More than four years ago, many Lakehills residents traded in their jet skis and boats for 4-wheelers and ATVs, said Kristin Eliason, who lives in the Brushy Creek subdivision next to Medina Lake. In a drought-ridden area like Medina Lake, there was no use for water sports equipment at her “lakeside” home.
“It was barren,” Eliason said. “It was a totally different lifestyle (compared to now).”
For the first time in nearly 10 years, Medina Lake has reached full capacity again. The sites and sounds of the water gushing over the spillway in the distance serve as signs of renewal – Medina Lake is back.
In the past month, several rounds of thunderstorms across Bandera County increased the lake’s water level by nearly 50%, and the lake rose nearly nine feet on May 29 alone, according to Water Data for Texas. As of Friday, the lake level was at 1,065.73 feet – that’s 100% full and overflowing.
The last time Medina Lake was full was in Oct. 2007, according to officials from the Bexar Medina Atascosa Counties Water Control And Improvement District. Nearby residents said that during the more than three-year drought, the lake was almost completely barren, save for the area near the dam. At its lowest, the lake was only 2.7% full.
“At that time it was more a ranching type situation. (People) would erect fences and allow cattle to roam and have access to the little bit of water there,” Eliason said. Vegetation and large trees even began to grow in the parched lakebed.
But the frequent torrential downpours falling into the Medina River Basin over the past few weeks transformed the lake into an oasis for nearby business owners and residents, many of whom thought they might never see the lake full again.
“We were just completely thrown off (after the rain),” Eliason said. “It’s definitely a relief to see water coming in. It’s been a long time coming and we’re definitely very thankful for it.”
For most Lakehills residents like Eliason, a full lake is a symbol of life and productivity. In the last few years, a number of businesses – both along the lake and in the surrounding area – completely shut down, she said. Eliason and her family moved to Houston in search of more opportunity, but kept their lakeside home out of necessity.
“With it being a drought and there not being any water, our property values were nothing so selling our land wasn’t an option,” she said. “So that was a lot of carrying costs and a lot of us had to really hunker down and bear that burden.”
The lack of commerce in the area – where the median household income is $42,964, according to 2010 Census data – put a lot of stress on residents and business owners, many of which rely on lake visitors for their income. Marinas, watersport shops, and restaurants all took heavy blows, some forced to closed.
“Everything is looking really optimistic,” she said. “Some of the businesses are opening up their doors and expanding into new little businesses. It’s an opportunity for a lot of underprivileged people that lived in a lot of poverty to bounce back.”
Mike Crandall, owner of Wallys Watersports on Medina Lake, sat in his lakeside gazebo – now surrounded by water on three sides – on Wednesday and recalled when the water barely reached the wooden structure. Now it’s back to normal, though in a region prone to extreme weather like drought and flooding, “normal” is difficult to peg.
He’s bracing himself for a spike in customers hoping to rent water equipment or take water skiing lessons, he said.
“Business is back,” he said.
But the amount of water returning to the lake is a bittersweet occurrence. The possibility of flooding is greater since the soil is so saturated.
A 1998 flood that took 31 lives and damaged more than 1,000 homes scarred the region, and the 2002 flood that took nine lives and damaged hundreds of homes was cause for renovation of the dam. Engineers feared that the 90-year-old dam could be overtaken by rising waters and break, unleashing billions of gallons of water onto thousands of people in the surrounding area.
So, in 2003, Bexar County, the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio River Authority created the Bexar Regional Watershed Management (BRWM) partnership to improve flood and storm water management and surface water quality within Bexar County.
Later, in 2007, Bexar County committed $500 million over 10 years towards a regional flood control program, and the River Authority spearheaded a project to strengthened the dam, which is now anchored to the bedrock with hundreds of steel cables, and contains two, large valves that more efficiently control water release for the downstream farmers who rely on the waters for their crops.
Flooding in San Antonio has been a concern, too, given the record amount of rain the city has seen in the past month. In May 2015, San Antonio saw a statewide record rainfall of 8.57 inches and this May’s rainfall totaled 9.14 inches – more than five inches above normal, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Yura.
“I believe that the $500 million that we spend on flood control certainly has helped the city because there are no lost lives from flooding (this year),” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in an interview earlier this week.
More rain is expected throughout the weekend, but Wolff remains confident that the city is ready to take it on.
“Our guys are out 24 hours a day, ready for any sort of incident that might occur, but it’s not over yet,” he said. “We don’t know what we still might face in the next two or three days, but we’re ready.”
Medina Lake dwellers are ready, too, Eliason said, who is returning to her lakeside property to enjoy it just in time for summer.
Bexar Medina Atascosa Counties Water Control And Improvement District Business Manager Ed Berger said to enjoy the water while it lasts.
“If you go back in history, (the lake) goes up and it goes down,” Berger said. “The truth is we live just on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, and there are typically bad droughts, so you’re going to always have (changing) situations like this.”
Top image: A picnic table is flooded by the amount of water Medina Lake has received over the past months. Photo by Scott Ball.