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A Remodel Hopes To Replenish Austin's Endangered Barton Springs Salamander

Austin Price for KUT
The Eliza Spring Amphitheater was built in 1903. A renovation by the City of Austin hopes to bolster the population of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.

The Eliza Springs Amphitheater sits like an abandoned ruin near the Zilker Zephyr train station by Barton Springs Pool. The oval-shaped, open-air gallery was built into the ground in 1903 near Eliza Spring – one of the four springs feeding into what we know as Barton Springs. Over the last year, the city has been renovating the relic to accommodate its endangered inhabitants.

Credit Courtesy of the City of Austin
Under an agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Austin must protect the endangered Barton Springs salamander.

The center of the structure is one of the few homes to the Barton Springs salamander, which has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species list since 1997.

The water from the spring rises up through holes in the cement floor, which were installed in a symmetrical pattern. 

Until this year, it flowed to Barton Creek through a pipe, but the pipe had become jammed with debris and disturbed by tree roots. So the city removed it and opened up one side of the amphitheater, creating a stream.

The little salamanders, which were once confined to the amphitheater, will now be able to live up and down the stream. It makes more space for the salamanders and allows more food to get into the water.

“The stream is less maintenance,” says Donelle Robinson, an environmental scientist with the city's watershed protection department. “But it also is endangered species habitat.”

Credit Courtesy of the City of Austin
This 1953 Neal Douglass photo shows the masonry that was added to the amphitheater; the pipe is buried below it.

The renovation has had its detractors, however. It cost $2.3 million, which is more than the city had originally planned. But officials argue helping the salamanders is not just environmentally responsible, it also keeps Barton Springs Pool open.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Austin is allowed to operate the pool as long as it can show it’s protecting the endangered salamander.

Robinson says the city has already found a species of freshwater shrimp in the new stream that are a favorite of the salamanders.

That means the salamanders should be close behind, and a barrier farther downstream will keep them from venturing too far. That’s because this water does still, eventually, enter a pipe.

Initially, officials had hoped they could allow the stream to flow directly into Barton Springs Pool. The problem is that it ran into a tunnel that diverts the creek water around the pool and deposits it just downstream. So the water from Eliza Springs now flows into that tunnel and then into Barton Creek.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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