Posted by: Josh Hinkle | August 14, 2009

What a Difference a Drought Makes

Stranded boats at Lake Travis

Stranded boats at Lake Travis

I never really sweated, until I moved to central Texas. It’s not like I didn’t get hot before. I wore a marching band uniform in the blazing sun, for goodness sake. Perhaps, even in my high school “athleticism,” I was just not… a sweater. But that’s a good thing, right? No one likes a sweater, especially those colorfully-woven ones your grandma gives at Christmas even though she’ll never see you wear it. I’m sweating just thinking about wool!

Nearly five months ago, everyone at my new station kept telling me to expect to tell a lot of “drought” stories. Surely, they were exaggerating, I thought. Since then, it’s truly been an every-other-day thing. The drought consumes my work week. I can’t escape it. And believe me, I am perspiring these days. It’s disgusting. As the temperature rises above 100 degrees, the sweat just pours forth. Seriously, I’ve ruined dress shirts. I keep paper towels in my work vehicle to mop off my forehead before I have to shoot a standup. Makeup does nothing to hide what’s trickling into my eyes, burning them like a bad Johnson & Johnson commercial. Moving on.

Basically, I believe, if I’m losing moisture that fast, everything else is, too. The photos I’m including in this blog post should be a good indication. We’ll start with Blanco State Park below (watch my KXAN story, “Drought Leads to Fish Rescue“). This is the second smallest camping park in Texas, and the number of visitors there is dwindling by the day. The Blanco River’s water level dropped so low, it backed up behind the dam you see in the photos. Fish traveling downstream had no place to swim, quickly cramming up against that barrier. Park rangers had to physically remove three thousand fish by net to the other side of the dam and drain the upper end of the stream to prevent this problem from happening again. If they had left the fish alone, the oxygen would have disappeared and there would be a disgusting mess of dead fish, certainly attracting far fewer tourists than the park tallies now.

(left) Blanco State Park summer 2007, (right) Blanco State Pary summer 2009

(left) Blanco State Park summer 2007, (right) Blanco State Park summer 2009

For another before-and-after look at the drought’s effect, I went to a second Blanco County site, Pedernales Falls (watch my KXAN story, “Pedernales Falls Down to a Trickle“). Hiking down the bluff with a camera on my shoulder, I definitely wished I had brought my water bottle from the car. There certainly wasn’t much water waiting for me at the end of the trek. The falls were reduced to a trickle, yet still beautifully pooling into a green waterway. It was, however, much different than the roaring rapids I glimpsed in photos from two months before at the ranger’s station. Understanding there was just not enough inflow to create that cascade, I remembered an earlier trip to the top of the largest chain of lakes in central Texas.

(left) Pedernales Falls June 2009, (right) Pedernales Falls August 2009

(left) Pedernales Falls June 2009, (right) Pedernales Falls August 2009

The Highland Lakes’ primary water source is the Colorado River. Constantly reporting on the two lakes most affected by the drought, Travis and Buchanan, I decided to take a trip north of the bodies of water to see what the river looked like there (watch my KXAN story, “Receding River Leaving Less Lake Water“).

Colorado River in the distance north of Lake Buchanan

Colorado River in the distance north of Lake Buchanan

I interviewed a couple near the village of Tow that could stick their toes in the water from their back porch dock just a year ago. Now, it’s a twelve-foot drop from that point to the ground below ,and a vast, open stretch of grass the size of three football fields stands between them and what’s left of the river. Cattle cross back and forth between the banks, barely wetting their knees. It’s no wonder the lake levels themselves are breaking records.

The village, Tow, where that couple lives is near the small town of Bluffton, which is actually the second small town of Bluffton in Texas. The original sat where the northernmost Highland Lake, Buchanan, now exists. When crews decided to dig the lake early last century, the town had to move. Now, some of the islands popping up during the drought in the middle of the lake show foundations and markers left behind from that old settlement. In fact, the Vanishing Texas River Cruise now uses that recently resurfaced site as its main attraction, because the former hot spots are too risky to take the boat (watch my KXAN story, “River Cruises Vanish Due to Lake Levels“). The waterfall upstream from that couple’s home was once the highlight of the voyage. Now, passengers should just count their blessings they even make it on the water. Launching a speedboat is almost out of the question. As I write this blog post, the water level at Buchanan has dropped below the point of entry at all boat ramps, though Burnet County keeps one open beyond the level suggested. That ramp will likely close in a matter of days.

Lake Buchanan boat ramp extension at Llano County Park

Lake Buchanan boat ramp extension project at Llano County Park

On the Llano County side, construction crews are working fiercely to extend another ramp by 400 feet (watch my KXAN story, “Llano County Extends Buchanan Boat Ramp“). But unless the area receives significant rainfall, that lengthening project still won’t reach the water’s edge. Southward along the Colorado is the other lake not kept at a constant level by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Like Buchanan, Lake Travis is the reservoir for maintaining the other lakes’ levels. Just this week, its last remaining boat ramp closed, as the water dropped below the point where people could put a boat in safely.

Lake Travis' Mansfield Dam boat ramp (now closed)

Lake Travis' Mansfield Dam boat ramp (now closed)

A much more commercial lake, even Travis’ private marinas are suffering (watch my KXAN story, “Lake Travis Near 25-year Low“). I watched makeshift barges of hundreds of boats make their way a mile out into the lake, so owners could then use the crafts. It’s a bigger hassle though, as the marinas now have to shuttle people to those floating docks from the shore. On land, the original docks are now beached, and some boats are stranded until water encompasses them once again.

Anderson Mill Marina moves a mile onto Lake Travis

Anderson Mill Marina moves a mile onto Lake Travis

I like to keep my apartment at 76 degrees. Sitting in the air conditioning so I don’t have to sweat it out, I find doing this part of my job, writing, such a comfort. If only relief came that easily for the rest of central Texas. Perhaps someday soon.

Visit the “Drought and Rain” section of KXAN.com for extensive coverage of this historic weather pattern across central Texas.

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