Judge Hits Pause on Guadalupe River Lake Drain

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

From left, attorney Lamont Jefferson, representing the GBRA, and attorneys Doug Sutter, Ricardo Cedillo, and Brian Lewis, who represent local property owners, speak with Judge Stephen Ables during a recess.

SEGUIN – The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s plans to drain lake water held back by four dams on the Guadalupe River are on hold – for now. 

Following an all-day hearing Wednesday that pitted attorneys representing lakeside residents against lawyers for the GBRA, Stephen B. Ables, a visiting judge from Kerrville, issued a restraining order that stops the GBRA from starting to draw down the lakes on Monday. 

The GBRA last month announced plans to start draining Lake Gonzales, Meadow Lake, Lake Placid, and Lake McQueeney on Monday in response to safety concerns as a result of dam failure. Spillgates on two of the GBRA’s six dams on the Guadalupe River have already failed, one holding back Lake Wood in 2016 and another impounding Lake Dunlap in May. 

The announcement left lakeside property owners scrambling to stop the draining. Ricardo Cedillo, a prominent San Antonio business litigator, represents 10 property owners on Lake Placid and Lake McQueeney in a lawsuit against the GBRA. Nearly 300 owners of properties along all six lakes have signed on to a separate lawsuit, represented by Houston attorney Doug Sutter. Both were discussed in court Wednesday. 

During the proceedings, residents packed wooden benches for around six hours of witness testimony about the GBRA’s failure over decades to properly maintain the dams, a lack of any real flood risk that would stem from another spillgate failure, and the negative effect on property values for those with lakeside docks left high and dry if water levels drop approximately 12 feet with the draining of the lakes. 

The GBRA purchased the entire dam system in the early 1960s, around three decades after its construction in the 1920s and ’30s to produce hydroelectric power. Its officials, including General Manager Kevin Patteson, have said that, even after regular maintenance over the decades and repairs after major floods, the structures are at the end of their useful lives. 

The authority has shared video of kayakers floating alongside and climbing on one of the dam spillgates, arguing that people could be hurt or killed if the gate’s deteriorated hinge mechanisms suddenly fail. In May, the wood and steel spillgate on Lake Dunlap suddenly careened over, releasing a gush of water downstream. No one was hurt. 

Much of the testimony Wednesday focused on whether the GBRA is overblowing the dams’ risk as a way of extracting itself from having to maintain the lakes. GBRA officials have said electricity sales from the hydroelectric system do not cover the costs of maintaining the dams, which would require $15 million to $35 million apiece to replace. The authority has no power to tax under Texas law and earns most of its revenue through water sales and wastewater service. 

At one point, Cedillo guided engineer David Givler, an expert witness hired by his firm, through a set of engineering maps that showed only four homes along the entire lake system would be flooded, even if every spillgate on all remaining dams fail at once. But Lamont Jefferson, a San Antonio trial lawyer representing the GBRA, got Givler to admit that the risk to a swimmer or paddler “depends on where they are and how close they are.” 

“Would you be confident in saying this dam system is safe for operation?” Jefferson asked. Givler said no, though he doesn’t think draining the lakes is the only viable alternative.   

Toward the end of the proceedings, Cedillo told reporters that Ables’ restraining order stopping the lake drain could last up to 14 days, though a decision will likely come early next week on whether to allow the draining to proceed ahead of a trial. 

The court will take up the issue again at 10 a.m. Monday at the Guadalupe County Courthouse at 211 W. Court St. in Seguin. 

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