Restoring a Neglected Urban Creek

by Susan Kenzle, ASLA

Restored Waller Creek in Waterloo Park / image: Susan Kenzle

The plan to restore lower Waller Creek in Austin, Texas has been decades in the making, beginning with the City of Austin’s U.S. Bicentennial project in the 1970s. Waller Creek—named after Judge Edwin Waller, who chose this location for the new capital of Texas—is one of two natural waterways that ran through the town of Waterloo, the precursor to the current city of Austin. Waller Creek is the most heavily developed tributary watershed of the Colorado River within the city limits, with over 60% impervious cover surrounding it. Waller Creek’s six-square-mile watershed includes over 3,700 acres of residential, university, commercial, civic, and other land uses. The creek’s location in the heart of the city accounts for its low water quality and highly eroded nature. It’s a prime example of the “urban stream syndrome” characterized by “flashier hydrograph, elevated concentrations of nutrients and contaminants, altered channel morphology, and reduced biotic richness, with increased dominance of tolerant species.”

Austin is in the “Flash Flood Alley” of Central Texas due to its steep terrain, rocky and clay-rich soils, and high rainfall rates. The lower reach of Waller Creek traverses the City’s downtown corridor, where several damaging floods in the past decade inundated large areas along the creek banks. Significant flooding occurred here in 1915, 1938, 1981, and 2015 until the completion of the Waller Creek tunnel, a mile long flood diversion structure, removed 28 acres of downtown from the 100-year floodplain, allowing for various development projects, as well as for the development of a world-class chain of parks and trail system called the Waterloo Greenway.

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