The city has lifted a temporary ban on boating and recreational use of Lady Bird Lake, after flooding earlier this month. But even with that ban lifted, there's still one thing you definitely can't do in the lake: Go swimming.
It may be well-known to longtime residents (who probably still call it Town Lake), but swimming in Austin’s “crown jewel” is illegal. Seems it has been for 50 years.
Still, when contacted, public information staff at several city departments seemed surprised to hear such a ban exists.
According to City of Austin Code § 8-5-48, unless you’re rescuing someone, doing construction authorized by the city or swimming in a permitted event, you cannot set foot in the lake’s water.
In an email, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said the swimming ban is “based on poor water quality and hazards due to debris from previous bridges, items from when they built the dam, and when it rains and/or floods, all the ‘run-off’ from area creeks, streets and dog parks that flows naturally into Lady Bird Lake.”
Looking at the lake's brownish water and the trash floating in it after the floodwaters from upstream, you probably wouldn't be tempted to take a dip anyway.
The usual debris in the lake alone is a good reason not to jump in (take this guy – who impaled his leg on some underwater debris a couple years ago).
The ban appears to date back to 1964, just a few years after the Colorado River was dammed up to form what was then called Town Lake as a cooling reservoir for the now-demolished Holly Power Plant.
According to a 2005 article from the Austin American-Statesman, pits from the old riverbank lurk beneath the now-higher waters of the lake.
There was a rash of drownings in the late '50s and early '60s, but one incident in particular led to the swimming ban.
On Mother's Day 1964, two sisters went wading in the lake with their family under the Interstate 35 bridge. Inez Rendon, 11, and her 8-year-old sister, Cynthia, were about five feet from shore when they dropped into one of the pits 20 feet and deeper beneath the water, according to an article in the Austin Statesman.
After the girls' deaths, the city council passed an ordinance making the lake off-limits to swimmers.
The ban is well-posted at Red Bud Isle, where it’s tempting to join your dog for a dip in the lake. It's not so widely publicized along the Hike and Bike Trail. It is posted underneath the Lamar Blvd. bridge. Several canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental locations we contacted said they inform patrons about the swimming ban and have signs up on their docks.
Especially on weekends in the summer, police are on the lookout for swimmers — and folks jumping from the underside of bridges into Lady Bird Lake. It's a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500.
"I think I have found an extremely low amount of repeat violations," says Officer Jose Delgado with APD's Lake Patrol Unit. "Once we cite them, they know."
Bottom line: There are plenty of beautiful (legal) places to swim in Austin – but Lady Bird Lake still isn’t one of them.
(P.S.: You CAN swim legally in the spillway below Barton Springs Pool, which is almost Lady Bird Lake.)
Carlotta Esposito contributed reporting for this post.