Thousands of American Water-willows grown by Lee College horticulture students at the Ellis prison unit in Huntsville are being planted at dozens of sites across Lake Livingston as part of a restoration project led by the Lake Livingston Friends of Reservoirs (LLFoR) and Texan by Nature, a conservation organization founded by former first lady Laura Bush.
The Trinity River Authority and Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife approved in 2013 a plan to foster natural habitat around the 85,000-acre Lake Livingston, the second-largest lake in Texas which is owned by the city of Houston and supplies 70 percent of the city’s water supply. The plan, developed by the Texas Black Bass Unlimited and the Piney Wood Lakes Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, created LLFoR and had a clear mission: re-establish Lake Livingston as a prime destination for anglers and water enthusiasts by restoring aquatic habitat and bringing the lake back to life.
To accomplish that goal, LLFoR brought together a community-based, multi-generational volunteer pool that included the Lee College students at the Ellis Unit, who have developed methods to grow healthier American Water-willow plants in less time. The water-willow is the ideal plant for the lake restoration project because of its non-invasive nature and ability to filter silt and toxins, provide habitat for fish and birds and help control soil erosion.
Texan by Nature came on board after designating LLFoR a Conservation Wrangler and partner in the restoration of Lake Livingston. Bush founded the organization to align the broad interests of conservation groups with business, healthcare, schools, the scientific community and faith-based organizations — and joined Lee College Huntsville Center administrators and faculty, local high-school students and other members of the volunteer coalition Wednesday, Sept. 13, at Wolf Creek Park in Coldspring to celebrate the progress made on the restoration so far and see firsthand how the American Water-willows are planted in the lake.
“Our Conservation Wrangler Program features the very best Texan-led conservation projects, like the Lake Livingston restoration we are celebrating today,” Bush said. “Collaborative partnerships for conservation yield great benefits — for our natural landscapes, native plants and wildlife, and for everyone involved.”
The Huntsville Center initially became involved in the project through its partnership with the Texas Master Naturalists, taking on the responsibility of growing and caring for the American Water-willows and researching and devising new methods of planting and fertilization. Students started by propagating cuttings from parent plants in trays and grow cells, then hardening them off outside until they reached 6-8 inches in height and could be placed in water to flourish.
“This program started off as just growing some plants, but it’s turned into something more,” said horticulture instructor Scooter Langley. “We usually teach mainly landscaping and greenhouses, but adding the Texas Master Naturalist is a whole different atmosphere for horticulture.”
For the horticulture students at the Ellis Unit, the opportunity to help restore Lake Livingston has been a life-changing experience that has taught them much in just a few months. Many said they feel honored to give back to the community and environment, help both humans and animals and play a role in affecting positive change despite their incarceration.
“I’ve learned to appreciate life in general, from the smallest to the greatest,” one student said. “With the Texas Master Naturalist program and the horticulture program in general, I’ve learned to understand and appreciate life. If I can care that much for a small plant, I can care much more for humanity.”