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Wichita Falls Residents Rally to Cry “Our Lake, Our Life”
ATHENS—Some reservoirs age gracefully, remaining beautiful well into old age. For others, the descent into the golden years is not pretty. Lake Wichita is one of the latter.p>Out of nearly 200 large reservoirs in Texas, Lake Wichita is the third-oldest. Impounded in 1901, it was predated only by Lake Austin (1893) and Eagle Lake (1900). The lake provided water for irrigation, flood control, power generation, municipal supply and recreation.
Originally covering some 2,200 acres, Lake Wichita is now almost dry. Battered by drought and its capacity reduced by a century of siltation and a lowering of the spillway, it is a ghost of its former self. Lake Wichita Park, a landscaped, modern 234-acre sport field and picnicking facility, sits on the north shore in stark contrast to the nearly-dry lakebed.
As the lake declined, so did public usage. In its youth the lake was known as “The Gem of North Texas” and attracted thousands of visitors annually, many coming by special train from Fort Worth. A three-story hotel and a lakeside pavilion were popular with tourists, but the hotel burned in 1918, and the pavilion was demolished in 1955. Meanwhile, reservoir construction accelerated across Texas to keep pace with the growing population, and former visitors were bewitched by younger lakes closer to their homes.
Situated not far from downtown on the southern edge of the city near residential areas, its shoreline mostly undeveloped, the lake is a gem waiting to be resuscitated.
“It has some water, but it’s very shallow. Tumbleweeds in the lake bottom, hundreds of yards from shore, indicate just how shallow it really is,” said Tom Lang, district biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Inland Fisheries Division. “Two drought and one golden alga fish kill have left the lake void of fish since 2012. While it’s horrible to see the lake in such shape, it does give us the opportunity to drain the little water left and excavate the sediment much less expensively, without the potential of harming any fisheries resources.”
In 2013 the Wichita Falls City Council appointed a committee to study the lake and develop recommendations for recreational and non-recreational uses. Public input was nearly unanimous in support of bringing the lake back to life. Residents expressed strong interest in fishing, jogging, boating, swimming, wildlife watching and other outdoor pursuits.
The resulting plan calls for a two-phase restoration of Lake Wichita. Phase One focuses on the lake itself and will involve removing excess sediment from the lake and constructing trails, fishing piers, jetties, beach areas and boat ramps, a kayak trail and other amenities. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will be responsible for restocking the lake with fish and enhancing fish habitat in the lake. Phase Two will involve commercial development around the lake including a pavilion, watersports complex and camping area. Anticipated time for completion of Phase One is 1.5 to 3 years.
The price tag? An estimated $50 million.
Wichita Falls residents believe the investment will be worth it. “As a member of the business community, I see the incredible opportunity for growing our tax base with new business and increased property values,” said Stephen Garner, Chairman of the Lake Wichita Revitalization Committee. “As a proud grandfather of three and an avid runner/cyclist, I am wild with excitement about a recreation destination in my backyard.”
“"Reservoirs are a vital economic and recreational resource and as such, society needs to invest in their maintenance,” said Jeff Boxrucker, head of Friends of Reservoirs, a nonprofit partner in the project. “Lake Wichita, like many older reservoirs in this country, has aged beyond the point that it can function as an economic and recreational resource. I commend all of the partners in this effort to restore this once-vital resource for the local community. The price tag on this project is scary high, but I anticipate that the local community will realize a positive return on its investment."
The first step in the project is securing a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the removal and disposal of some 7 million cubic yards of dirt from the lake. The Fain, Edwards and Bridwell Foundations jointly contributed $158,125 for the permit preparation, and the city of Wichita Falls matched that amount through their 4B Board sales tax corporation account.
“The excavation will be done in a way conducive to fish habitat as well as to minimize evaporation losses,” said Lang. “The water will last longer during a drought, and there will be a ‘new lake’ effect that will result in better fishing.”
But the project is about more than just fishing or economic development. “Our community is full of courageous visionaries who recognize the importance that water plays in every aspect of our lives,” Lang said. “The project slogan is ‘Our Lake, Our Life.’ That pretty well sums up the importance of this project to the future of Wichita Falls.”
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