Judge Temporarily Blocks Plans To Drain Four Texas Lakes And Accompanying Dams

The water authority planned to drain the lakes, which they consider a public safety threat, on Monday.

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
An aerial shot of the dam on Lake Dunlap near New Braunfels on Aug. 30, 2019.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

A judge temporarily blocked next week’s draining of four lakes in Guadalupe County in Central Texas, and the 90-year-old dams that support them, according to a court order.

Judge Stephen Ables issued the emergency order Wednesday as the court proceeding between the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and homeowners along the lakes east of San Antonio continues. He will now decide whether to file a temporary injunction, which would extend Wednesday’s ruling until the case is resolved.

Homeowners, who got barely than a month’s notice that the lakes would be drained, said they felt blindsided by the plan that would lower their property values, kill their beloved century-old cypress trees and render the lakes unusable.

Tess Coody, a Guadalupe County resident who has organized some of the efforts to stop the lake draining, said she and others were happy with the ruling but remained “cautiously optimistic.”

“It was just that glimmer of hope people needed,” Coody said. “Because everything else we've been hearing has either been nothing or no, so even a little bit of a yes was a good thing.”

Doug Sutter, an attorney representing more than 300 lakefront property owners in the region, applauded the ruling and said it gives them more time to present evidence before the river authority can indefinitely drain the lakes without a plan to rebuild the dams that created them.

“If he hadn’t done that, then everything would’ve been mute. They would’ve drained them,” Sutter said.

The water authority announced last month that it would drain lakes Gonzales, McQueeney, Meadow and Placid over concerns that their dams would fail, since two already did. Patty Gonzales, a river authority spokesperson, told The Texas Tribune previously that the dams are creating a safety hazard and could flood entire neighborhoods if they get any worse.

In response to the ruling, the river authority said in a statement that litigation does not wipe away the danger of keeping the aging dams up and that they have evidence that people are “continuing to disregard warning signs and risk their lives” by recreating near them.

“Legal actions will not prevent another spillgate failure or protect lives,” the statement said.

Previously, local officials in Guadalupe County offered an ordinance temporarily banning some use of the lakes, especially near the dams, while a plan was worked out to find funding for the dams’ floodgates to be replaced. David Wilborn, the Guadalupe County attorney, led the effort to present the ordinance that was ultimately ignored by the river authority. He declined to comment on this week’s ruling.

Issues with the Guadalupe River Valley dams began three years ago when a floodgate holding up Lake Wood failed. This was followed by a second floodgate failure on Lake Dunlap in May. Both of those lakes have already returned to their original channels. No repair work has been done to replace and refill either one.

After the second failure, the river authority scrambled to analyze the risks posed by the remaining dams and announced mid-August it would lower them. Representatives for the state agency said they lack the funding to replace the floodgates on the hydroelectric dams, which they can’t sell enough electricity from to be self-sustaining.

However, the river authority has known for years that the dams only had a lifespan of 75 years but failed to tell residents. Instead of searching for funding to replace them, the river authority performed just enough maintenance to keep them alive for as long as possible.

State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, sent a letter Thursday to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to step in. Kuempel wrote of his concerns that draining the lakes could damage the economic vitality of the Guadalupe River Valley for years to come, while also questioning the validity that the remaining dams are at extreme risk of failure if they are not lowered immediately. He cited a report from the engineering firm Black & Veach that, after the singular visual inspection of the floodgate that failed on Lake Dunlap, came to the wide-reaching conclusion that all of the dams were in danger of collapse without looking at the other dams.

“I am not convinced that [the river authority] has a logical, good faith reason to believe dewatering is necessary to prevent a grave and immediate threat to life and property,” Kuempel wrote. He also noted that the Black & Veach report, and others from a different firm, did not conclude that collapse was imminent, nor did they offer alternatives to indefinitely lowering the dams.

In his order, Ables said the river authority has “other, less drastic means” to ensure downstream protection from flooding but did not say what those included. He added that the Lake McQueeney dam is at much less risk of failure now since the collapse of Dunlap, which is above it.

Attorneys involved in the case will be back in court next week.

This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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