UT professor works to protect Barton Springs through documentary series

Athulya Rajakumar

Every city has its own claim to fame — a famous restaurant, a historical monument, an urban legend. Austin has several, but Barton Springs may just be the crown jewel.

Barton Springs sits near the grounds of Zilker Park, filled with three acres of water from nearby natural springs and boasting an unbeatable view of the city skyline. With a year-round temperature of around seventy degrees, the pool is a hotspot for professional athletes, elderly regulars and everyone in-between.

Senior radio-television-film lecturer Karen Kocher has produced documentaries on the history of the springs since the early nineties. Originally from New Jersey, Kocher first visited Barton Springs as a UT graduate student looking to cool off in the Texas heat. During her final year, she produced her first film about the political situation around the springs at the time. During this phase of the pool’s life, it was at risk for pollution due to developers who wanted to build in its surrounding areas.

“So many people enjoy it, but a lot of people take it for granted,” Kocher said.

For Kocher, that initial documentary was a stepping stone to the rest of her work on the springs for the next nearly 30 years.

“It’s really a matter of  understanding my place in the world,” Kocher said. “Being in nature helps me to put that in perspective.”

Her current project, Living Springs, is a continuation of the first documentary she made about Barton Springs during her graduate school years. This documentary series explores the historical and cultural significance of this place, which many call the “soul” of Austin.

There certainly are plenty of stories to tell. Long before the pool was built, local native American tribes considered the spring water sacred and used it for purification rituals. Kocher said even today, the springs are used for baptisms, and Jewish cleansing ceremonies (Mikvah), and Buddhist Monks occasionally come to bless the water.

Wayne Simmons, Aquatic Program Manager of the Austin Parks & Recreation Division, said Barton is a place for everyone from all walks of life to come together.

“It’s unique to Texas,” Simmons said. “It’s an iconic spot for community gathering, and there’s just no other place like it.”

Steve Barnick, president of local organization Friends of Barton Springs, said because people love the pool so much, they’re willing to fight for the things that keep it unique — such as the endangered salamanders that are endemic to its waters.

“They are the most important part,” Barnick said. “It goes salamanders, the springs and then the people.”

Barnick also organizes monthly beautification projects on the springs and the surrounding fields with a group of local volunteers.

Apart from producing her documentaries of the springs, which have been nationally distributed, Kocher’s work is also on display at the Barton Springs Splash Exhibit, where it plays for visitors. With the continuous development of Austin and thousands moving here every year, Kocher said the springs need our help now more than ever.

“The battle to protect the springs is ongoing,” Kocher said. “Barton springs will never be saved: We have to save it everyday.”