Conservation Matters November 2012

The Texas Land, Water and Wildlife Connection

Tourism industry feels drought impacts, state parks bounce-back from 2011

By Kathryn Saucier

Lake TravisIt's no secret that Texas is prone to drought. With water levels as low as 48 feet below normal in some Texas lakes, activities such as boating, fishing, water skiing and even camping become more difficult, or impossible--boats don't float in dry lakes, and fish don't bite if there isn't any water. The impact of drought is seen not only in lakes, but also in local economies as tourism revenues decline.

"Few industries are more vulnerable to the ravages of severe drought and water shortages than the travel industry," according to Texas Travel Industry Association documents from a 2012 public forum.

"The horrible record heat and drought drove down state park revenue, creating a large financial need of $4.6 million to help keep state parks open in 2011," said Tom Harvey, media communications director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).

"Revenues from park visitors and license sales, especially fresh water fishing licenses, fell sharply," he said.

In a 2012 email to park supporters, Carter Smith, TPWD's executive director, made a public appeal for funds, stating, "Drought and a drop in visitation have led to a critical situation for state parks."

"Drought definitely impacts water-related tourism," Harvey said.

Currently, Lake Travis near Austin is at about 632 feet, 30 feet below its historical average depth of 664 feet, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority website. On Lake Travis, seven of the 11 parks are operated by Travis County. At these parks, only one of the 15 boat ramps is open due to low water levels.

This inconvenience has a great effect on tourism and revenue, according to the Lake Travis Community Coalition.

A coalition report released in 2011 suggested that when lake levels drop below 660 feet, parks and surrounding businesses  can expect to see less visitors, less tourist spending and decreased revenue. In drought years, parks could see the number of visitors decrease by more than 125,000, according to the report, when compared to years with normal lake levels. The report said that local governments could lose more than $20 million in total revenue because of fewer tourists.

"The worst impacts of the drought were felt in 2011," Harvey said. "The good news is that state park visitations, park revenue and license sales have come back strongly this year."

State parks have made more money this spring and summer than they did last spring and summer, and it's not just because of few visitors last year and a normal number this year, he said.

"Park visitation, so far, has increased not only from last year, but also from previous years," Harvey said.

Fresh water fishing, which is dependent on good water resources, saw a large decline in license sales in 2011. Licenses for 2012-2013 went on sale Aug. 15, and compared to last year, "sales of hunting and fishing licenses are up about 25 percent," Harvey said.

TPWD's recent success could be an indicator that things are improving for the tourism industry in Texas.

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