I remember being shocked the first time Dr. Banner yelled at us. It seemed like another day in UGS 303: Sustaining a Planet. We talked about water quality and the local waterways. Dr. Banner showed us pictures of Waller Creek before painting us a picture of students cooling off in crystal clear waters on a hot summer day. We laughed because the thought of doing that now was physically repulsing. If the stench wasn’t enough, the data we had recently collected in discussion section regarding the fecal coliform in Waller Creek showed that you shouldn’t even take a boat to the creek, much less go swimming in it. Hard pass. He asked us if we would like to take a swim in the creek if it were cleaner. We agreed. Who wouldn’t? But then he said something that I will never forget — “Then why doesn’t that piss you off?” Dead silence. We were lost for words. Suddenly, the environmental science majors were just as guilty as the business majors and the nursing majors for the exact same crime: complacency. But let’s back up for a second.
The numbers, at least by EPA parameters, are unacceptable. So unacceptable, in fact, that not only are STEM students such as myself making trips down to the creek to analyze the water quality, but professors have chosen Waller Creek specifically as an example of how urbanization can sully a creek’s whole integrity. This is not new. Urban waterways all over the country are victims of impervious cover that act as pollution slip-and-slides feeding into creeks. In Austin, officials, intellectuals and nonprofits alike agree that the sewage infrastructure is old and especially susceptible to leaking right into Waller Creek.
By many standards — and certainly by Dr. Banner’s standards — the people who are aware of the high levels of fecal coliform in Waller Creek aren’t doing enough to speed up the reversal of water contamination. But ignorance is bliss, and the ignorance is widespread. This issue directly affects UT students who would not only benefit from the increased recreational value of a clean creek, but also ecosystem services, increased safety for students sampling the water, and the added cultural value of a clean and beautiful creek running through campus. I would hope that students, upon hearing this information, recognize the issue and do something about it.
So, what do we do? The honest reality is that UT specifically can’t do much. Aside from the 2016 engineering building sewage line incident, UT is mostly doing its part to ensure that their infrastructure is up-to-date and not contributing to the problem. However, Waller Creek is a flowing body of water that transports every nasty thing that plops down on its banks right to UT’s front door. If students are going to change this, they need to advocate for the City of Austin to prioritize the repair and restoration of the old clay pipelines throughout the city even if it will take a long time. I urge my fellow students, staff and faculty members to really think hard about the issue of fecal coliform in Waller Creek and not fall into the dangerous mindset of “It’s okay,” or “Someone else can fix it.” If what happens here changes the world, surely it can change Waller Creek.
McKitrick is a environmental science sophomore.