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David Minton - DRC

Clean water a challenge

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

From the northwest to the southeast, the water flows down Clear Creek, Cooper Creek, Pecan Creek and Hickory Creek, picking up all kinds of debris and finishes its fairly short journey through Denton to Lewisville Lake.

There, a pump pipes the water through the city’s treatment plant and then to residents’ taps.

Denton’s water supply is uncommon in that the city retrieves its drinking water from downstream, according to David Hunter, Denton’s watershed protection manager. As Denton grows, he and other city employees, along with a team of volunteers, do what they can to prevent problems in streams and creeks and try to catch and address small problems before they get big.

“At the end of the watershed, you can see it’s cumulative — it can add up,” Hunter said.

This week, the department, for the first time in its 12 years of existence, was able to organize a small public event that shared information about the local watershed and recognized its volunteers.

The city of Denton has had the responsibility of enforcing storm water protections in the federal Clean Water Act since about 2001.

For the most part, that means writing permits and educating businesses and residents about preventive measures that can help keep Lewisville Lake alive.

The city’s wastewater system treats what goes down the drains of homes and businesses, but the storm water system simply moves what the rain washes away. Enough sediment and silt have washed into Lewisville Lake over the last six decades to threaten the reservoir’s health, Hunter said.

In 2002, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality surveyed lakes across the state and found Lewisville Lake threatened, ranking it 96 out of 102 in terms of overall health and lowering how much wastewater treatment plants could discharge into the lake.

The city is doing what it can to keep the lake from becoming “impaired,” Hunter said.

Impaired is a legal designation under the Clean Water Act that reflects a serious condition, such as farther down the Trinity River, south of Dallas, where the water is too polluted to meet water quality standards, federal records show.

In 2005, Denton’s Watershed Protection Department applied for and received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that became the basis of a big change for oil and gas operators.

Prior to 2009, operators were exempt from employing storm water runoff protection measures that are required of other businesses.

Denton’s three-year study of area pad sites found that runoff was a continuous source of sediment, “like a bad construction site,” Hunter said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated the old rule, making room for the EPA to require operators to employ the same storm water protection measures as other businesses.

The department has applied for other grants that have changed practices locally, Hunter said, pointing to new storm water runoff structures at Rayzor Ranch Marketplace, too.

But, for the city department, local cleanups, such as the annual Stream Clean and the Great American Clean Up, and regular help from some dedicated volunteers is key, Hunter said.

Volunteers have helped build specialized plant-filled drainage gardens that help treat storm water where runoff can be a concern, such as the garden behind Wiggly Field Dog Park and the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Across the city, and at certain points upstream, city employees and volunteers also sample more than 90 sites in creeks and streams each month. They measure different criteria to monitor the health of the watershed and the viability of its streams and creeks.

And they call in when they see a problem.

Not long after they started, a volunteer noticed a change in a stream, and when city employees walked back, they discovered wastewater coming from a drain pipe at a concrete plant, Hunter said. Plant workers didn’t know that they had left a drain open and wastewater from the plant was flowing into the creek. Once they closed the drain, the problem went away.

Had the problem gone undetected much longer, it would have created a big problem downstream in the lake, Hunter said.

Terry Thomas, who recently moved to Denton from northern California, began volunteering for the city several months ago. He sold his company back in California and with time on his hands, he wanted to get involved.

“I’m drawn to be outside and I like to help out with the environment,” Thomas said, adding that the city provided enough training for non-scientists like him.

A member of the “Stream Team,” he adopted two streams where he lives in southern Denton, near Cross Timbers Park.

He regularly uses the trail, so he sees the stream several times a week, he said.

So far, he hasn’t seen anything that has triggered the need to call the city. Hunter said those kinds of calls have caught a lot of problems and he believes that residents occasionally see unusual colors or creek flows and don’t call the city when they should.

Adelaide Bodnar and her husband volunteer on the Stream Team and help the city staff with benthic monitoring, which, in collecting for samples of invertebrates, is a little more involved than what other volunteers do.

The couple had completed Master Naturalist training in 2007 when they heard about volunteer opportunities with the city’s watershed protection program and got involved.

They go out to four streams each month and collect a variety of samples, returning a week later to the city’s lab to look at the samples under a microscope and log them for the city’s database.

Bodnar has a degree in microbiology and her husband was trained in political science and history, but they both got enough training from the city to do the lab work, which takes several hours to complete.

“The city gives us all the supplies and we really enjoy doing this,” Bodnar said.

The activity has been inspiring, too, she said.

“It gets you buying books and reading and thinking about the consequences of using too much water and the need to go native,” Bodnar said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.