SAWS and Texas Audubon seek 2022 South Side Lake bond money


For Dan Crowley, the area around Mitchell Lake is one of the most exciting places on the south side.

By walking its narrow paths and pointing to the window of his truck, he gets to know the landscape, its fauna and its history. The wetland habitat – just east of Texas A&M University-San Antonio and north of the Medina River – is a bird’s paradise and a global bird watcher’s destination. At the entrance to the lake is the Audubon Center, run by the Texas chapter of the National Audubon Society, an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats.

After a rocky ride along a dirt road, Crowley parks his truck in a clearing overlooking the east pond just north of the lake. Nearly 50 white pelicans roost, having migrated from the northwestern United States and Canada for the winter. Some plunge their beaks into the water to fish, while others swell their wings to take to the skies. Other birds fly above them in packs, and a line of ducks streak through the reeds.

“It’s a hidden gem here,” said Crowley, director of government relations at the San Antonio Water System.

It may be too hidden, however, so Crowley said SAWS is working to make it easier for people to take advantage of it. The city-owned water company, which leases the area to the Texas Audubon Society, wants to make Mitchell Lake more accessible and connected to the public.

SAWS has proposed a $ 12 million plan, which has been in the works for months, that includes paved roads for cyclists and walkers, more parking and birding stations, and linking the green space to the University and nearby South Side neighborhoods.

The project also calls for funds from the city’s next bond package due to be presented to voters in 2022. Mitchell Lake improvements are discussed at bond committee meetings, along with other proposals for the portion of the project. obligation that targets parks. A decision is expected in January on whether or not to include funding for Mitchell Lake.

If bond money is allocated to Mitchell Lake and the upgrades are successful, it will be easier to get more funding, including federal funding, as local money can be leveraged with other sources, a said Lisa Gonzalez, executive director of Audubon Texas.

“This link could get the ball rolling in this area,” Crowley said. “It’s just a matter of priming the pump for all the other money we could make for these upgrades and more.”

A paradise for birds

Almost 300 years ago, Spanish settlers stumbled upon a wetland and called it “Laguna de los Platos” – Duck Lagoon – because of the bounty of the birds that found refuge there. About 150 years later, in 1901, the area hosted San Antonio’s first wastewater treatment plant, which turned the wetland into a lake.

Initially, the lake – eventually called Mitchell Lake – absorbed the nutrient-rich biosolids that were pumped into the area. But after years of receiving raw and partially treated wastewater, the area could no longer support the biological load of the wastewater, endangering the lake’s ecosystem. The factory was closed in 1987.

There were, however, lasting beneficial effects. Nutrients from the wastewater have created a rich ecological region that is attractive to migratory birds. Today, SAWS pumps recycled water into the lake to keep its level constant and nutrient flowing, and bird watchers from all over the world come to see more than 330 varieties.

“We have about 12,000 people crossing Mitchell Lake each year to see the variety of birds,” Gonzalez said. “We also have programs and guided hikes for the community, and you can go out here at night to see the birds.”

Audubon Texas leases the Mitchell Lake property from SAWS for about a dollar a year, which it took over in 2004. Since then, the lake area has grown into a mix of meadows, wetlands, ponds and woodlands. . No fishing, boating or other recreational activities are permitted in order to preserve bird habitat.

But while bird watchers come to peek through binoculars, community members are somewhat closed to the lake, even with the activities planned in Audubon, Gonzalez said. There are no paths that connect the area to the rest of the community, such as the San Antonio hiking and biking trail to the south and the university to the west. There is only one portable toilet, and the roads are not paved and it is difficult for some people to navigate.

“Our Audubon Center in Dallas,… in addition to all the school programming we support and the public programming we do, it’s also a great green space to partner with nonprofits or individuals to of events, ”Gonzalez said. “We’re really looking to do something like that here for the community. “

A united future?

For Crowley, one of the main reasons the proposed improvements to Mitchell Lake are important – and why bond financing is warranted – is the lack of green space on the south side.

“The north side has Hardberger Park and McAllister, but south of the Connally Loop, Mitchell is really big,” Crowley said. “Eventually, this area could also be a park, but we need that initial funding to get it started. “

So far a new entry for Mitchell Lake is in the budget for next year. The rest of the upgrades will depend on the 2022 requirement. This includes an educational pavilion near the Audubon Center, called Leeper House, full washrooms, picnic areas, and bird watching posts.

The lake will also be connected to the surrounding community, making it easier for people to walk or cycle from nearby trails.

The project also includes the reconstruction of the historic Mitchell Lake Bat House. In the early 1900s, Dr. Charles Campbell, a physician and bacteriologist in San Antonio, worked to stop the spread of malaria by installing a bat house on the south side to attract flying mammals that feed on mosquitoes that carry the disease. diseases. For his success, the Texas legislature nominated him in 1919 for the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Since then, the bat house has rotted and collapsed, but with bail funding, SAWS and the Audubon Society hope to rebuild the exact structure to help limit or eradicate disease-carrying insects.

“Bats have reduced mosquito populations and almost eradicated malaria,” Crowely said. “We want to bring back the bats.

Elena Bruess writes for Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. [email protected]

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