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First Lake Austin Task Force meeting devoted to hydrilla, erosion

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The latest proliferation of hydrilla and lakeside erosion topped the discussion at the Lake Austin Task Force’s first hearing on Monday night.


The task force will have two hearings, one fall and one spring, to take feedback from Lake Austin users and lakeside dwellers to make recommendations to improve the increasingly busy stretch of the Colorado River between Mansfield and Tom Miller dams. The lake has no clear stakeholder groups, so Chair Linda Guerrero said she was surprised to see what appeared to be about 100 people show up on Monday night to offer comments on lake issues.


A total of 31 speakers addressed the task force. A large number expressed concern about the nagging hydrilla problem, a fast-growing invasive plant that has stymied boaters and boat tour operators on Lake Austin. Resident Rosalie Mandy told the hearing attendees she came close to being a casualty of the hydrilla during a recent boat run.


“Why can’t we lower the lake again? Then we could clear up our area,” Mandy said, who lives near Ski Shores. “We used to put material down to stop the hydrilla for growing. The amount of activity on the lake is unbelievable right now.”


The non-native hydrilla or duckweed, clogs boat rotors and has raised lake levels by a foot in some areas, said attendees. A number of speakers noted it was a miracle that someone hadn’t died in the massive undergrowth, caught in the weed in a panic.


Task force member Mary Ann Neely, a retired Lower Colorado River Authority employee, served as staff for the LCRA’s committee to address out-of-control duckweed and hydrilla on the lake. She didn’t have a precise figure, but she estimated hydrilla growth, at its height, was at or above the current 600 acres. In an April 2012 survey, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department found more than 585 acres of hydrilla in Lake Austin, plus 86 acres of milfoil and other vegetation for a total of 672 acres, a historic high. (See city website for details.)


To combat hydrilla, state and local officials in recent years have placed thousands of sterile grass carp in Lake Austin to eat the aquatic weeds, a controversial move that has been opposed primarily by fisherman. At one point, these efforts managed to get the hydrilla vegetation down to 25 acres.


Two factors have exacerbated the hydrilla problem, Neely said. First, because of the drought, LCRA has not opened the gates to flow water to rice farmers to the south, which means hydrilla roots and stays, rather than being swept away in a downstream flow. And, second, people have cut the hydrilla in the water and let it flow, allowing it to root in new and multiple locations downstream, only exacerbating the problem.


The second major issue raised at the hearing was lakeside erosion. Lakeside resident Stephen Thomas, who addressed the task force, said lakeside wakes left by boats was an issue to solve, though he also noted the complexity of managing the problem.


“I don’t know how you do it,” said Thomas, who resides on the lake and has sold boats. “Are we going to send our lake police out to say, ‘This boat’s not right,’ and ‘This boat’s OK?’ I don’t know how you do it.”


Some users blamed the current drought as the reason for excessive usage and erosion on Lake Austin. Boaters have moved from Lake Travis, the area’s largest water supply reservoir and one most prone to fluctuations during droughts, to Lake Austin, which generally enjoys steady lake levels. Neely said the drought might have exacerbated Lake Austin usage, but that the bulk of the problem came from horizontal bulkheads, which allow property owners to build right up to the water but are easily eroded by excessive wakes.


Long-time resident Tom Davidson said the real problem appeared to be funding. He suggested a revival of Aqua Fest, or a similar event, in an effort to fund lake control efforts. If Zilker Park could benefit from Austin City Limits, Lake Austin could benefit from the long-dormant and sometimes-lamented Aqua Fest, which ran from 1962 to 1998 on the shores not of Lake Austin but Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake.


Lake user John Rodriguez extended on that issue, asking where money at the boat ramps and various parks are going. Travis County park fees increase, but none of the money appears to be going to resolve lake issues or even fixing the parking lots where boat trailers park, he said.


Chair Guerrero said exploring such issues – where do lakeside user fees go – was a goal of the task force’s year-long effort. The task force, at the direction of Council, will continue to meet monthly to address Lake Austin issues.

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