the city, has been swimming a mile every day at Barton Springs for more than 12 years. And he remained a devoted swimmer even while representing Moffett and Bradley -- developers who own large tracts of land in the Barton Springs watershed -- in several lawsuits including one that sought to overturn the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Although Minton says some swimmers verbally abuse him when they see him at the pool, he also says he "truly loves" Barton Springs. "I know the bottom of that pool like I know the front hall of my house," he says.

Minton had many conversations with Sheffield about the decision to quit cleaning the pool on a weekly basis. "Mr. Sheffield said it was stupid for them to do that," recalls Minton. Sheffield told Minton the new policies to protect the salamander were "just damn foolishness." And while some environmentalists scoff at the notion, Minton says he'd like to get in the middle of the fight over the algae. "It is a sad, sad thing and I don't know why we don't do something about it. I'd like to represent the city in some discussions with the Fish & Wildlife Service. But since I'm suing the city about two-thirds of the time, I don't think they would be working with me on this issue."

While swimmers continue expressing their anger, city officials appear ready to accept the current state of the pool. Although Madani says he is not pleased with the cleaning restrictions, he says that Barton Springs is "a natural body of water. If people don't want algae, then they can use Deep Eddy Pool."

That certainly is true, but many swimmers hate the idea that they might have to abandon the pool they love simply because the city cannot perform routine maintenance. While the floating mass of algae is unpleasant, the listing of the salamander has created other unpleasant changes. The shallow end of Barton Springs is covered with algae and is now so slippery that it is all but unusable by children and families. Some physicians have even suggested that the city close off the shallow end because it represents a significant public health hazard. Pool workers try to clean the bottom with a high pressure hose, but it is simply not effective.

Outside the pool, the changes are equally ominous. The Sunken Gardens, built in 1935 by the National Youth Administration to contain the Zenobia spring and for decades a quiet oasis in Zilker Park, now lies caged behind a six-foot-high chain link fence. A sign just inside says that the fence is needed to protect the salamanders from swimmers.

The fence at the Sunken Gardens and the algae at Barton Springs leave Joe Martin, a longtime swimmer who met his wife at the pool, angry and frustrated. "It's failed logic on the biologists' part," says Martin, a physician. "The listing of the salamander was the right thing to do. It was good for the salamander. They have an increased environment in which to spread. But it's adversely affecting us because they won't clean the pool any more. Humans have learned to live side by side with animals. There should, and always has been, compromise." end story

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barton springs pool, algae blooms, turk pipkin, marshall frech, roy minton, bill bunch, barton springs salamander, fish & wildlife

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