As Lake LBJ refills, some worry about what’s beneath the water

Hill Country

BURNET COUNTY (KXAN) — The waters of Lake Lyndon B. Johnson are slowly rising as the Lower Colorado River Authority began refilling the Highland Lake on Sunday.  While public agencies say the lake refill will allow them to move forward with their projects and clean up debris, some people living on the river worry that there hasn’t been enough time to clean up after historic flooding in October. 

Crews are expected to be working to refill Lake LBJ through Wednesday. The lake was lowered in December to give people living near the water a chance to move debris and make repairs, LCRA officials said. 

The levels at the lake already have a significant impact on the people who live and work near Lake LBJ, but people who live near Kingsland say the cost and the stress of cleaning up after the flooding has been compounded by the closure of the Ranch Road 2900 bridge. The bridge collapsed during the flooding, and while repairs are ongoing, a route that typically takes drivers minutes now takes them half an hour.

Brad Shaw, a Kingsland resident since 1983, showed KXAN where a large sandbar is now visible in the middle of Lake LBJ. 

“The island that you’re seeing was created by the recent flood in October and it wasn’t there before,” Shaw said. “Which really chokes the river, which makes the entire river bank on both sides a lot shallower to where you have minimal boating activity available in that area because it’s so shallow.”

Shaw worries that once the water levels rise, the sandbar will pose a danger to boaters who may not see it under water. He explained that as the water rose, houses upstream of a bottleneck in Lake LBJ all got water in them. 

“It probably didn’t have to happen if the lake had been lowered then,” he said. 

Shaw explained that he and his neighbors have been concerned that the LCRA is refilling the lake too soon. 

“We don’t have the adequate time to remove all the debris in front of the properties– we’re talking about properties that are million dollar homesites on the lake — and with that shortness of time that we have now to remove that debris, a lot of the debris is not gonna get removed,” he said. 

Shaw added that debris can be common around Lake LBJ, and people who’ve been living on the lake for years know where it’s likely to accumulate. But with the increase in new businesses and tourists on the lake, he believes there’s now a greater risk the debris could cause injuries.

“It’s just the debris that we don’t know about,” Shaw said. “We know in our general area where people have been removing things that’s probably gonna be cleaned, but it’s the people that haven’t had the chance to move it,  then you just kind of wonder. It’s just that no one has been able to go up and down the entire length of the river on an individual basis to find out where hazards might be or where they are.”

The LCRA decided to speed up its plan to refill Lake LBJ after hearing from local business owners worried about missing out on the spring break crowds.

Shaw said some owners have told him their business is down 30 percent, and with the bridge closed, it’s also impacting construction and repair efforts in Kingsland.

“All we need is a couple of significant accidents and that puts us in a bad tone on the usability of the lake,” he said.

Once lake levels get back to normal, Texas Department of Transportation crews plan to begin removing debris from the shoreline and other areas where “pieces of the old bridge structure can be spotted under water.”

The LCRA and TxDOT are collaborating to help clean up bridge debris.

“Without the scheduled refill of Lake LBJ on Feb. 24, we could not begin to remove debris along the shoreline,” said Terry McCoy, TxDOT Austin district engineer.  “Our barges and cranes need the additional water to operate.”

A TxDOT spokesperson also said debris crews have focused efforts around bridge construction because the top priority is to get the new RM 2900 bridge open to traffic by April.

While the lake is being refilled, TxDOT crews are assessing spots on the shore to find out where the debris is and how to remove it. 

The public agencies involved with debris cleanup plan to install a boat lane near the RM 2900 bridge to allow local boat traffic through the construction zone. 

Boaters are encouraged to avoid the area, as both divers and debris could be in the water.

Shaw thinks having the bridge open again will help business locally. He is confident that in the long run business will be booming again around the lake. He just hopes that in the process of gettting there that no one gets injured on debris in the water. 

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