In our sun-scorched climate, there is perhaps no greater gift from the taxpayers to local kids than a refreshing and affordable public swimming hole—when it's open.
But while afternoon temperatures hover around 90 degrees and official outdoor pool season commences this weekend, the only swimmers enjoying Rio Grande Pool are frogs.
And lucky them. The bordering lawn is shaded by old-growth cottonwoods. You get serenaded by the mating calls of exotic birds and jungle beasts coming from the Rio Grande Zoo. The pool's got charm like no other in the city.
But, Downtown residents, like last summer when the pool was closed, will have to marvel at this public oasis from the parking lot for at least another year. That news did not sit well with Robert Vigil, president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, when he learned from the Alibi last week that the pool would be closed again this summer. "That really ticks me off," said Vigil. "I was told it was going to be open, after I raised hell last year."
The pool shut down in 2002 because the pipes, pumps and filtration system are relics from 1958, when the pool was built. This has been a well known problem for nearly a decade, Vigil said, but one that has been continually neglected due to a lack of funds and local government inertia.
"It has been stalled," said City Councilor Eric Griego, who represents the Barelas area, "and I took the Park and Rec. Department's word that there wasn't money for it."
Last week, state Rep. Miguel Garcia was also miffed at the news that the pool would be closed for another summer. Two years ago, Garcia said concerns that the city was neglecting the pool in favor of other public pool projects led him to procure $200,000 from the Legislature to partially fund improvements to the dressing rooms. He said the money was intended to prod the city into action.
"The bathhouse was done last year," said Garcia. "Now why it's closed this summer, I don't know. I got the state money just to get the city off the dime and make a commitment to that pool."
The state funds helped finance phase one of the project, which did renovate the restrooms. But Garcia said the "big money" needed for a new filtration system and other structural improvements—phase two estimated at $2.2 million—would have to come from city funding sources.
So what's the hold-up?
Blanca B. Hise, director of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department, said the pool will remain closed this summer "in the interest of public health and safety" and did not provide a date for the project's completion.
In an interview with the Alibi on Wednesday, May 19, Hise—who was appointed to head the department by Mayor Martin Chavez in 2002 after serving as his campaign manager in 2001—said funding is in place and proposals will be accepted from "on-call contractors" sometime this summer. She said the city purchasing department still needed to approve the project.
About $2 million will come from the city parks water conservation project, Hise said, since the new filtration system will recycle a portion of the water used to operate the facility.
Additionally, Hise insisted that her department is not lacking funds, saying the city aquatics budget is due to receive a 6.5 percent increase on July 1, which translates into $2.2 million. "That's sufficient to operate pools," she said.
When asked to explain the cause for delay in opening Rio Grande Pool for yet another summer, Hise said, "We have an aging system of pools. We are going to get to it as general obligation bond money permits."
However, according to city records, during the 2003 city bond election, no money was requested for pool renovation projects, but $4.5 million was earmarked for "new development" projects. That money will be used to build an Olympic pool at the West Mesa Aquatic Center, a project the mayor included in his list of top priorities earlier this year.
As a result of inquiries from the Alibi, Blanca Hise and Alfredo Santistevan, director of the city Environmental Health Department, met with Robert Vigil and Councilor Eric Griego at Rio Grande pool on Thursday, May 20, to inspect the facility. At that time, an agreement was reached to fast-track phase two.
Griego said the Parks and Recreation Department is now "trying as fast as possible to pull accounts" and start construction this week.
"It should have started six months ago," Griego said. "It's the problem with how we run the city. We are obsessed with building new things, and we forget we have to fix the old things."
Because the city long ago set up successful youth swimming programs, failing to open Rio Grande Pool in the summer leaves area kids less options for productive outdoor activities. Not to mention, the nearby Bosque will likely be off limits this summer as well. That's what Robert Vigil and Miguel Garcia said, in separate interviews last week, is most frustrating about watching their neighborhood pool sit dormant.
Consequently, at the May 20 meeting, Griego said an additional plan for the city parks and recreation department to shuttle kids from Barelas Community Center to East San Jose Pool will begin next week. A city van will provide two daily trips, one at 9 a.m. for lessons and another at 12:30 p.m. for recreation. Griego said the plan was agreed upon by everyone at the May 20 meeting (but you might be wise to call and confirm before showing up).
Meanwhile, the city has employed the Ditch Safety Task Force each summer for the past two decades, which offers kids free pool passes if they're found in the diversion ditches along the river or in concrete flood control channels in other parts of the city. The fire department, APD, park rangers and city aquatics program hand out an estimated 5,000 free passes each summer.
The program, by one city employee's account, has seen a success, and that's where the road to hell analogy comes in. When Rio Grande Pool was open two years ago, some days they took in as many as 100 passes in one day, according to a parks and recreation official.
Unlike Rio Grande Pool, that has a unique, stylish look to it, Highland Pool was ugly when it was built in 1973, and still is. But now it's old, too. However, since it's a year-round pool and one of only five city pools open in the winter, Highland is scheduled to close for a $2.3 million makeover in the coming months.
Demolition of the pool roof and restrooms was supposed to begin right after the public school swim season ended a few months ago, in hopes of finishing before next season begins in the fall. But the project has proceeded slowly, and presently construction bids will be solicited by the city sometime in late June and the completion date is not known.
When Highland is open, Tim Wilde, president of Duke City Aquatics, says the overwhelming public demand leads to a "semi-chaotic" scheduling program.
Wilde has been running Duke City Aquatics for 29 years and he says the city does an admirable job of meeting public demands for the facility considering the circumstances. For example, besides youth swim clubs, parties, high school swim teams and city programming that includes lessons for kids and conditioning programs for senior citizens, there are kayak and scuba lessons, water polo events and high school track programs that utilize Highland Pool.
"It takes a tremendous amount of juggling all the time," said Wilde, whose organization augments the city's instructional program for kids that want to become competitive swimmers and also is on contract with the city to provide water polo instruction. "Between 4 and 8 p.m., there might be as many as a dozen groups that want access (to Highland) on any given day."
So if you're a Highland Pool user, start making plans to go elsewhere. Just don't put Rio Grande Pool on the list of options.