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Rains bring crowds, trash to Barton Creek Greenbelt

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
A box that held snack packs is abandoned on the bank near Twin Falls in mid-June, filled with empty Fritos bags, drink containers and watermelon rinds.

When the rains come, the water flows along the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

So does the trash.

After two summers of drought, the swimming holes along the greenbelt finally have water in them. That's drawing big crowds, which in turn are straining the city's resources to maintain the parkland.

On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, 50 cars lined the road at the Gaines Creek entrance to the greenbelt, off MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) a little south of Loop 360. At Twin Falls, a 10-minute walk down the trail, a handful of twentysomethings smoked while standing in ankle-deep water. Dozens of other visitors lounged and sipped beer. A flattened inner tube lay on the rocks; snack wrappers ensnared by branches flapped in the breeze.

It takes two full-time city employees eight hours a day just to keep up with the mess left by visitors who flock to the greenbelt when the water is up. The debris ranges from little green bags of dog waste to dirty diapers, rotting food and beer cans.

On this afternoon, that two-man crew lugged away five or six bulging bags of trash gathered from Twin Falls. They come here at least twice a week; the rest of the week they gather trash and sweep up cigarette butts at other popular locations along the greenbelt, including Campbell's Hole, the Flats, Sculpture Falls and, to a lesser degree, Gus Fruh Pool.

Those are staff hours that could otherwise be spent improving the 13-mile trail, trimming vegetation and removing invasive species, says John Wright, park superintendent over Zilker Park and the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

"We'd like to be doing just about anything other than picking up trash," Wright says.

It's gotten so bad that Wright, who used to love kayaking Barton Creek, shudders when storm clouds gather. "I've gotten to where I hate to see it rain because I know what's coming," he says. "When that water comes up, it's party time."

Even when water's not up, crews have other problems to address, like cleaning up transient camps that pop up all along the greenbelt, Wright says.

And trash isn't the only problem. Eight park police officers have been assigned to a Barton Creek Greenbelt Initiative that will end in mid-July, ticketing people for bringing alcohol, illegal drugs, glass containers and off-leash dogs to the greenbelt.

In the first month of the weekends-only initiative, which started May 8, officers wrote 232 tickets for minors in possession or consumption of alcohol. They also wrote 10 tickets for possession of drug paraphernalia or marijuana. Six citations were issued for glass containers, four for minor in possession of alcohol and 77 for off-leash dogs.

The initiative cost the department $28,000 in overtime expenses, according to Lt. Todd Smith with the Austin Police Department.

Police officers stand at greenbelt entrances and turn back people carrying coolers filled with alcohol, Smith says. Only those caught drinking or carrying the booze past signs telling them not to are ticketed.

"We're trying to give people the benefit of the doubt," Smith says. "But there's no way to get down (to the swimming hole at Twin Falls) without passing ‘No Alcohol' signs."

It's a matter of having enough staff to properly manage the parkland, says Sara Hensley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. The ratio of park maintenance workers to parkland in Austin is among the lowest in the country — just one employee per 300 acres, compared with the national average of one per 15 acres, she says. (If all the department's vacant positions were filled, Austin's ratio would be one employee per 180 acres.)

The parks department is reaching the point, she says, that it cannot add parkland without adding staff to maintain it. "We still have to be able to go in and see that the trails are safe, trash is emptied and if there's been erosion. ... Right now, our staffing is inadequate.

"What happened to Don't Mess with Texas? It's real simple: Pack it in and pack it out."

Getting Austin residents to take ownership and pick up after themselves is key to easing the burden on the parks department and keeping the greenbelt clean, parks officials say.

"The ‘leave no trace' ethic is good practice," says Kelly Snook, assistant director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. "You don't trash your home; don't trash everyone else's place."

Working with nonprofit groups to maintain the parkland is also critical. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department teams up with volunteers from the Austin Parks Foundation to maintain trails, remove non-native plants and clear trash. It also works with Keep Austin Beautiful to keep parks clean.

Beyond that, it's simple.

Respect the environment.

Clean up after yourself. Even better, pick up a little of what others have left behind.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994