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City outlines long-term project to restore Eliza Springs

Thursday, November 15, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin’s Watershed Protection Department wants to create a new life for Eliza Springs, one of four springs at Zilker Park.

On Wednesday, the city department hosted an open house to highlight its efforts to bring back a more natural setting to Eliza Springs, a tributary of Barton Creek that in the 1930s was enclosed in a pipe and buried underground.


At the time the culvert was added, it allowed the parks department to create an expansive lawn alongside the man-made pool. The springs run into the culvert and flow to Barton Springs, one reason why improvements to the actual Eliza Springs must come after the Barton Springs culvert improvement.


What is apparent to visitors today is the keyhole amphitheater that the Elks built in the 1930s where the springs surface at the top of a hill above the pool. Biologist Liza Colucci said the amphitheater shell, with its small spring-fed pool “was pretty much the same as natural air conditioning.”


City officials want to allow Eliza Springs to once more flow naturally into Barton Springs Pool to improve water flow and expand the habitat for salamanders and lessen the burden on the pool.


The Watershed Protection department holds the federal permit on protecting the endangered salamanders. Maintaining a healthy habitat in Eliza Springs allows swimmers to co-exist with salamanders in the pool.


The salamanders in question include the endangered Barton Springs salamander and the Austin blind salamander, which spends most of its time in the subterranean aquifer. Improvements to the keyhole were made in 2003 to add vents and holes to the pool to allow the salamanders to move freely.


Earlier this week, Colucci was on hand to serve as guide to the hidden Eliza Springs, discussing with reporters how the chain-link fenced and abandoned amphitheater now serves as the most fertile habitat in Austin for the endangered Barton Springs salamander.


Underneath the rocks at the amphitheater’s floor, between 100 and 200 salamanders now live, a healthy high for the endangered species established after the water levels were equalized back in 2003. To remove the concrete culvert for Eliza Springs into Barton Springs Pool would give salamanders a way to enter and leave the pool, and increase the ability to reinforce crucial habitat for the area.


“I don’t know many areas like this where you can swim with the salamanders,” said department spokesperson Wendy Morgan at Wednesday’s open house and briefing at the spring.


Colucci agreed. Few places anywhere would allow swimmers alongside endangered species like the Barton Springs salamander. Watershed Protection’s commitment to preserve habitat allows that possibility, and the chance to recreate the water flow between Eliza Springs and the Barton Springs Pool will improve that habitat.


The Eliza Springs amphitheater, once built to accommodate Elks Club meetings, may never be open to the public again, but it might become a healthier habitat for salamanders with natural springs flow.

The actual planning won’t occur until next spring. Colucci said the goal was to plan the Eliza Springs project after the Barton Springs culvert project. Both are part of the long-term master plan for the Barton Springs Pool, although the Eliza Springs project is not directly related to the pool project.


No price tag has been placed on what the city is calling the Eliza Springs “Daylighting” project. Morgan said the funding would come from the fee paid by water utility customers each month. That fee is intended to address both flooding and water quality, which has given the department the mandate to protect the endangered salamander habitat.


As part of the project, the Watershed Protection Department also would pull up the buried concrete on the Eliza Springs amphitheater floor. Its removal, along with the removal of the metal pipe/culvert that the stream now runs through, could allow the species, and especially the Austin blind salamander, to move between the floor of the amphitheater and the Barton Springs Aquifer. The city also said it would establish native plants along the stream to add shade and further enhance the habitat.


Ultimately, the city’s Parks Department would like to move the fence line on the pool to incorporate the Eliza Springs amphitheater. Such a move would allow visitors to have a sense of how the amphitheater and the pool interact, with the water flowing between the two, allowing salamanders to move across the park.


Once input is gathered on the project, Watershed Protection intends to begin planning the Eliza Springs daylighting project. But construction could be years away. For more info on the project see the city’s web page.

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