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Rain is good right now, but dangers lurk

Texas longhorn

The late spring and early summer rains resulted in good conditions for livestock and wildlife. However, more vegetation means a greater chance for wildfires when hot and dry weather returns. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

The Highland Lakes enjoyed a slightly higher-than-normal rainfall in the late spring and early summer, a mixed blessing for the area. Lake levels are up and vegetation is green for livestock and wildlife. But when the hot, dry weather returns, that vegetation will dry up and become fuel for wildfires.

The stretch of wetter, cooler weather started in May and has continued into July, a month that’s typically hot and dry in Texas. In the first half of July, the Highland Lakes has received about 1½-3 inches of rainfall.

Levels at lakes Travis and Buchanan are up. Between May 1 and July 13, Buchanan rose 4.75 feet from 1,011.91 feet (mean sea level) to 1,016.66 feet. In that same period, Travis rose 9.61 feet from 657.37 feet to 666.98 feet.

The two lakes serve the area as water supply reservoirs and flood control.

“It’s always nice to see these kinds of rainy patterns settle in over the lakes, especially in the summer,” said John Hofmann, executive vice president for water for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the Highland Lakes. “The cooler weather and cloudy conditions also reduced the amount of water demands from our customers as well as reduced the amount of evaporation we would normally expect to see this time of year.

“It’s been nothing but beneficial,” he added.

Higher lake levels are only part of the rosy picture. Across the region, rain has boosted native range and crop lands. 

“I do think that livestock producers have benefited from the additional rainfall,” said Kelly Tarla, the Burnet County AgriLife agriculture extension agent. “The grass has had enough moisture to regrow. Normally this time of year, we have very little moisture and the grasses are not able to grow.”

She pointed out that some livestock producers haven’t had to supplement grazing with hay.

And speaking of hay, Tarla reported much of it is being cut right now.

“It is not typically time to be cutting hay for those who do not irrigate,” she said. “Some are just now able to get into their fields to cut and bale because it has been too wet.”

Because of the rain, it’s possible that hay producers could get second and third cuttings this year.

Among the agricultural benefits are negatives: parasites and pests. 

Tarla cautioned livestock raisers to pay attention to their animals as parasites are thriving in the lower temperatures and wetter conditions. Hay producers should be aware of army worms moving through the fields.

“They are currently doing damage to some hayfields,” Tarla noted.

Wildlife is also enjoying the lusher vegetation.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist Erin Wehland likes what she’s seeing so far this year. She covers Burnet and Lampasas counties.

“Overall, the range and habitat look in pretty good condition,” she said. 

Currently, she’s seeing healthy white-tailed deer. While she was concerned about possible fawn deaths during heavy May rains, the young deer she’s spotted recently have been in good condition.

A downside for hunters, though, is that the healthy vegetation might keep deer away from feeders in the fall.

“But the deer (that) hunters do see should be in pretty good condition,” Wehland added.

And though some won’t like hearing it, squirrels are also doing great, she laughed.

However, doves and quail might not be faring as well, Wehland said.

“I would say dove numbers are down, but they can be transitional and just move to different areas depending on conditions,” she said. “Some concerns I have is I don’t see as many quail or hear as many this year, but this area hasn’t really ever been know for quail.”

While the rainfall is welcome now, it could become a detriment in the near future. Once the typical hot, dry weather returns, all of that green growth will dry up and become fuel for wildfires.

That worries Herb Darling, the director of Burnet County Development Services. He monitors the effects of rain and drought patterns on the area.

“Being an old man, it is scary from a historical standpoint as these rains have led to a tremendous amount of small fuel on the ground that will eventually cure, either with dry weather or a frost (later this year), leading to fuel for wildfires,” he said. “Also, with the decline of  rural agriculture, cow-calf operations, across the county, fewer properties are grazed, resulting in large areas of abundant fuel as well as a lack of juniper control that has evolved in the past couple of decades (that) will lead to dangerous conditions for fire.”

Where livestock operations have ceased, homes have often sprung up, putting some structures in the middle of what fire specialists call the “wildland urban interface.” Without fire mitigation steps, these buildings could be in danger. 

And if fire and drought aren’t bad enough, the area could get even more soaking rains later this year. Darling noted that conditions are optimal this year for a tropical system to form in the Gulf of Mexico and bring heavy precipitation to an already saturated Highland Lakes.

“A retired National Weather Service friend of mine described the weather in Texas as ‘prolonged drought interrupted by sporadic flooding’,” Darling said. “It is the best description I’ve heard.”