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On the other side stands a loose coalition of residents, fishermen and environmental groups that have attacked the standards change for Rayburn and other proposed downgrades as folly. The book-length bundle of revisions proposed by the TNRCC includes more than 30 downgrades, many of previously unclassified streams that will be labeled "intermediate" in quality instead of "high" or "excellent." Sound science, they say, dictates a more prudent approach to water quality issues, especially at Rayburn. "We're making Sam Rayburn our line in the sand," says Sparky Anderson, program director of Texas Clean Water Action.
Ed Parten takes the metaphor a step further: If the proposal doesn't get stopped in its tracks, he says, "We're declaring war."
Ann Thomasson-Wilson pulls a package of green rubber worms from a neatly packed shelf and hands them to a customer, who asks if the bass are biting close to shore or in deeper water. "They're shallow, honey," she says, her down-home warmth and charm evincing her East Texas origins. "I baby-honey-darling everybody," Thomasson-Wilson says. She also has a fondness for timeless country euphemisms and salty speech. "Now don't you print that!" she says frequently during an interview.
Thomasson-Wilson has operated Ann's Tackle Shop for 13 years, but her Jasper roots go much deeper. Her family has lived in the area since the early 1900s, and she fished the Angelina River and surrounding creeks when Sam Rayburn Reservoir was still just an idea. Something of a historian, she complains with mock outrage about Rayburn's original name, McGee Bend Dam and Reservoir, honoring notorious cattle-rustlin', pistol-packin' mama Polly McGee, who owned a nearby ranch in the mid-1800s.
A champion angler who learned many of her tricks on her home turf, Thomasson-Wilson has a proprietary interest in Rayburn's well-being. "I'm very defensive about my lake," she says. "I feel very strongly about people doing something to it."
Her tackle shop is a bass fishing hub, so Thomasson-Wilson hears almost every story there is to hear about Rayburn. And since the fish kill of 1998, many of the stories have been bad: reduced catches, dead hydrilla, diseased fish. While she believes that nature is responsible for much of that, she thinks nature had a little help. "We're willing to concede that some of the conditions are caused by the drought," she says. "But there's got to be something else."
That something, she says, is pollution from various sources, especially the paper mill. "Why do we have so much aluminum in the water?" she asks. "Why do we have so much mercury in the water? Where there's smoke, there's fire."
Fishing guide John Presley has also smelled the smoke. Last summer he heard a number of reports from swimmers of burning eyes and skin after a dip in Rayburn. "I've been swimming in that lake for 25 years," Presley says. "I've never seen it do that." In the last couple of years Presley has noticed another disturbing phenomenon: a brown film periodically deposited on the sand. "You never used to see that, either," he says. "I think it's some kind of pollution."
Will Kirkpatrick agrees that the drought isn't the only culprit, but he doesn't agree that tainted water is to blame. Kirkpatrick, who runs a fishing school and guide service in Broaddus, says a hefty percentage of the bass deaths can be chalked up to the practice of catching the fish and releasing them later, especially in the hot summer months. If fishermen want to point the finger, he says, they should point it at themselves. "No matter how good you are with handling fish, you're gonna lose 10 percent of them," he says. Less conscientious anglers "can kill up to 60 percent."
All the talk about pollution killing vegetation and fish is bunk, says Kirkpatrick. "[Fishermen] don't like to admit that we do anything wrong," he says. "It's always 'he did it' or 'they did it.' Never 'we did it.' "
Then again, he admits, he can't say with certainty what combination of factors is causing the problems. "Whether I'm right or wrong, I don't know," he says. "Nobody knows."
Kirkpatrick has identified the crux of the Rayburn dilemma. Drawing an absolute cause-and-effect relationship between any single agent and the lake's shortcomings is virtually impossible. The dramatic shrinkage in hydrilla acreage, for example, is certainly owing in part to the drought, as the weed is sensitive to shifts in depth and temperature and prefers stable conditions. But other East Texas lakes have experienced similar fluctuations in water level and temperature, yet their hydrilla has been reduced by a much smaller fraction. Toledo Bend, for example, which is located just 20 miles from Rayburn, has lost only 2,000 of its 20,000 acres. "It's just full of hydrilla," says Rhandy Helton, an aquatic plant biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Helton doubts that poor water quality in Rayburn accounts for the difference, but that's as far as he'll go. "We don't know," he says. "We just can't be definitive."
After the second fish kill, lab tests determined that almost all of the dead bass were infected with Largemouth Bass Virus. The virus, which has caused bass kills in some other lakes in the Southeast and in Texas (including Lake Conroe north of Houston and Lake Fork near Dallas), opportunistically attacks stressed fish. Similarly, the lesions that appeared en masse last year at Rayburn were caused by Epistylus, an organism typically present in freshwater lakes that does most of its damage to weakened or injured fish. But instead of providing answers, those diagnoses raised a different question: What caused the stress?