Two Lake Waco boat ramps may reopen for the July 4 weekend, but it could take weeks for the lake’s flood-drenched parks to dry out enough to open, and months for them to be fully repaired.
All ramps, marinas and campgrounds have been closed since the Memorial Day floods that raised the lake 17 feet over its normal level. The water completely submerged campsites, roads, electrical facilities, lift stations, pavilions and restrooms.
The lake is still up six feet over its normal level of 462 feet above sea level. Lake Waco manager Heath McLane with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said he hopes the lake will drop another four feet by July 12, allowing some park facilities to reopen.
In the meantime, he aims to reopen the Speegleville and Koehne Park boat ramps by Independence Day weekend.
McLane said his office has been getting more than 30 calls a day asking or complaining about the closure of the lake during the peak of the recreation season.
“We want it open as much as anybody,” he said. “I have no benefit in keeping it closed. As soon as we can open, we’re going to open. . . . The Corps of Engineers isn’t trying to ruin your summer.”
All the parks and hiking areas are closed, along with the Lake Waco Wetlands. Many of the roads around the parks are closed, but McLane said people can still walk to portions of the shoreline to fish.
The extent of the damage was plainly visible Tuesday at Airport Beach. The roofs of the picnic shelters and bathrooms still bear marks of the flood. Driftwood and floatable trash are scattered throughout the park.
Portions of the park road are just now emerging from the water and will require another two weeks of drying out before they’re ready for traffic.
The park playground is surrounded by a moat, and much of its protective wood mulch has floated away, some deposited on a road 75 yards away.
“We’ll rescue the part that’s on the road and put it back,” McLane said.
The beach itself will likely have to be rebuilt with new sand, as will the beaches at Twin Bridges Park, McLane said. That work could cost about $15,000, he said.
Corps staffers will have to wait for the water to recede to assess the damage to picnic tables and electric and sewer stations. Assuming moderate damage to those facilities, the local office is seeking about $500,000 in “supplemental funding” for repairs above Lake Waco’s annual budget of $2.9 million.
McLane said Lake Waco is among dozens of Corps lakes that have flooded in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas and will need repairs. But he said if the lake can get funding within the next couple of months, the cleanup and repairs could be completed by end of summer.
This isn’t the first major flood at Lake Waco, or the worst. The lake reached 488 feet in 1991 and 482 in 2007. This year, the peak was 479.13 feet on May 31.
McLane said the parks were built with the understanding that they might have to be sacrificed to prevent flooding downstream in Waco and beyond.
“Our No. 1 mission is flood control,” he said. “The lake’s supposed to hold back the floodwaters from the Brazos. We damage our stuff before we let other people’s stuff get damaged.”
Lake Whitney is holding even more floodwater back from the Brazos. The Corps lake was at 548.76 feet elevation Tuesday, more than 15 feet above normal. The lake dam was releasing nearly 19,000 cubic feet per second into the Brazos River on Tuesday.
Parks and ramps have closed at Whitney’s Corps parks since May 29 and will not reopen for at least several weeks, lake manager Abraham Phillips said.
“I would hope we’d have something open by the first of August,” he said. “Our goal is to open one park at a time. It’s too big an undertaking to do everything at once.”
Lake Whitney State Park will be closed until the end of August, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website.
Phillips said Lake Whitney last year drew 1.5 million visitors, and it’s a shame that almost no one will get to use it in the prime recreation season this year.
“We’ll do everything possible to get it open,” he said. “I’m a big recreational user too, and me and my wife and kids have camped a lot at Lake Whitney. It’s very frustrating not to be able to camp.”
Elsewhere in the region, parks and ramps are closed at Lake Navarro Mills, while most campsites and all ramps are closed at Lake Belton. Two boat ramps have reopened at Lake Aquilla, and Lake Stillhouse Hollow has all facilities open.
Jim Yowell, owner of Yowell’s Boat Yard in Waco, said the lake closures have had some effect on his boat sales, but he’s not worried.
“I look at it as more positive than negative,” he said. “Whitney, Belton and Stillhouse have been out of commission, and now they have water. I think of the big picture. We’re going to lose a few weeks now, but we’re going to have a longer summer boating season. . . . If it had to be drought or water, I’ll take water any day of the week.”