Summer heat takes toll on recreation
From belly-up “pogies” in bayside canals to put-off paddlers on the Devils River, this Texas summer has taken a toll on outdoor recreation and resources.
The siege of extremely hot temperatures that has had Texas sizzling since early July combined with a deepening dry spell that now has more than half of the state designated as suffering drought conditions is having an impact from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande and from West Texas to the Gulf Coast.
The combination of unrelenting heat and dryness has forced restrictions on activities and even access at a handful of state parks during the peak of a summer visitation.
While this summer has been hard on human outdoor recreation, the state’s wildlife is, mostly, coming through just fine, exhibiting the resilience and adaptability built into natural systems.
There are exceptions. And some of them have surfaced in Texas bays over the past weeks.
Silvery sheets of dead fish have appeared in scattered areas of some Texas bay systems. Usually the rank reefs of deceased fish appear in backwater pockets, channels and, especially, the dead-end canals that vein bayside developments. In almost all cases, the vast majority of victims are Gulf menhaden, a small, thin, deep-bodied forage species most often called “pogies.”
Such fish kills are regular occurrences along the Texas coast during summer. The die-offs, which can affect just a few hundred fish or sometimes tens of thousands, are a result of environmental and biological factors that include water temperature, movement, and the behavior and physiology of fish that combine to kill the fish.
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Low oxygen levels
Dead-end canals and other shallow, protected coastal waters where the influence of wind and tides are minimal, preventing the mixing of atmospheric oxygen and water, can have their almost stagnant water lose all or almost all of its dissolved oxygen. The loss usually is caused by eutrophication, a kind of nutrient-fueled fire, triggered by a cascade of biological events, that consumes dissolved oxygen. The process is exacerbated and accelerated by hot temperatures — the higher the water temperature, the less dissolved oxygen that water is able to “hold.”
The result is that fish caught in the hypoxic or anoxic water suffocate. The waters most likely to suffer these low-oxygen levels are also the waters in which pogies, silversides, mullet and other forage species often concentrate.
Scattered fish kills have popped up in bays along the Texas coast over the last month. Most have been relatively small in size, area affected and scope, involving almost exclusively menhaden and other small forage species. Other than a few back drum, croaker and the occasional redfish or sheepshead, few sportfish, which are much more mobile than the smaller forage species, have fallen victim.
Last week, anglers fishing near Smith Point at the juncture of Trinity and East Galveston Bay encountered one of the latest such fish kills. The protected waters along the channel that runs between the mainland and a series of small islands and marsh-rimmed pockets was littered with tens of thousands of dead menhaden. Surface water temperature in the area was 92 degrees.
No sport fish were spotted among the rafts of rotting pogies being plundered by flocks of brown pelicans and gulls. And there have been no reported major fish kills this summer involving even moderate numbers of sport fish.
But the bay fisheries remain at risk for this annual summer threat. Fish die-offs tied to low dissolved oxygen levels typically peak in August, invariably the hottest month of Texas’ summer.
The extreme heat, combined with dry conditions, have taken their toll inland, too. While this summer has not had a significant effect on freshwater fish, it has, in some cases, affected access to that water by anglers, paddlers and swimmers.
A wide swath of Texas is under increasingly severe drought conditions. As of July 31, almost 60 percent of the state was classified as suffering drought conditions, with 36 percent of the state classified as under “severe” or “extreme” drought. A year ago, drought affected less than 1 percent of the state.
Much of the worst of the dry conditions is in a wide arch that stretches from Del Rio on the Rio Grande through the Hill Country of central Texas, up to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and into the northeast corner of the state. Those conditions are affecting access and activities in a handful of parks in that area.
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Devils River hit hard
Last week, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced it had suspended issuance of permits to paddle the section of the Devils River downstream from Baker’s Crossing and the reach of river on which the agency’s two-unit Devils River State Natural Area is located.
The agency suspended issuance of Devils River Access Permits “until further notice,” citing concerns for the safety of paddlers and the river’s fragile habitat. The move was precipitated by low flows in the Devils River — a result of the deepening drought in the region and the extreme heat.
Devils River is one of the state’s premier scenic waterways and a tremendous sport fishery. But even in times of good flows, the river is physically challenging, with long, rocky stretches of shallows and braided channels that force paddlers to walk their vessels over sections too shallow to paddle. Currently, the rivers’ flow and level are well below the minimum recommended to paddle the waterway. The low water, combined with the August heat, makes trying to paddle the river a risky proposition.
The same drought affecting Devils River is causing problems in a handful of other state parks.
At Guadalupe River State Park, potable water and showers are not available to park visitors. Because of the dry conditions, the park’s primitive camping area is closed through Aug. 31 for water conservation purposes.
Last weekend near Burnet in central Texas, a wildfire started by a vehicle’s hot muffler ignited drought-dried vegetation and spread to Inks Lake State Park. The fire scorched about 300 acres of the park, forcing emergency evacuation of park visitors.
The fire was contained and extinguished, and did not significantly damage the park’s infrastructure. The park reopened Wednesday, but some hiking trails, the primitive camping area and the youth group camping area are closed.
At Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose, flow of Paluxy River has fallen so low that the park is recommending visitors not attempt to swim in the stagnant water. On the upside, the low water level exposes some of the ancient dinosaur tracks imprinted on the river’s rocky bottom.
The boat ramp at Lake Colorado City State park is closed because of low water conditions, but it still is possible to hand-launch canoes, kayaks and other lightweight boats.
Wildfire concerns have state parks in areas hard hit by drought limiting open fires, restricting campers to only using camp stoves and prohibiting campfires. (As of Friday, burn bans prohibiting open outdoor fires were in effect in 168 of Texas’ 254 counties.)
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Most parks not affected
While too much heat and not enough rain have limited access and activities at a few state parks, almost all of the other nearly 100 units in the system have not seen any restrictions caused by this summer’s weather. There are exceptions there, too.
In a cruel twist, a smattering of parks, most of them in East Texas and along the coast, continue to have restrictions on activities and even some closed areas as they recovered from flood-related damage tied to Hurricane Harvey, which hit the state almost a year ago.
State park visitors, especially those looking ahead to what is left of summer vacation season and the Labor Day holiday weekend, can keep up with conditions and any restrictions on access or activities at state parks through the state parks section of TPWD’s website —tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks.
The website includes a section listing park “alerts” listing closures and heads-up information for visitors, as well as links to the Facebook pages that most state parks maintain.
This summer has presented its share of challenges for those participating in outdoors recreation across Texas. But even with drought, wildfires, suffocating heat and the occasional fish kill in pockets along the coast, this has been a pretty decent summer by Texas standards.
Still, for most of us, autumn can’t get here quickly enough.