Eric Gay, Associated Press
NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Boat ramps lay on dry ground. Float trippers drag their tubes around massive river rocks. Raft company workers go home for the summer with the season only a month old.
One hundred degree temperatures can be the norm in Texas this time of year, but the state's 3,700 streams, 15 major rivers and more than 200 reservoirs have traditionally made life bearable for the legions of fishermen, boaters, swimmers, and others willing to sit in a big rubber tube.
Not so much this year, though, as the third worst drought in state history is leaving little room for fun this summer.
"Your ability to stay wet in the summer has everything to do with your ability to stay happy and people don't have access to these waters anymore," said Laura Huffman, the state director of the Nature Conservancy. She stood near a "Boat Ramp Closed" sign on a road leading to Lake Travis, an Austin-area reservoir that has been losing one foot of water a week.
It has rained less than six inches on average statewide through the end of June, according to the state climatologist. Thirteen inches fall in a normal year. The Midland-Odessa area, in Texas' Permian Basin, has gotten .16 inch all year.
No estimates are available on the drought's economic impact on tourism and recreation, but it's clearly substantial.
Some rafting and tubing outfitters along the Frio River in Texas' Hill Country have closed completely this summer. Along the Guadalupe, river businesses have shut some in-and-out points. Across Texas, boat ramps are closed, marinas are shuttered, and tourism-dependent areas are hoping that not all vacationers head elsewhere this summer.
"We just have to roll up our sleeves and do what the farmers have been doing for umpteen years," said Shane Wolf, general manager of Rockin R' River Rides, who has closed three of his seven river spots and laid off more than 80 people.
Texas' problems are compounded by the fact all but one of its lakes are manmade reservoirs created to provide water and flood control. The Guadalupe River relies on releases from the upstream reservoir, Canyon Lake, to provide rafters and tubers with a pleasant ride. That lake is down five feet and continually dropping. So releases into the Guadalupe have hit rock-bottom, with parts of the river now almost dry. It will only get worse if it doesn't rain.
"Mother Nature holds the gavel at the end of the day," Wolf says, as tubers lay lazily in the shallow water behind him.
Some 60 miles north is Lake Travis, one of the seven Highland Lakes in Central Texas that are crucial to the region's water supply. The lake has been so depleted by a lack of rain and by continuous pumping that only two of the dozens of boat ramps remain open. Signs warning visitors "No Lifeguard. Swim at your own risk" protrude from a field of dry grass that crunches underfoot.
In Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, Lake Meredith is virtually empty. The last marina closed months ago, and likely won't reopen.
Along the Guadalupe River is New Braunfels, a quaint Hill Country town. It offers tubing and rafting, amusement at Schlitterbahn Waterpark and a variety of food in a European-like village area.
Michael Meek, president of the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, thought he had seen the worst when a flood wiped out tourism a few years ago during the peak summer months. Sales tax revenue fell so sharply, the city declared a hiring freeze.
But, Meek said, "Drought years are even tougher. It's very challenging."
In 100-degree weather, few people will visit simply to go antiquing.
Often, they book their vacations elsewhere, Meek said.
Shelly Ganske of Brenham brings her family to play in the Guadalupe's waters every summer. This year they are trying to make the best of it, splashing in the shallow 70-degree water.
"The flow of the river has been very slow," Ganske said. "In fact we chose not to rent tubes."
So what is a Texas summer without a good, wet river vacation?
"It's no fun," Ganske says.
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