As summer begins to come to a close and fall creeps around the corner, you may be trying to soak in your last days in the sun and enjoy your favorite outdoor spots while you can. Whether it’s paddle boarding down Lady Bird Lake and trying not to fall in, or wading in the cool streams of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin is home to a number of stunning outdoor destinations.
However, as a city that also boasts thriving urban areas and a booming population, it’s no wonder that Austin struggles to keep many of these outdoor spaces clean. In fact, the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department estimates that they themselves remove 250 tons of trash every year directly from Lady Bird Lake — not to mention the 6,500 tons removed annually from Austin streets. And that’s not even all of it.
But that’s where the Adopt-a-Creek program comes in.
Going into its 14th year of work, the Adopt-a-Creek program — which arose out of a partnership between Keep Austin Beautiful and the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department — engages citizens in making a lasting commitment to protect local waterways.
“Both ourselves as an organization and the Watershed Protection Department have this kind of shared vision of creating safer, more enjoyable access to water for everyone in Austin, and we were kind of contemplating, how do we build that stewardship with its citizens?” says Sierra Cashion, the program coordinator. “The Adopt-a-Creek program lets people foster that love and that stewardship and help us reach that goal of creating more water access.”
But why creeks?
While other environmental programs have already taken off, such as Keep America Beautiful’s Adopt-a-Highway and Keep Austin Beautiful’s Adopt-a-Street, the special thing about Austin is that we have about 25 major watersheds containing over 100 creeks. Considering the majority of these creeks eventually drain into the Colorado River, Cashion says this program is the easiest way to make a big impact before the problem becomes out of our reach.
“All litter eventually will reach a source of water,” Cashion says. “So, if it’s not picked up and taken to a landfill, it’ll be in the streets, and when it floods, it’ll move its way down into a creek, and then if it’s not picked up in the creek, then it goes into the river and eventually into the ocean.”
Considering many of the city’s most treasured communal recreation spaces are focused around waterways, Adopt-a-Creek gives Austinites the ability to help the trash issue in a hands-on way. By adopting a creek, volunteers commit to “adopting” a one-fourth mile of an Austin creek for at least two years. In addition, adopters are required to conduct at least two events per year — however, Cashion says some groups hold up to 60 — as well as complete restoration projects in an effort to reduce the amount of trash entering creeks, improve water quality and restore habitats along waterways, according to the program’s website.
“These can either be litter pickup, or we’ve also expanded into Riparian restoration. This could be removing any sort of noxious weeds or invasive plants. This could be planting trees or wildflowers or doing grass feed for the native grasses,” Cashion says. “Other than that, all we ask is that they submit a report on behalf of the project. That way, we can help track all of those numbers to reach new, bigger goals.”
With adopters ranging from retired biologists who have been in the field for years all the way to young students who are simply looking for volunteer opportunities, the Adopt-a-Creek program is accessible and achievable for anyone who’s willing to help. The more volunteers, the greater the impact.
Since its beginning in 2005, this impact has grown beyond the creators’ wildest imaginations. During its first year of existence, Adopt-a-Creek only had three volunteer groups, covering just under two miles of creek. But today, 14 years later, the program has 112 Adopt-a-Creek groups and three to four thousand volunteers a year, now covering 55 miles of creek.
“We remove 35,000 pounds of litter every year, and we plant at least 12,000 trees and native plants every year, which is really awesome. It’s definitely grown exponentially so far,” Cashion says.
Seeing the progress already made and looking forward to the future, Keep Austin Beautiful has high hopes for the program’s continued growth and lasting impact on our city. Cashion says she hopes for the program to hit 150 groups over the next three years.
If you love our city and want to give back to its environment in a tangible way, don’t hesitate to gather up a group of friends, family, classmates or coworkers and take the next step to adopt a creek. If you’re interested in checking out a project and getting a feel for the program, the Adopt-a-Creek website features an extensive volunteer calendar where you can find upcoming events and projects. Or, if you’re ready to go all in and adopt a creek yourself, you can submit an application on the program website and use the interactive adopter map to see which creek areas are ready to be adopted. Cashion says there are currently about 60 unadopted areas.
“Of course, we’ll never be able to hit every mile,” Cashion says, “…but I’d love to see groups working in every inch that we can.”