Investing in Waller Creek is worth the cost

Jim Walker

For most students, staff and faculty at UT-Austin, the experience of Waller Creek as it meanders through campus may be a passing afterthought. However, the creek is an integral part of campus we should all pay more attention to.

The Waller Creek watershed covers about 6 square miles, with the creek itself running about 7 miles before flowing into Lady Bird Lake. The UT-Austin campus covers less than 11 percent of the watershed.

Waller Creek was first integrated into campus in the 1933 Paul Cret master plan. He envisioned the creek as an opportunity to connect the campus with the surrounding city. Around this same time, University staff began planting small cypress trees along the creek, perhaps to emulate the look and feel of other Hill Country creeks.

By the late 1960s, the University had built up, around and almost on top of the creek. Events in 1969 chronicled as “The Battle of Waller Creek” exemplifies the tension of the day, with students sitting in trees protesting building expansion. During the next several decades, the creek was allowed to grow wild. This period coincides with the development of Hyde Park and other neighborhoods to the north of campus, and one of the oldest active sewer lines in Austin underneath the creek.

Today, Waller Creek is one of the city’s most polluted as a result of Austin’s increasing urbanization. You’ve probably seen the litter or a plastic bag in a tree after a big rain. What you can’t see is that Waller Creek also has some of the highest E. Coli bacteria counts of all creeks in Austin according to City of Austin data. There’s a reason we warn visitors, “Don’t touch the water!”

The University takes stewardship of Waller Creek seriously. Primary responsibility for litter and cleanliness resides with the Landscape Services department, and the Environmental Health and Safety office coordinates two Waller Creek CleanUps every year. The next one is planned for Saturday, Oct. 20. 

The Environmental Health and Safety office also fulfills the University’s regulatory responsibilities with the State of Texas related to the water quality in Waller Creek.  We must maintain a municipal separate storm sewer system permit, also known as an MS4 permit, which describes how we monitor water quality and what we do to protect the creek from sources of pollution such as construction and storm runoff.  The University is very diligent in those efforts.

Remember, most of the watershed is “above,” or to the north of, campus. Water sampling by researchers from both the City and UT Austin show the creek already has elevated pollutant levels before reaching campus. Even so, the University and City have been sharing data and ideas on how to improve water quality. It’s perhaps not the kind of connection Paul Cret imagined, but a worthy collaboration for the modern day. 

Recently, the University began re-embracing Waller Creek for its aesthetic potential. The Sasaki 2012 master plan envisions that “the Waller Creek and San Jacinto corridor will be transformed from a major north-south barrier between the core and central campus to a connective seam that balances the natural ecology of Waller Creek with an efficient and convenient transit corridor.” How cool would that be combined with Bevo Boulevard?

The Sasaki 2014 landscape master plan identifies strategies for restoring the ecological functions of the creek. The concepts in the landscape master plan were first implemented at the Dell Medical School, which is very worth an afternoon visit.

In 2016, the University launched a more focused effort, the Waller Creek Framework Plan, to integrate the priorities of improving safe circulation and wayfinding, creek bank stability and the ecological resilience of the creek. The framework plan is anticipated to be complete this fall.

The next time you find yourself near Waller Creek on campus, I encourage you to pause a moment and recall its long history with the University. I remind you it is currently too polluted to touch, but ask you to consider investing your time in helping clean up the creek and supporting the University’s and City’s grander efforts to restore Waller Creek to a safe and enjoyable natural haven for the entire campus community.

Walker is the Director of Sustainability at UT-Austin.