Photo © Alberto Martinez
Saving Barton Creek
Austin waterway cascades through canyons and political battles on its way to iconic pool.
By Ed Crowell
Barton Creek is one of the most cherished little creeks in America. Spilling through what once was mostly farms and ranchlands and wooded canyons into the heart of Austin, the creek concludes its journey with powerful natural springs pumping into a massive, treasured city pool.
When my family and I moved to Austin from a Florida beach town in the late 1970s, we wanted to be near water and my downtown office. Our house in Barton Hills was close enough to Barton Springs Pool that we could bike or walk there through the neighborhood. Trails down on the creek were rough, unmarked and inaccessible. Many visitors to the springs never realize there’s a creek full of scenic treasures stretching for miles upstream from the pool.
For years, I had no idea where Barton Creek started. Now I know. Searches for the source took me along 50 miles of twists and turns and tributary confluences. Welcoming, proud landowners invited me to see their sections of the stream that change from determined flows past boulders and cliffs to barely a trickle across cow pastures. I saw where the creek sculpts idyllic, shaded swimming holes between meanders.
What’s not visible are the passions and scars of political battles to save Barton Springs, Barton Creek and the Edwards Aquifer below. For decades, those fights embroiled citizen groups, developers, lawyers, city officials and, in turn, state lawmakers and federal regulators. Some of the battles never ceased, and watchdog organizations push on.
Barton Creek is a success story today. Recent water-quality surveys by city scientists rank it among the healthiest of the 49 Austin-area creek watersheds regularly checked for pollutants. It had been years since Barton Springs Pool was closed because of contaminants, but a week before Christmas 2018 a mysterious, light-brown plume of sediment rose from springs in the bottom of the pool. To protect swimmers who could not easily be seen by lifeguards through the sediment, the pool was closed for a day until the cloudiness subsided. City officials traced the cause to drilling at a new house under construction in Barton Hills. The pollution case dramatized the sensitivity of the aquifer, even atop a hill three-quarters of a mile from the pool.
More long-lasting threats to the aquifer, springs and creek come with the seas of new subdivision streets and rooftops rolling across the 109-square-mile Barton Creek watershed. Developments rise on the hillsides and creek tributaries with an alarming regularity in and around the former tiny towns of Dripping Springs and Bee Cave. More are in the planning stages. Unseen in full measure so far are the cumulative polluting components of development: erosion, runoff from fouled asphalt, fertilizers and pesticides, pet waste, trash and the effluent of wastewater treatment plants.
What stopped earlier developments in the Barton Creek watershed was a determined strategy in the 1990s by Austin and Travis County voters, environmental partners and good-hearted property owners. With bond issues and other means, they created an unfinished patchwork of conservation lands protected forever from urbanization. It’s an increasingly expensive game plan for land- and water-protection advocates facing fast-rising land values and multistate development corporations buying up large tracts.
My journeys to every mile of Barton Creek began in 2016 to satisfy a curiosity about where the westernmost source of the creek was located. I had paddled many times the short distance from Barton Springs Pool to the mouth of the creek where it flows into the Colorado River. I had hiked the 1,850-acre Barton Creek Greenbelt and Wilderness Park that stretches more than seven miles above the pool and attracts numerous hikers, mountain bikers and rock climbers. Past the greenbelt, the creek is visible to the public only where it crosses a couple of decades-old golf course developments and where it goes under public roads. The access to hidden stretches I enjoyed was in the company of private landowners, some with conservation easements.
I learned much about the aquifer’s endangered salamanders, which recently have been found far from the spring sites in and around Barton Springs Pool. Visiting the protected nesting grounds of two migratory bird species, I gained an appreciation for the complex plan that set aside as natural habitat thousands of acres of land from Barton Creek to north of Lake Travis.
Time and again — as a book took shape from my interviews with land stewards and scientists — I revisited the postcard-perfect respite of Barton Springs. This is where memories were forged with my young family as we watched serious lap swimmers, linked rafts filled with kids and couples and met hillside hippies who stayed all day in the shade of towering pecans and oaks. We enjoyed the chilly water that flowed from springs in the rock bottom of the pool. I dove to feel the currents from the fissures, but I knew little then about the salamanders that dwell there.
Nor did I appreciate the power of Barton Creek when flooding rains come. I floated with my kids on flimsy rafts down the swollen creek, not realizing the potential dangers. In 2016, Barton Creek’s cascading water claimed the lives of three people.
More than 800,000 visitors a year come to Barton Springs now. How many of them know the pool was closed repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s because of high pollution counts? Do they know about the history of Barton Springs that includes Native Americans who used the waters for centuries, followed by settlers, gristmills, group baptisms and a series of bathing concessions and pool-construction projects? The creation of Zilker Park, Austin’s equivalent of Central Park, wouldn’t have happened without the springs there.
The Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer lies below Barton Creek and five other area creeks. The sensitive aquifer is a virtual river flowing through honeycombed limestone formations and caverns. Rainwater pours into the aquifer from streambeds, sinkholes, cave openings and fissures. Unlike in the sand aquifers of other regions, water passes quickly through the Edwards limestone without filtration of pollutants. Springs and seeps bring water up to the creeks. Barton Springs Pool fills with the force of millions of gallons of water per day from one of the strongest sets of springs in Texas.
Newcomers by the thousands are moving to Central Texas atop the Edwards Aquifer that stretches 200 miles east from Brackettville and then turns north to Salado. Wells draw drinking water from the aquifer for small communities and cities as large as San Antonio. Austin’s water is pulled from the Colorado River upstream of its confluence with Barton Creek. But the creek contributes to the river’s flow for downstream users all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, benefiting the river’s health and ecosystem. Will future populations have the aquifer and the region’s surface water as reliable sources of clean water?
The crush of area residents and visitors who enjoy Barton Springs Pool and the Barton Creek Greenbelt is certain to increase. Austin has grown from some 320,000 people when I got here 40 years ago to a metropolitan population of more than 2 million. Texas is now second to California in population. Our state’s water resources strain from overtapped aquifers, rivers and reservoirs. The dependability of replenishing rainfall remains in doubt as droughts occur more frequently.
Barton Creek is a window into those deep concerns. As an icon of environmental integrity, it should be understood and safeguarded by new and longtime residents alike. Landowners along the creek, scientists and citizen groups shared their stories with me because they want to keep the creek and springs flowing into the hearts of future generations.
Ed Crowell’s book, “Barton Creek,” was published by Texas A&M University Press in April.
» Like this story? If you enjoy reading articles like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.