Waller Creek Makeover for Earth Day

Jack Rouse and James Collins cleaning Waller Creek

Despite the threat of rain, Jack Rouse is balancing on top of knobby cypress roots that dip into UT Austin’s Waller Creek. With a trash grabber, he plucks what looks like a sheet of algae from the creek and carefully drops it into a red bucket.

“It’s some kind of textile,” says Rouse, third-time volunteer and a sophomore in the McCombs School of Business. “I enjoy this as a treasure hunt: I’ve found lots of golf balls, a credit card, a phone and even a golf club.”

Rouse, along with more than 30 other students, staff and faculty members, took part in the Waller Creek Clean Up on Earth Day. Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) organizes these makeover events twice a year as both educational outreach to campus and as part of a storm water permit from the state.

“We like to stop and focus on Waller Creek, especially because we cannot control what’s happening upstream and rain events wash things into the creek,” says Carin Peterson, the Training and Outreach Coordinator  in EHS. “That is why it is important for everyone to pick up items they see on the ground. If it is not recycled or put into a trash can, it ends up in the creek.”

On this particular Saturday, each person volunteering to clean the creek is armed first with breakfast—a taco, of course—as well as with gloves, a trash grabber and bags for sorting recyclables from trash. In the space of about three hours, 27 volunteers remove 224 pounds of trash and 38 pounds of recyclables. Larger items like a slightly rusted folding chair found near Clarke Field count as part of the ten pounds of miscellaneous items.

“It was sitting by a tree, unfolded and over-looking the creek, with tons of trash around it,” says Lynn Katz, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Katz found the chair while looking for trash with her husband and son. “We mostly found beer cans, but we also found an umbrella and a single boot.”

Waller Creek Clean Ups have been organized by EHS for about two decades. Over time, staff have noticed a change in the kind of trash, especially large items, found in Waller Creek. The recent thinning of the understory by Landscape Services—especially the removal of dense invasive plant material—has reduced the likelihood that large items are caught on branches during storms. Fewer homeless people living upstream and along the campus section of Waller Creek has also had an impact. While mattresses and shopping carts used to be common items to remove, the most common item found now is golf balls.

Smaller trash items also seem to be less voluminous from decades ago.

“We see less trash at the southern end of the creek, especially since Athletics started adding recycling bins and paying attention to sorting waste on game days,” says Peterson. “There are also fewer cigarette butts washing into the creek now that there is no smoking on campus.”

Working in Waller Creek is not completely safe; EHS staff recommend that volunteers mark the location of items like broken glass, syringes or car batteries so that they can be safely removed.

“Students interested in doing clean ups on Waller Creek must contact EHS so that we can cover safety items with them,” says Tejashri Kyle, Environmental Programs Manager. “Aside from dangerous items that people might find, there are steep slopes and other hazards like snakes, poison ivy and E. coli.”

For those interested in organizing Waller Creek Clean ups, please contact EHS Environmental Programs at ehs-environmentalops@austin.utexas.edu.