No decision yet as GBRA considers draining 4 lakes for safety

Discussion comes after dam failures at Lake Wood, Lake Dunlap

Property owners expressed their displeasure with the GBRA's plan to empty lakes after recent dam failures.
Property owners expressed their displeasure with the GBRA's plan to empty lakes after recent dam failures.

Concerned over the possibility of empty lakes, property and business owners filled the building at Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority's Wednesday morning board meeting.

"There's a lot of people whose lives depend on the water being in the lake," Thomas Belton, co-owner of a water skiing school on Lake McQueeney, told the board. "I just want you to see faces."

But following spill gate failures at two of its dams, Lake Wood in 2016 and Lake Dunlap in May, the GBRA sees danger, too. Four more lakes along the Guadalupe River — Lake McQueeney, Lake Placid, Meadow Lake and Lake Gonzales — are held back with similar hydroelectric dams that were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Citing public safety, the GBRA is considering draining the four remaining lakes by up to 12 feet, though the GBRA says a final decision hasn't been made.

"Because that's what we keep coming back to. We have to mitigate the safety concerns," GBRA general manager Kevin Patteson told reporters. "While we can deploy additional buoys, additional signage, our board could adopt some additional ordinances. At the end of the day, we really cannot keep people out of the water. And so that's what we're trying to address."

In a presentation to the board of directors Wednesday, GBRA management staff showed two models of what could happen if the three spill gates on the dam at Lake McQueeney, the farthest lake upstream, all failed. One model examined what would happen if each of the three successive dams failed, too, while the second model looked at what would happen if they held.

While the models showed a quick rise in water levels, concerns revolved less around flooding property and more around the safety of the people who may be on the water during a spill gate failure.

"It's not docks, and it's not properties up out of the flood plain, but it's lives and people in tubes, whether it's just downstream of McQueeney or downtown Starcke Park," said deputy general manager Jonathan Stinson.

Many in the crowd, however, seemed unconvinced about the amount of danger the aging dams presented.

"That is Chicken Little, 'the sky is falling,'" said property owner Robin Dwyer in reference to the possibility of all three gates failing on the McQueeney dam.

Countering that sentiment later in the meeting, Stinson told the crowd "While it may be the worst case scenario, the sky did fall, and it fell twice."

Ultimately, the GBRA is looking to replace each of the six dams, but that would cost about $28 million to $32 million per lake for a total of about $200 million, Patteson said, for which the GBRA doesn't have funding.

The most immediate solution GBRA has found, he said, is working with the lake associations as they move forward to create a taxing district. However, that would require a vote to implement.

The purpose of Wednesday's presentation was to brief the board members on the safety issues, Patteson said. While the general manager said he typically tries to bring significant  recommendations to the board for their approval, lowering the lake wouldn't necessarily require a board vote.

"We're trying to brief them to make sure they're informed," Patteson said. "But ultimately, yes, management could make that decision that they deem it to too much of risk of the safety concern."

If the lakes were dewatered, it's not clear how long they would stay that way. The GBRA would work with an engineering firm to inspect the dams, Patteson said, and if they were certified to be safe to be put back in service, they would be.

"If they say they cannot be put back in service, then we are still looking at the replacement option," Patteson said.

Though the GBRA said no decision on dewatering the lakes would be made Wednesday, some in the crowd left the meeting feeling as if the die had already been cast.

"Might be a little longer than we thought, but it sure sounds to me like the lake is coming down," Belton said.

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.