Caring for Dallas’ Dear and Dirty White Rock Lake

Sailboats under the setting sun at White Rock Lake.
Sailboats under the setting sun at White Rock Lake. John McStravick
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Dallas and Fort Worth went under water in May 2015 with 16.96 inches of rain falling in 31 days, ending years of drought. Local police, dispatched door to door, warned some Dallas residents of the rising water and encouraged them to leave their homes. All the excess water forced a barrage of trash and chemicals from parking lots and lawns into the already dirty White Rock Lake.

The proximity of the 1,772-acre lake has long made it a preferred location for those in Dallas looking to get in a bike ride or run after work. But the location also places it in the direct path of toxic runoff from shops, parking garages, and streets.

“The trash is a deterrent, but I still go. It just makes me sad when I do,” local kayaker Dottie Garrison says.

Trash caught in the reeds at White Rock Lake.
Trash caught in the reeds at White Rock Lake. Nathan Vaughn

No one swims in White Rock Lake, unless they fall in or an excited dog drags them in. Drought closed the lake to swimmers in 1952. Voices in support of segregation kept it closed. Today the swimming ban protects people from urban pollutants.

Yet, despite a ban on any activities that require direct contact with the water, people still want to get in. The May 2015 floods turned the White Rock Lake spillway into a field of rapids, tempting adventure seekers to take to the water and face the trepid waves.

Even without the force of a record-setting flood, plastic bags, shopping carts, and Styrofoam eventually land in the Lake. The nonprofit For the Love of the Lake (FTLOTL) works to clean and care for Dallas’s favorite (and dirty) lake. The group organizes volunteers through an Adopt-a-Shoreline program, a Shoreline Spruce Ups program, and a reforestation effort.

Plants and wildlife—the part that Dallas residents most love about the lake—receive the brunt of the trauma in its polluted habitat. The lake water quality, monitored by a group of volunteers through the Texas Stream Team, works in partnership with Texas State University - Meadows Institute for Water and the Environment, TCEQ, and the EPA. FTLOTL provides the Texas Stream Team lab space and a freezer to store chemicals in order for volunteers to test the water on a monthly basis.

Dallas loves its dirty lake—and its green yards. Application of too much fertilizer and over watering of lawns directly affect the water quality. The flood waters in May washed over those lawns, city streets, and parking lots, taking with it fertilizers, oil, and other refuse straight into the lake.

Ducks out for a day at White Rock Lake.
Ducks out for a day at White Rock Lake. Steve Rainwater

Much of the trash residing among the trees and mallards requires removal from the water. The Padillac Crew, a group of paddlers, work as part of the Shoreline Spruce Up groups to clean otherwise inaccessible areas.

“There was a little island made up of mostly debris. We loaded up a kayak and towed it back," Garrison, who has volunteered with the Padillac team, says. "A woman in my crew got out there in hip waders and we spent almost our entire time in that one spot.”

The Padillac Crew gathers under the Mockingbird Bridge (15 East Lawther Drive) to put their rigs in the water on the second Saturday of the month at 8:30 am. FTLOTL provides gloves, pinchers, recycling, and trash bags. Other cleanup crew members meet at the FTLOTL office in Dallas, to eat breakfast, get to know one another and then head out to the lake to work for a couple hours.

FTLOTL formed to make White Rock Lake less of a trash receptacle and chemical test tube for urban runoff. The never-ending assault of trash on the lake, however, can make the efforts seem hopeless.

“We picked up about 12 bags of trash and it still looked like nothing was done.” Garrison says. “I do it because I love being on the lake. And if the water isn’t clear enough for me to see or breathe I don’t really want to be there.”

Nevertheless, White Rock Lake provides the space for bike rides, hikes, first kisses, kayaking adventures, and even engagement proposals. The cleanup efforts have kept the Styrofoam off the bike path and that mud-covered shopping cart out of the background of kayakers' selfies. Joining the efforts to clean the lake means an opportunity to join the community that loves Dallas’ outdoors.

For the Love of the Lake maintains a  Facebook page.

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