Here's What It Takes To Keep The City Of Austin's Aging Pools Afloat

Jul 17, 2017

Paul Slutes is accustomed to less-than-enthusiastic welcomes.

At times, this often resembles a recent scene at Balcones Pool: Despondent swimmers greet him, seated on the concrete with their knees to their chins. Forty minutes earlier, a lifeguard closed the pool because of low chlorine levels. That’s why Slutes is here.

“How y’all doing?” Slutes asks the lifeguards, as he hurries past the pool entrance. But he doesn’t wait to hear their answers as he hustles to the pump room, which houses the city pool’s filtration system.

While the lifespan of a city pool is about 25 to 30 years, the average age of a pool is around 40. Some, like Deep Eddy Pool, have been around for twice as long. And so the city's 51 aging public pool facilities require a lot of upkeep. That’s where Slutes, who oversees a 10-member maintenance crew, comes in.

At Balcones, Slutes theorizes that the low chlorine levels must be due to a blocked strainer, which collects dirt and debris from the pool. It’s not letting the water flow as it normally does from the pool to the filter and back out to the pool.

“Pool systems, they revolve around flow,” Slutes says. “Without flow, you don’t have anything.”

We head to the pump room, passing barrels of chlorine along the way. It stinks, as you might imagine, of bleach. Once there, we peer into a clear lid sealing off a large pipe where the water from the pool is flowing.

“See how kind of clogged up that is?” Slutes asks. “Oh, yeah … it’s restricting the flow. Is that dirt in there? It’s just debris and leaves and stuff.”

Slute's first instinct at Balcones Pool is to empty the pool's filter. When the filter gets blocked, the pool automatically turns off its pumping system to prevent a chemical build-up in the water.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT

After Slutes unclamps the lid on the large pipe, water gushes out the top onto the concrete floor of the pump room. He reaches into the pipe and pulls out what looks like a metal basket; this is the strainer. Slutes bangs it against a trash can, and clumps of wet leaves fall out.

He replaces the strainer and reclamps the lid. Then he restarts the pump, which pulls water from the pool to be treated with chlorine and sent back out.

“We’ve done pretty much a lot of what we can do,” he says. “Now it’s just a waiting game.”

Ten minutes go by, and Slutes tests the chemical makeup of the water. “Still no chlorine,” he says, shaking his head.

Slutes tests the water to ensure it's safe for swimmers.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT

Slutes tries several other fixes, but nothing works. Then he looks at the thin, black piping that carries chlorine to the pool. It snakes along the concrete wall of the pump room, attached by rusted, metal clamps.

“If you had a crack along this line any place, it wouldn’t feed,” he says. But, then he drops the idea, heading back out to the pool to check the chlorine levels again, hoping that something has changed.

A couple minutes later, Jodi Jay, the head of the city’s aquatics department, runs out from the pump room.

“Hey Paul, I found it!” she shouts. She’s confirmed Slutes’ theory. “The black line’s got a crack in it.”

We rush back in, and Jay shows us the miniscule crack, from which water is leaking. You can barely see it. Jay identified the crack by the white calcium buildup lining the wall nearby, which can happen when the pool chemicals are exposed to air. Slutes and Jay repair it with duct tape, then decide that replacing the entire piping will be a more permanent fix.

After a number of unsuccessful tests, Jodi Jay notices that a piece of tubing has sprung a tiny leak. She and Slutes quickly replace it.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT

It’s a delicate operation – they’ll have to thread the new pipe through small metal clips that hold it tight along the wall, preventing it from bending and obstructing the flow.

“Go ahead and pull it,” says Slutes, coaching Jay, as she coaxes the black line along the wall. “Pull it through …keep going.”

Once it’s in, Jay restarts the pump that was shut off during the repair. And we’ve got a secure, flowing system.

“Perfect!” she shouts.

Back at the pool area, nearly a dozen swimmers have already returned to the water. But there's little time for Slutes to celebrate his fix.

“We gotta go to Walnut Creek,” he says, for a routine chlorine check. He hustles out the gate.

Back in the truck, Slutes takes a minute to revel in the sight of a full pool.

“That was fun!” he and Jay both say, as they make their way to another pool in need of repair.