Do you ever think about Lake Walter E. Long? That’s not a trick question, really — in my experience, many people just don’t think about the lake or the massive swaths of city parkland surrounding it, even though it’s only a short drive east from downtown. Unless you enjoy fishing, that is, in which case you’re probably already familiar with its well-stocked population of bass ‘n such.
Lake Walter E. Long, also known as Decker Lake, has kicked it in Ora Houston’s Council District 1 since its birth in 1967, when Decker Creek was dammed to create a cooling reservoir for a power plant. Assisted by water pumped from the Colorado River, the lake’s alteration of the landscape was dramatic and swift:
A comparison of two aerial photos showing the Lake Walter E. Long area before and after the damming of Decker Creek, taken in 1967 and 1973, respectively. Images: USGS
The resulting 1,165-acre lake, along with its 3,695 acres of surrounding parkland in the form of Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, represents a tract of city-owned property roughly seven times larger than downtown Austin.
This enormous chunk of land didn’t spring out of thin air, of course — the city purchased it from local farmers, possibly at questionably fair rates when they could get away with it. The park and its well-stocked lake opened to the public in 1970, though some fishermen simply couldn’t wait that long, as the clipping on the left suggests.
The lake was officially renamed for local civic figure and historian Walter E. Long all the way back in 1973, but as the Town Lake / Lady Bird Lake Nomenclature Schism of 2007 taught us, original names have a way of sticking around, so you might still hear it called Decker Lake from time to time. Don’t worry about it too much!
Anyway, the reason for this historical diversion is to provide the necessary context for the site’s almost entirely unrecognized potential. The Travis County Expo Center leases a comparatively tiny 128 acres on the corner of the tract, so you’re technically taking advantage of Walter E. Long Park whenever you get hammered on Coors Light at Rodeo Austin, but I’m thinking of a bigger picture — trails, playgrounds, event centers, frisbee golf, whatever.
This was the original plan for the park back when we slapped it all together in the ’60s and ’70s, and the tone of media coverage was endlessly optimistic at the time regarding the site’s future. But thanks to some creative accounting on the part of the Parks and Recreation Department, the money allocated for the park’s improvement kept getting shuffled around to other projects, and after a few updates through the end of the 1970s, the park basically hasn’t changed much since.
It’s not that it’s bad, exactly — some of the park’s existing amenities, other than the aforementioned good-ass fishing, include trails, several picnic areas, and two beach volleyball courts. There’s also a shooting range and remote control airplane flying area operated on the north side of the parkland by outside organizations, along with two massive spaces designated as nature preserves.
But looking at these photos, it’s hard not to wonder if this space is really being used to its full potential. That brings me to the actual point, which is that the Parks and Recreation Department is currently in the early stages of community input on a brand-new master plan for Walter E. Long — forget all the other plans, this is the real deal!
Last month, the city hosted the first of four public engagement meetings for the master plan, and the next one’s coming up in June. Though I’m slightly skeptical of the method’s efficacy, the point of these meetings is to check the pulse of the community and see which amenities people want at the park — so we don’t have any concrete info on what’s going to show up in this master plan, but we can at least check out the results and see which ideas are popular.
You can see the detailed feedback from the meeting here, but the gist is that this meeting’s attendees are hyped for trails of all sorts — running, cycling, nature hiking, horseback riding (!) and so forth. Folks are also interested in using the lake for recreation, which I can get behind, with popular items including an improved beach area for swimming, along with potential kayak and canoe rentals.
But the amenity with possibly the strongest support from this crowd kinda surprised me — it turns out a huge chunk of people want the city to build a golf course here. The golf option’s been a contentious issue at this site for quite a while, and with the Lions Municipal Golf Course potentially not long for this world, a new city facility might be a possibility.
With so much land to spare, a few hundred acres for a golf course wouldn’t necessarily be a huge sacrifice, as long as we aren’t just giving the space away for free — not that we’d ever consider doing something as silly as that, obviously.