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Successful Strategies to Protect a Threatened Lake

By Brett Rosenberg
April 12, 2004

The Waco (TX) metropolitan area, including McLennan County, is home to over 213,000 people and 41,000 dairy cows. The high proportion of dairy cows to residents presents unique challenges for regional stakeholders to protect an important water resource and ensure a high quality water supply without unduly harming the economic vitality of the cattle industry. Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge presented regional strategies to achieve environmental goals related to animal wastes and non-point sources of pollution at the Municipal Seminar on Public-Private Partnerships, a meeting of the Urban Water Council of the United States Conference of Mayors in Sugar Land (TX) March 25-26.

Lake Waco, the city's primary water supply, is a precious asset for an otherwise arid region. The Bosque River flows into the lake and introduces agricultural and storm water runoff from the area dairy farms, especially from large confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. Consequently, Lake Waco receives large quantities of pathogens, posing health risks to area residents, and nitrogen and phosphorus loads that encourage rapid algae growth. When the algae die and decompose, oxygen levels in the water decrease along with water clarity and quality, while taste and odor issues become evident. As the lake's quality declines, the cost of water treatment becomes prohibitively expensive.

Waco implemented several strategies to alleviate nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from dairy farms. The initial strategy was to apprise citizens of the challenges facing the Lake and open lines of communication to educate them about the problem. According to Ethridge, a city "can't be successful in addressing water problems without the citizens- support. Tell the citizens the truth and they-ll help you." Waco also raised the Lake level by seven feet at a cost of $36 million to provide additional storage capacity and improve aquatic and shoreline habitats. Over $70 million was spent on numerous improvements to water treatment and storage infrastructure. However, these efforts and the construction of a wetlands area and a state'subsidized composting program, did not hasten progress in meeting water quality standards.

It soon became apparent that solving the animal waste-related water quality problem was beyond the scope and resources of local authority. With the help of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and several members of the Texas Congressional delegation, Ethridge was able to form a coalition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Texas Farm Bureau and other stakeholders to address the issue

While TCEQ was initially slow to act, Waco's immediate needs and efforts hastened state action. Several encouraging outcomes ensued including progress on the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for phosphorous and pathogens; a $7 million EPA grant for composting projects to keep yard wastes out of the water supply; incentives for CAFO self audits; and a state law identifying sole source impairment zones, such as the Northern Bosque River watershed. The sole source impairment zone outcome is especially critical in that it recognizes the contribution of dairy farming to local economies and therefore does not seek to further regulate the industry statewide — only in specific areas with sensitive environmental needs.

While Ethridge and Waco have dedicated considerable resources in protecting Lake Waco and have achieved measurable success, much work remains. With the assistance of Baylor University, an on-going aquatic research program will continue to monitor water quality and habitats in and around the lake. Along with reporting the results of additional research, Waco plans to adopt programs aimed at keeping its citizens vested in their community's environmental resources. In order for Lake Waco to experience continued improvement, Ethridge affirmed that, "The community needs to have sustained vigilance."

Given the difficulties of ensuring a clean, healthy water supply while working to minimize economic harm to an industry vital to the region, Waco and its collaborators have shown remarkable progress in addressing such complex issues. Their efforts indicate that regional cooperation and watershed approaches to water quality management are highly effective strategies of realizing environmental goals.