In its fourth year of existence the Waller creek show is a massive community fundraiser for the Waller Creek Conservancy. It occurs over 9 nights and includes light based art installations in some of the dark and dingy corners of the creek as it passes through and under downtown Austin. Along with art there are numerous venues along the way that are hosting events in which some of the funds go to the Waller conservancy. When it comes to good ideas, I would give a huge pat on the back to the Waller conservancy for putting this together.
The mission of the Waller Conservancy is to restore Waller creek and create a chain of urban parks that span the length of the creek. Their project is currently under construction and will include 37 acres of park with 3 miles of walk or bike trails. The Waller Conservancy has already placed a huge emphasis on art within the community. The stretch of parkland boasts not one but two art installations by the contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. This along with rotating art makes Waller creek an amazing outdoor space.
Cities all over the world face some of the same dilemmas when it comes to water management. As cities grew, having a creek passing through downtown was both a flooding danger, and an eyesore. Keeping it clean from trash and debris was nearly impossible and often the stench would turn anyone away. Many urban creeks or rivers were buried underground to prevent both of the above issues. However, just like you would soon die if buried underground indifinetley, creeks will do the same. Without sunlight and oxygen a buried creek soon becomes lifeless, nothing more than water passing under the city above. A new movement occurring is to “daylight” buried creeks opening them back up to the sun and restoring the biodiversity within them.
Though Waller creek was never buried underground, the need for its “restoration” implies that at one point it existed in a different state than the present. Waller creek spans only 6 miles from its emergence to the delta with the Colorado river, but it passes through a dense urban landscape on its journey. The banks of the creek were once rolling pasture filled with trees and vegetation, the majority of it owned by Louis Horst and sold in 1874 (TSHA). Since that sale the land has been divided over and over to allow for more dense development. In 1969 the first major effort to preserve Waller creek ended in a riot as large old growth trees were cut down to expand UT Austin’s football stadium (TSHA).
So how does Waller creek measure up when it comes to water quality? We are going to look at dissolved oxygen and lead levels of the water to get a general idea of how the creek is doing. The CDC estimates that lead levels should be below 15ug/L for water to be safe to drink. Out of 120 surface water sample sites, 62 reported levels of lead above 15ug/L. That is a total of 52% of the sample sites are reporting lead above levels safe to drink. Austin never had a smelting plant located downtown and the two primary sources of lead in cities were leaded gasoline and lead paint. It seems there is still a bit of restoration to do in the heavy metal department. As for dissolved oxygen, we can get a feel for how much productivity is going on in the creek itself. For a healthy creek dissolved oxygen should be above 5mg/l. There were 1,263 sites tested for dissolved oxygen and 88% of them reported a dissolved oxygen level at or above 5mg/l. Excellent news for the aquatic life in Waller creek.
It is really impressive that Austin residents have taken such a passionate stance on their aquatic ecosystems. It is something that permeates up to the city government and has support from a wide diversity of people living in the city. The creek show was a success this year and here is to another good one next year.
TSHA- Texas State Historical Association https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rbw11
CDC lead levels- https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=34&po=5
Water sampling data- https://data.austintexas.gov/Environment/Water-Quality-Sampling-Data/5tye-7ray/data
Waller creek conservancy- https://www.wallercreek.org/about/