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As Splash Season Nears, City Begins to Write Future of Austin Pools

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUT News
In April 2015, city staff announced it would close two of its aging pools, including Metz, pictured above, due to significant leaks. But after local community protests, the city backtracked and decided to repair the facilities instead.

As the temperature in Austin climbs, kids and adults flock to the city’s several dozen pools. But while the industry puts a pool’s lifespan at 30 years, many of Austin’s are 50 years or older. So in 2012, the city decided it would create an Aquatic Master Plan, a document that would imagine the future of Austin’s pools. That process is now in its third and final phase of completion.

An assistant director with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Kimberly McNeeley, explains that staff now sits down to actually write the plan, pitched as a roadmap for the future of Austin’s water recreation.

“How many pools do we need to have? What do those pools need to look like?” asks McNeeley, as an example of some questions the master plan will answer.

Cheryl Bolin, a manager with the city’s Aquatic division, puts it another way. “As those pools age, and if one of the critical ones was to have failure, we would look to the master plan for the guidelines on what should happen to that particular pool,” says Bolin.

And the age of Austin’s pools has driven the conversation about how they should be managed. In 2014, as the first phase of the master plan development, staff assessed the current health of the city’s pools – putting the average age of these pools at 50 years old, while industry standards place a pool’s lifespan at 30 years.

So, while the Aquatic Master Plan will implement feedback from specific neighborhoods about what they would like to see in the way of water recreation over the next decade, age binds the pools together, allowing the conversation about their futures to be more collective.

“With all of our pools being at an average age of 50 years old, almost all of our pools struggle,” says Bolin.

This last phase – the writing of the master plan – also pulls together input collected from community meetings. The involvement of community members in the master plan process struck a particular chord considering events that unfolded last spring. In April 2015, city staff announced they would close two pools east of I-35 (Metz and Mabel Davis) because of significant leaks.

“If we knew this was leaking way back when in the day, why is it that one month and a half before we’re into the summer we’re being told that they may be closed?” East Austin leader Gavino Fernandez posed this question to the city’s Parks and Recreation Board in April.

The city eventually backtracked on their plan to shutter these pools after community backlash, and paid to have the two pools repaired in time for the summer season.

The aim is that this master plan will reconcile the reality of Austin’s pools – they are aging, and the department acknowledges it does not have money to pay for all the necessary repairs – with the wishes of residents, some of whom have used a neighborhood pool for several decades.

“[The pools] have been here over 50 years, right? And so it becomes part of their family. They go there as kids, they have this connection,” says Bolin.

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.

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