Blog: Sustaining a Creek

Lauren McKinney by Waller Creek


By Kathryn Gatliff, Neuroscience sophomore (College of Natural Sciences) 

There are colonies of pathogenic bacteria in Waller Creek. Trash carried downstream during rainstorms is collecting in the roots and rocks. Landscape staff wage a constant battle with invasive species that can quickly overrun native plants. The biodiversity is shrinking and shifting.

Why don’t more people care?

Sophomore Lauren McKinney has an admiration and concern for natural environments that has been prevalent throughout her life. From her childhood in Colorado to high school in Denton, Texas, nature was just always there and at the front of her mind. With hindsight, it makes perfect sense that she would double major in Sustainability and Urban studies.

Lauren began her freshman year studying Waller Creek. In Dr. Jay Banner’s Sustaining a Planet course, she saw results come back from her water quality tests. The creek was obviously crying for help … and, yet, the semester ended and the creek stayed the same. She remembers Dr. Banner’s question, “We all enjoy Barton Springs, but why isn’t the public concerned about this creek?”

With good timing and drawing on experience of organizing a hygiene drive at her high school right after Hurricane Harvey, Lauren was inspired to submit an idea for a regularly-occurring creek cleaning to the UT Improvement Project. Her plan made it to the semi-finals but was cast aside in the end. One of the judges, however, enthusiastically reached out and started the cascade of coordination that facilitated her idea into a plan.  She met with people in the Office of Sustainability, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and Landscape Services.

“Every department I talked to had been so willing to help me, which made all the difference,” she emphasizes.

  • Who will do the clean-ups? Lauren realized there are numerous student organizations that need volunteer hours.
  • Who will have the supplies? EHS offered their equipment from their annual clean-ups.
  • Where will the trash go? Landscaping staff offered to pick it up after each cleaning.
  • What about a little extra incentive to attract volunteers? The Student Union offered free food to get things going.  

In a matter of months, Lauren had arranged for her first clean up with Pi Sigma Pi Minority Society as the volunteers. These clean ups now occur each month [view photo album].

Many students have never ventured into the creek, only knowing there is water underneath a handful of bridges that cross from the Forty Acres to the stadium. This expanse of geography seems to be hidden in plain sight. Lauren’s motives are not only to improve Waller Creek, but to also bring people close enough to make this problem personal; like the experience of climbing over the limestone, using the bald cypress roots as support, being inches from a Great Blue Heron, and holding the trash bags full of collected debris. Waller is just one creek of many that are regularly impacted by human neglect and interference. Lauren wants this to be one microscopic event that summates to macroscopic change.

“If you want people to care about something, you have to bring it close to home first. And then it expands from there.” 

Lauren has a “To Do” list that continues growing, whether serving as co-president for Students Fighting Climate Change or the Google drive folder filled with other student’s data on Waller Creek because she, “could do something with it probably.” Eager, open, and attentive, Lauren has plans for the creek, for UT, and for as far as others are willing to let her go.