Thanks to a private donor, crew members employed by Presbyterian Night Shelter’s UpSpire program have spent the past four years removing trash from Fort Worth’s most polluted parks. 

Although the organization has seen enormous progress during that period, UpSpire leaders also realized the limits of manual pickup. 

“We were trying to increase the amount of litter that we pulled and increase our efficiency,” said Kirsten Ham, the vice president of workforce and career development at UpSpire. “When we started in Lake Arlington and Echo Lake, the litter was immense. It took us months to fully clean those parks.” 

The time-intensive work led UpSpire to explore the possibility of installing watergoats – also known as litter booms or traps – into bodies of water across Fort Worth. The device uses dense foam buoys and a net to collect trash floating on the surface of water without harming fish or other wildlife.

Using its own funds, UpSpire purchased and installed six watergoats earlier this year in high-litter zones like Willow Lake, Foster Creek and the Trailhead at Clearfork. The effort inspired the Trinity River Authority of Texas to search for grant opportunities to fund more watergoats in Tarrant County. 

Learn more about watergoat program

With the help of a $39,600 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, 10 more watergoats were installed in May to help improve water quality in the Village Creek and Lake Arlington watershed, which covers 143 miles of North Texas. 

The grant – along with support from the Trinity River Authority, Tarrant Regional Water District, UT-Arlington and the city of Fort Worth – funds UpSpire’s installation and maintenance of the watergoats, which impact an estimated 21,128 acres of the Village Creek-Lake Arlington watershed. 

The string of bright yellow buoys is visible at eight Fort Worth parks and creeks, including Eugene McCray Park, Cobb Park, Echo Lake Park, Krauss Baker Park, Marine Creek at the Stockyards, Wildcat Branch, Prairie Creek and Eastland Creek. The other two devices were installed near Kennedale and North Richland Hills. 

UpSpire, which employs people experiencing homelessness, will remove accumulated litter from each watergoat location every two weeks, or within three days of a rain event. The river authority also plans to regularly monitor the sites and conduct a survey to assess the sources of litter in Lake Arlington and Village Creek. 

Each device removes about 120 pounds of trash each month, totaling up to more than 6,000 pounds of litter collected so far, according to a city of Fort Worth estimate.

“We hear from people all the time who care very much about Lake Arlington specifically,” said Avery Pesek, a coordinator for Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, the city’s beautification program. “Hopefully these water goats can be an important visual reminder that trash piles up frequently in our waterways and we all need to be working to remove that.” 

The ultimate goal is to get Village Creek back in the good graces of the Environmental Protection Agency, said Heather Firn, a watershed scientist at the Trinity River Authority who works on watershed management and flood mitigation.

What can “impaired waterway” mean?

There are different levels of “impaired waterways” as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some bodies of water are classified as “good” for drinking water or aquatic life, but “impaired” for swimming and boating or fish consumption. 

You can search your community for “impaired” bodies of water on the EPA’s website.

Since 2010, Village Creek has been included on the EPA’s list of “impaired waterways,” or not meeting federal water quality standards, due to excessive levels of E. coli bacteria. While most E. coli bacteria is harmless to humans, high numbers of harmless bacteria in lakes or rivers often indicates the presence of harmful bacteria as well, according to the U.S. Geological Survey

“One avenue to reduce bacteria would be to reduce the amount of trash because as trash runs off and piles up and degrades, other things can grow on it,” Firn said. “The goals are to ensure that we have good drinking water, and so if you take the trash out, you’re going to reduce certain bacterias that are going to get into the water body.” 

Lake Arlington – a large source of drinking water in the region – is not included on the impaired waterways list, but officials have noted “levels of concern” from higher-than-normal amounts of nitrates and chlorophyll a. 

High levels of chlorophyll a can be an indicator of excess algae in the water, usually driven by fertilizers, sewage treatment plants or urban runoff, according to the EPA. Too much algae can cause aesthetic problems, such as green scum, or even public health concerns if algae blooms produce harmful toxins.

“If you get a lot of algae that grows in the water bodies, you’re going to have a decay of that algae and when decay happens, you’re going to lower your dissolved oxygen levels in the water body,” Firn said. “You’re going to suffocate your macroinvertebrates and fish and the water itself … You can also have it growing on the rocks, and it can out-compete the native plant sources that the fish or invertebrates need to live.”

What other bodies of water near Fort Worth are considered “impaired?”

  • Clear Fork of Trinity River beneath Benbrook Lake
  • Lake Como – Clear Fork of Trinity River
  • Marine Creek – West Fork of Trinity River
  • Headwaters Sycamore Creek
  • Lake Worth – West Fork of Trinity River
  • Walker Branch – West Fork of Trinity River
  • Farmers Branch – West Fork of Trinity River
  • Live Oak Creek – Lake Worth

In 2019, leaders of the Trinity River Authority, the city of Arlington and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality developed a watershed protection plan that identified illegal dumping and litter accumulation as two core issues facing the area. That plan laid the groundwork for the river authority to obtain the grant in 2021, Firn said. 

UpSpire and the city of Fort Worth are now looking for additional sponsorships and donations to support the watergoats initiative. An anonymous donor has funded UpSpire’s watergoat maintenance budget through the end of its first year, but all parties would like to purchase more litter traps and ensure the program’s future, Ham said. 

Oneil Johnson Jr., a district superintendent who oversees solid waste for Fort Worth’s code compliance department, said the watergoats are part of the city’s larger strategy to clean up heavily littered areas facing years of trash buildup in their neighborhoods. 

“The cleaner the neighborhood, the more it resonates with the residents and the people around it to keep it clean,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that is going to move us forward. We have a ways to go, but the implementations with UpSpire, Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, the increase of our litter crews and listening to our residents and addressing their concerns on a continuous basis, is going to get us where we need to be.” 

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.

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

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...