Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Four Guadalupe River lakes will temporarily be closed to boat traffic, swimmers, and paddlers but not drained as originally proposed, following an agreement made Monday.
Lawyers representing two groups of lakeside residents and attorneys representing the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which owns and manages the lakes in Guadalupe and Gonzales counties, agreed in Guadalupe County district court to an injunction that will stop the lake draining until a trial currently set for October 2020.
The agreement is a win for the lakeside residents, who had sought to stop the draining after the GBRA announced last month that failures of dam spillgates at Lake Wood in 2016 and at Lake Dunlap in May necessitated draining, or “dewatering,” Lake Gonzales, Meadow Lake, Lake Placid, and Lake McQueeney.
GBRA officials have said the lake draining was to prevent injuries if the 90-year-old dam equipment fails. Many lakeside residents have rejected the idea that the draining was about safety and believe the authority wants to get out from under its obligations to maintain the structures.
“This does not affect our lawsuit whatsoever,” said Doug Sutter, a Houston-based attorney who owns property on Lake McQueeney and filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 300 residents. Sutter’s lawsuit focuses on the GBRA’s duties to “maintain, repair, and more importantly, replace the dams,” he told reporters after the agreement was announced.
“We’re going to go forward with the discovery … to that end because that’s the end of our lawsuit,” Sutter continued.
As part of the agreement, the lakes will be closed to all users, effective midnight on Sept. 19. The closure affects the Guadalupe River and lakes from the dam at Lake Dunlap to the FM 1117 crossing and from the crossing at State Highway 80 to the one at County Road 143 in Gonzales County. The closure will last at least 30 days, with a possibility to extend it once for another 30 days.
During that time, three experts – one chosen by the plaintiffs, one chosen by the GBRA, and a third expert agreed on by the two experts representing the opposing sides – will work together to determine if there are any “unsafe zones” in the lakes and how to keep them closed when the lakes reopen for boating and other uses.
“We’re happy that we’re at where we’re at,” said GBRA General Manager Kevin Patteson. “At the end of the day, public safety’s still going to get addressed, which is what we started this about.”
Ricardo Cedillo, a San Antonio lawyer representing another set of property owners, said that engineers hired by GBRA didn’t find the dams pose the same level of safety threat that the authority has claimed.
“Safety is like mothers and apple pie and the American flag, and my radar goes up when they lead with this,” Cedillo said. “How can you argue against apple pie? That’s not to say that safety isn’t a legitimate concern. My clients, they put their children on that lake. Safety is always a concern for anyone, but it didn’t pass the smell test.”
Discussions that led to the agreement started Sunday, Cedillo said, with GBRA lawyers and officials agreeing not to drain the lakes, something Cedillo’s side had insisted on as a starting point.
“It all began with their concession that they would not drain the lakes and have the consequences on that happen for this community,” Cedillo said.
Lakeside residents and businesses have been reeling since the GBRA’s announcement last month. Many say that draining the lakes also would drain the economy of Seguin and other river towns. Entities such as the Guadalupe County Commissioners Court and the Seguin and Navarro independent school districts have passed resolutions against the drain, arguing that it would significantly reduce the property taxes that are their main sources of funding.
The agreement means the lakes likely will be open again in spring and summer of 2020, the height of the season for boating, water skiing, swimming, and fishing.
In the meantime, members of groups like Friends of Lake McQueeney and Preserve Lake Dunlap Association are working on finding a way to create a type of special taxation entity, known as a water control and improvement district, that could help pay to replace the dams. Members of the Lake McQueeney group have said a vote on the bonds necessary to fund the repairs could come in May.
Members of both sides see this as the most likely way to save the lakes permanently.
“There’s a lot of people that are outside of this lawsuit that are working very diligently on resolutions of this problem – funding, how to get money, and how to repair the dams,” Sutter said. “So it’s very realistic that there could be a resolution before … we go to trial.”
Patteson said creating these districts is “absolutely” the best path forward for maintaining the lakes. GBRA officials have been working on finding such funding since Lake Wood failed only about two months before he started with the authority in 2016.
“We’ve been consistently told no at the state and federal level that … there’s no free money from the sky, you’re going to have to go and deal with this yourselves,” Patteson said.
But if that plan doesn’t work, the GBRA still has an obligation to maintain and repair the dams, Cedillo argued.
“We as good citizens are going to look to see how we can help them carry out their obligations,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s their job.”