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Dog owners poo-poo proposed leash law at Bull Creek park

Monday, August 24, 2009 by Bill McCann

Concerned about the quality of Bull Creek and the health of the people who use it, city staff has concluded that waste from dogs running free at the park is the likely cause of high bacteria levels frequently found in the creek. Staff has proposed a list of actions to deal with the poop problem and to restore and re-vegetate the popular Northwest Austin park, especially the denuded areas that are suffering from overuse near and along the creek.


One of those proposed actions – requiring owners to keep their dogs on a leash at the park starting Sept. 8 – has gotten dog owners riled up. A number of them showed up to the Environmental Board meeting Wednesday to oppose the dog-leash proposal and to offer their side of the story.


Many of the 12 speakers said education and enforcement were keys to addressing the problem and urged the city to step up enforcement of a city code provision requiring dog and cat owners to pick up after their animals or face a fine of up to $500.


Park-goer Debra Bailey, a member of the Bull Creek Dog Off-Leash Group, suggested that adding $5 to the current pet registration fee could net the city more than $1 million that could be used to hire park rangers for off-leash parks to hold dog owners accountable. 


Several speakers said that the doggie-doo problem at the park has eased because members of the off-leash group have stepped in to clean up the dog waste and help maintain the park. 


Several also argued that the12 off-leash parks in the city, including only three near water, were not adequate to meet the growing demand for places where people can let their dogs get out and run. Requiring dogs to be on a leash at Bull Creek Park would put even more pressure on the other locations, they said.


Bull Creek Park is the Barton Springs for dogs,” said park user Karen Blizzard. “The city needs continued education, enforcement and more off-leash areas. There are very few options (for dog owners) while the city’s population is growing.”


Another speaker, Kyle Allen, said requiring dogs to be on a leash is not going to stop dogs from pooping at the park.


“There are no studies that show there is less poop if a dog is attached to a six-foot leash,” he said.  Allen argued that that most recent water quality monitoring data are showing that the water quality in the creek has been improving.


“People are not getting sick,” he said.


Allen and others said a big problem at the park is the past failure by the city Parks and Recreation Department to maintain it.


“There is no budget for the park beyond cleaning the restrooms and picking up trash,” he said


Only a couple of speakers ventured to offer another viewpoint about the park going to the dogs.


“The city needs to decide whether this is a dog park or a recreational park,” said park neighbor Chris Dimick. “People in the area do not go to the park because it has become a dog park.”


If the city is going to spend $200,000 to fix it up and then turn it back into a dog park, the city will have wasted its money because it will return to the way it is now, Dimick said.


Chris Herrington, an environmental engineer for the Watershed Protection Department, started off the discussion about the creek and park by summarizing results of testing for E. coli bacteria in the creek over the past two years. Although there had been a couple of sewage spills in the creek, extensive tests ruled out spills as the cause of the ongoing bacterial problem, he said. Testing showed a pattern of bacteria levels much higher – sometimes eight times higher – on weekends, when there is a lot of activity at the park.


“It is not difficult to find dog wastes on the ground,” Herrington said, adding that the situation is better than it used to be thanks to volunteers.


In response to questions from board members, Herrington said if no restrictions were placed on dogs at the park, Bull Creek would need to be closed to public swimming as a health precaution. “The choice is between dogs off-leash and (public) swimming.”


After briefly discussing options, the Environmental Board decided to postpone action to give staff and stakeholders time to work together on the issue. The delay also would allow the issue to get further hearing at the Parks Board meeting tomorrow and at a to-be-scheduled meeting of the Environmental/Parks Board Subcommittee. The Environmental Board agreed to take up the question again at its Sept. 2 meeting.

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