Water Pollution, An Upstream Battle

Matthew Minto-Sparks
Apr 19 · 6 min read

Just two months ago, the polar vortex that hit Texas left about 4.5 million people without power and claimed the lives of dozens: meteorologists called it one of the “biggest, nastiest, and longest-lasting vortexes” they had ever seen (NBC News). Much like ERCOT was unprepared to weather the storm and supply power to 75% of our state, several Texas plants, including oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial operators were caught off guard by the freezing temperatures and winter weather. According to the Texas Tribune, upper Gulf Coast chemical manufacturers, petrochemical plants, and oil refinery operators warned state regulators that millions of pounds of pollutant and greenhouse gases had been released due to the winter storm (Douglas 1). This is just one example of Texas plants and facilities affecting local Texas neighborhoods near the facilities and larger Texas rivers, bodies of water such as lakes, and the air quality.

According to a report from Environment Texas, Texas waterways are the fourth most polluted in the nation with about “14.6 million pounds of industrial pollutants and toxic chemicals” released into Texas waterways each year (Smith 1). Some of the Texas waterways that receive the most pollution include:

  • Houston Ship Canal
  • Brazos River
  • Cottonwood Branch
  • Corpus Christi Inner Harbor
  • Tankersley Creek
  • Tehuscana Creek
  • Corpus Christi Bay
  • Cedar Creek
  • Neches River
  • Industrial Ship Channel
Sewage and runoff from Texas plants and facilities are a major cause of pollution in our waterways.

I was surprised to not see the Trinity River on the list of waterways receiving the most pollution. Being from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, I always heard that the Trinity was polluted and dirty. According to ESRI, DFW has been polluting the Trinity River by creating a runoff of pesticides and herbicides, and dumping industrial and human waste into the river (ESRI 15). One of the tributaries stemming from the Trinity River is the White Rock Creek, which then directly feeds into White Rock Lake.

According to Jennifer Hoesterey, director of the White Rock Lake Conservancy, every construction site and everything that flows through the White Rock Creek eventually feeds into White Rock Lake, allowing trash and silt to build up. This changes the habitat for fish and even allows for boats to get stuck in the built-up mud. It is well known among locals that swimming is ill-advised and not allowed in the lake. Not only is there construction site runoff and trash flowing into the lake, but fertilizer run-off and animal waste make it very dangerous for humans.

Not only does runoff of pesticides and herbicides, and dumping industrial and human waste affect White Rock Lake, but plastic, Styrofoam and other trash litters the shoreline.
Not only does runoff of pesticides and herbicides, and dumping industrial and human waste affect White Rock Lake, but plastic, Styrofoam and other trash litters the shoreline.
Not only does runoff of pesticides and herbicides, and dumping industrial and human waste affect White Rock Lake, but plastic, Styrofoam and other trash litters the shoreline.

I approached my field work with an open and curious mind. I know the White Rock Lake area very well, so I wanted to come into the fieldwork with an unbiased mindset so that I could take in the sights, sounds, nature, and people enjoying the lake on a sunny afternoon. I chose a quiet spot on the north shore of the lake where the White Rock Creek feeds into the lake. I felt like I could observe all aspects of the lake from this spot: people enjoying the lake and bike paths, the end of the White Rock Creek, viewing the shoreline up-close, and looking for pollution or runoff. During my fieldwork, I also kept in mind our class reading Humans Being Weeds and aimed to answer these questions when writing about my experience: How do I describe my experience so that people will want to keep reading? What words and descriptors can I use to paint my picture vividly? Will my audience react better to very descriptive writing, will they appreciate statistics, or should I write using a combination of the both? The below paragraphs attempt to answer these three questions.

Sitting on the shores of White Rock Lake I enjoy the soft breeze and watch the kayakers and paddle boarders under the Mockingbird Bridge, making their way back to the White Rock Paddle Co. to call it a day. Rowers from Dallas United swing in unison as the coxen calls the next move over her microphone. There is a lot of activity on and around the lake during most hours of the day, and from a far the water glistens and ducks and birds can be seen splashing in the water. But when I get closer to the shores, it becomes evident that pollution is a big problem for this ecosystem. Litter lines the shore such as chip bags, plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, abandoned fishing supplies, and even white film was on top of the water near the north shores. The water appeared brown and murky underneath that.

I stopped to speak with a family friend who has lived on the East side of White Rock lake for almost fourteen years. She says that she loves living on White Rock Lake and wanted to live there because of the unique opportunity of living on a body of water so close to downtown Dallas. From her backyard, the lake looks blue and the shoreline appears luscious. One can overhear music from the Arboretum concerts on Thursday nights and she even own kayaks to adventure. Karen says that she is looking forward to the proposed lake dredging which would allow for improved fish and wildlife habitat, lake aesthetics, restoring lake depth for recreation, and would improve the water quality. She is also a volunteer at For the Love of the Lake, which is an organization that does shoreline cleanups around White Rock Lake on the weekends. Karen recalls countless Saturdays cleaning up the trash left around the shorelines and explains that construction runoff is a major problem for the lake and the water quality. She feels frustrated that almost every weekend she and a clean up crew dedicates their days to sprucing up the shoreline, only to find more trash lining the shore the following week. Residents feel like they are fighting an impossible battle, but don’t know where to point their fingers. It’s not like they can monitor the shoreline 24/7 and pinpoint exact people who are littering. The trash is often drifting through the creek, down the spillway, and onto the shores. As I was speaking to Karen and feeling her frustrations that this oasis in the city is not cared for, I realized that I have a personal responsibility to be anti-pollution and actively campaign for the revitalization and protection of the White Rock Lake area.

Talking to Karen and exploring the north shores of the Lake helped me to see the ugly underbelly of a beautiful park and lake. It is disappointing to me that water pollution and trash have had a hand in the destruction of this ecosystem. Sitting by the lake in person is a great way to experience nature first hand and see pollution problems with my own two eyes. It is different than other forms of research because I know feel connected to the lake and have an obligation to make the space better for all who want to use it. Being one with White Rock Lake and its surroundings has made me a better environmental writer because I feel connected to the landscape and can communicate the importance of my experience at the lake to different audiences.

In fighting this uphill battle, people need to realize that allowing for pollution to be in our rivers and lakes and to not crack down on big businesses dumping waste is only hurting the environment and communities. Community members should vote officials into office who care about protecting our valuable resources and take personal responsibility to speak against pollution and actively practice disposing of their trash and waste in the correct ways. Communities, individuals, ecosystems, and animals will continue to suffer at the hand of water pollution if we don’t stand up and put and end to it.

Collier, Kiah. “Report: Major Texas Industrial Facilities Rank First Nationally in Illegal Water Pollution.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 15 Mar. 2018, www.texastribune.org/2018/03/15/report-texas-industrial-facilities-rank-first-illegal-water-pollution/.

Dreams, Common. “Texas Refineries Released Tons of Pollutants During Storm.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 22 Feb. 2021, www.ecowatch.com/texas-refineries-pollutants-released-2650697760.html.

“EPA Awards State of Texas More Than $3.8 Million to Manage Water Pollution.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 29 July 2020, www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-awards-state-texas-more-38-million-manage-water-pollution.

Schechter, Author: David. “Verify: How Gross Is White Rock Lake?” Wfaa.com, 14 June 2018, www.wfaa.com/article/news/verify-how-gross-is-white-rock-lake/287-564179662.

Smith, Sonia. “Texas Waterways Are Nation’s Fourth Most Polluted.” Texas Monthly, 21 Jan. 2013, www.texasmonthly.com/articles/texas-waterways-are-nations-fourth-most-polluted/.

“Story Map Journal.” Arcgis.com, www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=8ab1ab5d352a4e5898d253b1a83b58b2#:~:text=Many%20of%20Texas's%20lakes%20and,San%20Jacinto%2C%20and%20Trinity%20River.

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