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City boards get earful from both sides in Bull Creek off-leash debate

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

About 30 residents showed up at a public hearing last night to bark about plans to rescind Bull Creek District Park’s designation as an official off-leash dog park. The city of Austin Parks and Recreation and Environmental boards held a joint meeting Monday to garner input from citizens on a city staff proposal that would require dogs to be leashed at the park.


Bull Creek Park, located along Lakewood Drive south of Loop 360, has been designated as an off-leash dog park for 12 years and is one of a dozen such parks in the city. However, concerns about water quality and soil degradation have put its off-leash status in jeopardy.


A team of staffers from the city’s Parks and Recreation, Watershed Protection, Health and Water Utility departments have been investigating conditions at Bull Creek Park since 2007. Chris Herrington, an engineer with Watershed Protection, presented the team’s findings at Monday’s meeting.


Water quality tests shows that E. coli bacteria levels in part of the creek that flows through the park are above levels considered safe for humans, Herrington reported – a concern because the creek serves as a swimming holes and flows into Lake Austin. The team concluded that the high levels of bacteria were caused by dog feces. Herrington also reported that natural vegetation along the creek had disappeared and that topsoil had eroded and compacted due to trampling.


Staff has recommended that the city close the park completely November through March in order to repair erosion and restore vegetation, which will cost a projected $200,000. Under the proposal, leashed dogs would be allowed in the park after March.


Herrington said the park must be closed for re-vegetation but that board members could wait until next spring to decide whether or to continue the park’s off-leash use. The boards, he said, also had the option of banning dogs altogether or prohibiting swimming.


Both opponents and supporters of the staff recommendation spoke at Monday’s hearing, with off-leash advocates outnumbering their opposition by about 2:1.


Off-leash proponent Kyle Allen told the board that volunteers had put in over 1,000 hours to improve the park – including putting up fencing, terracing and picking up trash and dog feces – with no help from the city. The problem, he said, is not the dogs but the city’s lack of maintenance of the park.


Allen argued that, according to his research, E. coli occurs all along Bull Creek and cannot be blamed on the dogs. Plus, he argued, bacteria samples were taken in June and July when water flows were at their lowest in years and bacteria levels would naturally be high.


Bull Creek, he said, is a valuable asset to the city’s dog owners and should remain an off-leash area. “We’ve found a formula in Red Bud, Bull Creek and Riverside that works,” Allen said. “People love them. …Bull Creek is the Barton Springs for dogs.”


Other off-leash proponents blamed the low water quality on the drought, urban runoff and sewer spills. Some of them pointed out that better enforcement of “pick up the poop” rules would help clean up the park.


Northwest Austin resident Karen Saroni, a supporter of the staff proposal, lamented the poor conditions in the park, particularly the eroded area and the loss of grass. “It is not the city’s responsibility to provide dogs with areas to run and swim,” she said. “Keeping Austin weird does not entail destroying parks and creeks.”


Richard Blount told the board that he used to take his sons and his dog to Bull Creek to swim until he noticed dogs “pooping” in the creek. “It is no longer a fun place to go for the families in that area,” he said.

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