Project aims to improve fish habitat, water quality

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Inland Fisheries crews recently completed the first phase of a project to establish native aquatic vegetation in Lake Palestine.

Using $10,000 in funding from the Reservoir Fisheries Habitat Project (RFHP), TPWD planted five species of native vegetation inside 30 protective enclosures along more than a mile of shoreline.

The plants were produced at a plant nursery at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens that was funded by the East Texas Woods and Waters Foundation.

“In Lake Palestine most submersed aquatic vegetation is limited to a small area of shallow water separated from the rest of the reservoir by a causeway and bridge,” said Richard Ott, the TPWD biologist who manages the lake’s fishery. “The founder colonies of plants will allow the prevailing southerly wind during the growing season to distribute seed and plant fragments north toward other areas of the reservoir. The locations for the colonies were selected due to the lack of waterfront homes to reduce conflict with property owners. The species we selected were those that work best in most Texas reservoirs but that haven’t shown to be problematic.”

The vegetation is expected to spread outside the enclosures, which protect the young plants from being eaten by turtles, fish and beavers.

“The function of plants is to capture sunlight and turn it into food,” said Ott. “Everything starts with aquatic plants. Some are food for fish directly, but more importantly, they are also food for insects and invertebrates that are eaten by small fish that are eaten by big fish and then by us. Plants provide cover for small fish to hide in and grow; they generate oxygen; buffer changes in pH; slow wave action and filter water.”

Plants do much more for reservoirs, their watersheds and the people who live there than just provide for the needs of fish. “Tying down the shoreline and reservoir bottom with native vegetation reduces erosion and the amount of suspended sediment in the water and reduces the need for repairs to bulkheads,” TPWD fisheries biologist Mark Webb pointed out. “Because plants are taking nutrients out of the water, algal growth is reduced, which helps improve the quality of drinking water. Once well established, native plants give a great amount of benefit for low cost.”

Stocking plants in reservoirs throughout Texas presents a tremendous challenge. The first hurdle to overcome is establishing a reliable and affordable supply of plants. Nursery facilities have been set up at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, at the Lake Waco Wetlands and on San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) property at Lake Conroe.

The second obstacle is funding. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Inland Fisheries Division chief of research and management Dave Terre is a leader in a nationwide movement to solve that problem. “About five years ago people from state wildlife agencies across the United States had the idea of creating the Reservoir Fisheries Habitat Partnership,” he explained. “We created a 501(c)3 corporation, Friends of Reservoirs, to be the financial arm of the RFHP. We are reaching out to organizations such as bass clubs, watershed groups, homeowners associations, individuals, area property and business owners, water utilities—anybody who is interested in improving fish habitat to benefit water quality, fish, and the quality of life of the American people.”

Funding projects through the Friends of Reservoirs allows local groups to raise funds under the organization’s 501(c) 3 umbrella, making it easier to attract corporate donors. All funds raised by a group are earmarked for the group’s projects and are not shared with anyone else, which helps maintain local control.

TPWD’s Native Vegetation Project

Ott and Webb have been in the forefront of efforts to introduce native aquatic plants into Texas reservoirs, following the lead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Dr. Michael Smart, head of the Lewisville Aquatic Ecosystem Research Facility. “When Dr. Smart suggested that we should stock native aquatic plants for the same reasons we stock fish, we wanted to kick ourselves for not having seen the obvious,” Ott said. “You have to ask yourself when you stock fish, where will they live, and what will they eat?

“There are aquatic plants native to Texas that will survive in reservoirs,” he continued. “These plants lived in wetland areas and backwaters of streams. But you can’t plant them just anywhere. In reservoirs you have to deal with fluctuations in water levels. Plants have to be matched to the water depth and clarity they need. They have to get sufficient sunlight to grow, but they can’t be planted so shallow they will be dry at the times they need to be growing.”

Using plants from Smart’s Lewisville facility, Webb and Ott experimented on seven Texas reservoirs representing a cross-section of conditions across the state to develop a list of native Texas plants that will survive under a variety of conditions. They also experimented with techniques to aid survival of these plants under reservoir conditions different from those of natural lakes.

Logo courtesy TPWD

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