LAKE WHITNEY, TEXAS-- As usual when Lake Whitney is doing its job--flood control for Waco and areas along the Brazos to the south, media outlets and social media platforms light up with the declaration that Lake Whitney is "closed."
Facilities on the lake in public recreation areas are closed. That means picnic grounds, campgrounds, boat ramps, hiking trails, and anything else within the boundaries of parks managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Private businesses and property owners adjacent to the lake, as well as boat dock permit holders, are not in any way prohibited from accessing or providing access to the water by either the Corps or TPWD.
One social media post from someone looking for an accessible boat ramp today was told "they are writing tickets." It was unclear who was writing "tickets" or what they might be writing those tickets for. If rangers are patrolling the lake, the only things they can write tickets for are the same things they write tickets for on any day of the year at any lake level. They don't have the authority to suddenly decide they can write tickets for accessing a public lake-- assuming the access was by legal means and they are boating safely.
So why do officials tell callers that the lake is "closed?" It's a combination of simplicity, safety, and even ignorance of other options. Think about it for a minute. If your job is working for the Corps of Engineers, in your mind, lake operations are closed. It's not that person's job to help you find a private facility. Plus, they may honestly not have any idea that there are private businesses still depending on summer visitors to make their entire year's earnings-- and in a year following a pandemic shutdown, this summer's business may mean the difference between survival and a permanent shut down for a small business. The lake has already had one marina closure this season-- before the water level even began to rise.
Water levels are falling
As of 4:00 pm Saturday, the water level at Lake Whitney was 545.92, or 12.92 feet over normal. Long-time locals will tell you this doesn't even qualify as a flood. It's merely a nuisance. The history of the lake includes water levels as high as 37.25 feet over normal (THAT was a flood) in 1957, 31 feet over normal in 1990, and more recently, 28 feet over normal in 2016. Even the high water of 2019 was more than this year's; the lake topped out at 22 feet over normal that year. The levels topped out well below 14 feet over earlier this week and have been dropping ever since.
Before we list what is open and what is actually closed, it's important to note that boating is not in any way normal at this water level. The closer you are to shore, the more hazards there are likely to be. Trees, rocks, signposts, and picnic tables are among the hazards. Near boat docks or in marinas, there will be submerged walkways. There may be new overhead hazards in the form of power lines or guide wires. And even in the center of the lake, boaters should be very aware of debris, some of it floating so low in the water as to be almost invisible. All of this is to say that while slow, safe boating is possible, activities like waterskiing or tubing are discouraged.
Also, keep in mind that there will not be any fuel available on the lake as all electricity is shut off to gas docks.
According to the Corps of Engineers homepage, the majority of facilities operated by the COE are closed. It's also worth noting that in the red notice at the top of the page the Corps explicitly states this:
Please be safe if you are out on the lake as the high water levels will hide certain obstructions and increase debris in the water. As always, make sure you wear your life jacket!
In other words, the lake is not "closed."
Lake Whitney State Park still projects that the park will remain closed through June 30.
Texas Highway 174 is closed between Blum and FM 56 due to high water at the bridge over the Brazos River and accumulated debris according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Possible open facilities
Harbor Master Marina normally is able to allow launches from its boat ramp until considerably higher water levels. Even though all of the Corps parks at Lofers Bend are closed with locked gates, Harbor Master is not at this point because it is privately owned.
Privately-owned lodges and resorts are open for lodging rentals, as are individual vacation rentals. Some of these have boat ramps that are accessible. They may be only open to guests staying with them, but in a few cases, they will allow launches for a fee. And yes, the fee will be considerably higher than normal. The reasons for that include increased liability for allowing you to launch and possible damage incurred to road bases at the water's edge, which are not constructed to be as water-tolerant as an actual launch.
Opening additional facilities takes time, even after the water levels are lower. Repairs must be made and asphalt must be allowed to dry thoroughly before traffic resumes.
Want to know more about Lake Whitney's role as a flood control lake?