Draining Guadalupe Valley Lakes could cost homeowners $500 million-plus

A decision by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to drain all six Guadalupe Valley Lakes has potential to impact thousands of waterfront homeowners and the market value of homes in surrounding areas.

A decision by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to drain all six Guadalupe Valley Lakes has potential to impact thousands of waterfront homeowners and the market value of homes in surrounding areas.

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Detailing the Guadalupe Valley Lakes settlement
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Guadalupe Valley water restrictions
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What is the tax impact if the lakes are closed?
Recreational activity has been suspended on Lake McQueeny, Lake Placid, Meadow Lake and Lake Gonzales since Sept. 19—the result of a Guadalupe County district court ruling that imposed a 12-month injunction on the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s decision to drain the four remaining Guadalupe Valley Lakes.

There are more than 2,000 homes located on the six Guadalupe Valley Lakes holding a combined market value of more than $1 billion.

Should GBRA move forward in draining the remaining lakes, residents and members of local lake organizations have expressed concern that property values could drop by as much as 50% and create a situation in which counties and school districts lose more than $10 million combined in property tax revenue.

“We demand that GBRA not drain our lakes and ask that a long-term plan for restoring and revitalizing the lakes be put in place before any consideration of a drain,” said Tess Coody, president of the Save Our Lakes coalition, an organization representing members of all six affected lakes. “[GBRA] has the responsibility to maintain the dams and spillways and make those capital improvements, and [facilitating lake] recreation is cited in their enabling act. Where the rub is, is that GBRA says because of reduced revenue from the hydroelectric division, they don’t have the money to [repair the dams].”

In the 52 years the GBRA has owned the six hydroelectric dams, the organization has spent an estimated $25 million in maintenance, less than $500,000 a year, Coody said.

GBRA identified in 2018 repair work needed on 10 of 15 spill gates in Guadalupe and Gonzales counties, including Lake Wood, which needs total replacement similar to Lake Dunlap.

That same year, the GBRA’s revenue from hydroelectric generation was $2.8 million compared to more than $40 million in revenue from water sales, according to the GBRA’s financial documents. GBRA estimates put replacement of the spill gates at each hydroelectric dam at $15 million-$24 million with a possible time frame of 15-20 years to repair due to the age of the system. All dams were built between 1928 and 1931.

The lawsuit

After spill gate failures at Lake Wood in 2016 and Lake Dunlap in May, the GBRA made the decision to drain the remaining lakes until a lawsuit was filed by lake residents.

Under a 12-month injunction, both parties await a decision from a three-expert panel that will assess the stability of each dam and determine which areas of each lake are safe for recreational activity. GBRA will then partner with law enforcement to enforce necessary restrictions.

The panel has until the end of October to make a determination, unless a 30-day extension option is exercised.

“This temporary injunction will allow all parties to continue to work together to identify a solution and funding for the necessary replacement of the dams,” GBRA said in a statement following the ruling. “While GBRA will work closely with law enforcement officials to enforce activity restrictions, is of the utmost importance that the community adhere to the limitations and continue to respect all restrictions until a long-term solution can be reached.”

There’s been a “coming to the table,” Coody said about the animosity many lake residents feel toward the GBRA. The next step, said Coody, will be to support the work of engineers and those determining the safety of the lakes, while supporting solutions that are necessary to finance and operate safe, compliant spillways and dams.

“The lake associations are asking local and state representatives to be engaged in that process, and as a group we’ll be looking to both the individual and lake associations collectively to see what overarching solutions or individual solutions might emerge that we can educate the public about and support going forward,” Coody said. “That research is being done, and I’m not sure if there is an answer, but we want to make sure the light doesn’t go dark on this issue.”

The solution

Taking the lead from the Preserve Lake Dunlap Association, Coody, a Lake McQueeny resident, said an option for the Friends of Lake McQueeny or each of the member lakes in the Save Our Lakes organization could be forming a water conservation and improvement district, or a public improvement district.

At Lake Dunlap, landowners have moved forward in creating their own water district, which would allow a tax to be levied on landowners at a rate of $6-$8 per foot of waterfront property for 30 years, in order to pay for the spill gate.

“We are willing as residents to tax ourselves to support the [water control and improvement district] we’re creating,” PLDA President J Harmon told New Braunfels City Council in September. “It’s unique in the fact we have to go through two counties and a city to get it complete. We are in a process of mapping the entire district and who’s going to be affected by it.”

Lake Dunlap landowners were given good news Oct. 9 when a preliminary agreement was reached with the GBRA to restore the lake.

Pending approval by the GBRA board of directors Oct. 23, the agreement states that the GBRA will “fund the completion of all design engineering work necessary for the spill gate at Lake Dunlap dam.”

The GBRA will continue to own and operate the spill gates and associated hydroelectric operations and manage all aspects of the spill gate replacement the agreement said. Additionally, the GBRA will contribute gross revenue from hydroelectric power on Lake Dunlap to the PLDA’s proposed taxing district in order to fund dam maintenance and operation costs.

“It’s a great day on Lake Dunlap,” Harmon said. “We’ve been waiting on this a long time.”

The science

Another area of concern for lake residents and Jacy Robbins, president of the Meadow Lake Nolte Dam Association, is the GBRA’s evidence for deciding to drain the four remaining Guadalupe Valley Lakes.

Once the spill gate at Lake Dunlap failed, GBRA divers cut portions of the hinges from Dunlap dam for testing and found corrosion and fatigue, the amount of which can vary greatly despite similar designs at each of the hydroelectric dams, Robbins said.

“The problem with our dams is that you can’t get down to inspect them, so you’re making a blind guess as to what’s going on,” he said. “You cannot get access unless you dive down 12 feet, and what they really need is dry access.”

According to Robbins, there is no way to determine what corrosion or fatigue each spill gate has seen or what, if any, damage has been done over the years. Any flooding event or heavy rainfall that required the spill gates to be lowered in the past 90 years created the potential for damage to occur, he said.

“There’s nothing to say that all of those dams are in the same state,” Coody said. “That’s an extrapolation. There’s no research that’s been done to say definitively each of the spillways on each of those dams are in the same condition, and I don’t think its reasonable to expect lakefront property owners to bear the full cost of repairing and operating the dams for the simple fact that GBRA has owned these for more than half a century.”

“We’re in the situation we’re in on their watch,” Coody said. “Lakefront residents are absolutely willing to be part of the solution financially and operationally, but draining the lakes and walking away is a non-starter for our communities. That would be the Great Depression for Guadalupe County.”
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