The Austin Chronicle

... Until Your Pool Runs Dry

Austin's swimming pools are leaking – and that may be the least of PARD's problems

By Michael King, May 15, 2015, News

On April 24, Parks and Recreation Depart­ment Director Sara Hensley issued a foreboding memorandum to Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council. Under the heading, "2015 Summer Aquatics Facility Operations and Future Sustainability," Hensley wrote that an internal review had concluded that the existing "business model" of the Aquat­ics Division is "inadequate." Despite past "creative" maneuvers, she wrote, "it is no longer feasible or appropriate to repeat past practices and as such, the Parks and Recreation Department will proceed with an alternative operation model starting Summer, 2015."

In brief, Hensley reported that Aquatics had 1) been unable to recruit sufficient numbers of lifeguards for the 2015 season; 2) determined that 25 of the city's 36 swimming pools (average age, 50 years) are leaking, some seriously; and 3) exceeded its budget allocation for each of the past three years, and must not do so again.

The administration had decided to take three major actions: 1) re-establish a "balanced staggered facility ... schedule"; 2) "temporarily close" for repairs Mabel Davis Municipal Pool and Metz Neighborhood Pool; 3) implement a one day per week maintenance closure at each pool.

Hensley promised more information, adding: "It is important that neither the past practices nor the current failing business model impede the City's ability to visualize a healthy operable aquatic system ... [and] future sustainability and positive social impact."

Process and Sustainability

Bureaucratic prose notwithstanding, the memo was the public culmination of a lengthy review of all PARD's Aquatics Division programs, which – as described to the Chronicle by Hensley and Aquatics Director Cheryl Bolin – began with public outreach last year, moved to internal reviews in the fall, delivered an exhaustive "Aquatics Assessment" earlier this year, and then moved through administrative meetings en route to Council (slowed, to a degree, by the rookie Council's need to learn everything simultaneously). "We were meeting with all the relevant department heads and city managers," said Hensley, "and trying to determine not only how to tell people that 25 of 36 pools were leaking, but to provide a strategy for responding to that situation."

In retrospect, the neighborhood backlash against the two proposed closings (even temporary) may have served to distract from that much larger bad news: Most of Austin's pools are quite old (from 25 to nearly 80 years, with an average of 50), and many of them are leaking. And they're not leaking a trivial amount: Hensley estimated the loss of potable water at 18 million gallons for the coming season – 38% of which, or 7 million gallons, were anticipated from Mabel Davis and Metz alone. "In a time of drought, when sustainability is on everyone's mind, we can't afford the loss of all that water – either financially, or in conservation terms."

Yet, while the recommendation to close those two pools for repairs might have been understandable, the timing – a month before summer opening – received plenty of criticism. Hensley insisted that PARD moved as quickly as it could once the scale of the problems became known – "We did not know, last year, we were going to shut down those pools, and we didn't want to pick any pools to shut down" – and Bolin repeated simply, "The process is the process." In any event, in the wake of the strong neighborhood response, the department is taking steps to see what else might be done. "We think the leak at Mabel Davis has been repaired, but we can't confirm that until we fill the pool and see what happens," said Bolin. "Metz – the weather has made it difficult to excavate and evaluate." On Tuesday, PARD announced the pools would be repaired and opened.

Hensley said she is in fact gratified by the response to the proposed closings – "That shows they care – what would have bothered me more, is if they hadn't spoken up" – and says it's fine for PARD to take the heat if it means "we've succeeded in raising the awareness bar." She pointed to the perennial problem for her department – growing responsibilities (e.g., new parkland and trails, new pool facilities like Bartholomew and Westenfield) while resources remain flat. "We're doing the best we can," she insisted, "with the resources we have."

Hensley also argued that it would be irresponsible of the department not to look for ways to conserve resources (especially water) or to minimize the problems in reporting to Council or the public. Bolin responded to the suspicion that Metz and Mabel Davis were considered expendable because they're in an Eastside, low-income neighborhood by noting that District 3, where the pools are located, has the most pools (eight) of any of the 10 (next is District 10, with five), and would still have six even if the two leaking pools were to be closed for repairs. "The numbers speak for themselves," Bolin said. "The other thing is, with those pools – especially with Metz – there are two pools within less than a mile, and there's a splash pad probably within 75 to 100 feet of that pool as well."

Peter vs. Paul

In any event, whatever short-term measures are taken for Mabel Davis and Metz, the problems of the Aquatics Division and PARD as a whole will not magically disappear. Hensley says PARD is determined to keep Aquatics within budget this year – that's been unsuccessful for the last three years – and to do so without the expectation of additional support from the General Fund. All departments have been asked by Council to find 5% in cuts, in hopes of enabling a property tax homestead exemption, and Hensley said, "I can only cut programs and people. There isn't anything else."

That's all before trying to figure out what to do about replacement or major repairs to seven pools otherwise expected to fail in the next five years. Shipe and Govalle are on that list – the money for those two has already been appropriated, and preparations are moving for that work to begin in the off-season. That will leave five pools on the "needing major repairs" list – and more than 20 right behind them. Two major pools – Barton Springs and Deep Eddy – have been sustained in part by volunteer efforts at fundraising and labor, but both still require major city support.

"I can move resources around," said Hens­ley, "but I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul." And who is "Peter"? "Recreation programs, summer camps, new hiring, travel and training, supplies ... Right now, we don't have the money to cover the cost of operating these pools." On the other hand, the assessment reports that where the money was made available – as in the rebuilt facilities at Bartholomew and West­en­field – usage has spiked, dramatically.

Cheryl Bolin had taken a break during a lifeguard hiring night to talk to a reporter, noting that last week some 70 new candidates had applied online, giving her 270 potential new candidates as of May 7. How many does she need by opening in early June?

"Six hundred and fifty. But we're always optimistic."

The Aquatics Division's final hiring day of the sea­son is Wed., May 20, 4-8pm at the Admin­istration and Training Facility, 2818 San Gabriel.

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