News Briefs

Mitchell Lake Audubon Center is not just for the birds

It’s mid-morning on a spring day at Mitchell Lake, and a small cloud of swallows swirls through the air, swooping after newly hatched midges. A black-neck stilt picks its food from fertile mud, its handsome hindquarters held above the muck on long red legs. A nutria leads a pack of ruddy ducks across the lake, and a flock of white pelicans, the few dawdling teenagers not interested in flying to Canada for the breeding season, sits in a tidy row on the wave break, fishing and squawking at one another.

“Local elementary teachers are like, Yay! Because there’s so much scientific method that’s easily taught here,” says Iliana Peña, director of the Center. “Even just food levels — what’s eating what in the wetlands.”

The Mitchell Lake Audubon Center and wildlife refuge is located on San Antonio’s South Side on 1,200 acres of SAWS land. The Center recently received a $150,000 gift from Dave Litman, co-founder of, which will be dispersed over three years. The Center will use the funds to expand conservation efforts and develop educational programs, the latter geared toward 4th- and 5th-grade students and tailored toward the Center’s wetland.

Historic records show that the lake was in existence when Spanish settlers established Mission Espada in 1731; a map from that time period labels the 600-acre lake “Laguna de los Patos,” or Lake of the Ducks. In 1901, San Antonio began using the lake as a sewage reservoir. If at first the lake was able to absorb the sewage material, as San Antonio’s population grew, an overabundance of sludge replaced fowl with foul odors, algae, and dead fish. In 1973, the Clean Water Act prompted the City to designate Mitchell Lake a wildlife refuge. In 1997, SAWS dedicated $1.5 million to improvements, including maintaining water levels to attract different bird species, restoring native plants, building trails and roads, and repairing a dam. SAWS also restored the historic Leeper house, built in 1910 and relocated from the McNay grounds, to function as the Center’s offices.

“It’s returned to the original use as a bird habitat,” says Peña, who adds that the lake’s green water is no longer toxic, contrary to some views. So, one guest asked, would you die if you fell in and swallowed a mouthful of it? “No, the worst that would happen is you’d get a tummy ache, and I’d have to fine you.”

In addition to school programs, the Center is open to the public and children who visit can check out a backpack filled with binoculars, compass, and guidebooks, all the tools they need to scope out the critters, from giant fire-ant hills to reptiles — there are turtles and alligators in the lake. Every year the lake attracts 300 species of migratory birds, making it a national draw for birders.

The Audubon Center is open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. to noon Sundays, and for special events. Upcoming events include a family art and nature day with the Southwest School of Art and Craft, and a presentation by Kenn Kaufman, author of Guia de Campo A Las Aves de Norteamerica, the first Spanish-language field guide to North American birds. Call 628-1639 for more information.

Susan Pagani

CPPP: There is no surplus for tax-reform proposal

The Texas Tax Reform Commission’s tax-reform proposal is fatally shortsighted, said the Center for Public Policy Priorities last week, because it relies on a phantom $4.3 billion surplus to fund public schools. Governor Rick Perry endorsed the commission’s plan, but the CPPP notes that it urged the Commission to come up with a plan to increase revenue for public education, while Perry asked for a revenue-neutral plan. Instead, the commission devised a plan that “reduces revenue by using some of the so-called surplus in this biennium to replace property-tax revenue.”

According to “Texas Has No Surplus,” a CPPP policy paper, the $4.3 billion is “an estimate of unappropriated funds that will have built up over three years,” from 2005-07. But the state legislature would still have to figure out how to fund a proposed property-tax cut beyond the 2007 school year. “Legislators could very well have to wait another three years before a similar amount is generated by the state’s antiquated tax system,” said CPPP.

If $4.3 billion were shifted from elsewhere in the state budget to fund a reduction in school property taxes, it “would require devastatingly large reductions in higher-education spending, prisons, and public-safety programs, health and human services, and general government,” according to “Texas Has No Surplus.”

CPPP argues that programs and services in these areas were affected by cuts in the 2003 budget, and the $4.3 billion comes from budget cuts that were made in 2003 and 2005. “In 2003 alone, more than $7.5 billion in general revenue spending was cut from the 2004-05 budget, from critical spending areas such as textbooks and grants for pre-K and kindergarten; teachers’ and other public employees’ health insurance; and Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program).”

Eva DeLuna Castro, policy analyst for CPPP, likened the Commission’s reasoning to a family in which the breadwinner gets a Christmas bonus and then decides to purchase a home to get his family out of an apartment. “What if you don’t get the money next year? The family would have less food or transportation money, because they have to pay for the new house. You don’t put a big budget item in your budget unless you’re sure you can pay for it. If there’s no bonus every month, then it’s not a good idea.”

Michael Cary

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