Low lake levels impact USACE-managed lakes across Texas

Fort Worth District, USACE
Published Nov. 3, 2023
old bridge

An old bridge along Waco Lake from the 1960s is exposed as a result of the low lake levels.

Heron on dock

The lowered lake levels also disrupt the natural balance required for various wildlife species to flourish. Migratory birds, for instance, rely on specific water levels and habitats for resting, feeding, and breeding purposes.

Airboat launching

Lake staff prepare for a gator hunt on Lake B.A. Steinhagen, located midway between Jasper and Woodville, Texas, in the heart of the East Texas Pineywoods. Lake levels in this part of Texas were hardly impacted by the recent drought conditions suffered at other lakes in Texas.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lakes provide a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts seeking recreational activities such as fishing, boating, and camping throughout the State of Texas. However, the constant need for water supply, coupled with the recent drought conditions have drastically impacted many of the lake operations throughout the state.

“The Corps’ Fort Worth District manages 25 lakes in Texas,” said Tim MacAllister, the Fort Worth District’s chief of operations. “Although the extreme hot weather has impacted the lakes differently depending on a particular region, we have generally seen lowered lake levels throughout most of the state.”

The district manages these lakes, spanning six river basins, including the Red, Neches, Trinity, Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe River basins.
Along the eastern portion of the state, the impacts were not as severe as other areas.

The lakes within the Red River and Neches River basins remain nearly full. Lake O’ the Pines is just in the flood pool, while Sam Rayburn is at around six feet below normal. On the other hand, the lakes along the Colorado River basin such as O.C. Fisher and Hords Creek are around 50 and 20 feet below normal, respectively. Stillhouse and Belton lakes, within the Brazos River basin, are both around 20 feet low.

Low lake levels create a myriad of concerns ranging from water supply, environmental and recreational impacts. Specifically, low lake levels create a noted ecological Impact as it affects the delicate balance of the ecosystem within and around area lakes.

“Extreme fluctuations in water levels can disrupt aquatic habitats, affecting the feeding and breeding grounds for fish and invertebrates,” said Mei Ling Liu, the Texas Conservation Alliance’s community director. “Additionally, drought conditions can impact habitat diversity for plants and wildlife, affecting species interactions and abundance, thus disturbing the overall health of lake ecosystems.”

The lowered lake levels also disrupt the natural balance required for various wildlife species to flourish. Migratory birds, for instance, rely on specific water levels and habitats for resting, feeding, and breeding purposes. Altering these conditions can lead to a decline in bird populations and disturb the ecological dynamics of the surrounding areas.

“Birds and other wildlife follow the water and as the water recedes or becomes scarce, the migratory birds may change their natural patterns and travel to other locations,” said Michael Kinard, the lake manager at Lavon Lake, located in the Dallas- Fort Worth area.

Low lake levels also bring about changes to the shoreline creating both positive and negative results. These differences come to light when looking at newly exposed land resulting from receding water levels.

“The lower lake levels create more shoreline and off-road access which in turn, attracts illegal dirt bike and ATV usage in the area,” added Kinard. “We are also seeing more illegal dumping as a result of the newly exposed areas.”

On the other hand, some rather unique treasures have been recently rediscovered at the Corps’ Canyon Lake, located between Austin and San Antonio, along the I-35 corridor.

With the lake level about 19 feet below normal, a cavern, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, has resurfaced. Additionally, remnants of an old town settled by German immigrants featuring tombstones and remnants of an old bridge have also been exposed.

“The cave revealed at Canyon Lake as a result of the drought and dropping water levels has received much attention over the past month,” said operations project manager, Marcus Schimank.

“USACE understands and appreciates the interest in this natural feature but urges people not to enter the shallow cave as there are potential hazards such as ceiling collapse, falling rocks and hazards on the floor that are not obvious because of the sediment,” he further stated.

Schimank and the Canyon Lake staff welcome people to boat or walk up to take pictures without entering the cave and ask that cave visitors respect the area by leaving it as they found it.

“Please do not deface the area, move natural materials or leave trash behind stressed Schimank. “We want people to enjoy it and to be safe while doing so.”

Corps officials also remind boaters to be aware of water hazards resulting from the lower water levels because sand bars, stumps and other debris that posed no problems in the past may now suddenly impact known areas.

The lowered lake level's impact on recreational opportunities due to closed boat ramps can adversely affect local businesses dependent on the lake's popularity.

“Proctor Lake is within the Brazos River Basin and we are currently about 14 feet below normal elevation,” said Proctor Lake manager, Chad Schaffer. “All of our boat ramps are currently closed due to low lake levels.”

Addressing the environmental concerns and recreational impacts associated with low lake levels require collaborative efforts between government agencies, stakeholders, conservation organizations and the public.

Working as a team while Implementing measures to monitor and manage water quality, creating alternative habitats for wildlife, and raising public awareness about the importance of environmental stewardship can help mitigate the negative effects of the lowered lake levels.