Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to drain 4 lakes next month - Brownsville Herald: Texas

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Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to drain 4 lakes next month

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Posted: Friday, August 16, 2019 1:28 pm | Updated: 1:45 pm, Fri Aug 16, 2019.

SEGUIN, Texas (AP) — The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority will drain its four remaining lakes on the Guadalupe next month, citing the imminent public danger posed by the decrepit condition of spillgates in its 90-year-old dams.

The San Antonio Express-News reports the lakes will be dewatered, one by one, beginning Sept. 16. Officials expect each lake to take about three days to empty. The process will start with Gonzales on the east, then move west to Meadow, Placid, and finally McQueeney, the most populated one.

The water level will drop by 12 feet on each lake, leaving only the natural channel of the Guadalupe River. Two other lakes in the chain, Dunlap and Wood, already drained after spillgates there failed.

The GBRA notified the associations of lakefront residents Thursday about the decision and is sending about 2,000 certified letters to all property owners.

The dewatering of the lakes will mark the end of an era. Originally impounded in the late 1920s and early '30s, the lakes and dams were used to produce electricity. In the ensuing years, the lakes became centers of recreation as power generation faded.

For some property owners, the lakes are their homes. For others in San Antonio and Houston, they're weekend vacation spots for boating, fishing and skiing. Businesses such as bait stands, gas stations and restaurants emerged. Property owners say all that could wither once there's no water left in the lakes.

Whether all six dams could be fixed and the lakes restored remains uncertain. It could take at least several years and cost $180 million.

Until there is a solution, GBRA officials said they can no longer gamble with the lives of boaters, swimmers and campers if another spillgate fails, which could happen at any time.

Since 2016, spillgates on two GBRA dams have failed: first on Lake Wood, then on Lake Dunlap on May 14. Video from a security camera at Dunlap captured the middle spillgate — an 85-foot-long, 12-foot-tall wall of steel and timber — lurching up and out before crashing down into the river.

"There is no reason for us to believe that any of the gates could not do that at any given moment," Kevin Patteson, the authority's general manager and CEO, told the San Antonio Express-News editorial board. "And that's what keeps us up at night."

The agency has posted signs and used other methods to deter people from entering unsafe areas. Buoys emblazoned with "Keep Out" float in the river channel, along with a large sign that reads "DANGER: STAY OUT OF WATER. RESTRICTED AREA." Loudspeakers alert the public to leave immediately and that law enforcement has been contacted.

The warnings haven't always been heeded. A video from late July, for example, shows people in kayaks and boats and on paddleboards bumping up against the spillgates at Nolte Dam on Meadow Lake, and in some instances, climbing on the dam itself.

The decision by GBRA staff to empty the lakes does not require approval from the agency's board of directors, whose nine members are all appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

In July, the agency hinted that draining the lakes could be necessary, even if temporary, so engineers could inspect the dams and assess the spillgates' soundness.

Property owners from the lakes lambasted the proposal. They packed into GBRA's Seguin headquarters for the July meeting of its directors and demanded that the spillgates remain up. Draining the lakes would disrupt their way of life, drive down property values and ruin businesses around the lakes, they said.

The property owners at McQueeney were mostly unmoved by engineering studies and modeling that showed potentially life-threatening inundation of popular recreation areas if the three spillgates in that dam were to fail. They told GBRA officials they doubted such a scenario would actually unfold, pointing to the failure of a single spillgate at Dunlap — not all three there.

Patteson said there's potential for loss of life even with a single spillgate failure if people are nearby when it happens.

"We've put up every safety measure we can think of, and we still see kids climbing over them, and down them and on them," Patteson said. "We've been put on notice we have something that can hurt somebody, and we have a way to alleviate it. And that's what a responsible organization would do."

Pettison said Wednesday that GBRA is in the midst of a delicate balancing act. The authority is giving property owners ample time to move their watercraft from the lakes before the water drops low enough to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible.

At the same time, the public notice gives disgruntled property owners time to ask the courts to block GBRA from lowering the lake levels. Patteson said he expects there will be an effort to seek an injunction against GBRA. Even if one is granted, he said, it doesn't reduce the chances of another catastrophic spillgate failure.

Property owners will have until at least Sept. 16 to remove their watercraft from the lakes. Most homes along the lakes' shores have their own docks where boats and jet skis are stored.

When the Lake Dunlap spillgate failed without warning in May, residents watched the water recede, exposing large mud flats for the first time in almost a century. Boats were left stranded, with some dangling in the air in slips that elevate them over the lake.

Once the flats dried out, boat owners had to use tractors and trailers to move their watercraft to the river channel, then drove them to an extended makeshift boat ramp for removal.

Now, grasses are taking over areas that were once under water.

It's not clear how property values will be affected. Jonathan Stinson, GBRA's deputy general manager, estimated property around Dunlap, McQueeney and Placid is worth $1 billion, half of it at McQueeney alone.

Property owners predict that they'll see a precipitous drop in property values — as much as 50%, though appraisers have said it's too soon to tell.

Property owners' reactions to the GBRA's position to drain the lakes range from furious to sympathetic. Patteson and his staff took over in early 2016, just before the Lake Wood spillgate failed. They've been warning ever since that the dams are in disrepair, despite the $25 million spent on them since they were bought from private owners in 1963.

Many property owners appear willing to accept some financial responsibility for updating the dam infrastructure, if only to maintain their lifestyle and property values. The GBRA, a state-created river authority, has no taxing powers and depends on revenue it produces to cover costs. With a 10-county jurisdiction along the Guadalupe River, the agency services a rapidly growing area of Texas and makes money from water sales and wastewater treatment.

But officials say the agency has no authority to use those funds to repair the dams. Its ratepayers for water and wastewater services could go to the Public Utility Commission of Texas, a regulatory agency, and challenge such spending and would likely win, Patteson said.

It's not clear when, or if, the lakes will return.

"There is a path forward, but it's not going to be easy," Patteson said. "It's not going to be quick. And it's not going to be cheap."

GBRA is working with homeowner associations that appear to be willing to create special taxing districts with the authority to tax property owners to help cover the cost of rebuilding the dams and restoring the lakes.

One is the Preserve Lake Dunlap Association. It plans to call an election for the creation a Water Control and Improvement District and has targeted the Nov. 5 ballot. But it may miss state deadlines for that election.

The associations are expecting assistance from GBRA and other governmental organizations to help cover the cost of rehabilitating the dams. But Patteson said Wednesday it's possible not all six dams would be fixed. The lakes farthest downriver — Gonzales and Wood — don't have enough property value to cover the cost of debt service and may ultimately seek aid from the state or federal government.

Once the lake levels drop, it will be a minimum of several years before they return, if ever.

"It's going to be a long time. ... One of the hardest things we've been struggling with in the past three years is there's not really a funding solution at the state or federal level for this issue," Patteson said. Even "if you have the funding today, it takes about a year of engineering and about 24 to 28 months of construction."

———

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

© 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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