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Lake Travis Water Level

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Boaters beware: Floating, submerged dangers are everywhere

Posted: Thu, 9 Jun 2016 11:55 AM - 3,158 Readers

By: Shannon Tompkins

Flood debris clogs the San Jacinto River West Fork channel and what once was a boat ramp beneath the Highway 59 bridge. Photo: Shannon Tompkins
Photo: Shannon Tompkins

The impact, Randy Wells remembered, "was like a 'chop block' out of nowhere."

One second, Wells and two companions in his 21-foot boat were skittering across the ruffled surface of the upper reaches of Lake Livingston, anticipating a Memorial Weekend fishing trip. The next, they were sprawling on the boat's deck or slammed into the console, side and gunwale.

In the low light of early morning with the slight chop on the water and the almost absent-minded confidence that comes from running a boat over familiar water, none of them had spotted the dark object barely poking above the surface.

"It was part of a telephone pole or utility pole or maybe an old pier piling," Wells said of the barely floating, creosote-soaked wooden pole his boat slammed into that morning.

The boat's hull rode over the semi-submerged pole, with the outboard motor taking the impact - a hit so violent it almost sheared the outboard's lower unit and sent the trio of anglers flying.

Luckily, Wells had attached the engine's emergency cut-off switch cord to his belt loop, and the "kill switch" worked perfectly, stopping the engine when he was thrown from the helm. Other than some bruises, a serious scare, a lost day of fishing and several hundreds of dollars in damage to the outboard, the boat's passengers were OK.

"It could have been so much worse," said Wells, a Houston-area angler who has boated and fished on Lake Livingston for more than two decades. "With all this rain and flooding, there's a ton of stuff floating in the lakes now. People need to be really careful."

He's right. Texas rivers, reservoirs and bays are awash with runoff from recent heavy rains, creating potentially dangerous, even deadly, conditions for anglers and boaters.

The mountain of debris carried by the floodwaters is the most obvious and ubiquitous danger for boaters. And that danger applies to coastal bays as well as inland rivers and reservoirs.

The heavy rains and associated record flooding have swept an almost unimaginable amount floating debris on its crest. Whole fallen trees, limbs, logs, loose lumber, pilings, all or part of piers and docks, refrigerators and washers and driers and all manner of appliances from flooded homes, parts of those homes - basically, anything that floats - have ended up in rivers, lakes and bays.

Lake closures abound

The flooding and influx of debris have been so considerable and the danger so obvious that authorities controlling several public reservoirs temporarily closed those waters to recreational boating.

Earlier this week, the Lower Colorado River Authority closed lakes Travis, Inks, Marble Falls and LBJ to recreational boating, citing the danger poised by floating debris and submerged structures as the reason. Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin, also on the flooded Colorado River, were closed to recreational boating last week. The closures will continue as long as conditions warrant, LCRA officials said.

Several other reservoirs, including Lake Conroe on the San Jacinto River and Lake Murvaul on the Sabine River drainage, have seen short-term closures because of danger poised by high water and floating debris.

That danger from flood-carried debris, floating or otherwise, will continue for weeks on many waters across the state as high-water conditions persist on rivers and reservoirs.

And the danger is not confined to inland areas. Flooding rivers have pumped piles of floating debris into bays along the upper and middle coast. Anglers and boaters from Sabine Lake to West Matagorda Bay have reported encountering an unusually high amount of floating debris - mostly logs and trees, poles, metal barrels, sections of piers, boat houses, even a couple of large, metal trash containers - in the bays.

Officials urge caution

The floating debris problem as well as the potential for boaters to strike unseen obstructions have been exacerbated by extremely high water levels on many reservoirs in the eastern half of the state. Those high water levels have inundated thousands of acres of normally dry terrain around the lake, floating additional items and giving boaters access to areas with flooded but standing trees, buildings and other potential obstructions.

Several Texas lakes are far over their normal pool levels.

Lake Somerville on the Brazos River drainage is a stunning 21 feet above its full mark. Lake Whitney, also on the Brazos, is 28 feet above its normal level. Lake Belton on the Leon River is 2 feet above full; Lake Proctor near Comanche is a 34.5 feet above its standard conservation pool mark, and all access areas are closed. Lake Wright-Patman on the Sulphur River is more than 26 feet over its normal level. Canyon Lake is 10 feet high. Lake Travis, which a year ago was more than 50 feet below its full mark, is now 12 feet above that mark and higher than it has been in almost a decade.

If Texas has a normal, fairly dry summer - a big "if," considering recent weather patterns - those water levels are likely to moderate over coming months. But now, here at the start of the summer and the peak of boating season, the threat posed to boaters by floating debris and submerged debris deposited by flooding is considerable.

Boating safety officials recommend boaters be particularly careful over coming weeks, especially on waters affected by recent flooding.

Floating debris may be anywhere, and boaters are urged to maintain a close watch for any hazards created by flooding. Also, areas that in the past have been free of obstructions may not be now. Floods have deposited and relocated scores of large trees and other potentially dangerous obstructions in lakes, bays and rivers.

*  Story Contributed by: Shannon Tompkins


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