Austin's Pool System Will Collapse If We Don't Save It

Shall we dive in?

Givens Pool (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The pitfalls of Austin's pool system are so enduring that they have inspired interpretive art.

I'm talking about last summer's "Bar­tho­lo­mew Swims" edition of My Park, My Pool, My City, Forklift Danceworks' multi-year in-pool dance performance project, which served as somewhat of a celebration of the East Austin pool's 2014 rebirth, but also got into the forces that shut it down. In particular, it tells the story of a time in the winter of 2008 when a pool maintenance staffer with the Parks and Recreation Department made a routine visit to the 51st Street pool to find a massive, quarter-inch-wide break in the foundation of the tub, right over the 500,000-gallon pump. Water was shooting up like a geyser, but that wasn't the worst of it. He saw rebar protruding out from the cracks in the facility's infrastructure. And in the middle of their visit, a chunk of the clubhouse ceiling crashed down to the floor.

In 1996, when the city claimed a population of 562,795, Austin had 41 pools, one for every 13,700 people. And today, with the population at 947,000 and 30 working pools to dive into, we’ve got one for every 31,500 people.

The city condemned Bartholomew and shut it down for a rebuild. Five years later it reopened with a kiddie pool, diving well, two water slides, and other amenities. The construction cost was $5.7 million, paid for by a 2006 bond. That's how Bartholomew became a rare success story for a department ravaged by the overwhelming needs of its pool system, by getting local voters to agree to put up multiple millions of dollars for critically needed improvements.

Austin pools are old; most were built between 1930 and 1990, meaning that even the youngest ones are coming up on their advised 30-year expiration dates. And for a while these pools have been "on life support," as has become city axiom, with very little in maintenance and upkeep coming from budget funding. Crumbling decks and cracking cement are actually the easiest parts of a pool to fix. In the worst cases, the pump systems are so old that Aquatics staff must send out for special parts. "It's like driving a 1910 Model A and expecting to be able to keep it running all over the city," remarked Jane Rivera, chair of the city's Parks and Recreation Board.

But six years ago City Council passed a resolution to begin a process to save those pools, and last November that manifested in the form of the Aquatic Master Plan, a sprawling, 750-page blueprint for a sustainable future of the city's system, including new pools in underserved areas, increased maintenance funding, public-private partnerships, and a public process for any future decommissionings, including a vote at Council.

The system has roughly $200 million in need, and the report calls for a $124 million aquatics-only bond.

A Brief History

The city constructed the dams that created Barton Springs Pool in the Twenties, but its pool system wouldn't begin in earnest until a few years after that, when the Parks and Recreation Department received an infusion of park money through the New Deal. The infamous master plan of 1928, which forced African-Americans and Latinos into East Austin, established that the city's parks, pools, and other public facilities would be segregated, a policy that wouldn't end until 1963. The first set of city pools, built in the Thirties, canvassed most of what is now center city (see map, below): Rosewood, Zaragoza, West Austin, Metz, Big and Little Stacy, Shipe, and Palm.

Aquatics built Ramsey in the Forties, and eight more (Northwest, Brentwood, Patterson, Givens, Govalle, Gillis, St. Johns, and Reed) the following decade. In the Sixties it added St. Johns, Kealing, Civitan, Garrison, and Bartholomew, the first desegregated aquatic facility in the city. In the Seventies and Eighties, the city built two pools in the northwest, four east of I-35, and two south of 290. Dick Nichols Park and Dove Springs each got their first pools in the Nineties.

Patched fencing at Govalle Pool

Since then the department has spent more time plugging holes and manufacturing broken pump system parts than expanding – or even just maintaining – its network. That's problematic, considering the level of growth the city is currently experiencing, along with the fact that more than a few of the pools have become so broken they're out of commission. Parks & Rec claims 33 pools, but not all are currently functional. Austin pools are notorious for shutting down for repairs during the summers. This summer, Shipe, Govalle, and Mabel Davis are all closed. Council funded one-time improvements to Govalle and Shipe in the fall of 2014, but the future of Mabel Davis – shuttered after spilling more than 200,000 gallons last summer – remains uncertain.

This month, as pools reopen, swimmers will only dive into 30; several have succumbed to newer technology or old age. (Many pools were built before modern pumping systems.) St. Johns, which closed along with Kealing, Odom, and Palm in 2010, is an example of one pool that couldn't survive in the new era of pumping systems. The fill-and-draw, bathtub-style pool had to be filled and drained each day of operation. PARD destroyed it this spring. A recreation area will be built in its place.

The system has roughly $200 million in need, and the report calls for a $124 million aquatics-only bond.

For regular operations and maintenance, Aquatics depends on the city's General Fund. New construction and upgrades are paid for with bond money. Voters have approved three recreational bonds in the past 20 years. The 2006 bond allocated $85 million for parks, part of which went to pool projects at Bartholomew and West Enfield. A $78 million cash infusion in the 2012 bond helped finish those two projects, with leftover dollars going toward improvements at Parque Zaragoza. Over the past decade, the city has spent just $29 million in pool-related capital project money. Four years ago, the city set aside the $3 million to begin rehabbing Shipe and Govalle.

But City Council can't keep plugging holes with one-time expenditures. The funding the city has received through those bonds has not been nearly enough, and the natural wear and tear of pavement and pipe systems has been exacerbated by the increasing use at each facility. Parks and Recreation Board Vice Chair Rich DePalma recently did the math: In 1996, when the city claimed a population of 562,795, Austin had 41 pools, one for every 13,700 people. And today, with the population at 947,000 and 30 working pools to dive into, we've got one for every 31,500 people. That ratio will continue to expand as the current system ages out of commission.

"We've had a shrinking aquatics system since 1996," said DePalma. His board colleague Rick Cofer estimated that PARD would need $60 million in bond funding this cycle in order to keep more pools from shutting down.

Underwater Reckoning

Thanks to the Aquatic Master Plan, we now know which of the city's remaining pools are expected to break down within the next decade. Spoiler alert: It's a lot. The task force that prepared the final draft of the plan identified 12 pools (plus Little Stacy wading pool) as being in line for "end-of-life facility replacement," at a total cost of nearly $74 million, and found five parts of the city in need of a system expansion (another $51 million).

The plan, which originated with the Aquatic Needs Assessment in 2014, landed with a thud when it arrived at City Hall in August, revealing that decades of underinvestment resulted in an aging, inequitable pool system that is already shrinking and will only further disappear without adequate funds. When Council got the report, members were appalled that it laid out which pools would have to close if the city didn't pony up the millions of dollars necessary to fix them in a sustainable fashion, concerns echoed by Cofer, who called the report a "decommissioning plan." (Staff disputed this notion, saying the report noted how Council could act to supply the funds necessary to keep them all open.) Residents also raised concerns that the public feedback component hadn't reached enough members of the community, and that the report seemed to ignore the fact that the system is forever shaped by racist laws and land use policies that affect so many other aspects of Austin. For instance, the initial plan alludes to the fact that some pools on the Eastside are clustered together within miles of each other, and proximity to other pools was taken into account in evaluating each facility. Some worried that those root causes weren't being adequately acknowledged.

A drinking fountain at Montopolis Pool

The legacy of Austin's pools and parks bear the dark history of Eastside segregation and neglect. A big reason why Austin boasts such a sprawling network of pools is because of the segregation policies that forced black and Latino Austinites into their own facilities. That's why since the Thirties two of the city's most established pools have been on the Eastside: Rosewood was built for African-Americans, and Parque Zaragoza for Mexican-Americans. The task force report recommends the city prioritize those two higher for repairs, along with other culturally and historically significant facilities.

In fact, much of East Austin is parched for aquatics investment, and there's a recent case study to indicate that potential returns may make such an investment worthwhile. In 2014, when the city completed its revamps of Bartholomew and West Enfield, usage at West Enfield increased by only 45% over the next three years. At Bartholomew over that same time period, usage nearly tripled.

The enthusiastic response to Bartho­lo­mew is no surprise to those who have served Austin, particularly its Eastern Cres­cent. Each year, as pools close for repairs, community advocates lodge complaints about the pools not opening on regular hours, not opening at all, or having water treatment problems when they do. But year after year, the issues remain. During the public comment period for the pools plan in 2016, a resident wrote to question why Austin has let obvious inequities in its public facilities persist in this way. "Why are we just now getting around to addressing those old, failed policies?" they asked.

Local NAACP President Nelson Linder points to the now-defunct at-large City Council system, which voters replaced with 10-1 in 2013. "We had an at-large political system in this city for 55, almost 60 years," he said. "That kind of system ensured for the most part that resources went to certain ZIP codes, mainly west of I-35. ... The parks east of I-35, because of lack of resources, infrastructure, and political representation, they were not really properly cared for." Linder recalls complaints about the poor state of pool facilities dating back in his first days leading the local NAACP chapter in the early 2000s. The hours at Rosewood were inconsistent, and it was often closed due to water quality issues. "So the legacy of discrimination created a lack of resources, and as a result, those parks deteriorated over long periods of time," he said. "Because they didn't invest in those parks, like they didn't invest in East Austin."

Two views of the pump room at Civitan Pool

The Task Force Ahead

When Council got scared off by the wording and cost of the initial plan, it did what our City Councils often do, and formed a task force. Cofer, DePalma, Rivera, and Parks & Rec Board member Dawn Lewis reviewed the plan with fresh eyes, in particular to focus on the seemingly overwhelming fiscal realities presented. In meetings from September to February, they wrestled with that need against the practical aspects of passing a bond, like how big of a package voters could consider before deciding the amount was unmanageable, and what sort of initiatives would have to be included in order to get votes from every corner of the city. Their final report notes that "few pools are located in the northern and southern portions of the city," making the bond a difficult sell if it doesn't address those longstanding equity concerns. They recommended the bond include four new pools to fill those gaps, along with a central aquatics facility.

Rivera said that if PARD could fix the 13 pools most in need of repairs, it could ease the burden on those Aquatics staffers who are scrambling from one emergency to another. That way, they could direct their energy toward everyday operations, and working on pools that are not yet critical but headed in that direction. "And be able to, every couple of years when we do another bond, put in two pools," Rivera said. "If we did, like, two pools on every bond, after we got the big core of them replaced," the city could prevent the system from shrinking further.

"We get frustrated when we see a pool closed and money being spent, and then we get a season out of it and then the pool is closed and money is spent, and we're like, 'Why couldn't it be done?'" DePalma added. "And that's the way we had been doing it. Whatever the priority is – whatever in the aquatics system at that specific pool had failed. If it's a pipe, we address the pipe. If it's a portion of the motor, we address the motor. We wait until it fails."

Putting a bond package up for a vote, said DePalma, will allow the voters to decide if we continue to piecemeal our aquatics maintenance, or invest in facilities "built for 2018."

The task force report takes the kitchen sink approach to the problem. In addition to the new pools to solve the equity gaps, the task force recommends radically changing how pools are funded: Instead of pool fees going to the General Fund as they do now, the task force thinks they should be redirected to aquatics capital projects. That way pools have a steady stream of funding in a way they haven't before. The report also calls for public-private partnerships, funding for future maintenance and operations, at-cost billing from Austin Energy and other city agencies, recognizing historic and cultural factors, and requiring that Council weigh in on future decommissioning.

"I personally strongly believe that closing a pool is a political call," said Rivera. "It's not a repair call; staff has been doing that as best they can."

Same Old Story

Council reviewed the task force's recommendations on Feb. 1, and heard support from residents citywide. The arguments appeared to leave an impression on members. "If this master plan does nothing else – I hope it does more, but if nothing else, I hope it really emphasizes that we are in a dire situation," said Council Member Alison Alter. "We've been triaging them and moving on. And that is not good for our pools, it's not a good policy, and it's not good for our community." The fiscally minded representative noted that fixing leaky pools could save the city a significant amount of money in the future.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo proposed a successful amendment giving Council responsibility for shutting down pools when necessary. Now, when PARD feels a pool has outlived its life span (as in the case of St. Johns), staff will have to go before Council to share its reasoning. If the city had had such a policy in 2010, residents may have pointed out that children in the St. Johns neighborhood don't have safe access to other pools in East Austin. Would Council have made a different choice? Hard to say, but existing pools and the constituents who use them will have a voice moving forward.

The legacy of Austin’s pools and parks bear the dark history of Eastside segregation and neglect.

The proposal passed, but not without some members expressing concerns over the cost – in particular, Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan. For Casar, the issue is that the city hasn't yet cracked $100 million in affordable housing spending in a bond election, but he ultimately voted to accept the report. Flannigan declared that he couldn't support any plan that recommended a four-pool expansion, and voted against. We already "have an aquatics system we can't afford to maintain," he said.

It's still worth asking if we learned anything from the lengthy process. PARD is asking that around $35 million out of November's bond request go toward Aquatics. With all the other needs of the department – which also oversees our complex parks system – that's probably all they can reasonably ask voters to provide. Unfortunately, though, that appears to be how our pools got so old and rusty in the first place. And the lack of funding inevitably causes higher costs over time, meaning that every time a pool fails, the Aquatics Division gets further behind.

"There has never been enough money put into the budget for operating expenses, which balloon every time a pool fails," said Rivera. "And there has not been adequate [capital improvement program] funding."

Our Parks, Our Pools

Neighborhood activist David King testified at Council on Feb. 1, saying he hoped the report wouldn't end up as just another stack of papers lying on a dusty shelf. Public attention is a crucial component of change in the aquatics system, and fortunately it doesn't appear as if the attention is going away any time soon. The task force spawned an action group called Love Austin Pools, which is dedicated to the preservation of the aquatics system.

Bartholomew Community Pool after its recent renovation

The system also continues to serve as a source of inspiration for Forklift Dance­works, which wrapped its Bartholomew project in October. This summer, the company directs its attention southeast with "Dove Springs Swims." Artistic Director Allison Orr and Associate Choreographer Krissie Marty are spending the summer getting to know the Dove Springs community in the way they took a deep dive into Bartholomew and its surrounding neighborhoods last year.

The dance company has a long history of working with everyday people and their movements to make civic-minded art. It was Forklift's Trees of Govalle project, done in conjunction with the Urban Forestry Division, that led it to the pools project. After the tree project wrapped, interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley, then in her capacity as PARD director, approached Orr and Marty about shining a light on aquatics. And over the past three years, the two have learned exactly why Hensley thought their spotlight would be so imperative.

"Parks and pools, to me, are part of the identity of Austin," Marty said. "What we got to look at were the bits of the stories of, 'Don't close my pool. Austin doesn't have enough money; you should close some pools, but don't close mine.'

"And, so I think what we started to see by being with staff more is that there is a system of pools. It's the city's pools. So can we think about them as our pools as opposed to my pool."

Austin Pools: All Over the Map

Austin's growth has brought its pool system to a breaking point. Illustrated below are the community pools (shown as squares) and neighborhood pools (as dots) that are currently in operation. City staff has found the 12 pools shown in red to be in critical need of repair, expected to fail within the next five years.

Due to a long-term lack of investment, pools outside of the urban core, particularly in the city's Eastern Crescent, are suffering the most. Half a dozen of those not currently in critical condition are expected to be classified as such within the next 10 years.

Neighborhood Pools

1) Canyon Vista, 8455 Spicewood Springs Rd.

2) Dick Nichols, 8011 Beckett Rd.

3) Dittmar, 1009 W. Dittmar

4) Dottie Jordan, 2803 Loyola

5) Dove Springs, 5701 Ainez

6) Govalle (closed for repair), 5200 Bolm

7) Kennemer, 1032 Payton Gin

8) Murchison, 3700 North Hills

9) Metz, 2407 Canterbury St.

10) Parque Zaragoza, 741 Pedernales

11) Patterson, 4200 Brookview

12) Rosewood, 1182 N. Pleasant Valley Rd.

13) Ramsey, 4201 Burnet Rd.

14) Reed, 2600 Pecos

15) Shipe (closed for repair), 4400 Avenue G

16) West Austin, 1317 W. 10th

17) Westenfield, 2000 Enfield

Community Pools

18) Bartholomew, 1800 E. 51st

19) Barton Springs, 2201 Barton Springs Rd.

20) Deep Eddy, 401 Deep Eddy

21) Springwoods, 13320 Lyndhurst St.

Neighborhood Pools Nearing End-of-Life

22) Balcones, 12017 Amherst

23) Big Stacy, 700 E. Live Oak

24) Brentwood, 6710 Arroyo Seco

25) Civitan, 513 Vargas

26) Gillis, 2504 Durwood

27) Givens, 3811 E. 12th

28) Martin, 1626 Nash Hernandez Sr.

29) Montopolis, 1200 Montopolis Dr.

Community Pools Nearing End-of-Life

30) Garrison, 6001 Manchaca Rd.

31) Mabel Davis (closed for repair), 3427 Parker Ln.

32) Northwest, 7000 Ardath

33) Walnut Creek, 12138 N. Lamar

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pools, Aquatic Master Plan, Rick Cofer, Rich DePalma, Jane Rivera, Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo

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