For the past week I have been reflecting on the personality of our Creek Monster. I know that it is shy and curious. I can list a number of things that our monster is, but some things I can say that our monster is not is scary, mean, or cruel. So, what is in the name monster? One definition that Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives us of a monster is that it’s “a threatening force”. When I think of Waller Creek there is only one creature that comes to mind as threatening……HUMANS.
Now, before I get into my tirade of how humans are the one most prevailing invasive species on this planet I would like to give you some context. I have spent a lot of time in creeks, specifically Austin creeks. Since moving to Austin I have almost exclusively worked in creeks, and when it’s not work related, creeks are where I find myself because we are fortunate enough to have a city of creeks. I have also specifically spent time getting to know Waller Creek. So what makes humans such a threatening force? Well, if you had the opportunity to attend the Waller Creek Symposium a few years back there was undoubtedly one running theme in all the research that was done: Escherichia coli better known as E. coli. The levels of E. coli in Waller Creek are frightening. Scratch frightening, I would go as far as to say disturbing.
In nature, in a closed loop system if you remove humans from the picture is there still waste? Absolutely, but the scales tend to be balanced. The high nitrogen levels from animal waste balance the carbon created by dead vegetation. The result is fertile soil that has the right amount of nutrients and creeks that have clean water, filtered by the land. When we add humans to the picture things change, especially in a highly urbanized environment. One of the main issues is our impervious surfaces, this means that water is not able to absorb into the ground (such as streets and sidewalks). In Central Texas we are known as “Flash Flood Alley”, having large rain events that dump a lot of water in a short amount of time. Beyond the erosion that is caused by our poor management practices this creates non-point source pollution in our creeks; meaning that everything on the land is washed into the water. This is not just chemicals polluting the water; it’s also our trash (styrofoam being a big concern). Another issue is our cracked sewage pipes that run through our creeks, leaking raw sewage. Last but not least is our love of nature, we love taking our best friend for walks along the creeks but we don’t always love cleaning up after them. As a human result more than 250,000 dogs live in Austin which creates a disturbing 150,000 pounds of waste every day. Let me channel my Minnesotan in-laws for a second and say Uff Da!
Our waste is not the only issue; we also affect the vegetation in our riparian areas. We have brought in so many invasive species for landscaping purposes that our native plants are being out-competed. In an ideal world Austin creeks would not be lined with Ligustrum, Nandina, Chinaberry, or Arundo but unfortunately that is all too common. We also take offense by native vegetation such as poison ivy, using herbicide to remove it. Poison ivy is not only an incredible food source for wildlife, it’s also fantastic for stream bank stabilization. Humans are the only ones that have an issue with it, so being an egocentric race we remove it which results in less habitat and food sources for wildlife and erosion problems.
After my long consideration as to what this Waller creek monster might be, all I can say is that perhaps it is not a creature at all but the humans that willingly poison the creek with total apathy.