How leaky pipes help trees thrive on UT Austin’s campus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Who knew leaky pipes could be a good thing? That’s the findings from new research out of The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences.

Researchers found between 25% to 50% of the water running through Waller Creek — which crosses along UT Austin’s campus — is the product of leaky city pipes, UT officials said in a release. Those leaks provide a gift, allowing the creek to help nourish trees along its banks, even during drought conditions.

The UT research team’s work determined this is one of the “unintended positive effects” of urbanization — but added this benefit doesn’t cancel out some drawbacks, like pollution or heightened concentrations of illness-causing bacteria. Those findings were published in the Natural Partner Journal Urban Sustainability.

“Those negative effects are not canceled out,” Jay Banner, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences and the director of the Environmental Science Institute, said in the release. “One has to weigh the unintended positive consequences with the expected and long-shown negative consequences.”

Researchers analyzed tree growth patterns along Waller Creek and compared those to Onion Creek, a stream in a more rural region about 12 miles north of UT’s campus. When looking at the ages of both creeks’ trees, the oldest ones at Waller Creek are from 1933, while the oldest ones at Onion Creek date back to 1844.

“The cores revealed that from the beginning, the trees along Waller Creek were sheltered from drought, with tree growth showing only a weak connection to drought severity,” the release read in part.

Researchers also reviewed drought impacts from the most severe timespan on record: 1950 to 1957. During that timespan, Waller Creek’s tree growth declined slightly, while Onion Creek’s trees saw a more dramatic drop in growth levels.

More details on the research team’s evaluations are available online.

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