Vicki Meek was on the rooftop at Southside on Lamar on Thursday afternoon because of the water. She’s a Nasher fellow and a longtime Dallas artist who, last year, had a retrospective of her work displayed at the African American Museum in Fair Park. She is now on the advisory board of the Dallas Water Commons, a public-private partnership that hopes to create a cleansing wetlands and public greenspace along what was once the Trinity River, before the city moved the river in the 1920s to straighten it for flood prevention.
For many, water and its presence in everyday life is an assumed luxury. People turn on the faucet or buy water bottles without giving thought to how that water got there. Meek has sought to educate through her art, and she saw an opportunity to help others understand and respect how our most essential commodity shapes our lives.
“Education is one of the things that drove me this project,” Meek said. “Let’s educate our population about what this [project] is all about and their role in this. People are still dealing with the financial repercussions of not having well-defined waterways.”
The 17-acre Dallas Water Commons will transform what today is essentially an inaccessible ditch between Cadiz and Corinth streets, just east of Southside Music Hall. It’s at the northern edge of the Trinity Forest, an empty plot of land that developer Jack Matthews donated to the city for this effort. The project isn’t just about education; organizers say the new wetlands will help control flooding, particularly involving runoff from the concrete-covered downtown and Uptown neighborhoods directly north.
A series of new stormwater ponds will work in tandem with the existing wetlands and the nearby Able Pump Station to cleanse and filter up to 650 million gallons of runoff stormwater before it reaches the Trinity River. Surrounding the spine of wetlands will be a public park that will also serve as a “living classroom” where students and adults can learn about nature-based conservation and flood management.
“We are missing greenspaces south of I-30,” said David Taggart, the project’s engagement development consultant. “This may be a greenspace, but it will do so much more. We have access. People will be able to get here easily. Outside of the environment, we also need communities to come together. That is what is exciting about this—it erases that dividing line and will bring people together.”
As a wetland area, the Dallas Water Commons will function as a sponge to trap and slowly release surface water, rain, groundwater, and melted snow. The new wetlands will offset the increased surface water runoff from concrete buildings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (The EPA calls wetlands “among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs.”)
The wetlands will also be a buffer between the industry further south and the office towers and residential units to the north in downtown, marking the project as a “first-of-its-kind cleansing wetlands” in the heart of a major U.S. city.
The Dallas Water Commons announcement follows a summer where Dallas residents have experienced a long-standing drought followed by record rainfall.
In August, the Dallas Fort-Worth area received an estimated 10.68 inches of rain, with most of the precipitation coming over just two days, Aug. 21 and 22. The rain pelted the bone-dry Dallas soil, and the ground could not absorb the rush of water fast enough. Flash flooding made parts of town inaccessible, including portions of the Cedars that would be served by these wetlands. Photographer Sean Fitzgerald snapped a photo of the land after the rains on August 22. It shows a pool of brown water sitting stagnant, which organizers presented as an opportunity.
“This is always going to be about flood prevention and filtration. We have a responsibility to understand how our water flows and what we do with it,” said Melanie Ferguson, director of the Dallas Water Commons project. “The more, say, a ranch in McKinney or Frisco turns into 2,000 homes and there is more concrete upstream, when that comes downstream, it has huge impacts on the creeks in Dallas and how fast water moves through the levees.”
The idea for a wetland that doubles as an environmental lab started in 2013 with the city of Dallas-sponsored Connected City Design Challenge. That initiative encouraged landscape architects and other professional designers to reimagine the land surrounding the Trinity River. Early designs for what became the Dallas Water Commons envisioned a reality similar to what was shown on Thursday, nearly a decade later: nine ponds to the south of the Able Pump Station, helping purify the runoff from the north before it reaches the river below.
“The future of cities is linked to water,” Ferguson said. “It always has been, and it is likely to always do so in the future. The Dallas Water Commons will provide all three: flood management, conservation, and filtration.”
The North Central Texas Council of Governments provided a $350,000 grant for engineering viability studies. By 2016, the then-known Dallas Water Gardens briefed the Dallas Park and Recreation Board on the prospective project.
In November 2017, the city of Dallas allocated $7.5 million in bond funding for the project, which Matthews Southwest matched with a cash and land donation worth another $7.5 million.
Currently, the project is in the design phase, which should be complete in 2023. Construction will begin in 2024 and is expected to take between 18 and 24 months, after which amenities like the “Education Urban Water Lab” will be built. Matthews Southwest, which owns the nearby Southside on Lamar, will be the project manager. The effort is a partnership between Dallas Water Utilities and the Dallas Parks Department, highlighting the dual importance of function and recreation.
Meek, meanwhile, is anticipating what folks who visit the wetlands will take from their experiences. She hopes it helps the public understand the importance of nature in urban cities.
“I am hoping what this project will do is make citizens realize that we have to elect people who see the importance of these issues surrounding the environment and embrace them with integrity and forthrightness,” Meek said.
It all starts with the water.