The first time I jumped into Austin, Texas’ Barton Springs, I was in shock. Literally in shock. The clear blue water is 68 degrees year round, and so despite it being a scorching 100 degrees outside, I wasn’t prepared for the water to be so icy, so cool, so refreshing.
Immediately, I swam back to the edge, clung to the slab of concrete, and looked over. Treading amidst the crisp, aquamarine, and markedly unchlorinated water were at least a hundred people, certainly more. Children launched backflips off the diving board, splashes cheered on by applause for every successful dive or failed flop. On the sloping grassy hills surrounding the pool sprawled sunbathers, stretched out on towels, applying sunscreen, engulfed in books, mesmerized by the rippling water.
It’s remarkable really, to swim through Barton Springs, to look down upon schools of fish slightly obscured by the pool’s depths, or if you’re lucky, to come across a rare sighting of the endangered Barton Hills Salamander. When your feet graze the bottom, you can feel the algae twirling between your toes, the slick slime coating the jagged rocks, and through it all, it feels more like you’re swimming in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, instead of in a municipal public pool in the middle of one of America’s fastest growing cities.
However, for the past three months, Barton Springs was closed due to COVID-19. Walking through the neighborhood, anxious questions as to when the Springs would reopen could be heard, muttered behind cotton masks and bandanas. While to outsiders, Barton Springs might just appear to be a pool, to the community of Austin, it’s a landmark, a tether to the deep, rich, and oftentimes troubled history of Austin.
Barton Springs itself consists of three acres of water, with limestone coating the bottom and surrounding walls. It’s perpetually filled by four springs, all of which function as the main Edwards Aquifer discharge zone in Austin. If you walk the Barton Creek Greenbelt, which weaves its way through the city and includes Barton Springs proper, you can see little spouts of water bubbling up to the surface from the creek bed, even when the creek itself is otherwise just a pile of dried out limestone rock.
And this is the simplest way of describing how the water is able to maintain its temperature, too. Because it’s stored beneath the Earth as groundwater, the springs only emit water that is a surprisingly cool 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Springs were originally discovered by the Comanche and Tonkawa Native American Indians and subsequently settled by the Spanish long before the municipal pool was cemented in the 1900s. The Tonkawa tribe used the springs for spiritual purification rituals, and it’s easy to understand why. A pool that stays filled year round, regardless of rainfall, with crystalline, chilled water is remarkable by any means.
To this day, Austinites claim Barton Springs possesses healing properties of some sort. Take Allison Sherry, a forensic psychologist, who has been living in Austin for 18 years. Sherry has Ankylosing Spondylitis Arthritis, which not only causes pain and swelling in major joints, but also makes her immunocompromised. She’s “unsure whether it’s the rush of adrenaline or just the cold water,” but either way, “it helps with the swelling immensely” and swimming is notably “the only form of exercise [her] body can tolerate, other than yoga.”
Another Austin local, Allison Hubbard, who has lived in the city for forty years believes there is something special about that water itself. “I’m not sure what it is, but a lot of us still think it has healing properties. It’s more than just that it's cold.”
While debates rage on as to whether or not the spring water truly is healing, the truth is undeniable: Barton Springs very much remains a primordial swimming hole that has nestled itself into the fabric and identity of one of America’s most rapidly expanding cities, withstood the trends and fads of subsequent decades, and has emerged today as a place that resembles how the Tonkawa tribe found it centuries ago.
However, keeping it that way hasn’t been easy.
The land rights for Barton Springs have changed numerous times over the years. Originally sold to Ben Mialm in 1826 by the Mexican government, the land was passed on to Henry P. Hill, who until the 1870s was listed as the owner in city records. However, in 1838, William Barton applied for a “patent” and was granted the land. Prior to his death, Barton leased out part of the springs on the condition that they weren’t to be used for industrial purposes (soon after, they were used for industrial purposes). It was then that the pools became a public fixture, so long as there was no nude sunbathing or alcohol sold.
In the early 1900s, Andrew Zilker acquired the land near the springs, and soon after, sold the 50 acres to the city with the purpose of creating a public park. He immediately donated the money to Austin schools, and despite this generosity, ended up dedicating the park to “the memories of Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidny Johnston.” For years, the back entrance of Barton Springs was off of Robert E. Lee Road. In 2018, Austin changed the name of the street to Azie Morton Road, in honor of the first and only Black woman to serve as the nation’s treasurer.
The 1970s brought on massive urban development in Austin and the surrounding hill country, that continues to this day, making Austin the 11th most populous city in America and the 6th fastest growing according to the 2019 census. As more residential neighborhoods sprung up in Austin, it became clear that where they developed was of the utmost importance to both the communities’ water supply and the preservation of natural resources, as residents began to realize that water coming from the Aquifer was growing murkier and murkier.
In 1992, Austin passed the Save Our Spring Ordinance, and along with it, Austinites founded a local advocacy group, Save Our Springs (SOS), with the goal of keeping as much of the watershed that feeds the springs undeveloped and to direct it into permanent protection.
“Physically, it’s changed,” a spokesperson for SOS told The Daily Beast. “The water quality is definitely not as it once was, but with that being said, it’s pretty remarkable nonetheless. On clear days, you can still see a penny at the bottom of it.”
And yet, recently, there weren’t even people around to complain about whether the pool was murky or not. For the last three months, many Austinites' connection to the sublime had been tempered due to COVID-19. However, on June 9th, Barton Springs has reopened with restrictions. This came just a few days before Texas saw a 48% increase in COVID deaths, and as of this writing, Texas has hit a new daily record of cases.
For the first two hours everyday, from 5 to 7 AM, anyone can enter at what is referred to as “Swim At Your Own Risk.” Then for three days of the week, the Springs will close down due to staffing limitations. The other four, it will be open from 8 AM to 10 PM with reservation slots permitting limited entry available every two hours. Masks are required to be worn when not in the pool, and after every two hour time slot, staff will sanitize all bathrooms, facilities, and fountains.
While reservations for the first full day were booked within minutes, others decided to wake up early to try to beat the crowds. They found plenty of others had the same idea.
“I got in at about six and was only able to swim one lap before it got too crowded, but honestly, my body just felt so much better,” says Sherry. “It was the first place I’ve been since the shutdown, and it was worth the wait. I’ll take the one time back and forth, if that’s all I get. I’ll take it. I’ll wake up early. It’s different, but I’ll take it.”
For Sherry, Barton Springs is a respite. Swimming laps there is more than just swimming laps, it’s meditative, and not just for her, but for the city of Austin and its inhabitants as a whole, too. Many people refer to the monolithic Barton Springs as “the soul of Austin,” and while I’d normally cringe away from such comparisons, I have to agree. Treading water in Barton Springs is exhilarating. The outside world is anesthetized, and there is a letting go of the need to understand, whether it’s the world’s issues, one’s own, or the mystique of the pool and place itself. Instead, arms and legs flailing, resignation creeps up from the dark depths, from the old and the young jumping in opposing edges of the pool where they meet in the middle and laugh amidst the consistently temperate water, sharing together in an overwhelming sense of bliss in where they are and who they are surrounded by, presently.
“Whether it has healing powers or not, it doesn’t matter (although it does),” says Hubbard. “Barton Springs is more than a pool. It’s a staple of the community. It brings people together, teaches them the Austin way.”