Empty turtle shells. Beer bottles. A duck with a missing foot. Half-buried tires. This is the scene residents living near Lake Como described after a construction crew hired by the city of Fort Worth began repairing a dam in late April. 

Madi Wright and her partner frequent the lake, located in west Fort Worth’s Como neighborhood. After crews drained part of the lake, large amounts of trash were revealed but not removed from the area, Wright said. 

“It was just very painful to see the ducks and animals crossing all this trash to get to their nests, and go find food and resources for themselves,” Wright said.

Soon after, she organized a May 22 trash cleanup, drawing residents who were also concerned. After connecting with Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, which handles the city’s litter control programs and provides free cleanup supplies to volunteers, Wright is planning another cleanup for June 25. 

But she and other Como residents are still wondering why the trash wasn’t addressed as part of the dam construction project, or why more details of construction weren’t widely shared with neighbors. 

Katarina Vanderploeg, who participated in the May 22 cleanup, expressed frustration that Fort Worth City Council member Michael Crain and the park and recreation department had not been more responsive to the community’s concerns. Crain might have been busy with improvements to the Las Vegas Trail community and forgot about Lake Como, Vanderploeg said.

“He needs to step up and take responsibility of what’s happening at Lake Como,” Vanderploeg said. 

Crain said he didn’t think the trash would be a problem because he assumed it would be taken care of during the repair process. The dam was falling apart, he added, and the repairs will go a long way in preventing more trash from entering the lake. 

“There’s been a lot of good work on the lake in that area,” Crain said. “It’s a real gem for that community. It’s something that they’re proud of. There’s lots of traditions around that lake, and so I’ve been committed to make sure that it continues to be a place where residents of Lake Como can congregate and continue to have those moments.” 

A raft of ducks waddle under the shade by Lake Como on Tuesday, June, 14, 2022. (Chongyang Zhang | Fort Worth Report)

Trash cleanup was not in ‘scope’ of dam repair construction

Lake Como, which was established in the 1890s as part of a resort development, and the city park that surrounds it have been at the center of efforts to honor the neighborhood’s rich history. Last December, Fort Worth Public Art unveiled a sculpture honoring prominent Black newspaper publisher and community leader William H. Wilburn and has plans to install more public art in the neighborhood. 

But the aging lake has also been the site of environmental damage, including from cars that sat at the bottom of the lake, leaking oil, antifreeze and other chemicals into the water. In October, dive teams from across the country gathered to pull five cars from Lake Como. One volunteer diver referred to the cars as “five bullets in you, slowly infecting you.” 

The aging dam was also a source of concern for Lake Como. The repairs to the dam were necessary after a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspection found structural issues with Lake Como’s dam, Joel McElhany, the assistant director of planning and resource management for Fort Worth’s parks and recreation department, said. 

Fort Worth was required to reinforce the dam with riprap, or rock meant to protect structures from the effects of erosion. That required Fort Worth’s contractor to seal cracks in sidewalks and the pavement of Merrick Street, leading to road closures that will end in mid-July, McElhany said. 

Overall, Fort Worth budgeted about $920,000 for the project, including $405,000 from the 2018 bond program and $348,000 from Fort Worth’s oil and gas revenue fund, he said.

But the construction crew was not tasked with cleaning up the trash that became visible after lowering the lake, McElhany added. 

“We have a contractor who is under contract to build specific improvements for this dam, and that’s what we’re funded for,” he said. “They weren’t under contract to do the cleanup. That would have been additional if we would have added it … and it’s not really in their scope.” 

Parks staff removed some of the litter initially, McElhany said, and Keep Fort Worth Beautiful is working on future cleanups with volunteers. The city didn’t anticipate facing this issue, McElhany said. 

“In hindsight, maybe it should have been anticipated,” he said. “It’s an older urban lake, and if you lower the level, you’re probably going to find some things. Not really an excuse here, but we were focusing on addressing the inspection findings on the dam, and that’s really what we’re focused on. We’re trying to get that project done.” 

The dam construction at Lake Como began in late April, 2022. The project is scheduled to be completed by August 2022. (Chongyang Zhang | Fort Worth Report)

Lessons learned: ‘We can work together’

The city may have plans to improve the lake, Wright said, but officials need to start with the basics first, beginning with keeping it free of visible trash. 

Wright feared that Fort Worth would pump water back into the lake and cover the trash once the construction is completed. She was upset upon learning that cleanups were not planned prior to her efforts. 

“It’s just really disappointing,” Wright said. “It just shows that the city doesn’t value this community.”

As Fort Worth moves toward its Sept. 30, 2023, deadline of completing infrastructure projects funded by the 2018 bond, McElhany will keep the lessons learned from Lake Como in mind, he said. 

The city has completed 10 of its planned 2018 bond projects, with six in construction and 11 in the design phase. The construction contract for the Lake Como repairs also included improvements to the Oakland Lake Park dam in east Fort Worth, McElhany said. He expects the Como construction to be completed by August. 

The 2022 bond program, which included nearly $124 million in funding for parks and recreation improvements, will also include some pond and lake dredging projects, along with dam repairs at Greenbriar Park in southwest Fort Worth, McElhany said. He expects there will be opportunities to consider cleaning up bodies of water in the process of making other improvements. 

“Going forward, this is something we’re going to anticipate,” McElhany said. “We’ll work closely with our park operations group and Keep Fort Worth Beautiful to see if there’s something we can do together when we go in and lower these (water) levels. We can work together and plan on doing trash pickup at the same time.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at chongyang.zhang@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...

Chongyang Zhang graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2021. Previously, he worked for his school newspaper, The Shorthorn, for a year and a half.