Damage at the parks and campgrounds surrounding Lake Waco is gradually becoming apparent as floodwaters slowly recede, revealing debris and the grim realities of cleanup efforts yet to come.
Among those realities: Most park activities at the lake may well be dead in the water for 2007.
Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Saturday that they hoped to have a couple of day-use parks at Lake Waco open in time for Labor Day. However, they also said their progress could be limited by additional rainfall and budget constraints.
With a damage estimate at Lake Waco of $2.3 million and the Corps without contingency funds to cover flood-damaged parks, officials were cautiously optimistic that Labor Day would not be a complete washout for holiday revelers.
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, toured the partially submerged parks by helicopter and by foot Saturday to see the damage firsthand.
"Normally this time of year we would have thousands of families from Central Texas out here picnicking, having family reunions, and it is sad to see this kind of damage," he said.
Push for cleanup efforts
When he returns to Washington, D.C., next week, Edwards said he'll push to have Congress fund Corps cleanup efforts throughout the state. Currently, the Corps estimates it will cost about $50 million to clean up parks at the 23 flood-damaged Corps lakes across the state.
Only two Corps lakes in Texas remain untouched by the flooding.
Before he received the higher $2.3 million repair cost estimate, Edwards earmarked $1.5 million to clean up Lake Waco parks in an appropriations bill that has passed the U.S. House. However, the soonest those funds could be available is when the next federal fiscal year begins — Oct. 1.
In the meantime, Corps officials are working to shift funds in their current budgets to have a limited number of parks and boat ramps open by the end of August. Twin Bridges Park and Airport Park could be the first to reopen.
"Without extra funding for cleanup and repairs, we will not be able to get them all repaired under our normal operations and maintenance budget," said Toni Rushing, operations project manager for the Mid-Brazos region. "It's just not large enough. We are hoping there will be some special funding or appropriation."
The situation is much the same at Lake Whitney, another popular Central Texas destination for boating and outdoor activities. The Corps hopes to reopen a few day-use parks and boat ramps there by Labor Day, said Ronnie Bruggman, Lake Whitney reservoir manager.
"We expect that in a couple of weeks that, as long as the rain holds out, we should be getting close to normal levels, and we should be getting facilities open," he said. "There may be some parks that we don't open until we get some additional funding."
Picnic tables, covered shelters and playground equipment were still partially submerged Saturday at Lake Waco, which is 17 feet above its normal level. Corps officials estimate it will take about two weeks to discharge the remaining floodwater.
Because many of Lake Waco's recreation structures were installed in recent years, they will be easier to repair because of modern designs, Rushing said. Restrooms and other facilities made of concrete should have fared better than the older, wooden buildings would have, she said.
Edwards said the effort to reopen the Lake Waco and Lake Whitney parks is a priority issue because of the role they play in providing recreation outlets to Central Texas residents. About 2.3 million people visit parks at Lake Waco and Lake Whitney each year, he said.
"More Americans visit Army Corps parks then visit the entire National Parks system," he said. "To a lot of Central Texas families and Waco-area families, Corps parks are in effect the National Park system.
Finding the money
"That is why I intend to do everything I can in working with the Corps and the Congress to see that we can find some money so we can clean up this debris and reopen the parks," he said. "Instead of being vacated in the middle of the summer, we can have thousands of families out here enjoying Mother Nature and the great outdoors."
Lake Waco was swollen with 20 feet of floodwater during the Fourth of July holiday, prompting the cancellation of campsite reservations and turning what normally would be a boon for marinas into a bust.
The chance of thunderstorms today is 30 percent, decreasing to 20 percent Monday through Wednesday, the National Weather Service said. The chance then increases slightly through next weekend.
So far, Waco has received 40.17 inches of rainfall since Jan. 1, more than twice what it ordinarily gets. Nearly 11 inches have fallen since June 1, a period when Waco normally receives nearly 5 inches. The city received .42 of an inch Saturday.