By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As the setting for a showdown as epic as the OK Corral's, Sam Rayburn Reservoir seems an unlikely candidate. The 35-year-old East Texas lake provides power for the surrounding area and drinking water for Beaumont, Port Arthur, and several other cities. Its 114,500 acres offer excellent swimming, water-skiing, and boating.
All those positives pale in comparison with the one for which Rayburn is best known: as one of the best bass fisheries in the nation. Fishermen from just about everywhere converge on Rayburn from spring through fall to compete in one of the many weekend tournaments or just to hang out and enjoy the prospect of hauling in a few lunkers. Fishing pumps millions of dollars into local businesses, keeping numerous marinas, motels, restaurants, and tackle shops afloat. "The entire area depends on the lake for the economy," says Ann Thomasson-Wilson, who runs Ann's Tackle Shop in Jasper. "If we didn't have the tourism and the tournaments, this town would dry up and blow away."
The town's economy hasn't been drying up, but the lake has. The drought that has been ravaging most of Texas has dropped Rayburn more than 11 feet below its normal level and has reduced its surface area by 25 percent. Concrete shoreline retaining walls that protect house lots from erosion are now 40 yards from the water; large expanses of land once covered by the lake lie naked and exposed, littered by white patches of tiny dead shellfish.
The decline of Rayburn visible from the surface reflects what's happening below it. In 1998 a massive fish kill in the lake's southern end decimated the population of older, larger bass. Another kill followed in '99. An especially nasty outbreak of a common aquatic disease last year caused huge numbers of fish to break out in bloody lesions, spurring a state investigation. And the lake's primary vegetation, a tenacious weed called hydrilla, has shrunk from a total volume of almost 19,000 acres to less than one-third of that today.
To many who have studied the lake, the bulk of the problems in Sam Rayburn are directly attributable to the drought. When the water level is low, the water temperature rises, which in turn stresses the bass population and makes the fish susceptible to disease. Hydrilla likewise hates dramatic shifts in temperature and depth. "[The vegetation] drop was totally explained to me by a drop in the water level," says retired veterinary toxicologist Gary Van Gelder, a chemical industry researcher and bass fisherman who has studied the lake's troubles.
But Van Gelder's view differs dramatically from that of Ed Parten, an avid angler and officer in several state bass fishing organizations. Parten believes that although the drought has played a role in the lake's woes, Rayburn is in serious trouble for another, more insidious reason. "I'm convinced that pollutants are a major problem," he says.
Whether pollution has contributed to the fish kills or vegetation loss has not been proved, but water quality problems do persist. According to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's annual list of polluted waterways, Rayburn has dangerous levels of various metals, insufficient levels of dissolved oxygen, and other flaws. The state Department of Health has warned against eating the lake's fish since 1995 because of mercury contamination, and people have been swimming at the risk of coming in contact with fecal coliform bacteria in the water.
Recently the debate has reached a new level of urgency. At the request of the Donohue Industries paper mill in Lufkin, which dumps an average of more than 15 million gallons of wastewater into the reservoir every day, the TNRCC is considering a downgrade in the water quality standard for the upper portion of the reservoir. The proposed change in standards is part of a federally mandated statewide review. This would allow the mill to discharge certain pollutants into Rayburn at rates far greater than under the current standard. Donohue has produced several studies that show the change will not damage the reservoir; without the change, company officials say, the mill will shut down and wipe 847 jobs off the tax rolls.
But if the change is approved, warn opponents, Rayburn will continue to deteriorate. "The fish will suffer," says radiation oncologist William Shelton, a Lufkin resident and bass fisherman. "All the food chain will suffer."
Donohue insists that its operation causes no harm, and that any decision about Rayburn should be based on "sound science," a buzz phrase often employed by industry in regulatory disputes. The company has launched an aggressive campaign to win support for the change in the standards, lining up a formidable crew of supporters who have written letters and appeared at hearings on the matter. The list includes the mayor of Lufkin, state legislators Drew Nixon and Jim McReynolds, the publisher of the Lufkin Daily News, and just about every influential businessman in town.