Good news, Central Texas outdoor enthusiasts. All Bell County lakes, parks, campgrounds and picnic grounds are open for business this summer. All except for Sparta Lake Park, which remains closed indefinitely due damage sustained by the torrential rains and flooding in 2015.
But everyplace else is good to go. So get your camping gear ready, pack the picnic, backpack and boating supplies and head to one of our many recreational areas this summer.
“We are not in a drought or flood stage, so all of our boat ramps, floating docks, picnic shelters and swimming areas are accessible,” said Lead Ranger Bradley Ellis, Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2015, torrential rains caused major flooding and damage to the recreation areas causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. At Temple Lake Park playgrounds, pavilions, road signs and shelter picnic tables were nearly completely submerged. The picnic area at Union Grove Park on Stillhouse Hollow Lake was submerged. Roads leading to Riversbend Park were completely underwater.
Because of the heavy flooding in 2015, Ellis said the Corps was unable to open the Belton and Stillhouse dam floodgates, which prevented additional flooding to downstream areas.
Prior to the 2015 flood the Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes were at 13 feet and 17 feet drought state, respectively. “The place you launched your boat was dry ground. Boat ramps came out of the water, but that is not the case this year,” he said.
During a good season Ellis said 1.1 million visitors utilize the parks recreational facilities between Memorial Day and the end of summer. However, because almost everything was closed in 2016 due to the previous year’s flooding, they didn’t make that number.
“We were funneling all our visitors to two parks below the dams on each lake — Miller Park at Belton and Chalk Ridge Falls at Stillhouse. People want to enjoy the outdoors and lakes but only two parks were open last year.”
Park closures aren’t only bad for visitors, but bad all around for the local economy, he said.
“There is a lot of money to be made on camping, boats, licenses, fishing gear—we provide about $66 million to local government. It hit our local businesses pretty hard.”
But this year all that has changed. Ellis said they are “gearing up for one of the craziest summers.”
Belton and Stillhouse lakes are both at their optimal water level each lake was designed to hold. Stillhouse is at 622 feet conservation level and Belton is at 594 feet conservation level.
“It’s been seven or eight years since we had fully functioning lakes. We staff up with seasonal help and even though these guys are new, we get them trained and ready to switch gears for the recreational season,” he said.
Stillhouse Hollow Lake
Stillhouse Hollow Lake is 100 percent open for business and that includes Stillhouse, Chalk Ridge, Riversbend, Union Grove, Cedar Gap, and Dana Peak Parks.
“Hiking, boat launches, swimming beaches, day use for picnicking, grilling out, camping — all of that is ready to go,” Ellis said.
“There was a lot of flood debris, logs, trees that completely covered everything,” he said. Also, electrical pedestals at campsites and restrooms were completely under water. The Corps removed the debris, renovated restrooms and campsites, replaced the pedestals, and “everything that comes with a campsite impact zone.”
In addition, the decomposed granite that sits under the picnic tables was replaced, as were grills, shelter tops, “everything that you would associate with a campsite had to be renovated.”
Ellis said damage and needed repairs cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Repairs are completed including Stillhouse Hollow Lake,” he said, adding that bass fishing clubs, private volunteers and “different army platoons” came out to help clean up debris and repair structures.
“We rely heavily on volunteer labor to help.”
Belton Lake received the major punch of the 2015 flood damage and rose 19-21 feet over the conservation level. Ellis said it sustained heavy damage at Westcliff and Temple Lake parks. “The damage has been repaired. There are completely brand new picnic tables, pedestals (electrical), shelter tops over the picnic tables constructed with corrugated steel and metal “so when we do go under again, hopefully it won’t receive as much damage,” he said.
Temple Lake Park
Four restrooms were destroyed and to date, one has been renovated. The other three were damaged beyond repair and the Corps is looking to completely rebuild and replace the restrooms with solid concrete facilities. Construction should begin this fall.
“We are removing the existing debris, getting the site ready for the floor, wall, partitions and roof. It will be a solid concrete building,” he said. To accommodate visitors, the Corps contracted for Porta Pottys so they can keep the park open.
Also replaced were the roof to the pavilion and numerous shelter tops to picnic tables.
“The Sparta Valley Park and boat ramp remains closed indefinitely,” he said. “Sparta Valley sustained critical road erosion and we are about to lose the road completely. There is a 15 to 20 foot drop with no safety railing.”
Except for Sparta Valley Park, all boat ramps are open at Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes. Ellis said anglers are already on the lakes and fishing is great.
“Recently, on Belton, the Texas Tournament Trail set the record for catching (and releasing) the heaviest big mouth bass at 13.94 pounds. That’s almost 14 pounds for the first week of April.” Ellis said fishing will probably pick up if anglers know that there is a 14-pound bass swimming in the lake. Other species of fish include a variety of catfish, small mouth bass, white bass, crappie, buffalo gar and other rough fish.
Swimming areas are open and Ellis wants everyone to know that there are always inherent dangers to swimming on the lakes. “You can’t see the bottom or know the exact depths,” he said. “It’s very important for people to realize their ability to swim. Drowning happens because people try to swim out to the buoys and back, or across the coves to test their limitations.”
Another important thing to remember, Ellis said, is don’t recreate intoxicated when swimming.
“No drinking,” he emphasized. “And when on a boat, always wear your life jacket. Kids 13 and under must have a life jacket on.” However, everyone should wear a life jacket regardless of age. “People say it’s too heavy or too hot and they don’t want to wear them.”
With the new technology in life jackets, Ellis said there are no more excuses. “Some are inflatable and help combat heat,” he said.
Another warning Ellis has for the boating crowd is not to swim after their boat when it becomes dislodged. He said he worked a lot of recoveries because people try to catch their boats.
“No matter how good of a swimmer you are, you will be constantly swimming because the boat won’t stop. There are plenty of other options (to catch your boat). Passersby will stop your boat; people on land will help you retrieve your boat.”
How you can help
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been put back into the renovation of the parks and lakes. Everyone has an opportunity to help keep the recreational areas functioning by playing their part in keeping their areas clean. While most of the visitors clean up after themselves, properly disposing of trash and cleaning up their areas after use, many people still can’t figure out where to throw their trash and so they leave it behind.
“We are always combating this. It’s always a conversational topic,” Ellis said. His advice is to come and enjoy everything our lakes have to offer but leave no trace behind. Leave it better than when you found it. “We still have tons of trash annually to pick up and move,” he said.
Another area of concern for the Corps is mudding, or off road driving.
“People are still doing the mudding with the intermittent rains at High Bridge Park and Horseshoe Bend Park. These parks are open 24 hours a day and are not gated. People go out there and create havoc.”
Ellis said the fragile ecosystem is being damaged and while visitors are “having fun they may rip off an oil line, leaking contaminants into the waterways.”
“We’re teaming up with the game wardens to impose a zero tolerance policy on mudding. But it’s not just the mudding, it’s also primitive camping. This is illegal in all Corps properties of the southwest Fort Worth District.”
Ellis said with primitive camping people start campfires which could create a wildfire causing property damage, or worse.
Name that wildlife
Everyone enjoys looking at wildlife — water birds flying overhead, songbirds in the trees, the occasional hoot owl, fireflies, bunnies, lizards and baby deer. These and other significant wildlife are abundant in our parks and lakes and visitors may look, but not touch — especially the baby fawns born around this time every year.
Ellis wants to impress on visitors to leave the fawns alone. While walking down a path or in a meadow, if you see a fawn be assured that mama isn’t too far away. He said a doe will leave her fawn in a place she knows and will return to it at night. “(Fawns) are not as resilient as their mothers,” Ellis said, adding that they are usually left in a shaded area and play possum until their mother returns.
Recently, someone picked up a fawn they thought was abandoned and Ellis said chances are that fawn will not survive. Ellis said if a fawn is touched by a human, its mother could reject it.
“People think fawns are being abandoned by their mothers, but they are not,” Ellis said. “We don’t want campers going out to try and rescue them. Mother’s leave their babies to hide them.”
In addition to the cute and colorful park animals like the deer, birds, butterflies, bunnies and lizards, Ellis reminds everyone to be on the lookout for the not so cute critters that can bite, sting or worse.
Stay away from wild animals. And be on the lookout for snakes. The parks are host to a variety of snakes, venomous and non-venomous that includes the eastern and western diamondback rattlesnake, coral snake, copper heads, the occasional cottonmouth, although Ellis said you usually don’t see cottonmouth, a.k.a. black moccasin, in Bell County, and the harmless diamondback water snake.
If you see any snake, stay away. And be careful as you hike trails and through brush as rattlesnakes are everywhere. And to add another layer of snake suspense, Ellis said rattlesnakes no longer rattle to warn you of their presence.
“They are evolving,” he said, stating that not rattling is a survival mechanism for the serpent. If you get bitten by a snake, call 911, get the attention of a ranger and seek medical attention immediately. The same goes for broken bones. “We are all trained to treat minor abrasions and lacerations,” Ellis said. “For anything serious, like a broken bone or snake bite, call 911.”
Ellis said any snake will bite you if it cornered, even the non-venomous species. “Rule of thumb, stay away from them,” he said.
When you are enjoying the outdoors, Ellis recommends all visitors pack a basic first aid kit to include Band-Aids, gauze and antibiotic ointment. Also, carry insect repellent with DEET, to repel mosquitoes. If you do find yourself a feast for the flying insects a topical lotion, such as calamine, will help ward of itching.
If you happen into a patch of poison ivy, sumac or oak, use individually wrapped towelettes that wipe away the oily residue from the poisonous plants.
“You will come in contact with poison oak, sumac or ivy, and depending on your allergic level, you can get a pretty bad rash. The towelettes are especially made for this use and will remove the oil residue from the exposure.”