Diamond in the Mud
Leanna Johnson and her kids had Camp Joy Park all to themselves. Johnson sunned herself on a towel in the grass while her kids splashed in the waters of Lake Worth.
It was one of the few sunny Saturdays thus far in this unusually soggy North Texas summer, but at Camp Joy, on Lake Worth’s western edge, there were no swimmers, no picnickers barbecuing burgers on the grills. The swings hung motionless, with no children to fill them. Follow Johnson’s view from her towel to her kids, and the explanation for the near-empty park becomes clear — clearer than Lake Worth water. Her 12-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were a good 30 feet out from shore, but, despite the recent rains, the murky brown water barely covered her son’s knees. When they came out of the water, they walked carefully, avoiding the thorny grass along the shoreline. There was no sandy beach to dig holes in with plastic scoops, just stretches of grass and mud.
Lake Worth, where Fort Worth residents of an earlier era once swam and sailed, where they danced at a waterside pavilion, screamed in delight on the roller coaster, and listened to big-band music, is a 3,500-acre mud hole. The 93-year-old lake, which still provides part of the city’s drinking water and is supposed to provide the city with protection against floods, hasn’t been dredged once since it was dammed in 1914. The result is that docks — even after repeated deluges this year — are in many cases unusable, standing far above the lake’s surface. With water only a few feet deep in many places, boaters can’t boat, swimmers don’t want to swim, the water supply capability has been cut by a third in the last 30 years, and the lake that once provided a deep flood pool is now more like a vast, silted-up stock tank.
The city of Fort Worth, which owns the lake, recently began a test dredging project at the urging of lake-area residents. But the residents’ group has something much bigger in mind. They want to reclaim Lake Worth from its mud-hole status and make it into the jewel of Fort Worth’s park system, fulfilling a major parkland need for a city that’ s growing quickly in the lake’s direction. They want the city to rehabilitate old parks like Camp Joy, create floating restaurants that boaters can sail up to, and develop another 1,000 or so acres of city-owned land around the lake into greenspace, trails, and parks. What’s more, the citizen coalition figures that the very considerable amount of money that it would take to build new parks, fix up old ones, and dredge most of the lake is, in effect, sitting right under the lake itself — in the Barnett Shale gas deposits that are expected to produce in the neighborhood of $200 million in profits for the city over the next 20 years — much of which, by city ordinance and federal law, has to be spent within the city’s park system.
Unfortunately, there could be potential problems waiting under the water as well — and a lot closer to the surface than the natural gas. For decades, industrial solvents that included polychlorinated biphenyl toxins (PCBs) were part of the chemical runoff from the old Carswell Air Force Base and the defense plant next door that’s now owned by Lockheed Martin. The toxins have lodged deep in the silt and aquatic life of the lake: Since 2000, the Texas Department of Health has warned against eating fish caught in Lake Worth, because they are “unsafe for human consumption due to PCB contamination.”
Ironically enough, the PCBs, because they sink quickly and for the most part don’t react with water, have not made Lake Worth unfit to drink or swim in. But they could make dredging the lake a delicate and dangerous job. Joe Waller is president of the Lake Worth Alliance, the consortium of neighborhood associations that has been pushing for the rejuvenation of the lake for more than a year. He — and city officials — think the dredging can be done safely and that now is the time for the project, when the city is growing out toward the lake and gas wells are pushing underneath. “We want to have a lake that can be used by all people from the city, not just the ones who own houses up here,” he said. “This is about the future,” Waller added. “We can use the gas drilling money to create something that generations can have in their backyard. This will be the geographic center of the city in 30 years. … Cities are all trying to find ways to set aside great recreation areas in their midst — and we have it.”
Fort Worth needed a clean water supply and better flood control in the early 1900s, and damming the West Fork of the Trinity River in the city’s western hinterlands was the solution to the problem. When Lake Worth filled up after the dam was finished in 1914, some parts of the lake were 60 feet deep. The city owned the surrounding land, and the first citizens to use the lake leased property for fishing camps. For many years, until silt made the lake shallower and boating more difficult, Lake Worth was a prime place for the citizenry to come out and play. In 1916, the city built a beach near where Jacksboro Highway now crosses the lake. Hundreds of thousands came to Casino Beach, and eventually the city ran a bus line to the popular attraction. Over time, an amusement park with a roller coaster was added, as well as a ballroom that offered dinner dances and big band music. The 400-foot boardwalk was the longest of its kind west of Atlantic City.
Elsewhere on the lake, fishing camps eventually gave way to vacation cottages and some prime property for Fort Worth’s wealthy. The ability to have a house on the water less than a half-hour from downtown turned the once-remote area into an enclave of stately homes. The Lake Worth Castle, near Heron Bay on the south side of Lake Worth, was built in the 1920s by Samuel Whiting, reportedly after he won the land in a poker game. The castle still exists and is currently being renovated. Eventually, Casino Beach went into decline. Prostitution and gambling joints along Jacksboro Highway made some families leery of venturing out that way, and new lakes like Eagle Mountain and Benbrook had better recreational facilities. By the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll had replaced big-band swing, and the Casino Beach ballroom owners didn’t keep up with the times. By 1973, the amusement park rides and ballroom were gone. The city allowed the park and beach to deteriorate. Today, the park is littered with trash and bare dirt that makes it look like a parking lot. There are no permanent restroom facilities or changing areas, just Port-A-Potties. The beach has disappeared as well; on most days the only human activity there consists of a few men fishing from the dirty shore.
The recent drought exacerbated the silting that has plagued the lake for decades, making it an even more difficult and dangerous lake for boaters and skiers. “There is a safety issue here that everyone who lives around this lake knows about,” said Nancy Crosskill, president of the Neighborhood Association of South Lake Worth and a lake area resident for nearly 40 years. “We have all seen skiers wipe out and then get up in hip-deep water. My dock used to have six feet [of water under it], and we can’t even use it for boats anymore, even with the recent rains. It’s amazing to a lot of us that this has been ignored for so long.” But the biggest development in Lake Worth’s history came in 1932, when the U.S. Air Force carved out a base at the southern end of the lake. By 1941, the site just east of the base was developed into a factory to build military aircraft — known to locals for many years simply as “the bomber plant,” first operated by Consolidated Vultee, later by General Dynamics and now Lockheed Martin.
After World War II, Carswell became the prime base for the Strategic Air Command and many of SAC’s long-range planes that could deliver nuclear payloads. In the early 1950s, the Air Force even experimented with a plane powered by a nuclear reactor. Prototypes were built and flown from the base, but the project never made it past the experimental stage. By today’s environmental standards, the idea of putting an air base, a factory, and numerous industrial landfills around the source of the city’s water supply seems unthinkable. And the result was predictable: From the 1950s through the 1970s, PCBs were used heavily at the base and the bomber plant, and the runoff carried them into the lake. PCBs are mixtures of up to 209 chlorinated compounds. Essentially odorless and tasteless, they were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment because they insulate well and don’t burn easily. The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because of evidence they build up in the environment and can cause health problems.
Not surprisingly, the highest levels of PCBs in Lake Worth sediment are found near the base and plant. When Carswell was slated for closure in 1993, numerous environmental studies were done. The base is now known as Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, and nearly 100 hazardous-material sites there have been cleaned up. But there has been no cleanup in the lake. PCBs are not soluble in water and tend to lodge in sediment when they enter lakes. Fish that feed off the bottom, and the smaller creatures that other fish feed upon, ingest the PCBs, which remain in their tissues. Over time, as one fish eats another, the PCBs become increasingly concentrated in the tissue. The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as acne and rashes, although studies of workers who have been exposed to the compounds suggest that liver damage may also be a risk. Experiments have also shown that large amounts of PCBs in mice can cause cancer. On the other hand, most authorities believe it would take a huge consumption of PCB-bearing fish to cause serious health problems in humans.
A 2005 study by the U. S. Geological Survey found the top layer of sediment on the floor of Lake Worth was virtually PCB-free, but the sediments two to three feet down showed much higher levels. Pete Van Metre, the hydrologist who coordinated the study, did about 20 tests for hazardous wastes throughout the lake, including three deep core samples that were drilled down to levels that existed before the lake was built. The results showed the sediment was not heavily toxic, but not clean either. The highest PCB concentrations appear to be at the southern end of the lake in an area called Woods Inlet, which runs up to the air base and aircraft plant. “Usually in urban lakes, there are very high concentrations of PCBs or pesticides like DDT and others,” Van Metre said. “There are still some PCBs coming off the airbase site, but they are quite small and decreasing over time. But the upper end of the lake is quite clean, which gives it more of a quality of a rural lake than an urban one.” PCBs thus far have not seriously affected the city’s water supply.
However, that could change if dredging isn’t handled correctly. As with asbestos, which often poses no danger until some activity like demolition puts its particles into the air, the PCBs aren’t causing much problem now. But dredging in Woods Inlet, for instance, could cause the higher concentration of PCBs to be stirred up into the environment. The generally accepted level at which PCB is considered highly toxic is about 670 parts per billion (ppb). In Woods Inlet, the highest PCB concentrations were 380 ppb, in sediment from the 1960s level. The highest concentration for upper-level sediment that is in contact with the water was about 130 ppb. Other areas of the lake were quite low, with either no PCBs or levels in the 30 ppb range, Van Metre said. “You have to look at this from a perspective that exercises caution,” he said. “We know where the higher concentrations [of PCBs] are, and they are not in the highly toxic range. But we also don’t know all the health effects that might come from exposure. So dredging up this part of the lake wouldn’t be wise, because it could bring up a whole lot of buried PCBs to the surface.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been monitoring the Lake Worth PCB levels and came to the same conclusions. “The runoff from the 1960s is where the PCBs are concentrated,” said John Mummert, natural resource specialist for TCEQ. “It is also very concentrated near the base and Lockheed Martin. But the area north of [Loop] 820 is very clean. So dredging up that area around the base would stir up the PCBs.” Fort Worth’s water department has hired a firm to do “pilot dredging” in three areas of Lake Worth, at a cost of $278,000. The three sites, which will be completed in September, are Quebec Cove on the eastern edge of the lake, and coves near Willow and Goat islands. All are south of Loop 820 but far away from Woods Inlet. “The pilot dredging project locations were selected based on several criteria,” Mary Gugliuzza, a spokeswoman for the water department wrote in an e-mail. “First, they had to be outside of any known area of PCB contamination. Second, the area needed to be conducive to the type of dredging technique being evaluated.
Finally, we wanted to improve recreational opportunities and boating safety. We used the previous USGS and Corps studies in this evaluation” as well as a state water board survey of the lake’s depth. In addition, she said, “we performed testing in the pilot areas to be certain there are no contamination issues.” Some of the dredging is being done with traditional backhoes, but two of the sites will use hydraulic pumps that function like big vacuum cleaners. In the pilot project, some of the sediment brought up is simply being placed in other parts of the lake. “The majority of the dredge material will be disposed of on site,” Gugliuzza wrote. “This means moving dredging material from areas where it creates navigational problems to areas close by that are not used for boating and general recreation. The materials that are being removed from Quebec Cove are being used to cap off a landfill site at Meacham Airport.”
Costs for dredging the entire lake, minus the PCB-laden area at the southern end, have not been fully determined. The water department has calculated that dredging all of the lake bottom south of the Jacksboro Highway bridge — about half of the lake area — to a depth of six feet will cost about $40 million. By contrast, the city finance department estimates that the money from gas drilling on city-owned land around and under the lake will bring in about $200 million over the next 20 years. The Fort Worth City Council has been open to some of the plans proposed by the Lake Worth Alliance, but it’s too early to tell how much of the project the council will buy into. Mayor Mike Moncrief, who did not return calls for this story, has said he favors improving the water quality and recreation at the lake. Councilman Carter Burdette, whose district includes Lake Worth, also was unavailable for comment; he has said previously that work on Lake Worth needs to be a city priority. But the council has yet to make any firm decisions on how to spend the Barnett Shale money.
“A lot of people in the North Side have used Casino Beach, and I think we should improve the water quality and the parks around the lake,” said Councilman Sal Espino, who represents the largely Hispanic North Side. “We can use the Barnett Shale [money] for dredging and for better and more parks. But we also have many other priorities, and new and better roads are at the top of my list. I went to Casino Beach as a kid, and I certainly support anything we can do to revitalize Lake Worth. I’m sure the council will have a very vigorous debate over this issue.” Part of the debate, almost certainly, will be some head-scratching by city leaders over how to follow the complex rules about where and how the gas money can be spent. It’s not as easy as it looks — especially not for places like the Fort Worth Nature Center.
Staffers at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge on Lake Worth are used to leading hikes to teach folks little-known facts about the local flora and fauna. But in the next few years, the nature center itself may become a lesson in little-known lore — this time, on the arcane topic of where the city’s mineral-rights dollars have to be spent. The 3600-acre center on the northern edge of Lake Worth is owned by the city but gets some of its funding through federal grants. And federal law requires that income from mineral rights derived from a park partly supported by federal dollars must stay within the park. Estimates vary on how much drilling money will have to be set aside, but the nature center might have about $150 million to spend over the next 20 years — a gigantic chunk for a center whose total annual budget now runs about $400,000. The city doesn’t plan to dredge the portion of the lake near the nature center — marshes and shallow areas are great for wildlife, if not for boaters and skiers — so the nature center’s share of the gas kitty probably can’t be spent on that part of the lake project. The city’s current master plan calls for about $70 million in improvements to the nature center over the next 40 years, including a new visitors center, better viewing shelters along the lake, and perhaps a remote parking area with a train to bring larger numbers of visitors in while disturbing as little of the natural areas as possible.
The profits the city will realize from wells drilled under other parts of the lake aren’t bound by such rules. About one-third of those profits have been designated by the city to go into its parks department, and the rest into the city’s general fund.
Waller figures that income from wells drilled under the southern part of the lake, as well as some of the nature center’s set-aside, could be used for the projects his group envisions. “We understand the federal restrictions, but we can make the case that improving the water quality of the entire lake will improve the environmental preservation that the nature center does,” he said. “But we also know there has to be some balance” with other needs for the money. “That’s what we are trying to do.” The most expensive part of any park development is land acquisition, especially in urban areas where land prices are high. Around Lake Worth, the city already owns about 1,000 acres of dedicated parkland, scattered among 19 parks — equal to about a tenth of all the city’s park acreage. But Fort Worth also owns another 1,000 acres or so of undeveloped land near the lake that could be used for parks and recreation — land marked in the city’s master plan for park development but never dedicated as such.
Fort Worth has been the prime landowner and landlord in the area since Lake Worth was built. For a long time, the city gave those who leased land around the lake an option to buy the property once water and sewer lines reached the area. The city stopped that program about a decade ago, though it still honors options given previously to about 250 residents under the old program. Harold Pitchford, assistant director for the parks department, said the city is fully aware of the potential for the unused land near Lake Worth. “There is a real opportunity for us,” Pitchford said. “Cost of land acquisition is always a problem in developing new parks, but we already own the land. And if the dredging is done, the lake will become more favorable for recreational opportunities. Because right now, if you use the lake, you are more than likely knee-deep in mud.” The city has hired the engineering and environmental firm Freese and Nichols to do a comprehensive study of the many issues surrounding Lake Worth. City officials have asked for a plan to include “improvements of existing parks and boat ramps [and] construction of new recreational facilities,” plus dredging, water and sewer line construction, road work, and watershed management systems to service lake-area properties. The report is due by the end of the year.
For Gale Cupp, a microbiologist who has lived near Lake Worth since 1995 and is the director for environmental affairs for the Lake Worth Alliance, the inclusion of park upgrades and new parks is essential to any plan. Cupp also serves on the Fort Worth Park Board. She pointed to Trinity Park as an example of forward thinking by city leaders long ago. “The city leaders had the foresight to realize that parkland along the river would be a wonderful use,” Cupp said. “We are all still benefiting from that decision. This same thing can be done around Lake Worth.” The lake area, she said, needs “real beaches,” as well as hike-and-bike trails to connect to other parks, the nature center, the existing trail system on the Trinity, and the recreational spaces of the Trinity River Vision project downtown. “If this is done right, we could have a world-class park system,” she said, “and I think we have the funding now to do it through Barnett Shale.”
Cupp said she understands that a portion of the Barnett Shale income needs to be set aside in an endowment for future generations. “But in the meetings I’ve attended, the one use for the money that always comes up is the preservation of greenspace,” she said. “And I would argue that creating and preserving greenspace for future generations is a much better investment than putting the money in the bank.” A drive around Lake Worth with Waller makes clear the area’s odd qualities. Trailer homes alternate with mansions along the meandering roads. Boat docks sit high and dry behind houses. Then there are places like Mosque Point Park, where the early beauty of the lake still impresses. The park, named for a six-story wooden structure built by local Shriners in 1919, is located on a tall bluff on the eastern shore. Docks with sailboats can be seen along the western shore, and Goat Island looms in the distance. There’s a picnic pavilion where the Shriners building, with its multiple ballrooms and vaguely Arabic design, once stood. The water sparkles on a sunny day, and it’s hard to remember that you are standing in the middle of one of the fastest-growing big urban centers in the country.
“When you look out at this lake from up here,” Waller said, “you can visualize the potential. You can see the growth forming around the lake, but you can also see how special this can be if we do the right thing.”
But Mosque Point is also a place that reveals how wrong things have gone through the years for Lake Worth. After the Shriners hall burned down in 1927, the area deteriorated. On that recent visit, weeds were tall, empty bottles and trash covered the grass, and the picnic pavilion’s walls were scrawled with graffiti. Other than Waller and the reporter he was showing around, there was no one in the park on a perfect day. And for Waller, who’s lived in the area for almost 30 years, that is the primary problem with Lake Worth. “For all these years, what was once a gem in this community was allowed to decay,” Waller said. “When I look at [Mosque Point Park], I see a place we could create where people would want to hold special events. … Could you imagine the wedding pictures with that view? But no one comes here now.” Waller, the retired former president of a media marketing firm, often sounds like a politician. In fact, he ran for city council in 2005, but was beaten by Burdette. “I learned a lot about local politics by running, and I’m using that knowledge to get the Lake Worth improvements done,” he said. “This is a passion for me.”
The powers that be are beginning to take notice. The Lake Worth Alliance recently won third place in a national competition for neighborhood groups for its work to bring about changes. And the alliance recently presented the council with a petition signed by more than 1,300 Fort Worth citizens, supporting their cause. Waller knows that popular support is important in bringing politicians around to doing something about Lake Worth — and economic development for the city is another incentive. He would like to see the prime Casino Beach property leased to private firms, maybe for a putt-putt course or restaurants or businesses that thrive on water access. He thinks that floating restaurants in some of the coves would be popular. “We don’t shy from the notion that creating a better lake will probably increase property values for the people who own homes up here,” Waller said. “But the city [council] also should realize there is economic development potential for the city as well.” Money spent on the lake will bring a healthy return, he said.
Alliance members figure one of their best arguments is that a rejuvenated lake would be a huge benefit to the whole city, not just to a few landowners and boaters. “We don’t need to be using [the Barnett Shale] money to fix roads or pad the general fund budget or do little projects that benefit one council district,” Waller said. “We need to be using this money for capital improvements that benefit every citizen. And every citizen who wants to come out and swim or fish or boat or enjoy a wonderful park can do that. The timing is perfect to do this. … We just hope that the city develops a new sensitivity as to what this lake can be for all of Fort Worth.”
You can reach Dan McGraw at firstname.lastname@example.org.