Human Beings, Barton Springs Share a Deep History
Swimmers are once again gracing the crisp, cool waters of Barton Springs after a repair project closed the pool down for about 3 months.
The project entailed the repair of a bypass culvert, which helps protect the water quality in Barton Springs and allows the pool to remain open after most small storms. The culvert was originally built in 1974 and was suffering from age and wear and tear. In 2008, it was discovered that holes in the bypass culvert were draining water from the pool. The holes were temporarily plugged, but this project provided a long-term solution to protect continued use of the pool.
The popular pool, which opened at the beginning of April, attracts about 500,000 folks each year, said Jodi Jay, Aquatic Program Manager for the Parks and Recreation Department.
“It’s a unique setting,” Jay said. “It has its own community, its own feel and its own culture. Our regulars are there year round with us.”
Along with the avid swimmers who dip into the 68-degree waters all year round, bass, turtles, fish and other wildlife also are permanent members of the Barton Springs community.
The pool is naturally filled with dammed-up creek water, and all the critters that come with it. Among the pool’s habitants are irreplaceable and fragile species of salamander.
The Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sosorum) is a small (1/2" to 3" long), obligately aquatic, perennibranchiate (retaining juvenile characteristics, such as gills, throughout its life) salamander that is solely located at Barton Springs, Austin, Texas.
Although some of the first specimens of the Barton Springs Salamander were collected in 1946, the species was not formally described until 1993. The salamander was given the taxonomic name, Eurycea sosorum, in honor of the citizens of Austin, who initiated and passed the SOS (Save Our Springs) Ordinance in 1992 to protect the Edwards Aquifer.
The Barton Springs Salamander only occurs in the four springs, collectively known as Barton Springs, in Zilker Park. This includes Parthenia Spring, Barton Springs Pool, and three other springs (Eliza, Sunken Garden, and Upper Barton).
While repairing the pool’s culvert, the City underwent extensive efforts to protect the salamanders. Biologists report that the immediate effects on salamanders in Eliza Spring and in the pool were as expected or less. They found a few salamanders in the construction areas. These salamanders were in good health and were taken back to the habitat they've enjoyed for a very long time.
Back in the Day…
The now-restored tradition of bathing in Barton Springs dates back thousands of years to Native American hunter-gathers who settled near the springs, according to an essay by Leonard Voellinger in “Barton Springs Eternal”.
Blades, hunting weapons and figurines found in the springs suggest a long-term human occupation. Some of these artifacts date back 10,000 years:
“It is a popular notion these days, and not too hard to fathom, that these people appreciated a spiritual relationship with this great spring, but the day-to-day significance of these waters was probably more closely related to the variety and abundance of nearby resources.”
There’s also some evidence of Spanish habitation near the springs. In 1730 three Spanish missions were built near Zilker Park, according to Spanish records. The missions were there for less than a year, and little evidence exists of their presence today, aside from rock wall ruins found about three miles upstream from the Springs.
One hundred years later, the area was settled by its namesake, William Barton and his family. William Barton named the three springs near his cabin after his daughters Parthenia, Eliza and Zenobia. But the names didn’t stick, and today the three springs are Barton Springs pool, Elks Pit (the fenced off area near the concession stand) and the Sunken Garden, which is downstream from the pool on the south bank.
In 1839, the Republic of Texas selected the settlement of Waterloo (later renamed Austin) as the new capital of Texas. According to “Barton Springs Eternal”, the selection committee specifically mentioned Barton Springs as “the greatest and most convenient flow of water to be found in the Republic.”
The springs were owned by the Barton family for the next 20 years, and passed from private owners until 1918, when A.J. Zilker donated it to the Austin School District and it was transferred to the City of Austin.