2012 image of the pool at Balmorhea.

photo by: Dave Hensley/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

June 13, 2019

This Summer, Swim in a Recently Saved Spring-Fed New Deal Pool

  • By: Emma Sarappo

The water in the pool at Balmorhea State Park in Reeves County, Texas, is always a balmy 72 degrees or so. It goes 25 feet down in its circular center, where the water bubbles up from the spring below—deep enough to scuba dive, and many do. In those deep parts, the water looks dark blue on the surface; in the shallows, it’s nearly clear. The pool itself—the circle and two rectangular spokes that jut off to the sides—holds about three and a half million gallons of spring water at one time, but each day, somewhere near 15 million gallons flow through it, up from the San Solomon Springs and then out through canals to Balmorhea Lake. Fish swim in the depths and dart away as people leap off the diving board and into the water. It’s beloved among West Texans and tourists alike. That’s why there was such an outcry when it closed abruptly last May.

Those 15 million flowing gallons had eroded the concrete below the diving board, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which administers Balmorhea State Park, closed the pool for emergency repairs to stop the high dive from crumbling into the water. Suddenly, the TPWD had to come up with an estimated $2 million to repair a culturally, historically, and ecologically sensitive site while thousands of disappointed fans rescheduled their summer plans. The initial Facebook announcement of the closure alone generated hundreds of dismayed comments and shares.

2009 view of Balmorhea State Park.

photo by: Angi English/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

The pool at Balmorhea covers 1.3 acres.

Before it was a popular pool or a park, though, the Balmorhea site was an oasis for humans and animals in the rugged West Texas landscape, sitting at the bottom of the Davis Mountains. The San Solomon Springs attracted human activity as early as 11,000 years ago and were the locus for Hispanic and Anglo settlement in the region. But the area’s modern use didn’t begin until the height of the Great Depression. Spurred by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Texas State Parks Board acquired 46 acres of land around the springs in 1934. The next year, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—a New Deal organization that put young men to work on infrastructure projects—got started on the double-wing swimming pool at the new Balmorhea State Park.

“Texas received a fair share of federal New Deal dollars, and the CCC program was very robust here—the CCC built over 50 parks in Texas between 1933 and 1942,” says Jennifer Carpenter, a Texas Parks and Wildlife preservation specialist. “It was a great way for the parks board to start getting properties designated, preserved, and developed for public enjoyment, especially as more people were mobile, had cars, and could travel all over the state.”

The high dive at Balmorhea, which was removed, repaired, and replaced.

photo by: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

The concrete under the high dive had severe structural damage, necessitating the closure of the pool for nearly 10 months.

A swimmer does laps in the Balmorhea pool.

photo by: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

A visitor swims laps in the balmy pool.

CCC parks in Texas took inspiration from local landscapes and architecture, Carpenter says, and you can see regional variations across the state. Balmorhea is a firmly West Texan park, built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with “lots of clay tile roofs, adobe and limestone, using local materials, things they would have found out in West Texas,” she says. By the time Company 1856 left Balmorhea in 1940, they’d built the famous swimming pool and its surrounding buildings, including the concession building and the San Solomon Courts, low-rise adobe cabins with garages for motorists who needed a place to stay overnight.

For over 80 years, the oasis-turned-pool lured travelers down Interstate 10, promising recreation and relaxation. “Its remote location makes it somewhat of a destination,” Carpenter says. “Local residents do use the pool, but it’s very popular for people to drive many hours to get there because it’s such a unique experience. It’s the West Texas landscape, the mountains in the background, the beautiful blue water, you can see fish swimming.”

That appeal helped save it. Its popularity generated wide media coverage and awareness of the closure. Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit that supports TPWD, set up a fund for repairs at the park. Then, Apache Corporation, an oil and gas exploration company that discovered oil and gas under 60 miles of land around Balmorhea, offered to match donations up for Balmorhea to $1 million. TPWF rose to the occasion and came up with the first million, a figure largely funded by small contributions—60 percent of the donations were $100 or less. “Texans, and those who visit Texas State Parks, love their parks! Hundreds of people in Texas and from 16 other states contributed, and every dollar counts,” said Susan Houston, TPWF’s executive director, in an email.

2008 image of the canals and adobe buildings at Balmorhea State Park.

photo by: E/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

The CCC-built one-story Spanish Colonial Revival buildings that surround the pool are a significant part of Balmorhea's architectural heritage.

The $2 million gift from the foundation and Apache made the swift, sensitive pool repairs possible. “Through the parks system, we have decades worth of deferred maintenance that require a lot of funding and attention, so when these emergency projects pop up, it’s always a balancing act of ‘How are we going to fund these projects?’” Carpenter says. “So when something comes from a field we’re not expecting, any outside fundraising or donations, they’re really helpful.”

“Local residents do use the pool, but it’s very popular for people to drive many hours to get there because it’s such a unique experience. ”

Jennifer Carpenter

The work took nearly 10 months to complete. The high dive’s platform was removed in a single piece and set aside for repairs. The contractors used a cofferdam to dry out the edge of the pool that needed work while providing the site’s five endangered species space to swim and thrive.

The Texas Historical Commission and the Parks and Wildlife Department knew the project would be a delicate balancing act between the need for immediate repair, the integrity of the historic resources, and the safety of the ecologically sensitive habitat. Once the pool wall was repaired and the high dive replaced, the pool reopened to the public on March 1, 2019—in time for the summer.

But the pool still needs maintenance if future generations want to spend their summers there. “Repairing the limestone masonry that the CCC installed around the pool area is a high priority need,” park superintendent Carolyn Rose says in an email. “The limestone is eroding and spalling off all around the pool and much of the cement has cracked and needs repair as well.”

To that end, Apache is funding a $1 million endowment for future repairs and has promised not to pursue oil and gas exploration in the park or the town of Balmorhea. And today, people happily swim in the springs—as long as day passes don’t sell out before they arrive.

“CCC architecture, you can kind of tell when you see it. In Texas, we’ve got lots of parks that have that very rustic feel, like they’re organically growing out of the ground,” Carpenter explains. “[At] Balmorhea, the setting itself is very beautiful and serene. You seem like you’re in the middle of nowhere and you get to access this really awesome historic outdoor pool, with blue water at the perfect temperature.”

Emma Sarappo is a former Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She can be found writing or in the kitchen of her century-old DC rowhouse.

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