Texas Tech University

Researchers Head Study on Impact of Public Access Areas on Rivers

George Watson

September 29, 2015

The team in the Department of Natural Resources Management received a grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife with hopes of opening additional access areas.

Texas Tech University research assistant professor, Tim Grabowski, with a Blue Sucker Cycleptus elongatus captured during survey efforts on the lower Colorado River near La Grange.

Blue Sucker is a state threatened riverine fish that is in decline throughout much of its range, including Texas. Increasing public access to Texas rivers will not only increase recreational opportunities, but also awareness of riverine systems and the species that live there.

Developing protocols to guide the sustainable use of these resources will offer benefits not only to game fish, but to species that are only rarely encountered by anglers.

Heading to the local lake or to a state park with a lake is almost a given for most Texans. Water recreation is a major part of the state's economy and culture.

What might not be as commonly known, however, are the recreational possibilities provided by the more than 191,000 miles of Texas rivers and streams, from which most people in the state live within a mile of. Through recent initiatives like the Texas Paddling Trails Program and the River Access and Conservation Area Program (RACA), the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has encouraged recreational access to rivers and streams.

Access to those areas, however, remains limited, mostly because access points to those rivers and streams sit on privately owned properties. Programs like RACA have opened up previously inaccessible reaches of rivers to anglers. However, very little data exists on how much those public access points are used and how much that access affects the water and wildlife both within the stream and habitat along the banks.

Thanks to a provision in the most recently passed farm bill and an almost $250,000 grant from TPWD, a group of Texas Tech researchers in the Department of Natural Resources Management with the Cooperative Research Unit hopes to quantify those effects with the goal of opening up even more public access areas across the state.

“The TPWD is prioritizing increasing access to river sites for paddling and fishing areas, primarily,” said Tim Grabowski, a research assistant professor at Texas Tech University who is heading up the study. “The grant calls for us to develop a way to monitor these impacts of this increased access and have the baseline data necessary to provide landowners with answers of what to expect if thy participate in the program. This is critical for the TPWD biologist who makes the initial contact with the landowner and has to field those questions.”

Starting the study

The RACA was funded by a grant in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program that established seven new river access areas along the banks of the Brazos, Colorado, Guadalupe and Neches rivers. Earlier this year, additional funding for the program allowed for establishment of at least 10 additional river access areas.

Texas Tech University graduate student, Heather Williams, holds a Flathead Catfish Pylodictis olivaris captured during preliminary survey efforts in the South Llano River near the Texas Tech University Junction campus.
The Junction campus is already part of a paddling trail that extends much of the length of the South Llano River.
Surveys such as these are important for the development of accurate baseline data and monitoring protocols for newly accessible reaches will ensure the sustainable use and management of Texas rivers.

These 10 new sites will be chosen after consideration of several factors – high quality riverine and riparian habitats, high recreational potential, areas currently with limited access, allow for upstream or downstream connections to other river access areas and where long-term leases with landowners can be negotiated (preferably 10 years or more).

Grabowski said work to determine the new sites began in August with the selection of a new research associate who will work closely with TPWD. Initial sites have been identified on the Brazos, Guadalupe and Colorado rivers as well as the Nueces, Neches and Sabine rivers, and TPWD is in the process of securing leases.

“Most of these sites are on the main stem of rivers,” Grabowski said. “One of our priorities is to gain access to reaches between existing access points in order to make Texas rives more accessible to fishermen, kayakers and canoers. For example, securing public access leases on a long stretch of river between a bridge and a public boat ramp will create access points so people could pull out or put in and create a long corridor of accessible habitat for recreation.”

These access points, Grabowski points out, are not for the fishermen with large, glistening bass boats with 200-horsepower engines. But he hopes it will open up a resource to a large group of individuals who he says have been somewhat underrepresented in fisheries in Texas but who make up a significant portion of the anglers in the state.

Once the new sites have been determined, the Texas Tech team and TPWD will work to identify and implement the best management practices, which can include fine-tuning management strategies to reduce erosion, improve water quality, restore and preserve native plant life, ensure functional riparian zones and support habitats for fish and other aquatic life.

Also, infrastructure construction, such as parking, river access trails, signage and informative kiosks will be supported through the program.

“Generally it depends on what the land is used for that will dictate what the best management practices are,” Grabowski said.

Preservation with recreation

The goal of the study is to not only open up more access points to Texas rivers and streams, but ensure that doing so preserves the ecological balance of the area while also protecting the water in the river, which serves numerous purposes.

Massure, Williams and Pease
(l-r) Texas Tech University graduate students, Wade Massure, Heather Williams, and Jessica Pease pose with Smallmouth Buffalo Ictiobus bubalus captured on the lower Colorado River downstream of Austin during initial surveys of a reach that will be opened to the public through leased access points.

Development of accurate baseline data and monitoring protocols for newly accessible reaches will ensure the sustainable use and management of Texas rivers.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people view rivers as drainage ditches or a way to move water from one property to another,” Grabowski said. “In terms of benefits for people who have river access, access to fresh water is just one of many. In general, public rivers and streams are important sources of fresh water for everybody in Texas, but the biological organisms supported by rivers and streams include a lot of species found nowhere else in the world and perform important ecosystem services.

“Fresh water in rivers makes it down to the coast and fuels a lot of productivity that both commercial and recreational fishers depend on. So from a financial standpoint, it is significant. Some of my colleagues here at Texas Tech just completed a study down in the Edwards Plateau rivers and streams that shows fishermen contribute something like $70 million a year to the local economy. Those are the sort of things that bring added value through time.”

Grabowski said the current research will focus on four key components. The first is the fish, primarily the amount of sport fish present in the area, their composition, population and how best to ensure species conservation. The second is assessing the coverage of riparian vegetation, i.e., the vegetation along the banks of the river. The third is assessing how many people use the area, what it is used for and how often, for which they will utilize game trail cameras. The fourth is landowner perspective regarding parking and traffic.

“It's just a lot of counting and crunching numbers in order to determine how much effort needs to be put into monitoring these sites to ensure their sustainable use,” Grabowski said.

“How do we design a study that is statistically justifiable? We're working on developing the method to get an in-depth look at what is going on at sites where we expect impact will occur.”

Grabowski expects the results to show the environmental and biological impacts at river access points to be minimal. His hope is it will be insignificant enough to convince more landowners to join the RACA program and continue to allow access to the state's beautiful natural resources.

“In the grand scheme of things, 95 percent of land in Texas is privately owned, and that makes it difficult for most people to get access to natural resources for recreational purposes,” Grabowski said. “There can be long stretches of rivers where the public realistically does not have access because you can paddle only so far in a day, and if you don't camp out on the bank, it can make for a long dark drift down the river.

“Our hope is to establish the protocol to be handed off to the state and the research continues on past the duration of the study.”