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Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society

July 14, 2014
Mitchell Lake Wildlife History: an Illustrated History, MS 423

Mitchell Lake Wildlife History: an Illustrated History, MS 423

Earlier this year Special Collections staff was fortunate enough to meet with Dwight Henderson and receive the donation of two groups of records. Dr. Henderson, former UTSA Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, donated his faculty papers to the UTSA University Archives, as well as records related to the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society, a group that assisted San Antonio Water System in protecting and developing Mitchell Lake as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

Just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake is part of the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, which is on a 1200-acre natural area. The bird refuge consists of the 600-acre Mitchell Lake and there are an additional 215 acres of wetlands and ponds and 385 acres of upland habitat. The Leeper House, a restored 1910 home is now the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center headquarters. National Audubon Society has partnered with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to showcase this natural area and welcomes nature enthusiasts as well as schoolchildren and families. The best way to learn more about the  history of Mitchell Lake, and the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society, are through the words of Dwight Henderson and Ruth Lofgren in their book   Mitchell Lake Wildlife Refuge: an illustrated history:

Thousands of years ago a small lake formed in a natural drainage area south of the city of South Antonio. Migrating birds flocked to this natural wetland on their way south. Early Spanish residents named it Laguna de los Patos (Lake of the Ducks). After Asa Mitchell purchased 14,000 acres in 1839 which included the little lake, it became known as Mitchell’s Lake. Until the end of the century a few birders visited the lake, and duck hunters found it an ideal spot for their sport.

All of this changed in the 1890s when San Antonio developed both a water and a sewage system. Gravity carried the sewage initially to a 500 acre sewer farm near Stinson Field. Seeking a larger site, the city contracted with The San Antonio Irrigation Company to construct a dam at Mitchell Lake to create a larger lake where the sewage could be sent. From 1901 until 1987 sewage-both raw until 1930 and treated thereafter, flowed into the lake area.

The larger lake continued to attract birds along with birders and hunters. As more people moved to the vicinity of the lake after World War II, residents began complaining about the odors emanating from the lake. The Texas legislature stepped in in 1972 requiring the city to cease using the lake for the sewage. Concerned with what might happen to the lake, the San Antonio Audubon Society suggested that the area become a refuge. City Council agreed and passed an ordinance in 1973 designating Mitchell Lake as a refuge for shore birds and water fowl.

Although the site was officially a refuge, no one knew what might happen to it in the future. From 1987 to 2004 a number of organizations and individuals maintained a careful vigilance over the lake, beginning with the 201 Wastewater Advisory Committee. Other key organizations were the Junior League, the League ofWomen Voters, and the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society (MLWS).

In 2000 the SAWS Trustees and the City Council approved the Mitchell Lake Master Implementation Plan which would provide a blue print for the development of the lake as a refuge and an educational natural classroom. In order to carry out the plan, SAWS began the process to find an organization to manage the site. While that was underway, the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society proposed moving the Leeper House, which was at the McNay Art Museum, to Mitchell Lake to serve as a nature center at the refuge.

A combination of money from a 1994 bond issue, SAWS, and the MLWS resulted in the house being moved in 2003 to Mitchell Lake. SAWS also provided a number of infrastructure improvements including roads and bridges at the site.

SAWS solved the management issue in 2004 when it contracted with National Audubon Society to operate the Mitchell Lake Wildlife Refuge for 25 years, with the possibility of a renewal. The Mitchell Lake Audubon Center opened to the public in September 2004.


The Mitchell Lake Wetlands Society Records consist of administrative records, including correspondence, minutes, reports and financial records as well as typescript drafts, research materials and photographs. The bulk of the materials were collected by Dwight Henderson and Ruth Lofgren.


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