Lost & Found
A dumping ground for San Antonio's sludge is born anew as a wildlife refuge that beckons birders and schoolkids alike to pull on their hiking boots and go exploring.
By Patricia Sharpe
Why oh why is no one answering the bell? It's ringing inanely, like the chorus to “Frère Jacques,” but nobody's picking up. True, I'm 15 minutes late for a Sunday morning birding tour at the new Mitchell Lake Audubon Center in San Antonio, but the group is nowhere in sight. Well, rats. I'll just wiggle between these fence posts and have a look-see. As I'm trotting down the driveway, I run into a surprised docent watering a flowerbed beside the small Victorian house that serves as the visitors' center. “How did you get in?” he asks. For a second I half expect him to spray me with the hose, but when I tell him I'm supposed to be on the birding tour, he kindly offers to open the gate so I can get my car and join the group.
One of the best-kept secrets in the arid Southwest, Mitchell Lake is a paradox, or rather a trio of them. First, the lake and its compact wetlands lie 120 miles from the nearest salt water but are jam-packed with shorebirds. Second, the site—with approximately 320 bird species logged to date—is legendary among birders nationwide. Third, it was once a vast and fetid sewage dump but is now a waterfowl sanctuary—a worst-to-best-case scenario, if ever there was one. But you would never guess any of this when you're headed out to the refuge through San Antonio's old south-side neighborhoods. It isn't until you come upon the rookery at Bird Pond—aflap with hundreds of snowy egrets, green herons, and moorhens, all croaking, gargling, and squeaking—that you begin to see how remarkable this place really is.
Bird Pond is, in fact, where I catch up with the tour. The group is a motley crew in earth-tone T-shirts and shorts with elastic waistbands (my people), and the 10 of them are taking turns peering through spotting scopes at a purple gallinule as it minces around in the water. Nearby a number of pied-billed and least grebes are bobbing and diving, like low-riding ducks.
The main group leader is Georgina Schwartz, a stalwart figure in a broad-brimmed straw hat with a label hanging off it, Minnie Pearlstyle. Schwartz is one the center's docents and a member of a passionate group of Mitchell Lake supporters who have not only looked after the place for more than 25 years but have also fended off proposals to use the land for everything from a prison to a football stadium. “We're on the trail of the red-necked phalarope,” she tells me. The sandpiper with russet markings is quite rare here, but one was spotted yesterday. Schwartz, always the mother hen, is determined that her flock is going to see it.
We find no phalaropes at Bird Pond, so we head south toward Mitchell Lake. All I notice at first is sandy soil thatched with coastal Bermuda grass and dotted with mesquite, prickly pear cactus, and feathery-leafed retama trees. But if I were in an airplane flying over the 1,200-acre refuge from north to south, I would easily discern a patchwork of seven squarish ponds separated from one another by roads on top of raised earthen levees. And just south of the ponds I would see Mitchell Lake, a 600-acre body of water contained by a manmade dam. If my imaginary plane circled back at a lower altitude, I would notice that while six of the ponds have shallow water in them, one has become nothing but cracked mud. And if I really squinted, I might see dapper black-necked stilts, baby-pink roseate spoonbills, and buffy, speckled sandpipers standing around in the shallows. But I'm not in a plane; I'm in a car, and while our caravan is spotting some very interesting specimens, like groove-billed anis (which look to me like parrot-beaked grackles with bad hair), we don't see our target bird. Doesn't matter. This odd little refuge is starting to grow on me, despite the Texas heat and the absence of red-necked phalaropes.
Whatever Mitchell Lake is like today, it was vastly different a century ago—not to mention countless eons ago. Possibly it owes its existence to a small geologic fault, which created a natural depression in the earth that collected rainwater and runoff; a local aquifer may have let water seep in as well. Native Americans probably camped here, and when the Spanish settled the area in the 1700s, the fathers from the San Francisco de la Espada Mission likely watered their livestock at the lake. Trappers, explorers, soldiers, and colonists also trudged past it on the famed El Camino Real, the King's Highway.
On maps the body of water was called the lagunilla (“little lake”) or the laguna de los patos (“duck lake”). In 1839 the land was purchased by prominent local citizen Asa Mitchell, after which people started calling the laguna Mitchell's Lake. In the late 1800s members of the Mitchell's Lake Hunting Club blasted away at the “fleety web-foots,” as one participant put it.
During the next several decades San Antonio grew much faster than its ability to keep pace with such niceties as a sewer system. So a collective of farmers purchased the property in 1901. Working with the city, they agreed to enlarge the lake and build a canal from San Antonio's waste farm several miles off, turning the unlucky lake into a sewage lagoon. Thus began the site's glory and its disgrace.
At first the relatively small amount of organic material was not a problem—in fact, it was just the opposite. It provided a stew of nutrients for all sorts of single-celled organisms, which were fed upon by insects, arachnids, mollusks, worms, and crustaceans, right up the food chain. These creatures, in turn, provided a banquet for resident ducks and other waterfowl. And since the body of water lay on a major avian highway, it was a welcome inland rest stop for migrating water birds, which would plop down among the reeds and trees. Mitchell Lake became a prime example of the happy relationship that can exist between birds and sewage ponds the world over.
Eventually, though, the sewage got the upper hand. As the city's population increased, the quantities of effluent and sludge became so overwhelming that the water could no longer dilute and disperse them. Mitchell Lake was transformed from a pastoral wildlife retreat into a public nuisance. The stinking, fertilizer-rich water caused massive blooms of blue-green algae, which then died off and turned into even more noxious mats of rotting vegetation. By the '50s and '60s the smell was so awful that travelers on the interstate miles away had to roll up their car windows. If you lived anywhere close and foolishly tried to picnic in your backyard, you'd get flies in your mouth. Local wags called the place “****chell Lake.” (Hint: The first syllable rhymes with mit. ) In 1973 the state courts ordered the city to do something about the stench. The raw sewage dumping was halted, but the city fathers were at a loss over what to do with a place blessed with a pudding of sludge several feet deep.
It was a critical year for the lake, says Ruth Lofgren, a retired biologist who is researching the history of the property. “The San Antonio Audubon Society went to the city council and got them to approve an ordinance declaring Mitchell Lake a refuge for birds and wildlife.” The council's proviso was that the lake remain technically a wastewater lagoon.
During the next quarter-century the city's water agency did its part by maintaining the property, and loyal volunteers and members of the Bexar Audubon and San Antonio Audubon Societies made sure the site was put to good use. Schwartz coordinated guided tours for visiting birders. Ernie Roney, a lanky and affable former assistant director of the San Antonio Zoo, took it upon himself to log all 320 bird species—from black-bellied whistling ducks to sandhill cranes—sighted at the lake, mainly on the walks he has done once a week since 1984. Laughing, he says, “They say that only mad dogs, Englishmen, and Ernie Roney go birding in the noonday sun.”
Eventually, in 1994, some of the most dedicated lake supporters formed a nonprofit organization, which they named the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society. It would act as a sort of advisory board for the property's owner, the San Antonio Wastewater System (SAWS), which later committed $1.5 million for enhancements. A pump system to raise and lower the water in the ponds was installed to make it easier for different species to feed. The roads were improved, and the badly eroded dam was repaired. After poor Bird Pond dried up, a canal (nicknamed Ernie's Ditch) was dug to redirect rainwater runoff into it. “The first time I saw Mitchell Lake I said, ‘Look at this beautiful place,' even though local people said it stunk,” says Roney. “All we needed to do was help nature along. I came to see the lake as truly unique. The mudflats, which are the only ones in central Texas, make it an especially important stopover for shorebirds.”
In 1999 Lofgren and Roney heard about a charming 1910 building, known as the Leeper House, on the grounds of the nearby McNay Art Museum, and eventually arranged to have the Wetlands Society move it to Mitchell Lake. The structure was renovated and ready to become the refuge's first visitors' center when the plan hit a major snag: liability insurance. The group was unable to obtain the massive policy needed to operate a public property. SAWS had little choice but to look elsewhere. The Wetlands Society people were devastated. After all their work, it was hard to see responsibility for the center and programs handed over to the National Audubon Society. But they swallowed hard and stayed the course.
In May 2003 Audubon hired a native Texan named Iliana Peña to run the center. She gained the trust of Wetlands Society members by becoming a forceful champion of Mitchell Lake from day one. An articulate brunette of 30 who seems to be on a natural caffeine high at all times, Peña is bilingual and has a master's degree in range and wildlife management. Her experience and enthusiasm fueled efforts to expand the center's education programs and implement a grassland restoration project, among other things. “In October 2004 we had a special one-day opening to the public, and 170 came,” says Peña. “Last year, for a similar event, we had 850.”
Peña is making a concerted effort to connect with local residents, many of whom live in publicly subsidized housing. Last fall the center collaborated with the local astronomy club and hosted family-night programs, featuring complimentary ice cream. “People came out and laid their blankets on the grass and looked up at the stars and planets,” she says. “One lady brought her 10 grandkids. What an opportunity for her; it's hard to take that many grandkids anywhere, and she got free ice cream for them, too.”
It's only fitting that one of the center's most successful programs has been a water-quality and biodiversity field trip. When a group arrives, Peña hands out buckets and dip nets and takes them to Bird Pond. This water is fresh, not contaminated, and only a few inches deep at the shore, so even if a kid falls in, it's not a disaster (unless he's wearing new clothes). The students separate the assorted small aquatic invertebrates they catch—crayfish, fairy shrimp, dragonfly nymphs—into ice cube trays and identify them. Afterward, Peña escorts the kids over to the mudflats and asks, “Do you notice any differences?” They respond, “There aren't very many plants,” or “The water here looks green and scummy.” This leads to a discussion about runaway algae blooms and nutrient pollution. “The best part for us,” Peña says, “is when a student comes back and brings her family on the weekend.”
In its first year of operation, more than 750 students—and 3,500 visitors total—visited Mitchell Lake. Peña is aiming to draw four times that many by 2007.
As she continues to expand the center's programs, Peña is keeping a watchful eye on potential pitfalls. “SAWS owns the refuge,” she says. “But not the property around it. There is no buffer, so there is always that threat of development right up to the shores.” Toyota is building a plant several miles southwest of the refuge that will start production in 2007. What's more, the lake sits squarely in an area where San Antonio has plans to bring new and better housing, business opportunities, and infrastructure to the community. Peña believes such economic development is vital. “But we want to see that it's done properly,” she says. “We're emphasizing that it's important to include green space.”
After all her years of fighting to clean up and preserve Mitchell Lake, Ruth Lofgren envisions it becoming a natural retreat for birds and people that could be as important to San Antonio's south side as Central Park is to New York City. “If we are smart about it,” she says, “we can keep Mitchell Lake as a wildlife refuge, an island of green amid roofs and asphalt. There is a difference between a porch with a pot on it and a field with a meadow.”
Meanwhile, back on the phalarope trail, we are approaching the dam, where Schwartz pauses to tell us about the day in the fall of 2004, when a blizzard of 4,000 migrating white pelicans dropped by. “They all wanted to sit on this pipe that runs next to the dam, but there were so many that when one landed, it would bump another one into the lake.” Pelicans aren't our mission today, though. That pesky phalarope is, and just when we're about to give up, somebody whispers, “I see it!” We rush to the scope to ogle this demure little chestnut-streaked bird, a tireless wanderer many miles from the nearest ocean. What a perfect emblem of Mitchell Lake. What a paradox.
Patricia Sharpe is a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine, where she covers food and nature.