Blue Hole swimming area
Blue Hole Regional Park
Size & Type of Project:
126 acres, Open space - Park
Former Land Use:
Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests
Located in the heart of the rugged Texas Hill Country, the cool pristine waters of the “Blue Hole” have attracted local swimmers for decades. Threatened by development, the swimming hole and surrounding 126 acres were purchased in 2005 by the City of Wimberley to protect the beloved icon, which had nearly been “loved to death” by overuse, and to create a sustainable regional park. Informed by a stakeholder-led design process, the design team created a plan that protected and enhanced the site’s ecologically sensitive areas, despite the addition of 320,000 square feet of new park amenities. Today, the park offers swimming, an extensive interpretive education program, and active and passive recreation amenities for thousands of annual visitors.
Blue Hole Regional Park is located in the heart of historic Wimberley, Texas, 28 miles southwest of Austin and 46 miles northeast of San Antonio. The park is situated within the limestone karst topography of the Texas Hill Country, which is characterized by rolling hills and valleys and shallow soils that support juniper trees and oak woodlands.
The Blue Hole swimming area is located on Cypress Creek, a tributary to the Blanco River, and originates from the clear, blue, freshwater springs of the underlying Edwards and Trinity Aquifers. The area experiences a temperate climate with cool winters and hot summers. Wimberley receives an average of 39 inches of rainfall per year. Flash flooding is common in low-lying areas.
Historical photographs and native plantings at bathhouse
SITES Features and Practices
With the depletion of the underlying Edwards and Trinity Aquifers and ongoing drought, water use is of particular concern in Central Texas. The employment of rainwater harvesting cisterns, native drought-tolerant plants, biodetention ponds, and swales was crucial to significantly decreasing irrigation requirements.
Most notable sustainable features:
Impervious surfaces were limited to 7.8% of the site and 70% tree coverage was maintained even though an additional 320,000 square feet of park amenities and active programmed space were added.
Approximately 365 linear feet of the Cypress Creek stream bank was stabilized (85% of the total length) by amending soils and adding 5,300 square feet of native cover vegetation (mostly grasses).
Ten micro detention ponds (rain gardens) connected by bioswales capture stormwater in eight different drainage zones, slowing, infiltrating, and filtering the water before it enters Cypress and Deer Creeks.
A 5,100-gallon cistern collects rainwater from the Community Pavilion roof and recycles it for use in toilets. An additional 2,900-gallon cistern collects water from the office and bathhouse roofs and stores it for use in irrigating the entry demonstration garden during drought conditions.
72% of the new plantings are native species, including seven species of hardwood trees and custom seed mixes of prairie grasses and forbes, while the other 18% are appropriate to the region.
To ensure resiliency against flash floods, soil composition and species were selected for quick plant establishment, stone paving was mortared to a concrete base, and custom site furniture was anchored to a concrete slab.
Indigenous materials were incorporated across the site to reflect the regional vernacular and to reduce economic and environmental costs. Limestone boulders, excavated during construction, were used for retaining walls, trail markers, seating features, and landscape accents. Invasive cedar trunks removed during landscape restoration were repurposed as bollards, fencing, tree stakes, light poles, and art features. Remaining cedar material was double-shredded into mulch for the planting areas and soft-surface trails.
Six nature-based playground features were made from re-purposed material found on-site: limestone water play table with carved runnels and an interactive water source, cedar roots turned upside-down into “Cedar Teepees”, balance beams made from old telephone poles, limestone slab climbing structures, and limestone slabs laid into the ground for hopscotch.
Strategies used to earn SITES credits:
Maintaining and improving existing hydrology contributed to a large number of water credits.
Early involvement of a wide range of stakeholders and community members led to a deep understanding of social context and local needs. This understanding was beneficial in earning human health credits.
Extensive reuse of materials found on site was key to obtaining materials credits.
Minimizing disturbance of soils in construction and concentrating development on areas of previous soil disturbance was crucial towards obtaining soils and construction credits.
A thorough public process that included community member input and stakeholder-led master plan refinement allowed the design team to set very precise and measurable goals that better match the expectations of the citizens. Community needs and desires, such as soccer fields, tennis courts, and a community pavilion, were included in the final design.
The levels of enthusiasm and cooperation exhibited by city staff members and public officials drove the success of the project, promoted public participation, and ensured community input in design processes. City officials interacted with volunteers during community workdays, including a wetland restoration community plant day along Cypress Creek, to increase the local knowledge of and public access to the Blue Hole resource. As a result of the high levels of community involvement in creating and funding Blue Hole Regional Park, the site has gone from a small-scale local amenity to an international tourist destination. Last year, Yahoo.com rated Blue Hole as one of the top 10 best natural swimming holes in the United States.
In using SITES’ sustainable strategies, this project resulted in phenomenal improvements to quality of park services and quality of life in the region. Prior to its creation there was very limited access to parkland in the City of Wimberley. The site now functions as both a regional recreation park and nature preserve, serving the City and beyond. Moreover, after construction, the design team conducted a survey to assess the success of the Blue Hole Regional Park project. Users of the park space surveyed reported sizeable improvements in safety, community character, public access, and parking.
Now that two of the three phases of construction are executed as designed and the Operations, Management, and Monitoring Plan is being tailored, the park will be environmentally and economically sustainable and will provide the community with a treasured and sacred amenity for generations to come. This has set new standards for how Texas municipalities can successfully create, fund, and maintain public parks.
Beyond state and federal mandates, the client and design team's sustainability ethos drove the quality of the design higher than most standards.
Maintenance and Stewardship
Wimberley’s Blue Hole Regional Park serves as a new model for municipalities attempting to strike a balance between preserving the site as an ecological resource and providing recreational and educational opportunities for users. This was done by implementing SITES’ sustainable strategies such as stormwater conveyance to rain gardens and cisterns, irrigation of recreational fields with treated effluent, minimal impervious surfaces, tree protection, environmental restoration, and reusing materials found on site.
Friends of Blue Hole, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, was created to promote, protect, preserve and develop the park. The organization works with the Village of Wimberley to accept and provide donations for the Park.
A comprehensive Operations and Maintenance Plan was created at the project outset. Planning for long-term maintenance during early design development allowed the design team to write the detailed Blue Hole Regional Park’s Operations, Management, and Monitoring Plan (OM Plan), which included an additional 30% of construction cost maintenance endowment for the complete funding of site amenities outlined by stakeholders in the fundraising goals. The benefit of writing the OM Plan as part of the design process instead of post-construction (as is typical for park management plans), was that many of the amenities were completely funded by the endowment.
The park employs maintenance staff who provide day-to-day monitoring and upkeep of amenities and vegetation. The OM Plan calls for regular professional monitoring of vegetation for invasive species. Additionally, the OM Plan calls for a biannual fiscal and maintenance review between the City Manager, Parks Manager, and Landscape Architect.
Visitorship to the Blue Hole swimming area is capped so as not to place too heavy a burden on the creek and creek edge. Maintenance staff conducts day-to-day upkeep of park amenities based on best practices set out in the Operations and Maintenance Plan.
Picnic area with salvaged limestone and cedar wood
Years of informal recreational use caused Blue Hole’s banks to become overrun, compacted, and no longer able to support new vegetation growth, including native Cypress trees which help stabilize the banks. The design team was challenged to not only revive and protect this local treasure for future use, but to create a regional park that could accommodate new recreational amenities without compromising local ecosystems or the park’s visual character and rugged Texas Hill Country appeal.
Economic sustainability was crucial, and construction and operations costs needed to fit within available and future funds, so as to not burden tax payers.
Project Goals and Successes
The design team's broad goal was to create an ecologically and economically sustainable regional park which considers environmental and recreational needs and the character of the Wimberley Valley, while inviting people to experience, respect, and enjoy the uniqueness and beauty of the Texas Hill Country.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's involvement in the Master Plan for Blue Hole Regional Park oriented the project towards sustainability from the beginning. This orientation married well with the design team's philosophy and approach to design of the Blue Hole Regional Park. Natural systems directed the team towards the right areas of the site to protect and those to develop with program. The strategies employed for protection of water quality, tree preservation, and impervious cover aligned well with prerequisites and optional criteria from SITES.
Park revenues continue to cover the cost of operating the park, indicating economic sustainability. A component of the community was concerned this park would end up costing the City so much money to maintain that they would have to levy the first property tax upon residents. Instead, visitation was increased by 60% in the first year, generating an estimated $112,000 in entry fee revenue. In the second year, visitation nearly doubled again to 31,000, generating an estimated $217,000. Long-term, the park is expected to attract 100,000 visitors a year, indicating the significant role the park will play as a regional amenity for years to come.
SITES prerequisites and criteria should be reviewed at the beginning of a planning and design process to ensure they can be considered in meaningful ways. These become a part of the project goals and can be tracked with baselines, benchmarks, and designed targets.
Building and planting in areas susceptible to flash floods was a major challenge. It was important for vegetation and structural elements to be resilient to high-velocity flows and periods of submersion. The design team specified quick establishing deep-rooted vegetation, as well as mortaring stone paving, and anchoring site furnishings to a concrete slab. Despite having been exposed to three seven-foot flash floods since installation, all trees, paving areas, and furnishings remain intact and unaffected.
City of Wimberley, Texas
Don Ferguson, City Administrator, Land use and Municipal Operations
Steven Spears, Principal-in-Charge (Design and Implementation)
Rebecca Leonard, Principal-in-Charge (Master Plan Refinement and Public Outreach)
Philip Koske, Project Manager
Kelan Smith, Wayfinding Signage and Interpretive Design
Conners Ladner, Landscape Designer
Derek McCall, Landscape Designer
Nino Pero, Website Design
Patricia Albright, Project Assistant
Ken Aiklen, Professional Engineer
Chris Dropinski, Senior Principal
Pat O'Toole, Project Manager
Taniguchi & Associates
Evan Taniguchi, Architect
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Steve Windhager, Ecologist
Regenerative Environmental Design
Heather Venhaus, Environmental Consultant
Richard Martin, Structural Engineer
Jeff Kessel, Senior Project Engineer
David Parr, Project Engineer
T.F. Harper and Associates - Concstruction
Tommy Harper, Principal
Brian Palmore, Senior Project Manager