APD Cracks Down on Spillway Swimmers and Dogs

APD began enforces ban on swimming and off-leash dogs at the spillway, after years of turning a blind eye

A ban on too much fun
A ban on too much fun (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. Police have told would-be swimmers that they plan to continue enforcing the ban for at least the next three months. Fortune understands the frustration of longtime spillway users. He says APD's purpose is to educate, not to issue citations – although they will cite repeat offenders and others who refuse to comply. 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 says he knows it can be a big surprise to see the ban being enforced, seemingly out of nowhere. But 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.

In response to complaints about the sudden enforcement, the city announced on Wednesday that it will begin a public education campaign about the regulations on swimming and dogs, and ban alcohol at the spillway beginning Sept. 2.

PARD will also be working with policymakers such as Council members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley on 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 proposing amending the ordinance currently banning off-leash dogs and swimming at the spillway, or to ask that APD not enforce the ban. He says he had hoped to add an item to this week's agenda, but staff requested a few weeks to study the spillway's water quality. One concern is the potential environmental impact of having so many dogs in a small area of water. 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 in a more densely trafficked area than Bull Creek. Longtime environmental advocate and dog owner Robert Corbin believes that dogs have no place at the spillway: "Dog owners love their dogs, but they don't always love picking up dog poop." Corbin worries that even dogs on leashes will contribute to a "general degradation of the area," considering that the number of visitors continues to increase every summer. He points out that not everyone enjoys the advances of even the best-intentioned dog, and that children and dogs don't always mix well.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, the resources needed to enforce the ban can only be stretched so far.

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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Barton Springs, Barton Springs spillway, David Thornberry, APD, Austin Police Department, dogs, the dog lobby, Mike Martinez, Art Fortune, Zilker Park, Parks and Recreation, PARD, Chris Riley, Robert Corbin

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