Barton Springs Pool
Barton Springs Pool is an outdoor recreational swimming pool that is totally filled with water from adjacent natural springs. It is situated on the grounds of Austin’s Zilker Park. The pool is located within the course of Barton Creek and uses water from Main Barton Spring, Texas’ fourth largest spring. The pool is a popular year-round swimming destination since its temperature ranges between 68 °F (20 °C) and 74 °F (23 °C).
Long before Barton Springs Pool was established, the Tonkawa Native American tribe who occupied the area revered the springs and used them for purification ceremonies. The springs were discovered by Spanish explorers in the 17th century, and temporary missions were established at the location in 1730. (later moving to San Antonio).
William (“Uncle Billy”) Barton, the springs’ namesake, colonized the area in 1837, just after Austin was incorporated. The three distinct springs were named after Barton’s three daughters: Parthenia, Eliza, and Zenobia. He and successive owners of the property realized its value as a tourist attraction and aggressively advertised it, resulting in the swimming hole’s long-term popularity.
Andrew Jackson Zilker, the property’s final private owner, deeded it to Austin in 1918. During the 1920s, the city started a construction project to dam the springs and build sidewalks to create a larger bathing area. Dan Driscoll, who previously designed the bathhouse at Deep Eddy Pool, designed the bathhouse in 1947.
Operation of the pool
The pool is normally available to the public daily from 5:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. The floodgates of the pool’s dam are closed during this time, and Main Barton Spring fills the pool to a maximum depth of more than 18 feet. Another dam at the upper end of the pool diverts surface water from Barton Creek down a tunnel under the pavements, preventing it from entering the pool.
Although access to the pool is free from November to mid-March, from mid-March to October, there is a minor cost ($1 to $8 for Austin residents) for entry after 8:00 a.m. During the charged season, entrance is free after 9:00 p.m. every evening till closing. Summer passes are also available, running from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Barton Springs Pool
Except before 8:00 a.m., when swimmers are advised to “swim at your own risk,” lifeguards are usually present. The pool is surrounded by grassy slopes and lovely trees that provide lots of shade. Coolers, food, non-resealable beverages other than water, glass containers, alcohol, loud speakers, pets other than service animals, and bicycles are forbidden from accessing the facility. Flotation devices are allowed at either end of the pool but not in the center.
The pool is closed for cleaning on Thursdays from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. The floodgates are occasionally partially opened, decreasing the pool’s water level by several feet. Employees then buff or blast pressurized water against the limestone bottom of the shallow end of the pool, as well as the steps and ramps going into the water, to wash away the dangerous and slippery algae deposit. A fire hose is utilized in the deep end to force debris toward the downstream dam. On cleaning days, overgrown vegetation is also clipped. The pool is closed for several weeks once a year for more thorough cleaning.
During flash flood warnings, the pool is closed because Barton Creek may flood and overflow the diversion dam. Swimming in Barton Springs Pool becomes dangerous as it turns into a rushing creek. Following a flood, the pool is closed for several days to allow dirt and debris washed into the pool to be removed. Other unanticipated pool closure reasons include lightning or thunder in the neighborhood, “search and rescue” circumstances, significant medical problems, a high fecal coliform count, and chemical spills (either inside the pool itself or over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer).
Since the 1980s, the pool has been closed to the public several times due to hazardous levels of fecal coliform (E. coli) bacteria in its waters. The source of contamination is still unknown: many blame upstream urban growth, while others remark that high bacteria levels were observed in the 1950s, when development was less prevalent. Contamination is frequently severe after heavy rains because sewage from upstream developments is flushed into the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which supplies the springs.
The springs’ environmental issues spawned a local political campaign known as the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS). SOS became a political force in Austin, resulting in numerous “green” initiatives covering environmental issues in addition to the springs.
Robert Redford, who learned to swim at Barton Springs Pool, has also been a vocal supporter. In 2007, he and Terrence Malick co-produced The Unforeseen, a documentary on the environmental impact of the neighboring real estate subdivision on the Edwards aquifer.
The discovery of the Barton Springs salamander, a federally designated endangered or vulnerable species that only survives in the pool and a few neighboring environments, created another environmental issue affecting the springs and the pool. After much deliberation and research by the city of Austin, Texas state agencies, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it was concluded that swimmers and salamanders could coexist (as they had probably been doing for some time).
Next Point of Interest: Mount Bonnell