Lake Waco Wetlands: Environmental, Research and Educational Fixture

Feb 3, 2016

Down Highway 6, on the North Bosque River, just before the river runs into Lake Waco, you’ll find the Lake Waco Wetlands. It’s mostly dry right now, but they are are still busy with everything from field trips to habitat management. For KWBU, Avery Lill reports on just what the wetland's role is in our community.

On a mid-January afternoon, a typical sunny Texas winter day, Nora Schell, Lake Waco Wetland’s Coordinator, drives me through the property. She points out Great Blue Herons, and Great Egrets, and a partially gnawed tree, which is evidence of beaver activity. These animals are taking advantage of the remaining pockets of water, small ponds in the 180-acre marsh.

But why are the Waco wetlands dry?

Well, despite Texas’s reputation for dry weather, it has nothing to do with a drought. The reason the wetlands are dry is the pumps that provide water to the area need maintenance. You see, the Lake Waco Wetlands are man made. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The city raised Lake Waco’s water level in order to produce more water for the City of Waco. This expansion, Schell says, had an  environmental impact on the area.

“When we raised the lake level of Lake Waco by seven feet, we destroyed some shoreline around Lake Waco," Schell said. "Lake Waco has approximately like 70 something miles of shoreline around, and we destroyed five naturally occurring acres of wetland.” 

As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested that Waco complete a habitat mitigation project to offset the impact. Here’s the kicker though: Waco didn’t have to make a new wetland. It could have done something much easier and cheaper or given the money to the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Instead, Waco created the wetlands and maintains it to this day.

The Lake Waco Wetlands are relatively small, but their impact in terms of research and education is large. Baylor is one of the main researchers in the wetlands, but Schell says that's slowly changing.

“Now it’s grown where it’s not just Baylor. It’s Texas Tech because they have a partnership with MCC now, so they’re local," Schell says. "I’ve worked with Texas A&M, College Station, Texas—U.T. Tyler, U.T. Austin. So it’s just a neat place to have in our own backyard where people, you know like I said, can come enjoy nature, but it’s also used for relevant research as well.”

Topics of research include everything from studying the species that live in the wetlands to the effect of the titanium in wastewater on the wetland and the wetland’s efficiency at filtering it out to examining pharmaceuticals in the water. In addition to university research, the Waco Wetlands sees about 4000 students of all ages every year, and they come from schools as far away as the Dallas-Fort Worth Area.

“When a school group comes out, whether they’re pre-kinder or college age level, we’re going to do something outside with them," Schell says. "We’re going to, obviously, hike them around the wetlands, but we, depending on their age appropriateness, do water testing, and we’re going to do plankton testing. We’re going to look under the microscopes at little plankton, and we always talk about SpongeBob Square pants and Mr. Plankton.”

Students learn about research processes, and, most importantly to Schell, where their water comes from. Robert Doyle, director of the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems research and Chair of Baylor University’s Biology Department, says the wetlands remains an important fixture in the community.

“I’m sometimes asked, ‘Will the wetlands save the lake? You know, I always say, ‘No.” They’re not putting enough water through there to save the lake," Schell says. "But I actually think the wetland might save the lake in a different way. If we keep taking three or four thousand kids out there a year, these kids someday grow up to be voters, and if they remember what they learned, they will make good choices when it comes to voting for things—hard choices we need to make about water management, and part of those are going to benefit the lake.”

It remains uncertain when maintenance on the pumps will be complete and the wetlands will get their water back. But the project continues to play an important role in education and research as people learn about habitat and wildlife management and enjoy the area’s beauty and serenity.