Yup, It's Still Illegal To Swim In Lady Bird Lake. Here's Why.

Jun 13, 2018

When it's hot in Austin, you just want to go somewhere to cool off, somewhere you can take a swim and forget the oppressive heat that lingers for six months of the year.

There are lots of great spots.

But there's one place you definitely cannot go swimming: Lady Bird Lake (Town Lake, if you're OG).

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Swimming in Austin's "crown jewel" (or at least one of them) is banned by city ordinance. It says:

So you pretty much can't go in the water — unless you have special permission or are trying to save someone from drowning. Falling out of your canoe doesn't count.

Sean Mahan asked our ATXplained project why you can't swim in Lady Bird Lake.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

We've gotten a lot of questions for ATXplained about why this is. Where did the ban come from? Why aren't we allowed to swim in Lady Bird Lake?

"I know that in every other river in the state, I'm allowed to," says Sean Mahan, one of the people who asked about the swimming ban. "I threw my dog's ball in the water in 2004 and everybody freaked out, telling me that I was going to get arrested and that the water wasn't clean and that I had to get out. So, since 2004, I've followed that rule."

You can't go in the water without special permission or to save someone from drowning.

There are plenty of rumors about the water being too polluted (false) or dangerous currents (debatable). But the real reason goes back more than 50 years, just a few years after this part of the Colorado River was dammed up to create Town Lake.

It was Mother's Day, May 10, 1964. A reporter for the Austin Statesman wrote it up at the time.

"Newcomers to Austin, the Ollie Rendon family joined the increasing throngs that crowd the Town Lake shoreline on Sundays. The Mother's Day outing ended in tragedy when the swift Colorado River current carried two of the Rendon's 11 children to their death in deep waters just below the Interstate 35 bridge."

Inez Rendon was 11 years old. Cynthia Rendon was 8 years old.

"[Ollie] Rendon told Detective Lieutenant Leonard Flores he was watching as the younger girl, Cynthia, waded some five feet from the bank into water more than 20 feet deep. Inez, already in the water, answered her younger sister's screams as the father plunged into the water to help. Inez was pulled into the deep water struggling to rescue Cynthia."
 

"The father, unable to swim, briefly grasped one of the girls by the hand but lost his hold when he too went off into deep water."

 

Two weeks after Inez and Cynthia died, on May 28, 1964, the Austin City Council met to vote on an emergency proposal to ban swimming, wading, bathing — or otherwise "willfully" going into Town Lake.

The original proposed ordinance that banned swimming in Town Lake in 1964.

It passed on a vote of 3 to 2. And it's been that way ever since.

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 Boulevard bridge. Canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental locations on the lake inform patrons about the swimming ban and have signs up on their docks.

The swimming ban is well-posted near the lake.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

Police are on the lookout for swimmers — and folks jumping from the underside of bridges into Lady Bird Lake — especially on weekends in the summer. It's a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500.

But police say they don't find a lot of people swimming.

"In the eight summers I've been out here, I actually saw one person who had a swim cap on — they were going right down the middle of the lake on a busy weekend day," says Cpl. Steve Scheuer, with Austin Police Lake Patrol. "We just asked him to get out of the water and explained the city ordinance to him and he got out of the water."

Dave Billins and Steve Scheuer with the Austin Police Department patrol the lake.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

We went out for a patrol on the lake — and for the most part, it seemed people were obeying the rules. We did watch someone jump off the pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek (jumping from a bridge is a separate offense), but it's hard to catch bridge-jumpers since they just swim to shore and take off when they see the police. A couple weeks ago a woman jumping off the pedestrian bridge landed on a kayaker, seriously injuring both of them.

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And then there's debris at the bottom of the lake. Concrete and rebar litter the riverbed from old bridges and dams. This guy impaled his leg on some underwater debris a couple years ago.

"That's the big thing with this water. You can only see a foot down into it," says Dave Billins, another APD Lake Patrol officer. "So no one knows what's 3 foot under, 4 foot under."

Bottom line: There are plenty of beautiful (legal) places to swim in Austin – but Lady Bird Lake still isn't one of them.

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