Structural repairs to take place at Barton Springs Pool

To read the full story in the Austin American Statesman, click here.

By Marty Toohey, Asher Price
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Barton Springs Pool has serious structural damage and will probably need to be closed for six months or more for repairs, according to city officials.

Those officials said they don’t know when the pool would close. Numerous factors, including the health of endangered salamanders living nearby, will play a part in that decision.

The damage does not pose an immediate safety hazard to the swimmers, sunbathers and others who use Barton Springs Pool, according to a Monday city memorandum written by the directors of the city’s parks and environmental protection departments. But if the city does not make repairs, the damage could worsen, eventually making the pool unsafe and threatening the salamanders.

“Not making any repairs … is not a realistic option,” the city memo said.

The repairs could cost $2.4 million to $4.7 million.

The damage is to an underground tunnel that runs parallel to the pool on its north side, underneath the sidewalk. During heavy rains, the tunnel shunts excess dirty water from the creek that feeds Barton Springs Pool. The tunnel is about 6 feet high and 10 feet wide.

City officials discovered cracks in the tunnel in October when the pool level began dropping, city spokeswoman Stephanie Lott said. As a temporary fix, the city put bricks and stones into the tunnel to equalize pressure with the pool.

More holes, none bigger than a pad of paper, have formed since then. There are now about a dozen holes.

“The structure has reached the end of its useful life,” said Stan Evans, an engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. “It’s just like when you wear a car out. We’re now in the process of determining strategies to repair that or replace it.”

Gary Beyer, vice president of the Friends of Barton Springs Pool association, said he hopes the city can find a way to conduct the repairs without closing the pool.

“Of course, we don’t like the idea of the pool being closed that long,” Beyer said. “But we would understand. What has to be done has to be done.”

Any construction would require draining most of the water out of the pool. To do that, the city would open the dam that holds in the water, said Stuart Strong, assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department. Only the water that would naturally flow from the springs down Barton Creek would remain.

But the drought has complicated matters. Water flows through the pool to neighboring Eliza Springs, which is home to the endangered Barton Springs salamander. If the pool were drained, Eliza Springs would rely on water flowing from Barton Creek, and the creek is now flowing too lightly to provide enough water for the salamanders.

“We’re doing our engineering and getting approvals, so that when there’s more rain to get water levels back up, we can do the project,” Strong said.

Because of the salamander, the city will need federal approval of its plans.

The city and federal government have had preliminary discussions, said Luela Roberts, who oversees habitat conservation plans for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department’s Central Texas branch.

“They’ll figure it out,” Roberts said, “and then we’ll work with them to make sure the salamander is protected.”

City officials aren’t sure how exactly to repair the pool.

The memorandum suggests three general options: a 10-year fix, which would cost about $2.5 million; a different repair method that could cost about $2.4 million and last 15 years; and a $4.7 million fix that would last about 75 years.

The city is talking to consultants about other repair options, according to the memo.

City officials say they don’t know how to pay for the repairs.

As part of its $6.2 million Barton Springs Master Plan, which includes numerous proposals for upgrading the facility, the city had set aside $285,000 for routine maintenance on the tunnel. That won’t begin to cover the repair costs, but the city is looking for other ways to pay for them, the memo said.

Repairing the tunnel, Beyer said, “could use up most of that money, and we’d like to see the city come up with different funding sources.”; 445-3673