Central Texas boaters and swimmers heading out to Lake Travis this Memorial Day weekend should be wary of extreme heat and a treacherous hodgepodge of hazards — both natural and human-made — beneath the water.
Boaters in shaded coves or under the blazing sun on the lake should bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Temperatures could reach near 100 degrees on Memorial Day, forecasters said, with highs around 97 and 98 degrees Saturday and Sunday.
“We want people to come out and enjoy this lake,” Travis County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark said, “but we want to make sure that people who come out here take this lake seriously and take proper precautions, because it can be deadly.”
She noted that two people who disappeared on the lake earlier this month have not been found.
Investigators are still searching for Manuel Salas of Elgin, who was last seen at the lake May 5, and for a woman who fell off a party boat Saturday near Volente. Austin authorities have searched the lake’s surface and shoreline and have used sonar in the water with the help of Houston police.
Dark warned swimmers and boaters to use caution in and out of the murky water because of hidden underwater hazards — a sunken party barge, cars, houses, docks and even an old pecan orchard rest under the surface of Lake Travis. In some arms of the lake, there are large drop-offs, extending as deep as 200 feet, said Travis County sheriff’s office Sgt. Greg Lawson, who oversees the dive team.
“So whenever we have somebody on the lake, and if they’re missing off a boat that’s underway,” Lawson explained, “It’s a real challenge to figure out exactly where they are.”
Four people drowned on Lake Travis in 2017, but no drownings occurred during the last Memorial Day weekend, Dark said. Two people drowned in the Pedernales River last year, she said.
Authorities recorded 45 boating deaths statewide last year— a 28 percent jump from 2016, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The state tallied 172 boating accidents and 83 boating injuries, the parks department said.
To avoid injury or death, game wardens suggest wearing a life jacket, and keeping a fire extinguisher, a sound-producing device to call for help and a life preserver on board. They said all boat passengers 13 years and younger are required to wear a life jacket on the water.
“Wearing a life jacket is the most important strategy boaters can take to stay safe on the water,” said Tim Spice , a Texas parks boater education manager. “The overwhelming majority of boating fatalities are caused by drowning, and most of those drowning victims are recovered without a life jacket.”
Texas game warden Ben Echelson said parks officials will be out on the water this weekend and could perform field sobriety tests on boaters or swimmers showing signs of intoxication.
“We try to cover the entire lake,” he said.
Game wardens issued 152 citations for boating under the influence or while intoxicated across the state in 2017.
“Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths,” said Cody Jones, assistant commander for Texas marine enforcement. “Not only does it endanger the lives of boat operators and passengers, it endangers the lives of everyone who is outside enjoying Texas lakes and rivers.”
Game wardens at Lake Travis will concentrate on popular party areas, which include Devil’s Cove near the lake’s north shore. On a typical weekend, 40 to 50 boats will hang out in the cove, Echelson said.
But come Memorial Day weekend, those numbers could quadruple, game warden James Michael said.
The area will be “like a parking lot,” he said. “The number of boats that will be in here will get up to 200 or 300, easily.”
On land, the Travis County sheriff’s office, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as well as police in Bee Cave, Lakeway and Jonestown are joining forces to crack down on intoxicated and unsafe drivers, they said. In 2017, the DPS made 372 driving while intoxicated arrests across Texas during Memorial Day weekend, officials said. Travis County made 10 such arrests, Dark said.