By John Kanelis
LAKE MEREDITH NATIONAL RECREATION AREA (KFDA) - Water is continuing to pour into Lake Meredith, the manmade reservoir created more than 50 years ago to provide recreational activities for visitors.
The lake level is at more than 65 feet and is rising. According to Robert Maguire, Park Superintendent at Lake Meredith's National Recreation Area for the past three years, it likely will keep rising through the winter.
Will the increasing water levels at the once-seriously depleted lake put the brakes on improvements to land-based activity? Not in the least, said Maguire.
"We're diversifying the park," Maguire said, explaining that park crews so far have built 8 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails on the south side of Lake Meredith. "We're going to get 10 more miles built."
The National Park Service, which runs the 44,000-acre recreation area, is celebrating its centennial this year, said Maguire, and Lake Meredith is planning some major activities to commemorate that event this coming summer.
NewsChannel 10 examined the prospective improvements with a previous "Whatever Happened To ..." feature that was broadcast and posted online in 2015. Tim Cruze, interpretive director for the park, noted the increase in land-based activity that the park had planned in light of depleting water levels at the lake, which hit a low of 26 feet in 2013.
It has come back, Maguire noted, although he remains skeptical that the lake will attain its historic high of 100-plus feet.
Even with the increase in water activity at the lake, the park service is continuing to develop its land-based recreational opportunities, he said.
"We're envisioning 50 miles of trails connecting the north and south portions of the lake area," Maguire said, explaining that the park gets money from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which channels it from grants it receives from the National Park Service.
The Canadian River is flowing into Lake Meredith at about 100 cubic feet per second, Maguire said, describing the flow as "pretty good for this time of year." He said the U.S. Geological Survey measures the river flow constantly and said the continued flow "comes from all the rain we had in the past year." Amarillo recorded one of its wettest years on record in 2015, with more than 34 inches of precipitation.
Not only is the volume of water increasing, Maguire said, but its quality remains good to excellent. TP&W tests the algae content of the water, Maguire said, and has found it to be quite clean.
What's more, he said, the state is hoping to stock Lake Meredith this spring with as many as 6 million young walleye. "We've asked for 6 million," Maguire said, "but we'll probably have to settle for 4 million." Maguire added that the catfish population has continued to thrive in the lake, even during the time when Meredith reached its shallowest levels three years ago.
The biggest effect of the rising lake levels can be seen in the visitation to the national recreation area, Maguire said. At its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Lake Meredith NRA was receiving about 1.5 million visitors annually, Maguire said. Visitation dropped dramatically as the drought started to take its toll at the turn of the 21st century, he said, explaining that visitation dropped to about 500,000 in 2012 and 2013.
This year, with the centennial celebrations planned throughout the national park network of 409 attractions nationwide, visitation at Lake Meredith could top 1 million visitors in 2016, Maguire said.
"Obviously, the land-based users are different than those who come here for the water," Maguire said, but he added that there is some crossover use. "Some folks might come here to run their boats on the lake, but also use the hiking and biking trails at Fritch Fortress."
Maguire said the Sanford-Fritch High School track team runs along the trails throughout the park for training purposes.
Maguire said Aug. 25 is the actual centennial date and he predicted that "before then we'll start seeing some TV commercials."
He said the park service recently installed new restrooms and showers at Fortress Fritch overlooking a campground on the water's edge of the lake. Maguire said that during the depths of the drought, the lake bed west of the campground was dry; today, it's full of water.
"We'll be adding 10 to 12 campsites with water and electricity," Maguire said, explaining that the park uses youth hired from the federal Americorps job program. "The kids come here from Flagstaff (Ariz.) and they work real hard," he said. Maguire said that trail building is "backbreaking work," but the young people who come here are willing and able to do the job it takes to build the network of trails.
Maguire also talked about the amphitheater near Fritch Fortress that once was home to the "Lone Star Rising" outdoor musical. "It ran for about two years but just didn't make it," said Maguire.
"So now we have this empty amphitheater," he said. Maguire explained that they have car shows and other smaller attractions there, but said the park service is still "looking for something to do with it."