Rumors started circulating early Thursday morning that a rare fish had been caught near the low water crossing on Lake Austin.
Long before Mansfield Dam had been constructed, the yellow-bellied sucker thrived in the swift waters of the Colorado River.
The yellow-bellied sucker needs cooler water temperatures and a steady current to spawn and survive. So it was shortly after the completion of Mansfield Dam in 1942 that sightings of the fish were rare. By 1944, it was believed that the yellow-bellied sucker fish had gone extinct.
That was until early this morning.
A spokesperson from Friends of Yellow-Bellied Suckers (YBS) confirmed that the fish caught (and then released) in Lake Austin this past Thursday morning was indeed the yellow-bellied sucker.
Catching a fish in Lake Austin usually isn’t that big of a deal … unless you’re talking about the yellow-bellied sucker fish.
A fish with water rights
You have to go back to a much earlier time to understand how water rights became tied to a fish.
The once abundant yellow-bellied suckers were a staple food for the early settlers of the Hill Country along the Colorado River. So when its habitat was threatened by the construction of a dam, a small group of fisherman formed Friends of YBS to protect the species and their food supply.
The ruling came several years after Mansfield Dam was complete, and too late to save the fish. But for the first (and only) time in history, the Supreme Court of the United States awarded prior-appropriation water rights to a single fish species.
Until now, water releases for the yellow-bellied sucker have not been an issue. But as long as there’s proof that yellow-bellied suckers exist in a body of water controlled by a dam, the entity in control of the dam must release an amount of water to replicate its natural habitat.
Research shows that a water flow of 300 cubic feet per second (one cubic foot per second is equivalent to about 450 gallons a minute) in Lake Austin will satisfy the Supreme Court ruling that still stands today. The LCRA has made an agreement with Friends of YBS to release the amount of water required by the ruling.
Lake Travis was full
This news comes at a time when Lake Travis is full at 681’ — a water level that we haven’t seen since May 2010. Sometimes Island will soon reappear, and along with other planned water releases, the Lake Travis water level could drop below 610’ by August 2016.
Friends of YBS said it’s exciting to see Lake Travis full again, but want to remind all of us that yellow-bellied suckers were here long before Lake Travis existed.
No one knows how this cowardly fish has survived this long in Lake Austin. And no one knows why it’s important for the fish to remain living. Buts now that it’s alive and well, it needs to be protected.
You can expect to see water coming through the lower gates of Mansfield Dam today, April 1, 2016. There’s talk about the delivery of an iceberg to Lake Travis to help offset the unexpected water releases.
Post image via Creative Commons, Olaf Nelson.