May 21, 2020 - 02:58 pm CDT

Crews lower water levels in Shoal Creek before starting a construction project.

Crews lower water levels in Shoal Creek before starting a construction project.

Our environmental scientists greatly value the wildlife in Austin’s creeks and work hard to save fish and other aquatic inhabitants when creeks are impacted.  Sometimes the City’s own projects are the source of the disturbance.  For example, construction projects to stabilize creek banks or repair infrastructure require temporarily draining the water from sections of a creek.  Historically, these kinds of projects have impacted a great number of fish, but since 2012 this practice has changed for the better.  According to required permitting from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), projects that include lowering water levels now start with a fish relocation effort as standard practice.

Moving fish to safety

Project staff place temporary “cofferdams,” or watertight enclosures, to block off the upstream and downstream ends of the construction area and run a pipe around the site to allow water and fish outside of the area to continue moving downstream.  Staff then set up pumps that drain the water in the construction area down to small puddles. Screens on the intake end of the pumps prevent fish from being pulled out.  Crews use dip nets to quickly scoop up the fish from the construction area and place them in coolers of oxygenated water. 

Crews prepare the construction area and use dip nets to collect the fish.

Crews prepare the construction area and use dip nets to collect the fish.

Crews prepare the construction area and use dip nets to collect the fish. 

Our biologists identify and count the types of fish collected.  Biologists quickly move the native fish to a pre-selected area with the appropriate size and habitat quality to minimize stress to the fish.  Usually this area is just upstream or downstream of the construction site.

Coolers of oxygenated water hold the fish until biologists identify, count, and release them into another section of the creek.

Coolers of oxygenated water hold the fish until biologists identify, count, and release them into another section of the creek.

Coolers of oxygenated water hold the fish until biologists identify, count, and release them into another section of the creek. 

How many fish have we relocated?

Since 2012, our environmental scientists have helped at several projects and relocated more than 35,000 fish.  Relocated fish species include bass and other sunfish (e.g. bluegill, green sunfish, long ear, etc.), mosquitofish, shiners, Rio Grande cichlids, bullhead catfish, and central stonerollers.  Most of these efforts have involved relocating 1,000 – 2,000 fish from small pools.  One major effort for a stretch of Shoal Creek in Pease Park during the summer of 2015 resulted in the move of 26,144 fish!  This was an enormous project, lasting more than a year and requiring nine fish relocations.

Scientist counting fish. Our scientists have relocated more than 35,000 fish since 2012.

A close look at several fish in a net.  Scientist are counting each fish.

Our scientists have relocated more than 35,000 fish since 2012.

Our biologists help other wildlife to safe ground too!  They have moved turtles (red-eared slider, common snapping, and softshell), crayfish, large bugs, snakes, and more. 

A biologist moves a softshell turtle from a construction area to a safe location.

A biologist moves a softshell turtle from a construction area to a safe location.

A biologist moves a softshell turtle from a construction area to a safe location.

Wildlife relocation work is strenuous, dirty, and very difficult in the summer months, but our scientists are dedicated to the work and proud of the results.  Go Team!  If you’d like to learn more, please visit www.austintexas.gov/watershed_protection/publications/document.cfm?id=339473

Feb 12, 2020 - 02:02 pm CST

Bull Creek District Park, the anchor for the Upper and Lower Bull Creek Greenbelts, is one of Austin’s most popular parks. Beloved for its beautiful limestone outcroppings, springs, and cascading creek, this 47-acre park offers numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking.

To help enhance a visit to this park, we’d like to point out a few of the special environmental features that you’ll spot along the trail. This includes some Critical Environmental Features (CEFs), such as springs and cliffs, which are protected from development by the City’s Land Development Code.

Please note that dogs are welcome at the park, but must stay on-leash.

Let’s explore the park!

Bull Creek District Park

6701 Lakewood Drive, Austin, TX 78731

 

A map of Bull Creek District Park that shows seven locatinos that will be pictured below.  The seven locations are Scooby Doo Spring, a Grow Zone, a Cascade, Cliff Spring, Dam Spring, Wetland, and Canyon Rimrock

Key

1. Scooby Doo Spring
2. Grow Zone
3. Cascade
4. Cliff Spring
5. Dam Spring
6. Wetland
7. Canyon Rimrock

Scooby Doo Spring.  This seasonal spring flows only when the underground water table fills with enough rainwater to reach the spring’s opening. Sometimes this spring’s water is not visibly flowing, and the ground is just damp. Water-loving plants and trees thrive in the area. Fun Fact: The spring’s name came from scientists who spotted a dog at this spot when they arrived to conduct research.

1. Scooby Doo Spring - This seasonal spring flows only when the underground water table fills with enough rainwater to reach the spring’s opening. Sometimes this spring’s water is not visibly flowing, and the ground is just damp. Water-loving plants and trees thrive in the area. Fun Fact: The spring’s name came from scientists who spotted a dog at this spot when they arrived to conduct research.

Grow Zone.  This is a picture of a creek bank. This stretch of the creek bank is not mowed so that native plants can grow.

2. Grow Zone - This stretch of the creek bank is not mowed so that native plants can grow. Grow Zones help reduce water pollution by filtering out some pollutants from the land before they reach the creek. A healthy buffer of vegetation also slows down and absorbs fast-moving water from storms, helping reduce flooding and erosion problems in the area. For more information on the City’s Grow Zone Program to protect and restore creeks, visit www.austintexas.gov/blog/grow-zones

Cascade.  This is a picture of small waterfalls that located throughout the creek.

3. Cascade – These small waterfalls are located throughout the creek. Bull Creek was called Cascade Creek until the 1860s, when it was renamed for either the last buffalo that roamed the valley or for the free-ranging Longhorn cattle introduced at the time. The turbulence created by the creek moving over these rocky ledges helps aerate the water, adding more oxygen for wildlife, such as aquatic insects and fish.

Cliff Springs.  A spring flows through the cracks of the ground.

4. Cliff Spring – This spring flows through cracks in the ground and trickles from many spots in the cliffside, forming a “hanging garden” of maidenhair and river ferns. The rimmed pools at the base of the cliff form when the dissolved mineral calcite precipitates out of the water. This is the same process that creates stalactite and stalagmite formations in caves.

Wagon Tracks.  Wagon tracks have created ruts in the bedrock.

Side Note: The ruts in the bedrock by this cliff spring might be wagon tracks from an old road that later became Lakewood Drive.

Dam Spring.  This spring’s water emerges from a discrete opening in the cliff near the dam.

5. Dam Spring - This spring’s water emerges from a discrete opening in the cliff near the dam. The spring flow is intermittent, or not constant, so sometimes this spring is dry. The water flow does not appear to depend on rain, so the cause of this spring’s appearance and disappearance is a mystery yet to be solved.

Wetland.  Area that is frequently covered in shallow water.

6. Wetland – This area is often covered in shallow water or saturated with moisture. To grow in this area, plants (such as spike rush and bushy bluestem) must be adapted to tolerate consistently saturated soils. The plants help protect the creek by capturing some of the sediment and pollutants from the trail and Lakewood Drive.

Canyon Rimrock.  This is a type of sheer rock wall, greater than 50 feet long and four feet tall.  That is next to a flowing creek.

7. Canyon Rimrock - This is a type of sheer rock wall, greater than 50 feet long and four feet tall. The City prohibits construction near rimrock to help protect water quality in creeks and the stability of the rock wall.

For more information on Critical Environmental Features and how the City protects them throughout the Austin area, visit www.austintexas.gov/blog/celebrating-30-years-comprehensive-watersheds-ordinance.

Historic Bull Creek. An undated black and white image of Bull Creek.

 

To learn more about the fascinating history of Bull Creek, check out www.bullcreekfoundation.org/history

For general information about parks in Austin, visit www.austintexas.gov/parks.  

We hope you enjoy your hike! 

Nov 14, 2018 - 07:47 am CST

You’re probably familiar with Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park, a popular destination for swimming, relaxing, and cooling off on a hot summer day. And, you might be familiar with some of the other west Austin springs that are scenic destinations to visit on foot or by boat. But, did you know there are HUNDREDS of other springs in our city, many of which are located in east Austin?

Austin Springs.
Map of Austin Springs

Springs on the east and west sides of Austin differ due to the geology of the Balcones Fault Zone that lies along Interstate 35. Springs west of the fault are typically karst springs, where the water travels from the aquifer to the Earth’s surface through holes in the limestone rock. Karst systems, like the Edwards Aquifer, can move huge amounts of water quickly, providing us with treasures like Barton Springs in Austin and spring-fed rivers, including the San Marcos and Comal rivers to the south. Conversely, springs east of the fault often develop in shallow aquifers made up of clay and smaller particles of silt, sand and gravel, so groundwater moves slowly through small pore spaces between particles until it reaches an outlet.

Austin area aquifer map.
Map of Austin Area Aquifers

Hidden Springs

Many east Austin springs and seeps appear subtle because their flow may be light, or they may be covered by roadways or buildings, making them difficult to spot except during very wet weather conditions.  Springs sometimes appear as a soggy spot in a field or a small trickle running across a driveway. Residents may easily mistake them for a leak from a water pipe!

Water from a small spring (or “seep”) flows over a sidewalk on Rosewood Avenue.
Water from a small spring (or “seep”) flows over a sidewalk on Rosewood Avenue

Although the springs in east Austin lack the star power of the springs in west Austin, they played an important role in our city’s history, providing water to settlers to support the development of farms, homesteads, and forts. Even a trickle of flowing water can have a positive impact on the surrounding ecology by creating an oasis of verdant plant life and wildlife habitat and by contributing to water levels in ponds and creeks.

Let's Meet an East Austin Spring!

Travel with us as we trace the subtle flow of a spring in east Austin and explore a bit of its history and ecological benefits.  You can visit the preserve in person too!

Coleman Spring

Coleman Springs Map.
 

Coleman Spring is located in the Blair Woods Preserve at 5401 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Austin, TX 78721.

Dr. Frank Blair, a zoology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, bought the former dairy farm and gifted it to the Travis Audubon Society in 1985. The preserve is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A well inside a pump house, located approximately 15 feet uphill of the spring, was used to provide water to the Blair residence during the mid-1900s.

A well inside a pump house, located approximately 15 feet uphill of the spring, was used to provide water to the Blair residence during the mid-1900s.

Although the spring does not emerge from a defined outlet, you can see the water has seeped out here and begins to flow in this channel.

Although the spring does not emerge from a defined outlet, you can see the water has seeped out here and begins to flow in this channel.

The water runs through the property during much of the year. The near-constant supply of water and its surrounding vegetation provide habitat for wildlife, such as insects, crawfish, and frogs.

The water runs through the property during much of the year. The near-constant supply of water and its surrounding vegetation provide habitat for wildlife, such as insects, crawfish, and frogs.

The spring water reaches a small dam, which holds back the water flow, forming a pond.  Dr. Blair named this small blockade “The Dam of Words” because he constructed the dam using old student essays. The pond ranges from four-  to six-feet deep and provides a reliable source of water for birds and other wildlife.

The spring water reaches a small dam, which holds back the water flow, forming a pond. Dr. Blair named this small blockade “The Dam of Words” because he constructed the dam using old student essays. The pond ranges from four- to six-feet deep and provides a reliable source of water for birds and other wildlife.

Excess pond water flows over the dam into a small creek and eventually flows off the property to Fort Branch Creek. Fort Branch Creek is named after Fort Coleman, which was located nearby from 1836 to 1838, when Austin was settled. Residents of Fort Coleman used this spring for their drinking water.

Excess pond water flows over the dam into a small creek and eventually flows off the property to Fort Branch Creek. Fort Branch Creek is named after Fort Coleman, which was located nearby from 1836 to 1838, when Austin was settled. Residents of Fort Coleman used this spring for their drinking water.

For more information about the Blair Woods Preserve, visit https://travisaudubon.org/sanctuaries/blair-woods.

Protecting East Austin’s Springs

Although they’re not flashy, springs in east Austin play important roles in the local environment by providing water to wildlife and vegetation and contributing water to our creeks and river, even during drier periods.

In 1986, the City Council approved the Comprehensive Watersheds Ordinance (Ordinance No. 860508-V) to safeguard springs and other environmental features that protect our water supply and preserve the characteristics of the natural environment.

What Can You Do?

- Visit and enjoy Austin’s springs!

- Check to see if there is a spring in your neck of the woods!  Click on the “Layers” tab at the bottom of the left menu, scroll down and click “Environmental”, scroll down and click “Spring”. Once you zoom in, you can see the springs nearby that we have identified in our database!

- Help protect the springs! Pick up pet waste, put trash in a trash can, and use Earth-wise landscaping techniques.  If you see a lot of trash by a spring, call Austin 3-1-1 to report it!

- Report leaks and springs! If you see water flowing in the city and are unsure if it’s coming from a natural spring or from a leaking pipe, call 3-1-1 so Austin Water can investigate the source.

- Contact us! Call Scott Hiers, P.G., at 512-974-1916 if you have questions about springs or want to be sure a particular spring is included in our database.

- Join us! Follow us on social media to see announcements about springs, creeks, lakes, and more! www.facebook.com/austinwatershed, www.twitter.com/austinwatershed, and www.instagram.com/natureinthecity.

 

Sep 25, 2018 - 01:38 pm CDT

Post storm observation at Waller Creek flowing after a significant size. storm.
Strong flow in Waller Creek after a significant storm

This may be hard to believe during the hot, dry months of summer, but Austin receives an average of 35 inches of rain a year, or nearly 5 inches more than the average rainfall over the continental United States. Central Texas rain tends to fall in large surges, rather than slowly throughout the year.  Heavy rainfall can overwhelm the capacity of natural areas and lawns to absorb and hold the water. Water that does not soak into porous ground flows over land and can build up great speed and force when running off streets, parking lots, and buildings.

The City of Austin maintains an intricate storm drain system known as a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) to direct this stormwater runoff away from the City’s wastewater treatment facilities and into our local creeks.

Stream bank erosion investigation after a storm event at Brentwood site.
Stream bank erosion after a storm in the Brentwood neighborhood

Sensor and sampling line installation at Burton Drive monitoring site.
Installing sensor and sampling lines at the Burton Drive monitoring site

We monitor both stormwater flow and water quality throughout the year. Runoff water collects pollutants from the land as it flows downhill to creeks, lakes, and the river.  This polluted water can harm aquatic organisms and affect public health. This polluted water can also make its way to the Edwards Aquifer and jeopardize the agricultural, industrial, recreational, and domestic needs of nearly two million people in south central Texas.

Discrete Water quality Samples collected during a storm event and delivered to LCRA lab for analysis.
We send water quality samples collected during storms to a Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) lab for analysis.

Inspection and investigation of flow during dry season at selected sites. Part of Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements.
We inspect water flow during the dry season too, as part of state requirements.

Monitoring stormwater runoff since the 1980s, the City of Austin has developed one of the best programs in the nation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recognized Austin for its innovative approach to stormwater monitoring.

Storm preparation and storm anticipation by Surface water Evaluation staff at Storm Water Monitoring office.
Our surface water evaluation team works to anticipate and prepare for storms.  (Photo circa 1993)

Velocity reading inside an underground reinforced pipe to verify flow cubic feet per second during an event.  This secondary measurement helps to determine accurate flow calculation.
Collecting data by measuring the speed of water flow inside an underground stormwater pipe

The Stormwater Monitoring Program process involves a carefully choreographed dance of numerous professionals to ensure the integrity of the sample collection and the resulting data. Some Austin rain events are very short and provide only a small window of opportunity to collect samples, so our staff must work quickly.

Joint water quality monitoring station and Flood Early Warning System at Carson Creek.
A joint water quality monitoring station and flood early warning system at Carson Creek

Pre-storm preparation at Lion Golf Club. Rain gauge is cleaned, flow meter is synced and Sampler is iced for samples preservation.
Before storms, staff clean the rain gauge, synchronize the flow meter, and ice the sampler to preserve the water sample to be collected at Lions Municipal Golf Course.

Over the years, the City of Austin has implemented numerous control measures to limit the flow of pollutants into creeks. Carefully designed low areas of land, like rain gardens and ponds, hold the runoff and allow it to soak slowly into the soil, filtering the water and leaving contaminants behind. Community outreach programs, such as Grow Green and Scoop the Poop, educate Austinites about how to keep pollutants off the land so they do not flow into our water.

Rain garden at Palo Pinto Drive and Denver Avenue. (JJ Seabrook Greenbelt Trail)
Rain garden at Palo Pinto Drive and Denver Avenue (JJ Seabrook Greenbelt Trail)

Storm water monitoring station at St. Elmo Recreational detention Pond. A flood control retention pond.
Storm water monitoring station at St. Elmo Recreational flood control detention pond

The work of the Stormwater Monitoring Program professionals helps protect water quality and residents of the City of Austin. The next time you head outside in the rain, know that we’re out there too!

Aug 08, 2018 - 09:14 am CDT

Click here to watch the video!

In Zilker Park, near Barton Springs’ north gate and the Zilker Zephyr train station, you’ll see one of Austin’s environmental treasures – Eliza Spring.  To see the spring, look inside the historical, sunken, fenced-off amphitheater.

Eliza Spring is one of four springs in Zilker Park where the endangered Barton Springs and Austin Blind salamanders live.  The largest known population of Austin’s unique and endangered Barton Springs salamander makes its home in Eliza Springs.

Austin Blind Salamander.
Austin Blind Salamander

Barton Springs Salamander.
Barton Springs Salamander

The spring water bubbles up from the Edwards Aquifer, a natural underground reservoir, through holes built in the amphitheater floor.  The Edwards Aquifer is an underground layer of limestone rock containing water, which enters the aquifer through caves, sinkholes, and fractures on the land’s surface and flows through large openings in the limestone.  Some water flows back up to the surface at springs.

Karst landscape model.  Showing water movement through the Edwards Aquifer.
Water movement through the Edwards Aquifer

In the early 1900s, landowner Andrew Zilker built the amphitheater around Eliza Spring to serve as an Elks Club meeting space that could be cooled by the natural spring water.

The Eliza Spring amphitheater before construction.
The Eliza Spring amphitheater before this construction project

Historically, water leaving Eliza Spring formed a stream that flowed to Barton Creek, and an open section of the amphitheater allowed this natural flow.  Austin’s endangered salamanders lived in both Eliza Spring and its stream.

In the 1920s, the salamanders lost this valuable area of habitat when the stream became buried underground in a concrete pipe.

The spring water moving through the buried pipe.
The spring water moving through the buried pipe

As years passed and the pipe aged, it began to fail. In 2017, the City removed the old pipe and restored the stream to a natural state.

Construction of the restored stream.
Construction of the restored stream

Once again, the stream provides the needed water speed and depth, as well as hiding places and native plants to support native aquatic life, including our endangered salamanders.  The stream also provides pool and park visitors with a beautiful place to view important salamander habitat.

The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration
BEFORE:  The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration

The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration
AFTER:  2017 view of the north lawn with the restored stream

 

Aerial view of Eliza Spring and the restored stream
Aerial view of the Eliza Spring amphitheater and restored stream

When you’re at Zilker Park, be sure to also check out the free, family-friendly “Splash! Into the Edwards Aquifer” exhibit to learn about Austin’s natural springs and amazing underground world.  Peek into the salamander exhibit to see if the Barton Springs salamander is in view!

For more information about Austin’s endangered salamanders, visit www.austintexas.gov/salamanders.

Jun 13, 2018 - 01:55 pm CDT

For many years, the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department (WPD) has studied trees and other vegetation that grow along local creeks. These vegetated areas along the water are called “riparian buffers,” and they benefit our creeks and river by improving water quality and preventing erosion. Most of WPD’s riparian buffer studies have been in central and west Austin; however, a recent study took place in far eastern Travis County, around and east of U.S. 183. This area, located in the Blackland Prairie region, has deep, fertile soils and is mostly agricultural. WPD’s goal was to document conditions of the creeks and their riparian buffers before major development occurs there.

The results of the study surprised WPD staff, who expected to find forested land along the creeks in this less-developed area. Instead, these riparian buffers have much less plant diversity and fewer trees compared to more developed areas in central Austin (scoring, on average, half that of urban Austin sites). Even with little development in these Blackland Prairie watersheds, erosion has negatively impacted the area’s creeks. Severe erosion has caused the creek banks to be too dry to support strong vegetation. The lack of surrounding vegetation enables rainwater to enter the creek in powerful surges, leaving the creeks unable to support healthy aquatic habitat. WPD hopes these findings and further investigations will guide improvements to the City’s regulations and policies. These efforts will help restore watershed function to these degraded riparian buffers and protect them from future damage.

Creek banks without enough vegetation.
Creek banks without enough vegetation

Creek with severe erosion.
Creek with severe erosion

 

Mar 21, 2018 - 02:59 pm CDT

Austin, Texas Skyline.

Town Lake... Lady Bird Lake... the Colorado River. Whatever you call it, Austin wouldn't be the same without the scenic body of water separating North and South Austin.

Many residents and visitors appreciate Lady Bird Lake's beauty, whether from a kayak, the hike-and-bike trail, or even while stuck in MoPac traffic. But even many longtime fans have heard inaccurate information about our fair Lady along the way. We're here to test your knowledge and help set the record straight.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake is a lake.

FICTION. Let's start with the name itself. Putting aside the kerfuffle over whether to call it by the current official name, Lady Bird Lake, or the old name, Town Lake, the truth is it's a reservoir. A "true" lake is created by natural processes, while a reservoir is formed by a dam. Lady Bird Lake is a dammed section of the Colorado River.

In Austin’s early years, the Colorado River flowed unimpeded through the town. Over time, dams were constructed for various purposes, and many were destroyed during flood events. The Longhorn Dam was built in 1960 to provide a cooling pond for the Holly Power Plant. The original purpose is now obsolete (the Holly Power Plant was decommissioned in 2017), but no plans exist to remove the Longhorn Dam.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake's water level changes due to floods and drought.

MOSTLY FICTION.  Lady Bird Lake gets its water from Lake Austin, Barton Springs, and feeder creeks (or “tributaries”), including Shoal Creek, East and West Bouldin Creeks, and Waller Creek. Normal inflows from these sources can raise the water level in Lady Bird Lake for a short period of time; however, once the reservoir’s water reaches a certain height, it  flows out through two bascule gates in Longhorn Dam. Bascule gates allow water to passively flow over the top of a dam anytime the water reaches that height, as opposed to “lift gates” that are controlled to open during more extreme weather events.  Lady Bird Lake is known as a “pass-through” or “flow-through” system, because water passes through the reservoir and continues its journey down the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay, usually without requiring the opening of the dam’s flood gates. Longhorn Dam differs from dams designed primarily for flood control, such as the Mansfield Dam at Lake Travis, which hold back great volumes of flood water.   
 

During times of flooding, the Longhorn Dam has seven flood control gates that can be opened. During times of drought, Lady Bird Lake typically stays full, thanks to a combination of inflows from Barton Springs and water released from Lake Travis that also keep Lake Austin full. So, the water level in Lake Travis rises and falls with floods and droughts, but Lady Bird Lake’s water level stays constant.

Fiction or Fact? Swimming is not allowed in Lady Bird Lake because the water is polluted.

FICTION. With three of Austin’s most popular off-leash areas (Red Bud Isle, Norwood Park, and Auditorium Shores) located on Lady Bird Lake, you might wonder why your dog can swim here, but you can’t.

A dog swimmin in Lady Bird lake.

Since Lady Bird Lake is located in the heart of our large city and is partially fed by creeks that wind through urban landscapes, it’s easy to assume that the water quality is too polluted to be safe for swimmers. However, swimming was banned on Lady Bird Lake as long ago as 1964 due to several tragic drownings caused by hazards under the water’s surface. Remnants of old, washed-away dams, deep pits from old gravel mining operations, and other types of debris litter the bottom of the reservoir, creating a dangerous underwater landscape.

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962 made famous an Austin chemical plant's devastating insecticide spill that wreaked havoc on the environment for approximately 140 miles. However, pollution in the reservoir was not a noted concern for swimmers back then (see the public discussion minutes on page 16 from the May 28, 1964 City Council meeting that resulted in the eventual swim ban). According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), levels of DDT (one of the insecticides of concern) peaked in 1960s, but are no longer a concern in the reservoir sediment. Our scientists routinely monitor the water quality of Lady Bird Lake and annually provide the results online as part of the Austin Lakes Index. In 2017, Lady Bird Lake's water quality was rated "Fair" and is considered safe for contact recreation. Since the unsafe debris remains submerged in the reservoir, swimming is likely to remain off-limits for the foreseeable future, except for permitted events.

Austin Dam Failure.
This image from 1900 shows floodwater breaking apart the original Austin Dam between Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake (where the Tom Miller Dam now stands). Several floods have washed debris into the reservoir.

Fiction or Fact? Every water snake you see in Lady Bird Lake is a water moccasin (aka cottonmouth).

FICTION. The majority of the large, dark-colored snakes you might spy swimming in the water or sunbathing on the banks are UNLIKELY to be water moccasins.

All snakes can swim, many snakes in Austin are large and dark-bodied, and a few types of snakes spend most of their time in or near water. Chances are very high that a water snake you see on Lady Bird Lake is a nonvenomous snake of the genus Nerodia, such as a diamond-backed water snake (Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer) or a blotched water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transvera). These Nerodia water snakes aren’t shy and may hold their ground if provoked, but they are not aggressive or considered dangerous to people. They primarily eat fish and prefer to avoid humans. If you are lucky enough to spot one of these snakes and have the opportunity to examine its head from a respectful distance, take a look for dark vertical lines on the lips. In the Austin area, those lines are found on nonvenomous water snakes and not on water moccasins, which helps distinguish between the two. Other identifying characteristics, such as pupil shape and head shape, can be difficult to use because the pupils may be hard to see from a distance and because Nerodia can widen their jaws so that their heads temporarily take on the same triangular-shape as a water moccasin.

Diamond Back Water snake.
The nonvenomous Diamond-backed water snake (Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer) has dark, vertical lines on its lips and lives near Austin’s creeks and lakes.   (Photocredit) http://mobugs.blogspot.com/2011/10/diamondback-water-snake.html

Water Moccasin
Water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus), aka cottonmouths, lack dark lines on the lips and are a very uncommon sight on Lady Bird Lake.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake is infested with the invasive hydrilla plant.

FICTION. If you spend much time in Texas waters, you might have heard about the nuisance plant hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), a non-native, invasive plant that can cause myriad problems in water bodies. In years past, Lake Austin has been choked with acres of hydrilla, and some parts of Lake Walter E. Long continue to be affected by large mats of it. Curiously, Lady Bird Lake has never been infested, despite its location directly downstream of Lake Austin.

However, fanwort or cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), a native aquatic plant, occasionally spreads across Lady Bird Lake. While the dense growth of cabomba may alarm rowers and kayakers during the weeks of late summer, the plant is actually very beneficial. Cabomba helps clean the water in Lady Bird Lake by filtering out nutrients, and it provides important habitat for small fish, turtles, and aquatic invertebrates. It is a warm-weather plant and will die back during winter months. Unfortunately, heavy rain events have kept cabomba from flourishing in recent years, but we hope it will establish itself again in Lady Bird Lake.

To explore why cabomba, but not hydrilla, grows in Lady Bird Lake, check out this blog post.

Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) growing in Lake Walter E Long in 2017.
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) growing in Lake Walter E Long in 2017

Fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana) growing in Lady Bird Lake in 2015.
Fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana) growing in Lady Bird Lake in 2015

Fiction or Fact? All of the plants on Lady Bird Lake’s shoreline fell into place naturally.

FICTION.  The lake and its surrounding land is highly managed, and people planted many of the trees and plants that grow on the banks and line the trails.

Note the lack of thick shoreline vegetation in front of Buford Tower (on the north side of Lady Bird Lake, between South 1st Street and Congress Avenue) before the river was dammed.  This photo is undated but is likely from the 1950s.
Before the river was dammed, the area in front of Buford Tower (on the north side of Lady Bird Lake, between South 1st Street and Congress Avenue) lacked thick shoreline vegetation.  This photo is undated but is likely from the 1950s.

 

Due to established "Grow Zones" (unmowed areas along the shoreline), this area can now support a variety of native plants and wildlife.
This area is now a "Grow Zone" (an unmowed area along the shoreline) and supports a variety of native plants, including native and adapted varieties planted by people.

We can thank Lady Bird Johnson, Ann and Roy Butler, Roberta Crenshaw, and others who formed the Town Lake Beautification Committee in the 1970s for spearheading the effort to clean up the shoreline and plant trees along Lady Bird Lake, creating the beautiful scene we enjoy today. Now, City staff and resources are dedicated to maintaining Lady Bird Lake, including our Field Operations crew, who remove trash from the water five days a week, and Parks and Recreation Department staff, who provide important daily maintenance work. Additionally, many non-profit organizations also spend time and energy maintaining the lake and its shores. The Trail Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, Austin Parks Foundation, and Tree Folks are a few of the groups that organize volunteers to help keep Lady Bird Lake (and many other parts of town) a great place to spend time outdoors.

Our Grow Zone program protects riparian (waterside) areas from mowing to allow beneficial plants to grow between the water and nearby urban areas. A healthy buffer of vegetation helps to keep some pollutants and trash from reaching the water, prevent shoreline erosion, and provide important habitat for urban wildlife. Our staff routinely remove patches of invasive plants, such as giant cane (Arundo donax) and elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) from the shoreline to help a diverse mix of native plants to grow.

Our crews removed a large patch of elephant ear from this patch of shoreline just downstream of the First Street Bridge and planted a mix of native, water-loving plants, resulting in a diverse, productive wetland area.
Our crews removed a large patch of elephant ear from this stretch of the shoreline (just downstream of the First Street Bridge on the north side of the lake) and planted a mix of native, water-loving plants. The area is now a diverse, productive wetland.

Fiction or Fact? You can't eat fish from Lady Bird Lake.

FICTION. (With caution.) In 1987, the Austin-Travis County Health Department issued a health advisory (based on fish tissue samples from 1985), stating that people should not consume certain fish species from the lake, due to elevated concentrations of Chlordane. This advisory was extended to all fish in 1990. 

Chlordane was once a commonly used pesticide for termite treatment, but the EPA banned it in 1983. Chlordane levels in fish have dropped over time, and state officials withdrew the fish consumption advisory in 1999. Although no current advisory prohibits the consumption of fish caught in Lady Bird Lake, it's an important safety precaution to research fishing advisories prior to eating fish from any body of water. 

Today, Lady Bird Lake is a popular fishing lake and is rated “excellent” for largemouth bass angling and “good” for sunfish. In fact, Lady Bird Lake has produced more state record fish (based on a combination of length and weight records) than anywhere else in Texas.

Fiction or Fact? A green-eyed monster lives in Lady Bird Lake.

Green-eyed monster.

FACT-ish. As you can see from this photo, the monster's eyes are black and white, not green.

Seriously, though…This structure, now painted with eyeballs and helping to keep Austin weird, is a remnant of a larger structure used by the old Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant.

This aerial photo from 1940 shows a structure at the same location as the green-eyed monster. The Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant (that would become the Seaholm Power Plant) were located north of the river on either side of Shoal Creek.
This aerial photo from 1940 shows a structure at the same location as the green-eyed monster. The Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant (that would become the Seaholm Power Plant) were located north of the river on either side of Shoal Creek.

Fiction or Fact? You are a Lady Bird Lake expert.

FACT. You're now qualified to set the record straight on the most persistent myths related to Austin's favorite lake-not-a-lake. Dazzle your friends with your newfound knowledge and be sure to experience Lady Bird Lake in person!

Dec 21, 2017 - 10:07 am CST

Our city is built within a natural environment full of amazing plant and wildlife species. Below is a list of 10 field guides we developed to help nature lovers and explorers, gardeners, anglers, and others identify some of the plant and animal species found in Austin’s creeks, lakes and parks.

Plant Guides

1. Central Texas Field Guide Central Texas Wetland Plants, is organized by plant family. Plants that have similar characteristics are grouped together so it’s easy to identify a plant based on specific characteristics.

On the right, is a sample page on inland sea oats. The scientific name (Chasmanthium latifolium) is listed above the common names. Venture outside along creek banks and see if you can spot this oat-looking grass!

2. Central Texas Invasive Plants, is a guide for volunteers, land managers, and residents to identify plants that are not native to the Austin area, but are thriving and causing significant changes to our native ecosystems. The invasive plant species within this guide are organized by their plant form (trees, vines, grasses, etc.). This guide contains images and characteristics of invasive plants, as well as information about their preferred habitat, impact on our native species/ecosystems, the best strategy for their removal, and how they are spread to other areas.

Below, is a sample page about the highly invasive herb elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) that can be spotted on the edges of many creek banks and ponds.

 

Field Guide example of elephant ear.Field guide example of elephant ear.

 

3. Native and Adapted Landscape Plants is a guide of native and adapted plants in Central Texas best suited for landscaping in this region. These plants require less water, fertilizer, and chemical inputs to keep them alive and beautiful in Austin’s natural environment, which reduces the amount of fertilizer and chemicals that wash to our creeks and lakes. In the searchable database, simply select the characteristics of the plant you’re looking for, and let the search engine find the species that fits the description.

Wildlife Guides

Field guide page for Redbreast Sunfish

4. This Fish guide, lists common fishes found in Austin lakes and creeks, as well as, facts about the species’ characteristics, habitat, diet, and nesting information.

For example, find a redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus) in a clear stream and record your observations about its behavior in the field notes section provided!

 

Pond Guide page with pond bugs and examples.

5. Pond invertebrates, is a guide to aquatic bugs that prefer still water, such as in ponds. The variety of species found in a pond can tell you a lot about that pond’s water quality. This guide is divided into three categories: invertebrates that are found in poor water quality, good water quality, and excellent water quality. If the water quality is excellent, you should see species from each of the three categories. If the water quality is poor, you should only see species listed in the poor water quality category. 

Most of these invertebrates can be tiny, so bring a magnifier to identify the little guys. Crawfish (Subphylum crustacea) can be seen without a magnifier, so look around in standing water to spot one!

 

Is the Creek Clean or polluted? Different bugs shown the help determine if the creek is in excellent, good, or poor health.6. Stream invertebrates, is a guide to aquatic bugs that prefer flowing (rather than still) water. These invertebrates can be very small, so bring a magnifier to help you identify them. They're found underneath rocks in a riffle habitat, an area where shallow, steady moving water flows over the rocks within the creek. This habitat is high in oxygen, allowing these invertebrates to breathe. Similar to the Pond invertebrates guide, the Stream invertebrates guide is divided into the types of insects typically found in areas of poor, good, and excellent water quality. Search for a variety of these invertebrates in a riffle habitat - the results provide a good clue about the water quality in that section of the creek. 

 

Red eared slider turtle7. Lady Bird Lake Wildlife, is a guide to animals that live in and around Lady Bird Lake.

A variety of boat docks and rentals are available on Lady Bird Lake, so get out on the water to complete this scavenger hunt style field guide! Check the box for each species you spot. Start by trying to find a red-eared slider. You can also explore Lady Bird Lake on the beautiful hike & bike trail.  Go slow, and you'll get to see many species that you might normally run or bike past.

 

8. Guide to fish of Barton Creek, is a guide to the fish found in Barton Creek.   How many can you find?

Largemouth bass

 

9. Common plants and animals along lower Waller Creek, is a guide to many of the species found in and along the portion of Waller Creek from 12th Street to Lady Bird Lake.  Explore the Waller Creek greenbelt and try to identify the common plants, birds, reptiles, and amphibians listed in this guide! 

A leaf of a Cottonwood plant.A Great Blue Heron

 

10. Common Wildflowers and Wildlife in Austin Parks, will help you identify colorful wildflowers and familiar wildlife in our city parks. This guide includes common wildflowers and animal tracks and scat, as well as marine fossils -evidence that Austin used be under an ocean 100-65 million years ago!

Oct 17, 2017 - 09:49 am CDT

Austin Creeks over the watersheds in Austin.

Think back…close your eyes and let your mind return to a day when you were young. You dipped your toes in a little stream, picked up rocks to find bugs, listened to frogs chirping. Austin is a city of creeks; thousands of miles of little creeks and larger creeks flow throughout the city. You can discover, explore, and enjoy many of these creeks. Even in the middle of the urban area, you just need to find the right place as some creeks may be a bit hidden from view. We invite you to go out to find and explore these creeks in each of Austin’s 10 Council Districts.

 

Austin District map.

District 1: Boggy Creek

Location: Boggy Creek Greenbelt, 1114 Nile Street, 78702

Boggy Creek meanders through the Boggy Creek Greenbelt near Nile Street and North Pleasant Valley Road. Stand at the pedestrian bridge to watch the creek flow or wade in to get your feet wet. Recently restored from a mostly concrete channel to a more natural setting that meanders with rocks and vegetation, riffles and pools, Boggy Creek is healing fast and its creekside forest is growing! If you feel adventurous, you can follow its path upstream throughout the greenbelt all the way to 12th Street near Downs Mabson Fields.

Boggy Creek.

 

District 2: Onion Creek

Location: Onion Creek Greenbelt, 7001 Onion Creek Drive, 78744

One of our largest creeks traversing the city from east to west, Onion Creek offers many spots for exploration. Start at the Onion Creek Greenbelt, at the end of Vine Hill Drive and Onion Creek Drive.  This spot has a magnificent view and fun swimming holes to cool down in the summer months.  This area was converted to parkland and open space after being identified as a high-flood-risk neighborhood and going through a flood mitigation buyout process.

Onion Creek.

 

District 3: Oak Springs Tributary

Location: Boggy Creek, 3101 Oak Springs Drive, 78702

Walk quietly toward a little hidden Boggy Creek tributary and listen for the trickling spring located behind the Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library on Tillery Street near Oak Springs Road. Recently restored from a concrete channel that moved water from the Oak Springs (yes, an urban spring in the middle of the city), this area now features a beautiful wet pond with ducks and even a family of hawks nesting nearby. This special spot is a fully vegetated, meandering channel with plentiful native wetland plants and flowers.

Oak Springs Tributary.

 

District 4: Tannehill Creek

Location: Bartholomew Park, 5201 Berkman Drive, 78723

Tannehill Creek flows year round directly through Bartholomew Park on Berkman Drive. Maintenance crews discontinued mowing along the creek in 2012, allowing willow and mulberry trees to grow back in force! Observe the creek and its Grow Zone from the pedestrian bridge or explore its path following the creek current. Discover the big bunchgrasses on its banks, watch the fish dart by, and pick up rocks to find what bugs are hiding from sight!

Tannehill Creek.

 

District 5: Slaughter Creek

Location: Parking lot near 702 Decker Prairie Drive, 78748

(from the parking lot, take the trail south) If you enter at the main entrance to Mary Moore Searight Park, you’ll probably miss this hidden gem since it’s a bit of a hike to the creek. However, a short downhill hike from a parking lot nestled in a residential area on Decker Prairie Drive may inspire you to explore the part of Slaughter Creek located near a dam. Upstream of the dam, the creek is wide and deep, ideal for fishing, canoeing, or bird watching. Adventure awaits downstream of the dam, a perfect spot to encounter frogs, turtles, great blue herons, and enjoy a sense of tranquility in the city.

Slaughter Creek.

 

District 6: Bull Creek

Location: 11103 Callanish Park Drive, 78750

A hidden creek adventure awaits you at the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt. A small easement at 11103 Callanish Park Drive leads you along a trail to this beautiful Hill Country creek. Close your eyes and listen to the peaceful running water or take off to explore and have fun discovering critters and plants along the stream.

Bull Creek

 

District 7: Shoal Creek

Location: 5601 Shoal Creek Boulevard, 78756

The Shoal Creek Greenbelt embraces the course of Shoal Creek as it meanders from north to south through the heart of our City. A small segment of the creek by Shoal Creek Boulevard near Shady Oak Court is growing strong after mowing ceased in 2012. This Grow Zone has wetland plants to discover at one of the stormwater outlets that was restored in 2014 to slow down the water before it reached the creek. Enjoy the young trees and wildflowers growing in this creekside Grow Zone.  Step in the water! Get your feet wet and listen to the rushing flow telling stories from upstream!

Shoal Creek.

Shoal Creek.

 

 

District 8: Slaughter Creek

Location: Circle C Metro Park, 6301 W. Slaughter Lane, 78749

Glance at Slaughter Creek as you cross over it when you enter the park from the main entrance.  Hike to an even better access point closer to Escarpment Boulevard where the trail merges with the creek.  This is a fabulous spot for wading in the cool clear water, swimming or sitting and reflecting.  During dry periods and drought, you’ll find the creek bone dry due to its location in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.  Surface water in the recharge zone flows down into caves, cracks and sinkholes to help replenish our aquifer.

Slaughter Creek.

 

District 9: Blunn Creek

Location: Blunn Creek Preserve, 1200 St. Edwards Drive, 78704

The Blunn Creek Preserve is a beautiful site for hiking.  Get your feet wet and enjoy the surprising silence in this peaceful patch of nature that is surrounded by all the busy city streets nearby.  Along the east creek trail, head west on a trail leading to the creek and discover a little hidden gem where seeping spring water paints the rocks and young bald cypresses aim to the sky. 

Blunn Creek.

 

District 10: Taylor Slough North

Location: Mayfield Park, 3505 W. 35th Street, 78703

Mayfield Park is known for brilliant peacocks wandering the property, so follow the birds to a scenic hiking trail near the entrance of the historic cottage.  Take the trail downhill, and once you get to a kiosk, turn left to the gently flowing creek.  Hop along stones across the creek and view the astonishing grotto overlooks along the hillside.

Taylor Slough North.

May 23, 2017 - 10:37 am CDT

Our Department gets calls from concerned community members about unusual colors seen in creeks. Some of these vibrant colors are natural, so here’s a quick guide to help identify some of the possible sources that cause these unusual sights.

Our environmental scientists encounter a lot of strange and colorful things in our creeks. Orange slime, purple fluffy goo, and rainbow sheens on the water would all appear to be pollution problems, but often it is just a natural phenomenon. Each of these things can be harmless bacteria just doing what they normally do, which is abnormally fascinating. If you suspect what you are seeing is not naturally occurring and a pollution source might be involved, call the City’s 24-Hour Pollution Hotline (512/974-2550) to initiate an investigation.

Orange Slime

A bright orange slime is often seen where groundwater seeps out of the ground. The slime is called “ferrihydrite” and is basically like rust that is made by bacteria. Iron-reducing bacteria underground turn insoluble iron into dissolved iron hydroxide molecules in the absence of oxygen. These dissolved iron molecules can flow in groundwater to the surface. After the dissolved iron hydroxide molecules flow to the surface, a different group of bacteria use oxygen to oxidize the iron and create an insoluble form of iron called ferrihydrite (the orange slime) as a byproduct. This complex chemical relationship has been present on the earth for hundreds of millions of years, and although it looks gross, it is natural and harmless.

Oil Spill
Oil Spill
Oil Spill
 

These gooey orange slimes were observed flowing into Little Walnut and Blunn Creek.

 

Oily-Rainbow

This oily-sheen is made of a film of a rod-shaped bacteria called Leptothrix discophora.  The bacteria oxidize dissolved iron and manganese for energy and secrete proteins and carbohydrates.  They are lined up end-to-end within sheathes and are stuck together side-by-side in rows. Sunlight refracts off the sheaths, proteins and carbohydrates to make shiny rainbow colors. The bacteria stick to the surface of water with tiny donut-shaped structures on the sheathes.  The way they are aligned and stick to the surface of the water causes the biofilm to float at the surface and “shatter” like glass when disturbed.  Real oil is greasy and will stick together refusing to shatter like these bacteria. Sometimes these biofilms are present where iron and manganese in groundwater come to the surface, and sometimes they are wrapped around air bubbles in packs of leaves underwater.  These are not bad bacteria, and in fact, they are beneficial because they process metals in water.  They are beautiful, natural and harmless.

 
Oil Spill
Oil Spill
 

These oily-sheens floating on water in Spicewood tributary are not oil.

Purple Powdery Fluff

A purple coloration that can develop in stagnant, well lit, waters may be a bacterial group known as “purple sulfur bacteria”. These organisms are capable of photosynthesis, which is why they need sunlight. They don’t use chlorophyll like plants, instead they use “bacteriochlorophyll” pigments as well as carotenoids which make the purple color. Purple sulfur bacteria also require their water to have two key characteristics. The water must have hydrogen sulfide, and cannot have oxygen. They get their hydrogen sulfide from other bacteria that reduce sulfate in the water or soil rich in organic matter and devoid of oxygen. The purple sulfur bacteria are good because they take the hydrogen sulfide (stinky and toxic) and turn it into harmless elemental sulfur. The conditions must be just right for both types of bacteria to thrive. Just like the orange and rainbow bacteria, these organisms are natural and harmless.

Purple sulfur bacteria.
These purple sulfur bacteria were observed at Givens Park.

All of these bacteria thrive under very special conditions and depend on other bacteria for their survival. We usually associate life with oxygen, but these bacterial communities depend on a source of water that is devoid of oxygen. Creekside areas are complex, fascinating and wonderful places full of surprises and interesting biological and chemical phenomenon.

Check out our Water Quality Color Guide to learn more about what’s in our water!

Call our pollution hotline at 512-974-2550 if you suspect a pollution spill.

 

 

Feb 12, 2020 - 02:02 pm CST

Bull Creek District Park, the anchor for the Upper and Lower Bull Creek Greenbelts, is one of Austin’s most popular parks. Beloved for its beautiful limestone outcroppings, springs, and cascading creek, this 47-acre park offers numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking.

To help enhance a visit to this park, we’d like to point out a few of the special environmental features that you’ll spot along the trail. This includes some Critical Environmental Features (CEFs), such as springs and cliffs, which are protected from development by the City’s Land Development Code.

Please note that dogs are welcome at the park, but must stay on-leash.

Let’s explore the park!

Bull Creek District Park

6701 Lakewood Drive, Austin, TX 78731

 

A map of Bull Creek District Park that shows seven locatinos that will be pictured below.  The seven locations are Scooby Doo Spring, a Grow Zone, a Cascade, Cliff Spring, Dam Spring, Wetland, and Canyon Rimrock

Key

1. Scooby Doo Spring
2. Grow Zone
3. Cascade
4. Cliff Spring
5. Dam Spring
6. Wetland
7. Canyon Rimrock

Scooby Doo Spring.  This seasonal spring flows only when the underground water table fills with enough rainwater to reach the spring’s opening. Sometimes this spring’s water is not visibly flowing, and the ground is just damp. Water-loving plants and trees thrive in the area. Fun Fact: The spring’s name came from scientists who spotted a dog at this spot when they arrived to conduct research.

1. Scooby Doo Spring - This seasonal spring flows only when the underground water table fills with enough rainwater to reach the spring’s opening. Sometimes this spring’s water is not visibly flowing, and the ground is just damp. Water-loving plants and trees thrive in the area. Fun Fact: The spring’s name came from scientists who spotted a dog at this spot when they arrived to conduct research.

Grow Zone.  This is a picture of a creek bank. This stretch of the creek bank is not mowed so that native plants can grow.

2. Grow Zone - This stretch of the creek bank is not mowed so that native plants can grow. Grow Zones help reduce water pollution by filtering out some pollutants from the land before they reach the creek. A healthy buffer of vegetation also slows down and absorbs fast-moving water from storms, helping reduce flooding and erosion problems in the area. For more information on the City’s Grow Zone Program to protect and restore creeks, visit www.austintexas.gov/blog/grow-zones

Cascade.  This is a picture of small waterfalls that located throughout the creek.

3. Cascade – These small waterfalls are located throughout the creek. Bull Creek was called Cascade Creek until the 1860s, when it was renamed for either the last buffalo that roamed the valley or for the free-ranging Longhorn cattle introduced at the time. The turbulence created by the creek moving over these rocky ledges helps aerate the water, adding more oxygen for wildlife, such as aquatic insects and fish.

Cliff Springs.  A spring flows through the cracks of the ground.

4. Cliff Spring – This spring flows through cracks in the ground and trickles from many spots in the cliffside, forming a “hanging garden” of maidenhair and river ferns. The rimmed pools at the base of the cliff form when the dissolved mineral calcite precipitates out of the water. This is the same process that creates stalactite and stalagmite formations in caves.

Wagon Tracks.  Wagon tracks have created ruts in the bedrock.

Side Note: The ruts in the bedrock by this cliff spring might be wagon tracks from an old road that later became Lakewood Drive.

Dam Spring.  This spring’s water emerges from a discrete opening in the cliff near the dam.

5. Dam Spring - This spring’s water emerges from a discrete opening in the cliff near the dam. The spring flow is intermittent, or not constant, so sometimes this spring is dry. The water flow does not appear to depend on rain, so the cause of this spring’s appearance and disappearance is a mystery yet to be solved.

Wetland.  Area that is frequently covered in shallow water.

6. Wetland – This area is often covered in shallow water or saturated with moisture. To grow in this area, plants (such as spike rush and bushy bluestem) must be adapted to tolerate consistently saturated soils. The plants help protect the creek by capturing some of the sediment and pollutants from the trail and Lakewood Drive.

Canyon Rimrock.  This is a type of sheer rock wall, greater than 50 feet long and four feet tall.  That is next to a flowing creek.

7. Canyon Rimrock - This is a type of sheer rock wall, greater than 50 feet long and four feet tall. The City prohibits construction near rimrock to help protect water quality in creeks and the stability of the rock wall.

For more information on Critical Environmental Features and how the City protects them throughout the Austin area, visit www.austintexas.gov/blog/celebrating-30-years-comprehensive-watersheds-ordinance.

Historic Bull Creek. An undated black and white image of Bull Creek.

 

To learn more about the fascinating history of Bull Creek, check out www.bullcreekfoundation.org/history

For general information about parks in Austin, visit www.austintexas.gov/parks.  

We hope you enjoy your hike! 

Creekside Story
Nov 14, 2018 - 07:47 am CST

You’re probably familiar with Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park, a popular destination for swimming, relaxing, and cooling off on a hot summer day. And, you might be familiar with some of the other west Austin springs that are scenic destinations to visit on foot or by boat. But, did you know there are HUNDREDS of other springs in our city, many of which are located in east Austin?

Austin Springs.
Map of Austin Springs

Springs on the east and west sides of Austin differ due to the geology of the Balcones Fault Zone that lies along Interstate 35. Springs west of the fault are typically karst springs, where the water travels from the aquifer to the Earth’s surface through holes in the limestone rock. Karst systems, like the Edwards Aquifer, can move huge amounts of water quickly, providing us with treasures like Barton Springs in Austin and spring-fed rivers, including the San Marcos and Comal rivers to the south. Conversely, springs east of the fault often develop in shallow aquifers made up of clay and smaller particles of silt, sand and gravel, so groundwater moves slowly through small pore spaces between particles until it reaches an outlet.

Austin area aquifer map.
Map of Austin Area Aquifers

Hidden Springs

Many east Austin springs and seeps appear subtle because their flow may be light, or they may be covered by roadways or buildings, making them difficult to spot except during very wet weather conditions.  Springs sometimes appear as a soggy spot in a field or a small trickle running across a driveway. Residents may easily mistake them for a leak from a water pipe!

Water from a small spring (or “seep”) flows over a sidewalk on Rosewood Avenue.
Water from a small spring (or “seep”) flows over a sidewalk on Rosewood Avenue

Although the springs in east Austin lack the star power of the springs in west Austin, they played an important role in our city’s history, providing water to settlers to support the development of farms, homesteads, and forts. Even a trickle of flowing water can have a positive impact on the surrounding ecology by creating an oasis of verdant plant life and wildlife habitat and by contributing to water levels in ponds and creeks.

Let's Meet an East Austin Spring!

Travel with us as we trace the subtle flow of a spring in east Austin and explore a bit of its history and ecological benefits.  You can visit the preserve in person too!

Coleman Spring

Coleman Springs Map.
 

Coleman Spring is located in the Blair Woods Preserve at 5401 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Austin, TX 78721.

Dr. Frank Blair, a zoology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, bought the former dairy farm and gifted it to the Travis Audubon Society in 1985. The preserve is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A well inside a pump house, located approximately 15 feet uphill of the spring, was used to provide water to the Blair residence during the mid-1900s.

A well inside a pump house, located approximately 15 feet uphill of the spring, was used to provide water to the Blair residence during the mid-1900s.

Although the spring does not emerge from a defined outlet, you can see the water has seeped out here and begins to flow in this channel.

Although the spring does not emerge from a defined outlet, you can see the water has seeped out here and begins to flow in this channel.

The water runs through the property during much of the year. The near-constant supply of water and its surrounding vegetation provide habitat for wildlife, such as insects, crawfish, and frogs.

The water runs through the property during much of the year. The near-constant supply of water and its surrounding vegetation provide habitat for wildlife, such as insects, crawfish, and frogs.

The spring water reaches a small dam, which holds back the water flow, forming a pond.  Dr. Blair named this small blockade “The Dam of Words” because he constructed the dam using old student essays. The pond ranges from four-  to six-feet deep and provides a reliable source of water for birds and other wildlife.

The spring water reaches a small dam, which holds back the water flow, forming a pond. Dr. Blair named this small blockade “The Dam of Words” because he constructed the dam using old student essays. The pond ranges from four- to six-feet deep and provides a reliable source of water for birds and other wildlife.

Excess pond water flows over the dam into a small creek and eventually flows off the property to Fort Branch Creek. Fort Branch Creek is named after Fort Coleman, which was located nearby from 1836 to 1838, when Austin was settled. Residents of Fort Coleman used this spring for their drinking water.

Excess pond water flows over the dam into a small creek and eventually flows off the property to Fort Branch Creek. Fort Branch Creek is named after Fort Coleman, which was located nearby from 1836 to 1838, when Austin was settled. Residents of Fort Coleman used this spring for their drinking water.

For more information about the Blair Woods Preserve, visit https://travisaudubon.org/sanctuaries/blair-woods.

Protecting East Austin’s Springs

Although they’re not flashy, springs in east Austin play important roles in the local environment by providing water to wildlife and vegetation and contributing water to our creeks and river, even during drier periods.

In 1986, the City Council approved the Comprehensive Watersheds Ordinance (Ordinance No. 860508-V) to safeguard springs and other environmental features that protect our water supply and preserve the characteristics of the natural environment.

What Can You Do?

- Visit and enjoy Austin’s springs!

- Check to see if there is a spring in your neck of the woods!  Click on the “Layers” tab at the bottom of the left menu, scroll down and click “Environmental”, scroll down and click “Spring”. Once you zoom in, you can see the springs nearby that we have identified in our database!

- Help protect the springs! Pick up pet waste, put trash in a trash can, and use Earth-wise landscaping techniques.  If you see a lot of trash by a spring, call Austin 3-1-1 to report it!

- Report leaks and springs! If you see water flowing in the city and are unsure if it’s coming from a natural spring or from a leaking pipe, call 3-1-1 so Austin Water can investigate the source.

- Contact us! Call Scott Hiers, P.G., at 512-974-1916 if you have questions about springs or want to be sure a particular spring is included in our database.

- Join us! Follow us on social media to see announcements about springs, creeks, lakes, and more! www.facebook.com/austinwatershed, www.twitter.com/austinwatershed, and www.instagram.com/natureinthecity.

 

Creekside Story
Sep 25, 2018 - 01:38 pm CDT

Post storm observation at Waller Creek flowing after a significant size. storm.
Strong flow in Waller Creek after a significant storm

This may be hard to believe during the hot, dry months of summer, but Austin receives an average of 35 inches of rain a year, or nearly 5 inches more than the average rainfall over the continental United States. Central Texas rain tends to fall in large surges, rather than slowly throughout the year.  Heavy rainfall can overwhelm the capacity of natural areas and lawns to absorb and hold the water. Water that does not soak into porous ground flows over land and can build up great speed and force when running off streets, parking lots, and buildings.

The City of Austin maintains an intricate storm drain system known as a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) to direct this stormwater runoff away from the City’s wastewater treatment facilities and into our local creeks.

Stream bank erosion investigation after a storm event at Brentwood site.
Stream bank erosion after a storm in the Brentwood neighborhood

Sensor and sampling line installation at Burton Drive monitoring site.
Installing sensor and sampling lines at the Burton Drive monitoring site

We monitor both stormwater flow and water quality throughout the year. Runoff water collects pollutants from the land as it flows downhill to creeks, lakes, and the river.  This polluted water can harm aquatic organisms and affect public health. This polluted water can also make its way to the Edwards Aquifer and jeopardize the agricultural, industrial, recreational, and domestic needs of nearly two million people in south central Texas.

Discrete Water quality Samples collected during a storm event and delivered to LCRA lab for analysis.
We send water quality samples collected during storms to a Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) lab for analysis.

Inspection and investigation of flow during dry season at selected sites. Part of Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements.
We inspect water flow during the dry season too, as part of state requirements.

Monitoring stormwater runoff since the 1980s, the City of Austin has developed one of the best programs in the nation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recognized Austin for its innovative approach to stormwater monitoring.

Storm preparation and storm anticipation by Surface water Evaluation staff at Storm Water Monitoring office.
Our surface water evaluation team works to anticipate and prepare for storms.  (Photo circa 1993)

Velocity reading inside an underground reinforced pipe to verify flow cubic feet per second during an event.  This secondary measurement helps to determine accurate flow calculation.
Collecting data by measuring the speed of water flow inside an underground stormwater pipe

The Stormwater Monitoring Program process involves a carefully choreographed dance of numerous professionals to ensure the integrity of the sample collection and the resulting data. Some Austin rain events are very short and provide only a small window of opportunity to collect samples, so our staff must work quickly.

Joint water quality monitoring station and Flood Early Warning System at Carson Creek.
A joint water quality monitoring station and flood early warning system at Carson Creek

Pre-storm preparation at Lion Golf Club. Rain gauge is cleaned, flow meter is synced and Sampler is iced for samples preservation.
Before storms, staff clean the rain gauge, synchronize the flow meter, and ice the sampler to preserve the water sample to be collected at Lions Municipal Golf Course.

Over the years, the City of Austin has implemented numerous control measures to limit the flow of pollutants into creeks. Carefully designed low areas of land, like rain gardens and ponds, hold the runoff and allow it to soak slowly into the soil, filtering the water and leaving contaminants behind. Community outreach programs, such as Grow Green and Scoop the Poop, educate Austinites about how to keep pollutants off the land so they do not flow into our water.

Rain garden at Palo Pinto Drive and Denver Avenue. (JJ Seabrook Greenbelt Trail)
Rain garden at Palo Pinto Drive and Denver Avenue (JJ Seabrook Greenbelt Trail)

Storm water monitoring station at St. Elmo Recreational detention Pond. A flood control retention pond.
Storm water monitoring station at St. Elmo Recreational flood control detention pond

The work of the Stormwater Monitoring Program professionals helps protect water quality and residents of the City of Austin. The next time you head outside in the rain, know that we’re out there too!

Creekside Story
Aug 08, 2018 - 09:14 am CDT

Click here to watch the video!

In Zilker Park, near Barton Springs’ north gate and the Zilker Zephyr train station, you’ll see one of Austin’s environmental treasures – Eliza Spring.  To see the spring, look inside the historical, sunken, fenced-off amphitheater.

Eliza Spring is one of four springs in Zilker Park where the endangered Barton Springs and Austin Blind salamanders live.  The largest known population of Austin’s unique and endangered Barton Springs salamander makes its home in Eliza Springs.

Austin Blind Salamander.
Austin Blind Salamander

Barton Springs Salamander.
Barton Springs Salamander

The spring water bubbles up from the Edwards Aquifer, a natural underground reservoir, through holes built in the amphitheater floor.  The Edwards Aquifer is an underground layer of limestone rock containing water, which enters the aquifer through caves, sinkholes, and fractures on the land’s surface and flows through large openings in the limestone.  Some water flows back up to the surface at springs.

Karst landscape model.  Showing water movement through the Edwards Aquifer.
Water movement through the Edwards Aquifer

In the early 1900s, landowner Andrew Zilker built the amphitheater around Eliza Spring to serve as an Elks Club meeting space that could be cooled by the natural spring water.

The Eliza Spring amphitheater before construction.
The Eliza Spring amphitheater before this construction project

Historically, water leaving Eliza Spring formed a stream that flowed to Barton Creek, and an open section of the amphitheater allowed this natural flow.  Austin’s endangered salamanders lived in both Eliza Spring and its stream.

In the 1920s, the salamanders lost this valuable area of habitat when the stream became buried underground in a concrete pipe.

The spring water moving through the buried pipe.
The spring water moving through the buried pipe

As years passed and the pipe aged, it began to fail. In 2017, the City removed the old pipe and restored the stream to a natural state.

Construction of the restored stream.
Construction of the restored stream

Once again, the stream provides the needed water speed and depth, as well as hiding places and native plants to support native aquatic life, including our endangered salamanders.  The stream also provides pool and park visitors with a beautiful place to view important salamander habitat.

The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration
BEFORE:  The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration

The northern lawn of Barton Springs Pool prior to the stream restoration
AFTER:  2017 view of the north lawn with the restored stream

 

Aerial view of Eliza Spring and the restored stream
Aerial view of the Eliza Spring amphitheater and restored stream

When you’re at Zilker Park, be sure to also check out the free, family-friendly “Splash! Into the Edwards Aquifer” exhibit to learn about Austin’s natural springs and amazing underground world.  Peek into the salamander exhibit to see if the Barton Springs salamander is in view!

For more information about Austin’s endangered salamanders, visit www.austintexas.gov/salamanders.

Creekside Story
Jun 13, 2018 - 01:55 pm CDT

For many years, the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department (WPD) has studied trees and other vegetation that grow along local creeks. These vegetated areas along the water are called “riparian buffers,” and they benefit our creeks and river by improving water quality and preventing erosion. Most of WPD’s riparian buffer studies have been in central and west Austin; however, a recent study took place in far eastern Travis County, around and east of U.S. 183. This area, located in the Blackland Prairie region, has deep, fertile soils and is mostly agricultural. WPD’s goal was to document conditions of the creeks and their riparian buffers before major development occurs there.

The results of the study surprised WPD staff, who expected to find forested land along the creeks in this less-developed area. Instead, these riparian buffers have much less plant diversity and fewer trees compared to more developed areas in central Austin (scoring, on average, half that of urban Austin sites). Even with little development in these Blackland Prairie watersheds, erosion has negatively impacted the area’s creeks. Severe erosion has caused the creek banks to be too dry to support strong vegetation. The lack of surrounding vegetation enables rainwater to enter the creek in powerful surges, leaving the creeks unable to support healthy aquatic habitat. WPD hopes these findings and further investigations will guide improvements to the City’s regulations and policies. These efforts will help restore watershed function to these degraded riparian buffers and protect them from future damage.

Creek banks without enough vegetation.
Creek banks without enough vegetation

Creek with severe erosion.
Creek with severe erosion

 

Creekside Story
Mar 21, 2018 - 02:59 pm CDT

Austin, Texas Skyline.

Town Lake... Lady Bird Lake... the Colorado River. Whatever you call it, Austin wouldn't be the same without the scenic body of water separating North and South Austin.

Many residents and visitors appreciate Lady Bird Lake's beauty, whether from a kayak, the hike-and-bike trail, or even while stuck in MoPac traffic. But even many longtime fans have heard inaccurate information about our fair Lady along the way. We're here to test your knowledge and help set the record straight.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake is a lake.

FICTION. Let's start with the name itself. Putting aside the kerfuffle over whether to call it by the current official name, Lady Bird Lake, or the old name, Town Lake, the truth is it's a reservoir. A "true" lake is created by natural processes, while a reservoir is formed by a dam. Lady Bird Lake is a dammed section of the Colorado River.

In Austin’s early years, the Colorado River flowed unimpeded through the town. Over time, dams were constructed for various purposes, and many were destroyed during flood events. The Longhorn Dam was built in 1960 to provide a cooling pond for the Holly Power Plant. The original purpose is now obsolete (the Holly Power Plant was decommissioned in 2017), but no plans exist to remove the Longhorn Dam.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake's water level changes due to floods and drought.

MOSTLY FICTION.  Lady Bird Lake gets its water from Lake Austin, Barton Springs, and feeder creeks (or “tributaries”), including Shoal Creek, East and West Bouldin Creeks, and Waller Creek. Normal inflows from these sources can raise the water level in Lady Bird Lake for a short period of time; however, once the reservoir’s water reaches a certain height, it  flows out through two bascule gates in Longhorn Dam. Bascule gates allow water to passively flow over the top of a dam anytime the water reaches that height, as opposed to “lift gates” that are controlled to open during more extreme weather events.  Lady Bird Lake is known as a “pass-through” or “flow-through” system, because water passes through the reservoir and continues its journey down the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay, usually without requiring the opening of the dam’s flood gates. Longhorn Dam differs from dams designed primarily for flood control, such as the Mansfield Dam at Lake Travis, which hold back great volumes of flood water.   
 

During times of flooding, the Longhorn Dam has seven flood control gates that can be opened. During times of drought, Lady Bird Lake typically stays full, thanks to a combination of inflows from Barton Springs and water released from Lake Travis that also keep Lake Austin full. So, the water level in Lake Travis rises and falls with floods and droughts, but Lady Bird Lake’s water level stays constant.

Fiction or Fact? Swimming is not allowed in Lady Bird Lake because the water is polluted.

FICTION. With three of Austin’s most popular off-leash areas (Red Bud Isle, Norwood Park, and Auditorium Shores) located on Lady Bird Lake, you might wonder why your dog can swim here, but you can’t.

A dog swimmin in Lady Bird lake.

Since Lady Bird Lake is located in the heart of our large city and is partially fed by creeks that wind through urban landscapes, it’s easy to assume that the water quality is too polluted to be safe for swimmers. However, swimming was banned on Lady Bird Lake as long ago as 1964 due to several tragic drownings caused by hazards under the water’s surface. Remnants of old, washed-away dams, deep pits from old gravel mining operations, and other types of debris litter the bottom of the reservoir, creating a dangerous underwater landscape.

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962 made famous an Austin chemical plant's devastating insecticide spill that wreaked havoc on the environment for approximately 140 miles. However, pollution in the reservoir was not a noted concern for swimmers back then (see the public discussion minutes on page 16 from the May 28, 1964 City Council meeting that resulted in the eventual swim ban). According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), levels of DDT (one of the insecticides of concern) peaked in 1960s, but are no longer a concern in the reservoir sediment. Our scientists routinely monitor the water quality of Lady Bird Lake and annually provide the results online as part of the Austin Lakes Index. In 2017, Lady Bird Lake's water quality was rated "Fair" and is considered safe for contact recreation. Since the unsafe debris remains submerged in the reservoir, swimming is likely to remain off-limits for the foreseeable future, except for permitted events.

Austin Dam Failure.
This image from 1900 shows floodwater breaking apart the original Austin Dam between Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake (where the Tom Miller Dam now stands). Several floods have washed debris into the reservoir.

Fiction or Fact? Every water snake you see in Lady Bird Lake is a water moccasin (aka cottonmouth).

FICTION. The majority of the large, dark-colored snakes you might spy swimming in the water or sunbathing on the banks are UNLIKELY to be water moccasins.

All snakes can swim, many snakes in Austin are large and dark-bodied, and a few types of snakes spend most of their time in or near water. Chances are very high that a water snake you see on Lady Bird Lake is a nonvenomous snake of the genus Nerodia, such as a diamond-backed water snake (Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer) or a blotched water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transvera). These Nerodia water snakes aren’t shy and may hold their ground if provoked, but they are not aggressive or considered dangerous to people. They primarily eat fish and prefer to avoid humans. If you are lucky enough to spot one of these snakes and have the opportunity to examine its head from a respectful distance, take a look for dark vertical lines on the lips. In the Austin area, those lines are found on nonvenomous water snakes and not on water moccasins, which helps distinguish between the two. Other identifying characteristics, such as pupil shape and head shape, can be difficult to use because the pupils may be hard to see from a distance and because Nerodia can widen their jaws so that their heads temporarily take on the same triangular-shape as a water moccasin.

Diamond Back Water snake.
The nonvenomous Diamond-backed water snake (Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer) has dark, vertical lines on its lips and lives near Austin’s creeks and lakes.   (Photocredit) http://mobugs.blogspot.com/2011/10/diamondback-water-snake.html

Water Moccasin
Water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus), aka cottonmouths, lack dark lines on the lips and are a very uncommon sight on Lady Bird Lake.

Fiction or Fact? Lady Bird Lake is infested with the invasive hydrilla plant.

FICTION. If you spend much time in Texas waters, you might have heard about the nuisance plant hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), a non-native, invasive plant that can cause myriad problems in water bodies. In years past, Lake Austin has been choked with acres of hydrilla, and some parts of Lake Walter E. Long continue to be affected by large mats of it. Curiously, Lady Bird Lake has never been infested, despite its location directly downstream of Lake Austin.

However, fanwort or cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), a native aquatic plant, occasionally spreads across Lady Bird Lake. While the dense growth of cabomba may alarm rowers and kayakers during the weeks of late summer, the plant is actually very beneficial. Cabomba helps clean the water in Lady Bird Lake by filtering out nutrients, and it provides important habitat for small fish, turtles, and aquatic invertebrates. It is a warm-weather plant and will die back during winter months. Unfortunately, heavy rain events have kept cabomba from flourishing in recent years, but we hope it will establish itself again in Lady Bird Lake.

To explore why cabomba, but not hydrilla, grows in Lady Bird Lake, check out this blog post.

Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) growing in Lake Walter E Long in 2017.
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) growing in Lake Walter E Long in 2017

Fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana) growing in Lady Bird Lake in 2015.
Fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana) growing in Lady Bird Lake in 2015

Fiction or Fact? All of the plants on Lady Bird Lake’s shoreline fell into place naturally.

FICTION.  The lake and its surrounding land is highly managed, and people planted many of the trees and plants that grow on the banks and line the trails.

Note the lack of thick shoreline vegetation in front of Buford Tower (on the north side of Lady Bird Lake, between South 1st Street and Congress Avenue) before the river was dammed.  This photo is undated but is likely from the 1950s.
Before the river was dammed, the area in front of Buford Tower (on the north side of Lady Bird Lake, between South 1st Street and Congress Avenue) lacked thick shoreline vegetation.  This photo is undated but is likely from the 1950s.

 

Due to established "Grow Zones" (unmowed areas along the shoreline), this area can now support a variety of native plants and wildlife.
This area is now a "Grow Zone" (an unmowed area along the shoreline) and supports a variety of native plants, including native and adapted varieties planted by people.

We can thank Lady Bird Johnson, Ann and Roy Butler, Roberta Crenshaw, and others who formed the Town Lake Beautification Committee in the 1970s for spearheading the effort to clean up the shoreline and plant trees along Lady Bird Lake, creating the beautiful scene we enjoy today. Now, City staff and resources are dedicated to maintaining Lady Bird Lake, including our Field Operations crew, who remove trash from the water five days a week, and Parks and Recreation Department staff, who provide important daily maintenance work. Additionally, many non-profit organizations also spend time and energy maintaining the lake and its shores. The Trail Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, Austin Parks Foundation, and Tree Folks are a few of the groups that organize volunteers to help keep Lady Bird Lake (and many other parts of town) a great place to spend time outdoors.

Our Grow Zone program protects riparian (waterside) areas from mowing to allow beneficial plants to grow between the water and nearby urban areas. A healthy buffer of vegetation helps to keep some pollutants and trash from reaching the water, prevent shoreline erosion, and provide important habitat for urban wildlife. Our staff routinely remove patches of invasive plants, such as giant cane (Arundo donax) and elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) from the shoreline to help a diverse mix of native plants to grow.

Our crews removed a large patch of elephant ear from this patch of shoreline just downstream of the First Street Bridge and planted a mix of native, water-loving plants, resulting in a diverse, productive wetland area.
Our crews removed a large patch of elephant ear from this stretch of the shoreline (just downstream of the First Street Bridge on the north side of the lake) and planted a mix of native, water-loving plants. The area is now a diverse, productive wetland.

Fiction or Fact? You can't eat fish from Lady Bird Lake.

FICTION. (With caution.) In 1987, the Austin-Travis County Health Department issued a health advisory (based on fish tissue samples from 1985), stating that people should not consume certain fish species from the lake, due to elevated concentrations of Chlordane. This advisory was extended to all fish in 1990. 

Chlordane was once a commonly used pesticide for termite treatment, but the EPA banned it in 1983. Chlordane levels in fish have dropped over time, and state officials withdrew the fish consumption advisory in 1999. Although no current advisory prohibits the consumption of fish caught in Lady Bird Lake, it's an important safety precaution to research fishing advisories prior to eating fish from any body of water. 

Today, Lady Bird Lake is a popular fishing lake and is rated “excellent” for largemouth bass angling and “good” for sunfish. In fact, Lady Bird Lake has produced more state record fish (based on a combination of length and weight records) than anywhere else in Texas.

Fiction or Fact? A green-eyed monster lives in Lady Bird Lake.

Green-eyed monster.

FACT-ish. As you can see from this photo, the monster's eyes are black and white, not green.

Seriously, though…This structure, now painted with eyeballs and helping to keep Austin weird, is a remnant of a larger structure used by the old Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant.

This aerial photo from 1940 shows a structure at the same location as the green-eyed monster. The Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant (that would become the Seaholm Power Plant) were located north of the river on either side of Shoal Creek.
This aerial photo from 1940 shows a structure at the same location as the green-eyed monster. The Green Water Treatment Plant and the original power plant (that would become the Seaholm Power Plant) were located north of the river on either side of Shoal Creek.

Fiction or Fact? You are a Lady Bird Lake expert.

FACT. You're now qualified to set the record straight on the most persistent myths related to Austin's favorite lake-not-a-lake. Dazzle your friends with your newfound knowledge and be sure to experience Lady Bird Lake in person!

Creekside Story
Dec 21, 2017 - 10:07 am CST

Our city is built within a natural environment full of amazing plant and wildlife species. Below is a list of 10 field guides we developed to help nature lovers and explorers, gardeners, anglers, and others identify some of the plant and animal species found in Austin’s creeks, lakes and parks.

Plant Guides

1. Central Texas Field Guide Central Texas Wetland Plants, is organized by plant family. Plants that have similar characteristics are grouped together so it’s easy to identify a plant based on specific characteristics.

On the right, is a sample page on inland sea oats. The scientific name (Chasmanthium latifolium) is listed above the common names. Venture outside along creek banks and see if you can spot this oat-looking grass!

2. Central Texas Invasive Plants, is a guide for volunteers, land managers, and residents to identify plants that are not native to the Austin area, but are thriving and causing significant changes to our native ecosystems. The invasive plant species within this guide are organized by their plant form (trees, vines, grasses, etc.). This guide contains images and characteristics of invasive plants, as well as information about their preferred habitat, impact on our native species/ecosystems, the best strategy for their removal, and how they are spread to other areas.

Below, is a sample page about the highly invasive herb elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) that can be spotted on the edges of many creek banks and ponds.

 

Field Guide example of elephant ear.Field guide example of elephant ear.

 

3. Native and Adapted Landscape Plants is a guide of native and adapted plants in Central Texas best suited for landscaping in this region. These plants require less water, fertilizer, and chemical inputs to keep them alive and beautiful in Austin’s natural environment, which reduces the amount of fertilizer and chemicals that wash to our creeks and lakes. In the searchable database, simply select the characteristics of the plant you’re looking for, and let the search engine find the species that fits the description.

Wildlife Guides

Field guide page for Redbreast Sunfish

4. This Fish guide, lists common fishes found in Austin lakes and creeks, as well as, facts about the species’ characteristics, habitat, diet, and nesting information.

For example, find a redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus) in a clear stream and record your observations about its behavior in the field notes section provided!

 

Pond Guide page with pond bugs and examples.

5. Pond invertebrates, is a guide to aquatic bugs that prefer still water, such as in ponds. The variety of species found in a pond can tell you a lot about that pond’s water quality. This guide is divided into three categories: invertebrates that are found in poor water quality, good water quality, and excellent water quality. If the water quality is excellent, you should see species from each of the three categories. If the water quality is poor, you should only see species listed in the poor water quality category. 

Most of these invertebrates can be tiny, so bring a magnifier to identify the little guys. Crawfish (Subphylum crustacea) can be seen without a magnifier, so look around in standing water to spot one!

 

Is the Creek Clean or polluted? Different bugs shown the help determine if the creek is in excellent, good, or poor health.6. Stream invertebrates, is a guide to aquatic bugs that prefer flowing (rather than still) water. These invertebrates can be very small, so bring a magnifier to help you identify them. They're found underneath rocks in a riffle habitat, an area where shallow, steady moving water flows over the rocks within the creek. This habitat is high in oxygen, allowing these invertebrates to breathe. Similar to the Pond invertebrates guide, the Stream invertebrates guide is divided into the types of insects typically found in areas of poor, good, and excellent water quality. Search for a variety of these invertebrates in a riffle habitat - the results provide a good clue about the water quality in that section of the creek. 

 

Red eared slider turtle7. Lady Bird Lake Wildlife, is a guide to animals that live in and around Lady Bird Lake.

A variety of boat docks and rentals are available on Lady Bird Lake, so get out on the water to complete this scavenger hunt style field guide! Check the box for each species you spot. Start by trying to find a red-eared slider. You can also explore Lady Bird Lake on the beautiful hike & bike trail.  Go slow, and you'll get to see many species that you might normally run or bike past.

 

8. Guide to fish of Barton Creek, is a guide to the fish found in Barton Creek.   How many can you find?

Largemouth bass

 

9. Common plants and animals along lower Waller Creek, is a guide to many of the species found in and along the portion of Waller Creek from 12th Street to Lady Bird Lake.  Explore the Waller Creek greenbelt and try to identify the common plants, birds, reptiles, and amphibians listed in this guide! 

A leaf of a Cottonwood plant.A Great Blue Heron

 

10. Common Wildflowers and Wildlife in Austin Parks, will help you identify colorful wildflowers and familiar wildlife in our city parks. This guide includes common wildflowers and animal tracks and scat, as well as marine fossils -evidence that Austin used be under an ocean 100-65 million years ago!

Creekside Story
Oct 17, 2017 - 09:49 am CDT

Austin Creeks over the watersheds in Austin.

Think back…close your eyes and let your mind return to a day when you were young. You dipped your toes in a little stream, picked up rocks to find bugs, listened to frogs chirping. Austin is a city of creeks; thousands of miles of little creeks and larger creeks flow throughout the city. You can discover, explore, and enjoy many of these creeks. Even in the middle of the urban area, you just need to find the right place as some creeks may be a bit hidden from view. We invite you to go out to find and explore these creeks in each of Austin’s 10 Council Districts.

 

Austin District map.

District 1: Boggy Creek

Location: Boggy Creek Greenbelt, 1114 Nile Street, 78702

Boggy Creek meanders through the Boggy Creek Greenbelt near Nile Street and North Pleasant Valley Road. Stand at the pedestrian bridge to watch the creek flow or wade in to get your feet wet. Recently restored from a mostly concrete channel to a more natural setting that meanders with rocks and vegetation, riffles and pools, Boggy Creek is healing fast and its creekside forest is growing! If you feel adventurous, you can follow its path upstream throughout the greenbelt all the way to 12th Street near Downs Mabson Fields.

Boggy Creek.

 

District 2: Onion Creek

Location: Onion Creek Greenbelt, 7001 Onion Creek Drive, 78744

One of our largest creeks traversing the city from east to west, Onion Creek offers many spots for exploration. Start at the Onion Creek Greenbelt, at the end of Vine Hill Drive and Onion Creek Drive.  This spot has a magnificent view and fun swimming holes to cool down in the summer months.  This area was converted to parkland and open space after being identified as a high-flood-risk neighborhood and going through a flood mitigation buyout process.

Onion Creek.

 

District 3: Oak Springs Tributary

Location: Boggy Creek, 3101 Oak Springs Drive, 78702

Walk quietly toward a little hidden Boggy Creek tributary and listen for the trickling spring located behind the Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library on Tillery Street near Oak Springs Road. Recently restored from a concrete channel that moved water from the Oak Springs (yes, an urban spring in the middle of the city), this area now features a beautiful wet pond with ducks and even a family of hawks nesting nearby. This special spot is a fully vegetated, meandering channel with plentiful native wetland plants and flowers.

Oak Springs Tributary.

 

District 4: Tannehill Creek

Location: Bartholomew Park, 5201 Berkman Drive, 78723

Tannehill Creek flows year round directly through Bartholomew Park on Berkman Drive. Maintenance crews discontinued mowing along the creek in 2012, allowing willow and mulberry trees to grow back in force! Observe the creek and its Grow Zone from the pedestrian bridge or explore its path following the creek current. Discover the big bunchgrasses on its banks, watch the fish dart by, and pick up rocks to find what bugs are hiding from sight!

Tannehill Creek.

 

District 5: Slaughter Creek

Location: Parking lot near 702 Decker Prairie Drive, 78748

(from the parking lot, take the trail south) If you enter at the main entrance to Mary Moore Searight Park, you’ll probably miss this hidden gem since it’s a bit of a hike to the creek. However, a short downhill hike from a parking lot nestled in a residential area on Decker Prairie Drive may inspire you to explore the part of Slaughter Creek located near a dam. Upstream of the dam, the creek is wide and deep, ideal for fishing, canoeing, or bird watching. Adventure awaits downstream of the dam, a perfect spot to encounter frogs, turtles, great blue herons, and enjoy a sense of tranquility in the city.

Slaughter Creek.

 

District 6: Bull Creek

Location: 11103 Callanish Park Drive, 78750

A hidden creek adventure awaits you at the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt. A small easement at 11103 Callanish Park Drive leads you along a trail to this beautiful Hill Country creek. Close your eyes and listen to the peaceful running water or take off to explore and have fun discovering critters and plants along the stream.

Bull Creek

 

District 7: Shoal Creek

Location: 5601 Shoal Creek Boulevard, 78756

The Shoal Creek Greenbelt embraces the course of Shoal Creek as it meanders from north to south through the heart of our City. A small segment of the creek by Shoal Creek Boulevard near Shady Oak Court is growing strong after mowing ceased in 2012. This Grow Zone has wetland plants to discover at one of the stormwater outlets that was restored in 2014 to slow down the water before it reached the creek. Enjoy the young trees and wildflowers growing in this creekside Grow Zone.  Step in the water! Get your feet wet and listen to the rushing flow telling stories from upstream!

Shoal Creek.

Shoal Creek.

 

 

District 8: Slaughter Creek

Location: Circle C Metro Park, 6301 W. Slaughter Lane, 78749

Glance at Slaughter Creek as you cross over it when you enter the park from the main entrance.  Hike to an even better access point closer to Escarpment Boulevard where the trail merges with the creek.  This is a fabulous spot for wading in the cool clear water, swimming or sitting and reflecting.  During dry periods and drought, you’ll find the creek bone dry due to its location in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.  Surface water in the recharge zone flows down into caves, cracks and sinkholes to help replenish our aquifer.

Slaughter Creek.

 

District 9: Blunn Creek

Location: Blunn Creek Preserve, 1200 St. Edwards Drive, 78704

The Blunn Creek Preserve is a beautiful site for hiking.  Get your feet wet and enjoy the surprising silence in this peaceful patch of nature that is surrounded by all the busy city streets nearby.  Along the east creek trail, head west on a trail leading to the creek and discover a little hidden gem where seeping spring water paints the rocks and young bald cypresses aim to the sky. 

Blunn Creek.

 

District 10: Taylor Slough North

Location: Mayfield Park, 3505 W. 35th Street, 78703

Mayfield Park is known for brilliant peacocks wandering the property, so follow the birds to a scenic hiking trail near the entrance of the historic cottage.  Take the trail downhill, and once you get to a kiosk, turn left to the gently flowing creek.  Hop along stones across the creek and view the astonishing grotto overlooks along the hillside.

Taylor Slough North.

Creekside Story
May 23, 2017 - 10:37 am CDT

Our Department gets calls from concerned community members about unusual colors seen in creeks. Some of these vibrant colors are natural, so here’s a quick guide to help identify some of the possible sources that cause these unusual sights.

Our environmental scientists encounter a lot of strange and colorful things in our creeks. Orange slime, purple fluffy goo, and rainbow sheens on the water would all appear to be pollution problems, but often it is just a natural phenomenon. Each of these things can be harmless bacteria just doing what they normally do, which is abnormally fascinating. If you suspect what you are seeing is not naturally occurring and a pollution source might be involved, call the City’s 24-Hour Pollution Hotline (512/974-2550) to initiate an investigation.

Orange Slime

A bright orange slime is often seen where groundwater seeps out of the ground. The slime is called “ferrihydrite” and is basically like rust that is made by bacteria. Iron-reducing bacteria underground turn insoluble iron into dissolved iron hydroxide molecules in the absence of oxygen. These dissolved iron molecules can flow in groundwater to the surface. After the dissolved iron hydroxide molecules flow to the surface, a different group of bacteria use oxygen to oxidize the iron and create an insoluble form of iron called ferrihydrite (the orange slime) as a byproduct. This complex chemical relationship has been present on the earth for hundreds of millions of years, and although it looks gross, it is natural and harmless.

Oil Spill
Oil Spill
Oil Spill
 

These gooey orange slimes were observed flowing into Little Walnut and Blunn Creek.

 

Oily-Rainbow

This oily-sheen is made of a film of a rod-shaped bacteria called Leptothrix discophora.  The bacteria oxidize dissolved iron and manganese for energy and secrete proteins and carbohydrates.  They are lined up end-to-end within sheathes and are stuck together side-by-side in rows. Sunlight refracts off the sheaths, proteins and carbohydrates to make shiny rainbow colors. The bacteria stick to the surface of water with tiny donut-shaped structures on the sheathes.  The way they are aligned and stick to the surface of the water causes the biofilm to float at the surface and “shatter” like glass when disturbed.  Real oil is greasy and will stick together refusing to shatter like these bacteria. Sometimes these biofilms are present where iron and manganese in groundwater come to the surface, and sometimes they are wrapped around air bubbles in packs of leaves underwater.  These are not bad bacteria, and in fact, they are beneficial because they process metals in water.  They are beautiful, natural and harmless.

 
Oil Spill
Oil Spill
 

These oily-sheens floating on water in Spicewood tributary are not oil.

Purple Powdery Fluff

A purple coloration that can develop in stagnant, well lit, waters may be a bacterial group known as “purple sulfur bacteria”. These organisms are capable of photosynthesis, which is why they need sunlight. They don’t use chlorophyll like plants, instead they use “bacteriochlorophyll” pigments as well as carotenoids which make the purple color. Purple sulfur bacteria also require their water to have two key characteristics. The water must have hydrogen sulfide, and cannot have oxygen. They get their hydrogen sulfide from other bacteria that reduce sulfate in the water or soil rich in organic matter and devoid of oxygen. The purple sulfur bacteria are good because they take the hydrogen sulfide (stinky and toxic) and turn it into harmless elemental sulfur. The conditions must be just right for both types of bacteria to thrive. Just like the orange and rainbow bacteria, these organisms are natural and harmless.

Purple sulfur bacteria.
These purple sulfur bacteria were observed at Givens Park.

All of these bacteria thrive under very special conditions and depend on other bacteria for their survival. We usually associate life with oxygen, but these bacterial communities depend on a source of water that is devoid of oxygen. Creekside areas are complex, fascinating and wonderful places full of surprises and interesting biological and chemical phenomenon.

Check out our Water Quality Color Guide to learn more about what’s in our water!

Call our pollution hotline at 512-974-2550 if you suspect a pollution spill.

 

 

Creekside Story