Floodwaters at Lake Waco stabilized Monday after rising more than 22 feet over normal, but don’t count on it returning to a level suitable for recreational use anytime soon.
The lake level is expected to remain above normal elevations until August as rivers and lakes throughout the flooded Brazos River basin dry out. And once the levels go down, there is no emergency federal funding this year to repair the flood-ravaged parks, regional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said.
The rising water last week closed all parks on the lake, submerging boat ramps, park roads, campsites, bathrooms and playgrounds. By Monday, the water had reached the gatehouse at Airport Park.
The lake began modest releases through its gates Monday after reaching 484.5 feet above sea level, the third-highest level in its history. The lake reached nearly 488.5 feet in December 1991 and 486 in July 2007. For now, it appears the rise has stopped.
“We’ve got two gates open right now, with 3,000 cubic feet per second coming through,” lake manager Heath McLane said Monday. “That’s basically what’s coming into the lake.”
The Corps last week held back water at Lake Waco and other lakes in the Brazos basin to prevent further flooding far downstream at Richmond and Rosenberg. By Monday, Lake Whitney was up 27 feet and still rising as Brazos floodwaters continued to flow in at a rate of 45,000 cubic feet per second. Among other lakes that contribute to the Brazos River, Lake Belton was up 20 feet, Lake Stillhouse Hollow was up 18.6 feet, and Lake Somerville was up 21 feet.
Even without more heavy rains, all that water will take a long time to empty, Corps officials said.
Fort Worth-based Corps spokesman Randy Cephus said lake parks in this region could be closed for months.
“They’re saying the Fourth of July is out,” he said, referring to a popular time for lake use. “We’re hoping we can get some lesser-damaged areas refurbished by Labor Day.”
Cephus said the primary purpose of Corps lakes is flood control, and recreation is “secondary,” a “nicety.”
He said it’s uncertain whether the Corps will provide emergency funding for flood control-related repairs, but no extra money is available for recreational repairs.
That means Lake Waco staff for the second year in a row will have to clean up and repair facilities using their normal budget, which totals $2.9 million. Last year, when Memorial Day floods resulted in a 17-foot rise, Lake Waco officials spent about $250,000 for repairs, doing most of the work in-house.
Some of that money came out of the current budget year, which began in October, so it will be even harder this year to knock dollars loose for lake repairs this time, McLane said.
“We don’t have a whole lot of contingency funds,” he said.
After the 2007 floods, U.S. Rep Chet Edwards toured the lake by helicopter and later secured a $1.4 million “earmark” during the appropriations process to rebuild park facilities around the lake.
Since then, congressional reforms have eliminated the earmark process. U.S. Rep Bill Flores, R-College Station, who now represents the area, was not available for comment Monday on other possible avenues for getting the lake repaired.
Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler said he hopes the city’s legislative liaisons can talk to Flores and others about the need for emergency parks funding.
He said recreation is important for local residents and the tourism economy.
The lake gets an estimated 1 million visits a year and offers the only public campgrounds in McLennan County.
“Obviously the priority is safety, but I think the recreational aspects are incredibly important to the state and the city, and I think we would continue to advocate to add funding for parks,” Fisseler said. “This has been devastating to a lot recreational benefits of the lake. To me, this is flood damage. I think the Corps is doing the right things in terms of protecting downstream folks, but it does have consequences here.”