'When You Go Underwater': Will Austin's Public Pool System Be Able To Come Up For Air?

Aug 10, 2017

Nine-year-old Janiyah Johnson shows off her lung capacity.

“Count! Quickly!” she shouts at a reporter who dutifully begins counting the young girl’s time underwater. At her very best, she spends 14 seconds fully submerged.

“Oh, Jesus!” she exclaims when she emerges from a 3-feet-deep section of Bartholomew Pool in Northeast Austin. She tries to describe the sensation of gasping for air. “It feels weird because my head felt like it was shaking side to side.”

Bartholomew on East 51st Street is crowded on a Sunday afternoon and has been ever since the pool opened after renovations in 2014. The pool now features slides, shade covers and a lily pad bridge. Last season, more than 68,000 residents visited Bartholomew, a number typical for a municipal pool – that is, larger pools that charge a fee and are built to serve more people.

As the city comes to terms with its failing pool system (while the average lifespan of a public pool is 25 to 30 years, the average age of Austin’s pools is 50 years), residents could see a system with more pools like Bartholomew – larger, with more amenities, and not free. The city’s first draft of its Aquatics Master Plan envisions two potential futures for the public pool system: maintaining and upgrading current pools (the majority of which are neighborhood pools) or closing 10 pools and maintaining a more regional system.

Current State Of Pools

Janiyah's mom, Denise McClain, grew up in Central East Austin and swam often at her neighborhood pool, Givens Pool, as a kid.

“It was always, always busy,” she says. Givens was built in 1958 and is one of the most well-attended neighborhood pools, a category of pools that are smaller than municipal pools but are free. It costs McClain and her daughter $4 to visit a pool like Bartholomew. 

“There’ve actually been times when we’ve had to wait outside because there were too many kids in," McClain says of Givens. "So they’d have to wait and kind of weigh out the numbers."

McClain, a teacher in the Del Valle Independent School District, recently moved back to her old neighborhood to live with her mother and save money. She had hoped to take her daughter to Givens over the summer, but a large leak discovered by staff last year forced the pool to remain closed for the 2017 season.

Credit City of Austin

“That’s going to cost us $200,000 to repair, and we’ve already made a commitment to repair that,” says Kimberly McNeeley, acting director of the Parks and Recreation Department. 

“But that’s going to be $200,000 less that we have to spend on other pools, and if next season is anything like our past season, it’s going to cost much more than $200,000 to keep our system going,” she adds.

Part of the Aquatics Master Plan includes a ranking of pools based on criteria like surrounding demographics and available amenities. The idea is that when a pool comes up against a major repair, city staff facing a cash-strapped pool system can weigh the worth of paying to repair a pool or letting it shut down.

“[It] takes the arbitrariness out of the decision-making process and allows us to rely more so on data,” McNeeley says.

Four city pools were closed for the 2017 season: Givens, Mabel Davis, Shipe and Govalle. The latter two already have millions set aside for renovations. Each year, the city exceeds its pool maintenance budget by an average of $400,000 over a current budget of $2.1 million for maintenance.

Regardless, a mom like McClain expressed frustrations at the frequency and distribution of pool closures. Three of the four pools closed this summer are in East Austin.

“I just feel like, at what point was the maintenance personnel supposed to maybe throw a flag up and say maybe, ‘Hey, we need to start work on this pool so that we don’t have to close it down?’” she says. “To close down so many at one time, that’s troubling.”

Jane Rivera, who chairs the Parks and Recreation Board, says Austin’s pools are a marker of the city.

“We have public pools for our people,” she says. According to a 2014 report from the Trust for Public Land, Austin has 4.2 pools per 100,000 residents, falling behind cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Denver.

"The average age of the pools is 50 years,” Rivera says. “That means public pools have been in Austin for at least 50 years. So, a couple of generations have grown up in those public pools.”

The average age of Austin pools is 50 years. Givens, in East Austin, was built in 1958.
Credit Austin History Center, PICA 21235

Possible Futures

Without additional funding, city pools will be forced to close.

The Aquatics Master Plan conceives of two possible futures for Austin’s pools, both dependent on a large influx of cash. Either the city finds $136 million to maintain and upgrade its current 51 pool facilities or the city finds $96 million to preserve and build larger pools, while closing 10 pools, to serve swimmers on a more regional level.

City Council members are split. Council Member Leslie Pool is wary of a regional pool system.

“The really special thing about our neighborhood pools is … kids can just jump on their bikes or walk to the pool,” she said at a recent work session. “If you have to get in a car to drive 15 minutes or 15 miles to get to a pool, it’s an entirely different operation for a family, and it may even prevent people from actually making that trip.”

But only people living in select parts of the city can walk to a pool. When all the pools are open, residents in most of Central East Austin, Hyde Park and Central West Austin live a 20-minute walk from a pool – which is not the case for most of the city. Council Member Greg Casar said funding a more regional pool system could be a chance to build a more equitable system of pools.

“If, given our limited resources, we can’t get a neighborhood pool to everyone, then I would like to have a Bartholomew pool near as many people as I can,” he said.

As the city population has sprawled, low-income residents have been forced to the city limits. The Aquatics Master Plan suggests the city could add another $44 million to fund four new pools – one in each corner of the city – to serve those who live farther out.

When asked if the future of Austin’s pools means that most people will drive to a pool and pay an entrance fee, Rivera says yes.

“I think that is probably the wave of the future given the financial status of the pools,” she says.

'You Don’t Immediately Have To Come Back Up'

At her most poetic, Janiyah Johnson sees a pool as patient and kind.

“When you go underwater with your nose, you don’t immediately have to come back up because it lets you take time for that,” she says, before diving back beneath the surface.

Patience, it seems, might be something City Council members ask of residents, as well. Members voted to postpone indefinitely a vote on the Aquatics Master Plan, and next week they will vote on whether to assemble a task force to further study the plan. Who knows how long it will take them to come up for air – and decide the future of Austin's public pool system.

This post has been updated.