Shoal Creek is a defining
geographic feature of Austin, an artery
into its urban core and the western boundary of
the original city.
The Shoal Creek greenway is a true multiuse trail shared by runners, commuters, nature watchers, dog walkers, volleyball players and other Austin residents that “is increasingly important for access to newly developing downtown residential and entertainment centers.” Despite its importance to Austin’s community, Shoal Creek suffers from a number of major challenges, ranging from eroding stream banks to abundant graffiti. While Shoal Creek is beloved by its users as an oasis in a growing city, its needs are undeniably many.
An Urbanized Watershed
The Shoal Creek watershed is highly urbanized, with a drainage area of 12.5 square miles. SCC Board member and long-time Shoal Creek conservationist Ted Eubanks aptly describes it as “a stormwater pipe, a conduit for sending water to Lady Bird Lake as rapidly as possible,” and suffers from flood risk, poor water quality, stream bank erosion risk and
low sustained flow.
As development within the watershed has increased, so have the events of major flooding, including the devastating 1981 “Memorial Day Flood.” Although substantial improvements to storm water management of Shoal Creek have been made since 1981, flood risk continues to be a major and possibly growing problem, most particularly in the lower reaches of Shoal Creek. In addition, the impact of fast-moving, high water results in damage to the trail, increased sediment flow and erosion of the stream banks and riparian areas.
Shoal Creek also suffers from impaired water quality. Once home to a number of popular swimming and fishing destinations, the creek now has elevated fecal indicator bacteria within it, due to leaky wastewater infrastructure, animals and other direct contributions. In fact, the Spicewood tributary to Shoal Creek is one of four creeks in Austin that has been identified as having had elevated levels of fecal bacterial since 2006 and is no longer deemed safe for contact recreation.
In addition, Shoal Creek was significantly altered by the installation of a wastewater pipeline and related infrastructure directly within the stream bed by the City of Austin. This pipe, because of its location, subjects the creek to risk of leaks and more. Many experts believe that the installation of this pipe damaged springs within the creek bed hat helped provide a sustained water flow year-round and fed the creek’s historic swimming holes. Historic reports reveal that Seiders Springs, located between West 34th and West 38th Streets, was once a prized area for lakeside development and was known as Alamo Lake. A project is under way to remove this infrastructure from the upper reaches of the creek; the lower reaches would benefit greatly from a similar restoration project.
The Downtown Austin Plan and the Shoal Creek Greenway Action Plan, among others, offer solutions to these major issues – restoring water quality, improving flood control and storm water detention, restoring the channel, controlling erosion and stabilizing the stream banks, and improving the riparian character of the greenway.
In addition to the wastewater infrastructure issues noted above, the Shoal Creek trail itself presents a number of infrastructure challenges. The trail surface quality and functionality could be significantly improved in order to provide a quality multiuse trail experience for users. As noted in the Downtown Austin Plan, stretches of the trail have been replaced over time, resulting in a haphazard feel that lacks a cohesive character. In addition, there is a lack of continuity in some areas along the trail, such as the “gap” at West 5th Street, that impede bicycle travel in particular. The trail surface also suffers from erosion issues due to regular intense flooding.
Another major issue identified in the master plans related to Shoal Creek is the need to encourage and improve interactions between the greenway and surrounding neighborhoods, businesses, roads and sidewalks. The greenway serves as an important connector to Pease Park, Duncan Park and the Butler Hike and Bike Trail; however, improved connectivity and accessibility, particularly in the downtown/lower reaches, is desirable. The area surrounding lower Shoal Creek is experiencing rapid growth, providing an opportunity to improve connections and access and create new creekside developments, oriented toward rather than away from the creek, that contribute to visitors’ experience of the greenway. And, perhaps most dramatically, the Shoal Creek greenway is home to numerous historic bridges, including the city’s oldest bridge at West 6th Street. This triple-arch stone bridge was built in 1887 and predates the state capitol. The stonework on these bridges is in need of restoration, and patches of paint used to cover graffiti mar their surfaces. The protection, restoration and ongoing maintenance of these historic structures are worth doing on their own merit, but doing them could also result in awareness and increased use of the creek, trail and greenway.
The greenway is owned and managed by the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department; however, there are currently no funds dedicated to the management of Shoal Creek. While the City does the best it can with limited resources, and volunteers provide additional support, the ongoing impact of limited resources has led to major maintenance issues and safety concerns along the length of Shoal Creek.
Trash, particularly following major storm events, is a major concern. In addition, graffiti is an ongoing problem on the bridges, walls, signs and even the trail surface, and cleanup response is often delayed. In addition, as noted in the Downtown Austin Plan, vegetation along the trail is often overgrown, with invasive species encroaching on native plants and poison ivy causing concern in many areas throughout the greenway.
Maintenance of landscaping and trees is sorely needed. There are also significant concerns regarding user safety, and many Shoal creek plans call for a collaborative effort with law enforcement officers to develop security programs and the installation of lighting along the trail and under the bridges.
In addition to the challenges and needs described above, the community has identified many other issues as priorities for Shoal Creek. As noted in the 2010 Lower Shoal Creek and New Central Library Task Force Report for the City of Austin, “Shoal Creek offers few amenities for recreational users,” with limited attractive and maintained destinations, watering fountains, sitting areas, or signage. The Shoal Creek Greenway Action Plan calls for year-round programming to provide fun activities for local residents as well as educational opportunities.
There is an interest in creating destinations along the greenway and enhancing existing locations, such as the falls near West 2nd Street and the West 3rd Street railroad trestle. Improvements like these would make the trail more of a place to enjoy rather than just pass through. User experience would be further enhanced with the addition of uniform interpretive signage and a wayfinding system along the trail. There are currently no mile markers or signs at bridges and major intersections to orient the user.
A science, culture and heritage blog about Shoal Creek written by experts in our community.
Creative approaches to flood mitigation with potential in Austin
Bringing lessons from abroad home to Austin
Lessons from Hamburg's watertight HafenCity
Shoal Creek on Austin Explorer
Map of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt
Parks and Recreation Department “Trail Enhancement Plan”
The Trail Foundation Vision Plan
Urban Trails Master Plan, City of Austin Public Works Department
3rd Street Trestle Bridge Assessment 2015
3rd Street Trestle Bridge Assessment 2001
3rd Street Trestle Bridge Assessment Drawings 2001
Austin Youth River Watch Test Site Data 34th & Shoal Creek
USGS Shoal Creek Gauge at Silverway Drive
USGS Shoal Creek Gauge at 12th Street
USGS Shoal Creek Peak Streamflow Data
Shoal Creek Watershed Summary Sheet, Environmental Integrity Index
City of Austin Watershed Summary Report 2011-2012
City of Austin Spicewood Springs Shoal Creek Tributary TMDL Project 2013
City of Austin Rain Gardens – Keeping Water on the Land Webpage
City of Austin Floodplain Changes Interactive Map
Shoal Creek Watershed Erosion Assessment 1997
Water Chemistry of Shoal Creek 1997
City of Austin Shoal Creek Watershed Water Quality Retrofit Master Plan 1994
Image of Flood Waters at Shoal Creek 1981, USGS
Image of Flood Waters at Shoal Creek and West 6th Street, 1915, Portal to Texas History Website
Image of Flood Water on Shoal Creek and West 4th Street, 1915, The Portal to Texas History Website
The 1981 Memorial Day Flood – Article in the Allandale Reporter
Shoal Creek 15th-28th Restoration Documents
Storm Drain Marking Volunteer Program – Austin Watershed Protection
Guide to the Geology of Travis County, Shoal Creek Field Trip, University of Texas at Austin
Economic Value of Parks (Trust for Public Land)
Tree City Bulletin (urban forests, storm water detention)
Storm Drain Marking Volunteer Program – Austin Watershed Protection
Let’s Can It Litter Prevention Program
Scoop the Poop – Austin Watershed Protection
Austin Christmas Bird Count
Shoal Creek on the Austin Parks Foundation website
Parks and Recreation Department Long Range Plan (2010)
Downtown Austin Parks and Open Space Master Plan (2010)
Parks and Recreation Department “Long Range Plan for Land, Facilities, and Programs” (2011)
Images of the Historic Bridges of Shoal Creek – Portfolio by Ted Eubanks
Austin’s Urban Forest Plan: A Master Plan for Public Property – City of Austin (PDF)
Austin, Texas, Illustrated: Famous Capital City of the Lone Star State – Book on The Portal to Texas History Website
Splitrock (Burns-Klein Home) History Website
The Shoal Creek Pleiosaur
George W. Davis Family Cemetery – The Allandale Reporter
Downtown Austin Plan (2011)
Imagine Austin Plan
Seaholm Redevelopment District. Lower Shoal Creek and New Central Library Planning and Design Coordination (2010)
Shoal Creek-Library Task Force Report (2010)
Great Streets Master Plan: Great Streets Program and Great Streets Standards (2002)
Seaholm District Master Plan (2001)
Town Lake Corridor Study (1985)
Bicentennial Project of the Horizons 76 Committee of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (1976)
Bryker Woods Neighborhood Association