In an attempt to break out of the classroom, Geography students with Dr. Edgardo Latrubesse’s paired up with the Austin Water Utility’s Center for Environmental Research (CER) this Saturday to study at the Colorado River at Hornsby Bend. After a brief overview of the cultural and political history of the Colorado River bottomlands, students marched to the field, learning how this unique river system has adapted in the face of human pressure. Once lined with dense forests of sycamore and maple, Kevin Anderson of CER explained to students how this bottomland has began to make the transition back to forest after the vegetation was stripped bare by settlers and cattle. Anderson, who received a PhD in Geography from Texas, instructed students in both contemporary river morphology and practical water testing through the collection of benthic macroinvertabrates (also known as bugs).
Willing students (above) took to the river with nets and wash tubs to collect a sampling of bugs that would indicate river health. With the help of Elizabeth Welsh from Austin Youth River Watch (also a UT Geographer!) students categorized critters from damselflies and caddisflies to freshwater shrimp, to determine that even in one of Texas’ worst drought ever, the Colorado is still a flourishing healthy river.
The three and a half mile Hornsby Bend, which is owned by the City of Austin, is also the home of Austin’s Biosolids Management Plant, which processes two-thirds of the city’s solid waste. From tap to toilet, Anderson explained how the city disposes of waste water and how what we see as sewage can be sterilized and recycled into compost rather than being dumped in landfills. Even urban water systems have a unique ecology that must be carefully managed.
The take-home message: even urban areas have unique ecologies that are constantly changing and adapting to climatic and human pressures. All one needs to do is take a close look around to see that not all is in fact lost.