The Rehabilitation of Bryan Municipal Lake: From Past Anxiety to Future Analysis

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By Rachel Knight

If you ventured to Travis B. Bryan Municipal Golf Course between the 1990s and 2012, you may have noticed signs prohibiting contact with its lake or fish within the lake. Why would a public lake be off limits to the community surrounding it? The answer is simple: arsenic.

Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. According to the World Health Organization, acute arsenic exposure can lead to gastrointestinal irritation and death, in extreme cases. WHO says long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, skin and vascular lesions, and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Questions about the lake’s past and future beg to be answered, given that Bryan Municipal Lake is on the property the City of Bryan plans to make a regional super park.

In the article titled “Arsenic and Old Lakes” by Allison Seale published in INSITE in Feb. 1992, we learned that during the early 1930s and late 1940s, Cotton Poisons Inc. operated near downtown Bryan without the health and safety regulations in place today. The plant’s production of an arsenic-based cotton defoliant ultimately led to the arsenic contamination of three lakes in the plant’s watershed, No Name Lake, Finfeather Lake, and Bryan Municipal Lake.

According to the INSITE article, Cotton Poisons Inc. was sold and underwent several name changes before health and safety regulations became part of industry law. Elf Atochem purchased the plant in the 1980s and was left with the responsibility to remedy the damage done by arsenic disposal methods that led to the arsenic contamination of surrounding properties.

The Eagle reported that the Elf Atochem plant in Bryan closed in 1993 under a state order amid an FBI investigation. Though the plant closed, the current owner was responsible for monitoring the lakes it contaminated. The $26 million settlement was the largest environmental settlement in the state of Texas at the time.

Due to high levels of arsenic in the water, Bryan Municipal Lake was a no contact lake. It was not only illegal to touch the water, but also to catch and consume fish from the lake according to Mark Webb, district management supervisor for Texas Parks and Wildlife. Webb looked at fish from the contaminated lakes during the 1990s.

“The most striking thing at the time was we saw mutations that are common with arsenic: asymmetry, missing eyes, missing fins on largemouth bass,” Webb says. “Turtles appeared to have hyper-keratinization such as scalation that would actually grow over the nares,
or nostrils.”

Paul Dorsett, a fisheries biologist with Solitude Lake Management, manages lakes to make them more scenic and productive. Dorsett was in school at Texas A&M University when it became widely known that unnatural levels of arsenic were in Bryan Municipal Lake.

“Arsenic is found in our natural environment in minute quantities,” Dorsett says. “It is a naturally occurring [element], but not [found] at the levels that were found in the watershed that feeds Bryan Municipal Lake.”

Thanks to cleanup efforts and the passage of time, the arsenic levels in the land surrounding Elf Atochem and Bryan Municipal Lake have been improved to meet current safety standards. According to Webb, removing the source of contamination is the first step in cleaning up arsenic contaminations like the one that occurred in Bryan.

“What happens to the arsenic contaminated water is it’s diluted over a period of time,” Webb says. “It goes downstream and becomes diluted to the point that it is no longer a human health hazard or the arsenic becomes tied up in sediment either through deposition of plant material that grows and dies or simply the sediment settling on itself.”

In 2012, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined that the water at Bryan Municipal Lake was once again safe for human contact. Hugh Walker, City of Bryan deputy city manager, says three levels of compliance had to be met in order for this to happen: soil outside of the lake, the water, and the sediment.

In 2014, the City of Bryan began looking at the possibility of turning Travis B. Bryan Municipal Golf Course into a regional super park. While a regional super park was well received by some, other community members wanted to keep the golf course that was built in the 1920s.

On Dec. 12, 2017, The Bryan City Council voted to accept the donation of the Briarcrest Golf Course at the Phillips Event Center. By Jan. 2, the Briarcrest Golf Course opened to the public as the city’s new municipal golf course and made it possible for the city to move forward in planning their regional super park at Travis B. Bryan Municipal Golf Course. 

With the planning process of a regional super park underway, it is a good time to look at the current state of Bryan Municipal Lake.

“There aren’t any health concerns that I know of,” Webb says. “As long as there are no health concerns, it really is just a question of the health of the fishery.”

Though the arsenic levels at Bryan Municipal Lake have been deemed safe for human contact, the public lake occasionally makes headlines for fish kills. These fish kills are the result of a lack of oxygen in the lake and are unrelated to the arsenic tied up in the lake’s sediment, according to Webb.

“Those fish kills are because that lake is, as we say, ‘hypereutrophic,’” Webb says. “It has a lot of nutrients in it. Those nutrients cause very high-density phytoplankton blooms, and phytoplankton blooms use oxygen like any plant in the course of photosynthesis.”

Webb says it is not uncommon for golf course lakes to become hypereutrophic due to the excessive amounts of fertilizer used on the golf course. This increases the futility of the lake.

“Lots of products and techniques are available to us now to help mitigate lakes that have oxygen problems,” Dorsett says. “That is certainly something that Solitude Lake Management deals with on a daily basis.”

One technique Webb recommends for Bryan Municipal Lake is implementing an aeration system that would add dissolved oxygen back into the lake.

“It’s hot down here, and in the summertime hot water doesn’t hold as much oxygen as cold water does,” Webb says. “Getting aeration fountains and aerators into the lake is one of the main things. They are aesthetically pleasing also, but for the health of the water that is something that needs to be done.”

Dorsett says there are two different types of aeration systems, but both present potential safety hazards at Bryan Municipal Lake. One option is a fountain with water aesthetics, but the electricity in the ground could be dangerous. The other is a bottom diffused aeration system.

“That [bottom diffused aeration] system could potentially stir up some of the sediment and bring arsenic laden sediment up into the water column,” Dorsett says. “If the arsenic laden sediment is in the lake, they may not want to put a bottom diffused aeration system into the lake. If the sediment is removed, that might be the best system to put in.”

Walker says doing a better job of maintaining the lake and its surrounding area is something the city plans to do.

Though the water, ground, and sediment are currently safe regarding the amount of arsenic in each, disturbing the sediment could cause potential problems. If the sediment covering the arsenic is disturbed, the arsenic level in Bryan Municipal Lake could rise to unsafe levels.

This raises questions about how the City of Bryan will handle Bryan Municipal Lake in planning their regional super park. In 2014, three plans for the regional super park were reviewed by the city. Each plan showed an expansion of Bryan Municipal Lake. Expanding the lake would mean disturbing the arsenic laden sediment.

Walker says the city is well aware of the potential safety issues expanding the lake may present despite confusion from 2017. “I sent a message to [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality], an email, with some information that I’d been forwarded and said, ‘Our understanding is we’re all clear now,’” he says. “Within a very short period of time, I had three or four TCEQ representatives on the phone going, ‘Slow down. Hold on.’ So we revisited the different standards.

The city conducted a study to determine if dredging the lake to remove the arsenic laden sediment is possible.

“It’s an expensive proposition, but it’s possible,” Walker says. “At some point in time, something along those lines will probably have to occur, but in the short term that’s not something that we have to do.”

If the city leaves the lake as it is and does not disturb the sediment, TCEQ says there is no need for testing or monitoring the lake. However, if the city begins disturbing the sediment, Walker says they would want to test for arsenic each step of the way.

Though the regional super park is still without a name and official blueprint, Walker says the city plans to address many wants and needs with their newly acquired 114 acres of green space.

Webb says he hopes the want and need for more fisheries will be met by keeping Bryan Municipal Lake as a fishery. “We really don’t have that many good community fishing lakes in the Bryan area,” he says. “If it does continue to be a fishery, that’s something we would like to work with the City of Bryan on, and I’m sure that opportunity will be there for us to enhance Bryan Municipal as a fishery source.”

According to Dorsett, building a regional super park around Bryan Municipal Lake has the potential to create a positive impact on the community.

“It’s a really good opportunity to have the lake be a principal attraction for not only the park, but also the entire city of Bryan.”

Arsenic or no arsenic, the lake provides a focal point that, as Walker points out, other cities would pay to have in a green space for the public. With TCEQ currently deeming the Bryan Municipal Lake safe for human contact, it is up to the City of Bryan to determine the best course of action and use of the lake in their regional super park.

“It’s a beautiful piece of land,” Walker says. “Our objective is to keep it that way as much as possible for the naturalist. It’s something for them to enjoy. Then there are also other improvements that will be made that everyone else can enjoy.”

City of Bryan Regional Super Park
Given the land and lake’s arsenic laden past, it is natural to inquire about the City of Bryan’s design and plan for developing their regional super park. The city is not far in the planning process, but here’s what we know:

  1. “Our understanding is the soil is fine,” Walker says. “The water is fine. The sediment is fine with the level that it’s supposed to be, but when you start mixing those things is when you have a problem.”
  2. In addition to what was formerly Travis B. Bryan Municipal Golf Course, the regional super park will include the Astin Recreation Area and Williamson Park.
  3. Requests for qualifications provide interested parties an opportunity to submit proposals to the City of Bryan so the interested parties can come under contract and help design the park. RFQ’s were submitted on Jan. 25. The city is in the process of reviewing all submitted RFQs to recommend and affirm one to the City Council.
  4. Walker predicts the City Council’s first opportunity to approve a proposal will take place in March. Once the City Council approves an RFQ, the design of the park still needs to be finalized and built.
  5. The park’s design should take between nine and twelve months to finalize. Walker says it is safe to assume it will be about two years before the park is ready to open. This means the earliest the entire park would be ready for citizens to enjoy is 2020.
  6. The city would like to phase the park into the public domain over time in order to help with funding and to allow citizens to start enjoying the regional super parker sooner.
  7. The city intends to address multiple wants and needs with the regional super park. Citizens will be able to weigh in on the park’s components and design through a public comment process.
  8. Walker says the City of Bryan wants to attract more visitors to the area without competing with other regional super parks such as Veteran’s Park or the Franklin Ranch.
  9. The City of Bryan does not have a set budget for the regional super park.  According to Walker, a conservative estimate of the park’s total cost is between $20 and $25 million.