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Council approves Barton Springs Pool Plan, trail

Friday, January 16, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Some members of the city’s environmental community reacted against two City Council actions on Thursday. Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch and Roy Waley, the vice-chair of the Austin Regional chapter of the Sierra Club, took exception to the city’s resolutions for the Barton Springs Pool Master Plan. The Save Barton Creek Association supported the pool master plan.


Additionally, Bunch had issues with the city’s handling of the Walk-for-a-Day Trail resolution.


The Barton Spring Pool Master Plan in 2007 set out to improve water quality by removing a gravel bar, improve pool cleaning operations, renovate the Sunken Gardens and provide funds to study water quality. These projects, referred to as short-term projects were funded with  $6.2 million in 2007. They include improved pool grounds, restoration of the historic bathhouse, rehabilitation of Eliza Springs and several other changes intended to spruce up the area around the pool.


Waley suggested that the city was better off paying for additional land acquisition rather than fixing up the bathhouse and urged a limit to the density of development in the Barton Springs watershed.


Bunch was much more pointed in his criticism. He decried the lack of a full public hearing and said that while the region was in a critical stage drought, the money may be better spent preserving recharge rather than a face-lift for the bathhouse.  Bunch said, “enough water has been permitted for pumping that the springs could literally be pumped dry, and yet to my knowledge, the city has budgeted not a single penny to protect flows at Barton Springs.” Although Bunch acknowledged that the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is tasked with protecting the aquifer he said their funding was insufficient.


Bunch called the current economic climate an ideal time, “to buy lands that were slated for pavement and development in this extremely vulnerable watershed.” Instead, Bunch argued that the Master Plan should not focus on developing around the springs, but instead on protecting the quality and quantity of
spring flows.  Second, he said the plan does not fund operation and maintenance, which is needed now and should be considered a higher priority than building projects at the springs.
He also claimed that despite the lengthy planning process and Council efforts to involve the community, “public process for this plan was broken from the outset.”


He had similar issues with the Walk-for-a-Day Trail resolution. The item would approve negotiation of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hill Country Conservancy for development of an approximately 34-mile stretch of trail connecting Austin with the Onion Creek Preserve. It will run along various land parcels acquired to protect recharge features and the Edwards Aquifer watershed.  Bunch cited the draft resolution language that lacked, “a single word about public involvement.” Although there is a cooperative agreement with the Hill Country Conservancy, Bunch said that the involvement of a private non-profit was not the same as an open public.


The SOS Executive Director mentioned that George Cofer, Executive Director for HCC, had told a group that the trail could cost $750,000 per mile with a total cost ranging from $6-24 million. Again, Bunch thought this money would be better spent on land acquisition.


Council Members did subtly reference Bunch’s comments. Place 4 Council Member Laura Morrison requested that city staff work with Council and the community in parallel to develop the Walk for a Day Memorandum Of Understanding and put together “what we might conceive of a public process.”  Mayor Will Wynn responded that, “those discussions have been happening.”


Place 6 Council Member Sheryl Cole said the Barton Springs Pool was an icon along the lines of music and MUNY Golf Course and said “we know how many stakeholders have been involved in that process and so we’d like to thank them for being involved.” She said that despite the substantial amount the city is investing she knows it’s not enough and pledged to raise more and help find that funding. Council unanimously approved the resolutions on the consent agenda.

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