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Parks Department dives into future of Austin pools

Thursday, August 20, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Next week signals the close of many Austin municipal and neighborhood pools. Diving boards active throughout the summer months will be hushed as the kids who once tumbled from them head back to school.

During these final days, volunteers with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will be conducting informal surveys of pool users, asking questions aimed at better understanding residents’ likes and dislikes of the pools they frequent. It’s the start of a months-long conversation with communities about the current state and desired future of their local pools, many of which are considered archaic in the pool business.

Moreover, the Parks Department has said numerous times – most recently in budget meetings – that it does not have the funding to do extensive repairs.

For many, the problem became most apparent with a citywide aquatics assessment published in October 2014. That assessment identified several failing pools.

“We have some pools that were built in the 1930s, so everything is antiquated, and so it has cost more money to run it,” Parks Director Sara Hensley told City Council members at a budget session last week. “It is not environmentally friendly, it is not fiscally responsible and it is certainly not the way we want to operate.

“The question has to be asked, ‘Do we want to continue to have 50 aquatic facilities – that’s splash pads, that’s pools of all sizes – or is there a strategy of more strategically located pools that have more amenities and can reach more people?’” said Hensley.

Hensley and Assistant Director Kimberly McNeeley described short-term repairs that have proved to be only stopgap solutions for some pools. Back in April, the parks department announced that it would shutter Metz and Mabel Davis pools for the summer due to major leaking. Staff reversed its decision after community kickback and went about repairing those pools in time for the season.

But at the same budget session last week, McNeeley described how Mabel Davis continues to leak. The department has now fashioned a workaround in which the leaking pool water is captured in a basin, and then that basin pumps the leaked water back into the filtration system, where it’s filtered and poured back into the pool.

“We don’t have enough funding to make major repairs to any swimming pools,” McNeeley told Council members. “So we can do some small repairs, but for those pools that are failing – for example those five pools that are failing – we wouldn’t even be able to make a dent in repairing that for a longer period of time.”

Department staff said these meetings with community members throughout the fall will give them direction for reimagining Austin’s relationship to its pools.

This weekend, volunteers will finish the initial surveys of several pools, including Patterson Pool tomorrow, Brentwood and Martin pools on Friday and Givens and Dottie Jordan pools on Saturday.

Mayor Steve Adler emphasized the need to be innovative and cautious in the process.

“My sense is that if all the action you’re doing is taking away a pool, there’s a real big problem,” Adler told Parks Department staff at last week’s budget meeting. “If you are saying this is what we are proposing that’s new in its place, then it might be a little bit different conversation.”

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