For nearly three years, Fort Worth officials have touted their vision for bringing a trash-removing water wheel to the Trinity River. Code compliance director Brandon Bennett had hoped to launch the “trash wheel” project last year, but the city’s efforts to fully fund it through private donations fell short

Now, the city and Tarrant Regional Water District are planning to chip in $350,000 each to make the project a reality. Foundations, corporate sponsors and individual donors have committed an additional $660,000 to the initiative. Each wheel is expected to cost around $1.2 million. 

Who has donated to the “trash wheel” project so far?

  • Christine A. Miller and Gary H. Glaser Charitable Fund
  • Mrs. Renfro’s
  • Freese and Nichols 
  • Nicholas Martin Jr. Family Foundation
  • Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors 
  • Terracon
  • GWR Foundation Fund 
  • TTI, Inc.
  • Leggett & Platt 
  • Wilkes Family Charitable Fund
  • Meta 
  • Individual donors

If all goes according to plan, Fort Worth will be home to the first water wheel in Texas and the sixth worldwide by next summer or fall, said Cody Whittenburg, the city’s interim environmental services director. 

Although the project was stalled by budgetary concerns, plenty of work was being done on design and engineering behind the scenes, Whittenburg said. He pointed to broad support for the water wheel from the “trifecta partnership” among the city, water district and nonprofit organization Streams & Valleys. 

“We haven’t stopped traction,” Whittenburg said. “But I think it’s exciting that we’re able to move the project forward with this secure funding.” 

The project takes inspiration from Baltimore Harbor, which is home to four solar and water-powered machines that can capture up to 50,000 pounds of floating trash each day — the equivalent of 2.5 garbage trucks of litter. Using a system of pulleys, rakes and floating buoys, the machines funnel trash into a nearby dumpster while routing fish away before they can be harmed. 

Beyond its ability to clean the river, environmental officials say the wheel offers an opportunity to educate the public about where their litter ends up and how it can negatively affect wildlife. 

In Baltimore, residents have made the googly-eyed “Mr. Trash Wheel” an environmental mascot, printing his face on T-shirts and craft beers. Fort Worth officials envision a covered-wagon design to reflect the city’s “Where the West Begins” heritage. 

With help from the water district, the city will install the first wheel at the Purcey Street outfall near Panther Island Pavilion in downtown Fort Worth. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already approved permits required to install infrastructure in the Trinity River, according to a city report

Part of the location’s appeal is its close proximity to the new City Hall building, formerly home to Pier 1. 

“It’s just southwest of the Henderson Street bridge along the trails, so we can engage with residents who are enjoying the trails and also promote environmental stewardship while working to promote a clean river,” Whittenburg told council members during an Oct. 24 work session.

Officials question, support water wheel installation

In addition to their $350,000 contributions, the city and water district will evenly split annual maintenance expenses. Those costs should amount to about $50,000 and will not exceed $75,000 each year, according to a city report. 

The water district’s board of directors approved a funding agreement in September, with a lone opposing vote from board member James Hill. He questioned why the project’s funding sources changed from private donations to a public-private partnership and called for the board to delay its vote. 

“I’m all for cleaning up litter and making sure our river system is clean,” Hill said. “Again, is this our role and responsibility? I’d like to learn more.” 

James Hill, who sits on the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors, listens during an Aug. 15, 2023, meeting. Hill was the lone vote against a funding agreement for a water wheel removing trash from the Trinity River. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Water district staff have been talking about the project for years, said board member C.B. Team. The agency also is uniquely positioned to handle the water wheel’s maintenance, he said. 

“I think it’s a positive step toward reducing trash in the Trinity, which is one of our charges, one of our responsibilities,” Team said. 

Fort Worth City Council members will vote on the agreement Nov. 14. Several council members, including Macy Hill and Carlos Flores, asked Whittenburg about the wheel’s safety and its effectiveness. 

“In terms of safety, say if I’m a kid and I have a lot of idle time and say, ‘Hey, what’s in there?’” Flores said. “Are there any provisions for safety if someone decides to get too close to the water?”

City staff are planning to install educational signage and make it fairly difficult to access the water wheel from the banks of the Trinity, Whittenburg said. Over their 20-year lifespan, the wheels have been proven effective at removing trash from waterways around the world, including in Panama City, Panama, Whittenburg added. 

Volunteers at the Cowtown Great American Cleanup pick up trash near a section of the Trinity River in March 2022. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Challenges lie ahead for the project, including a high installation cost because of the Trinity River’s soil type, which stands apart from the rocky shores of Baltimore, Whittenburg said. Engineers will need to stabilize the water wheel, so it properly moves with the river’s elevation, he added. 

Streams & Valleys and the city also hope building an initial water wheel will drive corporations and foundations to contribute funds to install another, Whittenburg said. 

“If those groups want to come to the table, and they decide that they would like to donate, then they can still support this pilot project,” he said. “And if we get more funding, then we could even consider future locations. But I think we’re excited to pilot one and learn from that experience.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at

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