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Is It a Lagoon or Pool? The Debate That's Making Waves in Travis County

Jimmy Maas
With its first addition in 1996, Schlitterbahn required a filtration system for the first time.

Travis County could be on the verge of becoming a surfing mecca – at least, a surfing mecca for those that aren’t concerned with the usual trappings of surfing, like a wet suit, or a beach, or an ocean.

Nland Surf Park could open this fall just east of the airport. The only question is, how are they planning to clean their water – does that system meet state health standards? Or to put it more simply, is the surf park a swimming pool or not?

That question has landed the park in a legal battle with Travis County that could alter Nland’s original plans.

The park prefers to call its body of water a “lagoon.” It says it’s using a state-of-the-art system to clean the millions of gallons of rainwater it has collected – in its “lagoon.”

Neither Nland nor Travis County are talking as they are wrapped up in a lawsuit and possible countersuit. The park released a statement saying the County is treating it differently than other, comparable facilities.

Many of the park’s supporters point to nearby cable or wakeboarding parks as comparable facilities. Quest ATX operates in southeast Travis County.  Co-owner Jerry Taylor has operated Quest since 2013. Here, you are constantly pulled through the water by a series of cables, like a never-ending waterski run – only on a wakeboard, like a snowboard on water.

“We have different obstacles they can hit if they want to. As you can see everybody wears a lifejacket and a helmet. We have stuff for all. Some people just ride. Some people hit the beginner stuff. Some people more of the advanced stuff,” Taylor said.

So, you might begin to see the similarities: recreational water sports on a large body of water out in the county. Clearly supporting Nland’s comparable facility claim.

Credit Jimmy Maas / KUT
John Marshall of Dallas wakeboarding at Quest ATX wakeboard park southeast of Austin.

Plus, the wakeboarders play a role in keeping the water healthy.

“If you can see, as they ski around or ride around, there’s constant aeration of the lake itself.”

That same sort of board action could help with aeration the surf park.

But, not so fast – there is one big difference. Taylor says Quest ATX uses a 22-acre lake.

“All kinds of vegetation around that serves as filtration, as well as a natural source of oxygen for the lake, as well. We have bass. We have catfish. We have permitted carp to help keep back the vegetation so it doesn’t get overgrown.”

That’s where the lagoon comparison ends. Quest’s lake is alive and apparently healthy. Nland’s lagoon has no plants or animals living in it, at least on purpose. But some of those incidental living things could be deadly.

County Commissioners cited a recent amoeba infestation at a pool similar in size to Nland in North Carolina that resulted in the death of a teenager. Eight people in Texas have died from brain-eating amoebas in the last 11 years.

According to state law, a pool is an artificial body of water, including a spa, maintained expressly for public recreational purposes. The state requires pools to administer chlorine, with exceptions to pools that are spring fed like Barton Springs or Deep Eddy.

Nland said it will chlorinate its water. It said it will keep the rainwater within state guidelines for bacteria. In fact, Nland isn’t arguing that it’s not an artificial body of water – after all, it’s a surf park by the airport! It is arguing a particular point within those state regulations, a provision that a swimming pool must be filtered once every six hours. The surf park says that's not the most efficient or effective way to filter its “lagoon,” which it claims to be the largest in the world and 45 times the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Nland said its pool is one-of-a-kind, and it would require a one-of-a-kind pump to move that amount of water in six hours.

There might be one place that has experience with water cleanliness on a massive scale.

At its original park in New Braunfels, Schlitterbahn doesn’t clean most of its water with any chemicals. It redirects water from the Comal River into its rides and then sends that water back into the river. One time in, one time out.

Twenty years ago, when it added an extension, it began engineering its own process to use – and re-use – city water.

“Any time water is sprayed up, potentially into your face, that water must be chlorinated,” said Winter Prosapio, spokesperson for Schlitterbahn Water Parks.

She says the extension and Schlitterbahn’s other facilities in Galveston, Corpus Christi, South Padre and Kansas City are designed to recapture as much as 98 percent of water used in the parks.

“When you’re going to do that, that means you have to take it through a filtration process. So, there’s filtration and chemical treatment.  Filtration is taking it through sand and multiple layers of filtration, gravel and everything like that. And then also, chemically treating that water to get rid of all of that bacteria.”

She showed me three giant cylindrical tanks roughly ten feet tall and ten feet in diameter attached to pumps. They were busy filtering and treating the water for that side of the park.

So, it is possible to comply with state law on a large scale.

Nland says the current swimming pool laws were not meant for something on its scale or a facility built for surfing. It says it’s committed to safety and lowering its environmental impact.

Surf fans in Austin hope the two sides come to some sort of an agreement – before the whole thing’s a wipeout.

Jimmy is the assistant program director, but still reports on business and sports every now and then. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.