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Wallisville Lake Project: Tranquility along the Trinity

A Dam Thwarted, A Preserve Created.
Written by Tracy L. Connell.

Anglers can fish for saltwater and freshwater species here. Photo by Natham LindstromZooming along on busy Interstate 10, some 35 miles east of downtown Houston, travelers often pass directly through the heart of the Wallisville Lake Project without ever realizing it. The pristine, 23,000-acre wilderness property, which stretches along both the east and west banks of the lower Trinity River, is one of the best-kept secrets on the Texas coast. One reason may be that this particular U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake project is missing its man-made lake.

When Congress authorized the project in 1962, the plan was to dam the Trinity River just below the town of Wallisville and create a 19,700-acre reservoir, the first on a proposed navigation system from the Gulf of Mexico to Dallas and Fort Worth. The project’s other purposes were to control the salinity of water in the river and ensure a water supply for the city of Houston. The federal government made land purchases totaling 23,000 acres, and construction began in 1966. In 1971, however, the Sierra Club and a coalition of environmental groups and fishing associations filed a lawsuit to stop the project, claiming that it would damage a major estuary and wetlands. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and in 1973—with the dam three-fourths complete—construction came to a halt.

Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who represented the plaintiffs in the latter stages of litigation, says the story doesn’t end there. “In 1981, the Corps of Engineers approved a new plan calling for a smaller reservoir—only 5,000 acres—and construction was authorized again in 1987 after further court review,” he explains, “but the project was still opposed by environmental groups.

“Then, a pair of nesting bald eagles, which were on the endangered species list at the time, were spotted, and construction was halted once more. By then, the Corps of Engineers and the City of Houston were more willing to work with the plaintiffs. It was determined that building a reservoir wasn’t necessary to meet the most important goals of the project. All that was needed was a physical barrier—two sets of gates, ultimately—to prevent the movement of saltwater from Trinity Bay up the Trinity River.”

The Corps of Engineers’ revised plan, which called for building a navigation lock and a low, seven-mile saltwater barrier and developing small portions of the area for low-impact recreation, was completed in 2003.

According to Corps of Engineers park ranger Ruth Millsaps, “The lawsuit has had a positive impact because now the marsh, swamp, and bottomlands are preserved, and the nursery habitat for bay-area fisheries is intact.”

Blackburn agrees. “Instead of a disastrous outcome,” he says, “we now have a 23,000-acre preserve that has these wonderful parks where people can go and enjoy nature. The project offers the best opportunity to see a cypress swamp and riverine delta wetlands in the Houston area.”

Still called the Wallisville Lake Project—despite the missing reservoir—the preserve offers five recreation areas with public access. The Trinity River Island Recreation Area, the J.J. Mayes Wildlife Trace, and the Trinity River Waterbird Rookery are off In­terstate 10 near the Trinity River Bridge. To the northeast, Cedar Hill Park offers access to Lake Charlotte, while Hugo Point Park offers access to Old River Lake and the southwest side of the project. All of these areas, except the rookery, have picnic tables, grills, and restrooms, though there are no hookups and overnight stays are prohibited.

The best place to start your explorations is at the Trinity River Island Recreation Area, a man-made island located between the river and the navigation channel that engineers began building in the early stages of the project. It’s the working headquarters of the lock and dam structures as well as home to the project’s visitor center. Here, you can collect maps and other information and talk with one of the park rangers, who can answer questions about fishing, birding, and hiking. The rangers will also take you on a tour of the lock and dam structures and explain how they can be opened or closed, depending on tides, winds, and other weather conditions.

Many visitors to the Trinity River Island Recreation Area come for the fishing, and the island provides riverbank access both above and below the saltwater barrier.

The rangers also tell visitors about the land’s cultural history. At one time, generations of early Native Americans, including the Bidai, Karankawa, and Orcoquiza, inhabited the region. By the 1700s, the French had set up a trading post, but by the mid-1750s, they were forced out by the Spanish. The Spaniards then built a mission and presidio complex at the same site, commonly known as El Orcoquisac. The 1800s saw an influx of Anglo settlers by way of Spanish land grants; their descendants founded the original townsite of Wallisville in 1854. To learn more about the area’s history, visit the nearby Wallisville Heritage Park.

The Trinity River waterbird Rook­ery is also on the east side of the river. This hidden pocket of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss is a swampy area with breeding and nesting habitats that attract more than a dozen species of colonial waterbirds. Bring binoculars to view their nests; in late spring and early summer, you may glimpse fuzzy youngsters stretching their wings.

The observation deck here is a prime spot for wildlife viewing year round. A wide variety of birds, along with alligators, snakes, frogs, turtles, and otters, are permanent residents in the swamp. For the protection of the birds, fishing is not allowed in the rookery.

If you enjoy birdwatching, you’ll want to explore the J.J. Mayes Wildlife Trace, which is on the west bank of the river. Named for Joshua Jackson Mayes, a prominent early settler in the area, the heart of the Trace is a four-mile, automobile-accessible nature loop built on top of the low, seven-mile dam. The drive, which winds through the green, riparian landscape, provides an elevated view of the surrounding coastal marsh. Twice a year, thousands of birds use this protected area as a vital rest stop during migration. Other marsh wildlife includes bobcats, coyotes, possums, armadillos, alligators and myriad smaller reptiles, and insects.

Midway along the drive, two boardwalks extend through the tall grass leading to observation piers built out over the riverbank. The boardwalks are part of a one-and-a-half-mile loop trail, all of which is wheelchair-accessible. A picnic area at the entrance of the Trace offers deep shade, thanks to a magnificent stand of huge live oak trees planted by the Mayes family more than a century ago.

A short drive from Interstate 10 on FM 563 takes visitors north to a fourth recreational area, Cedar Hill Park, on the shores of Lake Charlotte. The lake is a popular launching spot for canoeists and kayakers wanting to explore the open water or delve into the cypress swamps that line the shore. Adventurous paddlers can explore Lake Pass, Mac Bayou, or Mac Lake. “These remote waterways offer a glimpse of the largest remaining cypress swamp along the Texas coast,” says Millsaps.

Back on dry land, three miles of shaded and graveled walking trails follow the eastern edge of the Trinity River Basin, overlooking Lake Charlotte. “Sometimes, you’ll see bald eagles and osprey fishing or hear cormorants calling to each other from roost trees,” says Millsaps. “Watch for raccoons, squirrels, and a variety of songbirds. In the spring and summer, you’ll see wildflowers like passion flower vine, trumpet vine, cardinal flower, evening primrose, prairie spiderwort, and meadow aster.” The trails lead to a boardwalk and overlook that provide a scenic view of the cypress swamp, which is otherwise accessed only by water.

The last recreational area in the project, Hugo Point Park, is south of Interstate 10 and can be reached via FM 565. Sitting on the western edge of the Trinity River Basin, the park has a small playground and a one-and-a-half-mile walking trail that leads through the marsh to an obser­vation tower. A two-lane boat ramp provides access to Old River Lake and the western portions of the project.

Amy Turner, executive director of the Anahuac-based Waterborne Education Center, often takes schoolchildren to the Wallisville Lake Project for an introduction to coastal conservation. “It’s great for the kids to have the opportunity to see this area as it is now,” says Turner, “and then to stop at the locks, look at the map, and hear the ranger explain that everywhere they have just toured could have been one large shallow lake, instead of a river and wetland that serves as habitat for thousands of plant and wildlife species.”

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