Eagle Scout making waves in the battle against zebra mussels in Texas lakes

Declan Howell’s presentation to the council conservation committee was so impressive that its members had just one question left: “When do you head off to college?”

The young man had presented in rich detail a summary of the project he completed for the BSA’s new Distinguished Conservation Service Award.

Declan told the group of adults on the Zoom call how he worked with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to set up sampler boxes that track invasive zebra mussels near boating areas in and around Austin, Texas.

“Once zebra mussels infect a lake, they spread too rapidly to control,” Declan explained. “Any chemicals that kill the mussels also hurt or kill other lake organisms.”

By helping detect zebra mussel infestations in their early stages, officials can minimize the damage they cause.

It’s all very advanced stuff, which brings us back to the committee’s question: When is college, Declan?

“He gave us an interesting look and said he had not thought about that,” remembers Jessica Snider, director of STEM, conservation and sustainability for the Capitol Area Council. “He said he was only 13. I think nearly every jaw on the Zoom call dropped.”

We caught up with the 13-year-old Eagle Scout from Troop 70 of Austin to learn more about this extremely impressive project.

The trouble with zebras

Declan remembers the first time he heard about zebra mussels. His parents were watching the local news when a report aired about zebra mussels invading Lake Austin.

“I remember being relatively unconcerned as I lacked the knowledge to understand the true impact of this event,” Declan says.

He gets it now. Zebra mussels (or Dreissena polymorpha) are a type of invasive mussels from eastern Europe. They eat algae, which allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water. This destroys lower-temperature habitats and reduces the available space for animals that rely on these colder waters to survive.

They also clog human-made infrastructure and increase maintenance costs to remove them from intakes, boats and equipment. They’re frustratingly hardy, too.

“They proliferate rapidly,” Declan says, “and careless boaters can transfer mussels from one lake to another.”

A First Class idea

For First Class rank requirement 9b, Scouts must investigate an environmental issue affecting their community and share what they learned about that issue with their patrol or troop.

As you might guess, Declan’s speech was about zebra mussels.

“There was an article about zebra mussels in our local lakes, and since we have so many lakes in Austin, it was having a big impact in my community,” Declan says. “I presented the speech to my patrol — all very unimpressed. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring speech because I had only done a little bit of research and didn’t know much.”

This was an eye-opening moment for Declan. Being passionate about an issue is important, but it’s best to pair that passion with information.

Looking back, Declan realizes he followed a five step process from identifying the problem to being part of the solution.

  1. Research the issue. “Find out what it is, why it’s there, how you might be able to help, when it first started and who might be able to help you in your community,” he says.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. “Look for previously used solutions or preventive actions for this issue,” Declan says. “Look for how you might be able to add to or improve the work already being done.”
  3. Get help. “I only got my project done at the scale I did because of great support from the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.”
  4. Make your plan. “Using your research, construct a plan on how you want to do your project,” Declan says. This involves gathering materials (Declan got most of his materials donated by Home Depot) and organizing a schedule for when you want to complete your project.
  5. Get it done. “Ask around your troop and community for volunteers and go do your project,” he says. “Any help to the environment can make a difference, no matter how small your project may seem.”

How it works

For his project, Declan used something called a settlement sampler. The device gives zebra mussels a perfect surface to latch onto.

“Zebra mussels are very different from local mussels in the fact that they attach to smooth surfaces instead of rough surfaces,” Declan says. “This preference is what causes major problems with the mussels in water filtration.”

Heather Ball served as Declan’s Distinguished Conservation Service Award advisor. She says watching Declan complete the project made her proud to be involved in Scouting.

“Declan chose to tackle a very wily opponent in the zebra mussel, which is invading our Texas lakes and streams,” Ball says. “Declan knew he would have to educate and enlist dock owners to slow the spread in the two lakes he focused on. He generated colorful, informative fliers. He followed up with dock owners personally. And he documented his leadership in his careful planning and execution of the project.”

More work to be done

Despite the conservation committee’s initial assumption, college is still a ways off for Declan.

But he has started thinking about what will follow his high school career. He wants to attend either the University of California at San Diego or the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study pharmaceutical sciences or pharmacology. He’s hoping to get his pharmacist’s license and work in pharmaceutical research.

But before that, Declan wants to continue giving back to Scouting and working toward the next project in the Distinguished Conservation Service Award, which he expects will be related to aquatics conservation.

That dedication has impressed Declan’s parents, David and Heather Howell.

David, an Eagle Scout, is an assistant Scoutmaster in Troop 72, a troop for girls whose members include Declan’s younger sister, Vivienne. Heather has served multiple roles at the troop and district levels and helped to found Troop 72.

“What impressed us the most about Declan’s project was his laser focus on zebra mussel detection,” Heather says. “The fact that he decided on this topic for his project as a very young person with a long way to go before he even had to be thinking about Eagle projects, and stuck with that idea for years, was something that really impressed us both.”

David agrees.

“We honestly weren’t sure as parents what he could do at the level of an individual Scout to make an impact in the fight against zebra mussels,” David says. “We actively encouraged him to explore other ideas, but he was adamant, and came up with a great project idea that was realistically achievable and really did have an effect.”

That project earned Declan a Take Care of Texas pin from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But David says awards aren’t as meaningful as what they represent.

“Declan’s growth in Scouting has been remarkable to us,” David says. “His experiences in Scouting have given him a huge amount of confidence in knowing that even as a young person, he can take actions in his community that really make a difference.”

About Bryan Wendell 3202 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.