Skip to main content
  The Houston Canoe Club
Share our Joy of Paddling!

P.O. Box 925516
Houston, Texas

The Houston Canoe Club 

is a Paddle America Club

Link to ACA

Add Me To Your Mailing List
HomeNL-2016-02 Trinity River

Following the Trinity River's Flow
January 18, 2016
Tom Douglas

When flow in the Trinity River is high, some complicated things can happen. On the morning of January 18, the USGS river gauge at the town of Liberty was reading 46,000 cfs, but the gauge farther downstream at Wallisville was only showing 23,400 cfs. Because the river was not experiencing a rapid rise, there had to be another explanation for the “missing water.” Agencies that measure and manage the river’s flow have noted that this sometimes happens at flows above about 20,000 cfs. The only credible explanation is that water must be “sneaking out” of the Trinity’s main channel, and finding its way over into the Lost River and the Old River, whose channels lie farther to the west. After that, the fugitive water can eventually rejoin the Trinity below the gauge at Wallisville, although, increasingly, it appears to be going directly into the bay by way of Long Island Bayou and other, smaller distributary channels. A good explanation of exactly what is going on will require a lot of data collection and some sophisticated modeling, all of which is planned.

To get a first cut at learning how water is actually moving out of the Trinity River’s main channel to the west, Tom Douglas had the arguably bright idea of paddling all of the way across the Trinity River basin, collecting data on the speed, direction, and depth of the water at a dozen or so pre-selected points along the way (red squares on the map of our route). To do this, several conditions all had to come together on the same day:

  • A group of experienced paddlers who had a sense of adventure, were willing to tolerate numerous stops for data collection, and could handle the 11+ mile route through uncharted terrain
  • High enough water in the Trinity River to generate the “fugitive flows”
  • Little or no wind (because our method for measuring current speed was to let our boats drift with the current and determine their speed using our GPS units)
Very fortunately, all of these came together on January 18. Tom Douglas, Joe Coker, Dave Kitson, and David Portz set out from the east side of the Trinity River basin at Cedar Hill Park. As a good omen, a brown pelican came swimming right up to us as we prepared to launch our boats. Much later during the day, a bald eagle would encourage us to keep on going.
Ready for Adventure,
by David Portz
Good Luck Omen,
by David Portz

Less than 30 minutes after putting our boats on the water, we departed Lake Charlotte and headed west through the forest to the Trinity River. Based on what we had learned from a scouting trip on January 8, we knew that we would need a water level of at least about 13.2 feet at the Lake Charlotte gauge to allow passage into the river without dragging or portaging. That requirement was fulfilled: the water level was a little over 13.3 feet!
Through Cypresses, by David Portz
    Through Chinaberries, by David Portz
    Through Bulrushes, by David Portz
The first of two significant unknowns about the planned route involved how we might follow the “fugitive flow” out of the river’s main channel into the wetlands to its west. A preliminary study of satellite imagery had shown that there might be a break in the natural levee along the river’s west bank, directly across from where we entered the river, that would allow us passage. Route-finder Joe quickly located that break and led the group through this vital, but somewhat hair-raising, narrow channel through the forest. For a few seconds, my mind flashed back to skiing powder snow through the trees – following the arrow of gravity, and hoping that a clear passage would open up ahead, just beyond what I could actually see at the moment. This spot was not for the faint of heart, but it was great!  Heading farther west, we measured water flows in John Wiggins Bayou, the Lost River, the “borrow area” adjacent to the levee surrounding the Lost Lake Oil Field, the Old River, and several points in between.
Getting Our Bearings,
by Dave Kitson
Map Consultation,
by Dave Kitson 
No Wind,
by Joe Coker

The second big unknown about our route had been how we might find a way out of Lost Lake and into the Old River, which lies to its west. Once again, it was Joe who spotted the magic passage. This led through bulrushes, very thorny trifoliate orange and locust trees, and a large grove of (invasive) Chinaberry trees, among other things. This, too, was not for the faint of heart. But, it did lead us to the Old River, and, a few minutes later, we caught site of the western edge of the Trinity River basin! After collecting a few more data points along the Old River, we took out at Hugo Point, on the western side of the basin, below Interstate-10.

David's New Camera,
by Dave Kitson
Old River,
by Tom Douglas
Grazing Nutria,
by Dave Kitson

What a day!  Each person in the group had played a key role. Joe found the often-obscure passages, Dave related our position to the many other paddles that he has made in the area to the west of the Trinity, and David measured water depths with expert use of a drop line and determined our location at critical points with the help of his cell phone. Each one of us discovered new wonders. YooHoo! Maybe we should start up an exclusive club of paddlers who have successfully traversed the entire Trinity River basin, which is about six and a half miles wide at this point. (Membership in the club may be made a little easier in the future by avoiding a misnavigation by Tom that sent us farther to the north than was needed at one point.)

What a day!
Hugo Point!,
by David Portz
Our Route,
by Tom Douglas
Our Route, by Texas
Water Development Board

From: Tom Douglas
Sent: Thursday, January 21, 2016 7:26 PM
To: <Contacts at the US Geological Survey, Texas Water Development Board,
       and Trinity River Authority>
Cc: Coker, Joe; Kitson, David; Portz, David
Subject: Data Gathered During a Transit Across the Trinity River Basin by Water on January 18

Dear Michael, Carla, Glenn, and Webster: 

I enjoyed meeting you and speaking with you during the recent State of the Bay Symposium in Galveston. I was interested to learn that work is afoot to model the changing water flows in the lower Trinity River. Motivated by our conversations, and knowing that the existing high flows in the Trinity were about to recede, I thought that it might be worthwhile to organize a transit of the Trinity River Basin above Interstate-10. My colleagues and I had previously noted that a water level of at least about 13.2 feet at the Lake Charlotte gauge would be needed to paddle kayaks through the forest from Lake Charlotte into the Trinity. The water level on Monday January 18 was a little above 13.3 feet, so we undertook a transit of the basin from Cedar Hill Park on the east to Hugo Point on the west. Along the way, we checked the speed of the water flow, the direction of the flow, and the depth of the water at 15 different points. I am sure that this data is not comparable to what a properly-equipped professional team could obtain, but I am hopeful that it may be of some use, nonetheless. Some of the areas we visited would be difficult to access by other means, even a jon boat or an airboat.

So as to match up with existing waypoints already entered on the GPS unit that I was using, I numbered our data collection points from Site 46 to Site 60, in the order that we visited them on our way across the basin. There was an uninterrupted route available to us all of the way across the basin – I never had to get out of my boat or wade at any point along the way.

Water was flowing out of the Trinity’s main stem, through low spots in the natural levees, on both sides of the river (Site 46 on the east side of the river and Site 48 on the west side). The channel that we followed on the west side of the river was narrow, winding, and flowed relatively swiftly through the forest between Sites 48 and 49. From that point, there was a generally southwesterly flow of water all of the way to the Old River. The current’s speed gradually increased as we moved south down the Old River, past Interstate-10. There was still a significant current down in Old River Lake, at Site 60.

One interesting feature that we noticed was the influence of the Lost Lake Oil field, which presents an impediment to this southwesterly flow. At Site 54, water was moving swiftly to the west, following the borrow area adjacent to the oil field’s northern levee.

The slow flow that we found in the upper part of the Old River was in good agreement with what two of our paddlers had seen a few days earlier, on January 15. At that time, they noted that the water level in the Old River was about 6 feet higher than usual, but that the current was very slow, from FM 1409 down to the confluence of the Old River with The Cutoff. On that day, flow in The Cutoff was also quite slow. Similar to what we saw on January 18, they noted that the current’s speed in the Old River gradually increased to the south of its confluence with The Cutoff.

Regarding over-bank flow on the west side of the Trinity River to the north of the area we visited on January 18, I recommend speaking with the staff at the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge: I recall that they rely partially on the level of the Trinity River at the Liberty gauging station when making decisions regarding public access to the Champion Lake Public Use Area. (High flow through Champion Lake can create hazardous conditions.) 

For an informed, local point of view regarding the Trinity River’s increasing tendency to move back to the west below Interstate-10, it might be worthwhile to contact Pudge (George A.) Willcox. Pudge has retired from a long career at the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District, and he was recently elected to chairmanship of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments. A data table, two maps, and a brief video illustrating the conditions between Sites 48 and 49 are attached.

Tom Douglas

From: Carla Guthrie
Sent: Friday, January 22, 2016 1:44 PM
To: Tom Douglas
Subject: RE: Data Gathered During a Transit Across the Trinity River Basin by Water on January 18

Tom, Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us last week and for your investigative work! You have a few staff here in our office jealous of your kayaking trip.
We are going to save this information and use it to help inform our efforts. Attached is an aerial photo taken last June with your path (as best our guy Taylor could interpret). You can see how full of water everything was at that time.
We look forward to working on the project, and will be in touch as we learn information. Don’t hesitate to share any information with us. We will use all we can.


Carla G. Guthrie, Ph.D.
Manager, Bays and Estuaries Program
Surface Water Resources

Texas Water Development Board
1700 North Congress Ave.
P.O. Box 13231
Austin, TX 78711-3231

Data collection point maps, and data table:

The author,Tom Douglas