These Dams Needed Replacing 15 Years Ago. Now Texas will Drain Four Lakes Instead.
Texas officials will start draining four lakes next week in Guadalupe County in Central Texas without a plan in place for when the lakes, and the 90-year-old dams that support them, will be rebuilt. Area homeowners, who got barely a month's notice, said they felt blindsided by the plan, and they say it will slash their property values, kill their beloved century-old cypress trees and render the lakes — which have hosted water skiing tournaments for decades — unusable.
But Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority officials say they don’t have a choice. The dams, two of which have already had catastrophic failures, are creating a safety hazard that could flood entire neighborhoods if they get any worse, river authority spokeswoman Patty Gonzales said. River authorities were created by the Texas Legislature to manage and conserve water resources around the state.
“We cannot guarantee the safety of the public with these aging spill gates” and have to lower them, Gonzales said. The dams are set to be lowered starting Monday.
This is a familiar story surrounding water infrastructure all across the state. Flooding in South Texas last year and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 exposed gaps across Texas in the state’s flood protection systems, which experts say are often underfunded and allowed to decay for decades past their lifespans.
In the Guadalupe River Valley, 40 miles northeast of San Antonio, six hydroelectric dams built in the late 1920s and early 1930s created Lakes Wood, Dunlap, Placid, McQueeney and Gonzales, as well as Meadow Lake. They were only supposed to last about 75 years — and that was 15 years ago. Because the dams don't produce much hydroelectric power, their main function now is to hold up the four lakes that are lined with hundreds of homes and are used daily for recreation, including water skiing tournaments.
Without the dams, the lakes turn into shallow rivers. That's already happening on Lake Dunlap, where one of the dam floodgate failures occurred. Small islands on some of the lakes soon might disappear as the water around them recedes.
Beyond the loss of lakefront status, the properties that line the reservoirs are also at risk of long-term damage. The docks on Lake Dunlap, without water to support them, are slowly falling down into the riverbed.
Hunter Croan built his home and dock after moving to the area five years ago and is already experiencing foundation problems less than three months after Lake Dunlap's center floodgate failed. Six-foot-long cracks now line his sinking concrete dock.
"A friend of mine lost his whole wall. It just went 'woosh' down over there. It was a brand new wall," Croan said.
Other homes are likely to experience similar problems if the dams aren't fixed soon, area real estate agents said.
Lack of funding for repairs is largely to blame. Because the dams aren't use for flood control, the river authority isn't eligible for state funding to maintain them and has struggled for decades to scrape together the cash to do so. (The Guadalupe River Valley dams don't produce enough electricity to be self-sustaining.)
As a result, river authority officials have done just enough maintenance on the dams to ensure they function, but it hasn't been enough to prevent floodgate collapses on Lake Wood in 2016 and Lake Dunlap in May. After the second dam failure, Gonzales said, the river authority scrambled to figure out its options.
Damage and flooding from the first two floodgate collapses was minimal, but with four dams left, officials are worried further failures could flood neighborhoods and put people on or near the lakes in danger.
Residents say they recognize the need to replace the dams, estimates for which range from $70 million to $180 million, and that the river authority lacks the money to do it. But Tess Coody, who lives near Lake McQueeney and has helped organize community efforts to stop the river authority from draining the lakes, said most people don’t trust that the dams won't simply be abandoned after they are lowered, especially since river authority officials knew for years that the dams had exceeded their expected lifespans.
Coody said she also felt the river authority's last-minute decision to lower the floodgates doesn't take into account the widespread impact it will have, including decreased property values that could hurt school districts or damage lake ecosystems.
Some estimates show the region potentially losing millions of dollars in property value, sharply cutting into the budgets for the Navarro and Seguin school districts, according to appraisers and real estate agents in the region. But right now, appraisers are trying to avoid the area because of the potential, but not surefire, chance of the lake draining.
Many appraisers don't want "to take that kind of a risk on something we have no way to prove," said Doug Hendricks, an appraiser who has worked in the area for decades and owns Hendricks Appraisal Services. He added that any appraisal would have to include acknowledgement of loss of the lakes.
The most extreme estimate puts the property value loss at 50%, which he said sounded reasonable based on previous knowledge of the area, but it would be hard to know for sure until sales occur.
As for environmental impacts, residents say the 100-year-old cypress trees lining the lakes are at risk of dying without being partially submerged in the lake water, and even daily watering might not be enough.
“If someone's having like kidney problems, you can't just throw out a kidney transplant without thinking about what's at issue here,” Coody said.
Lowering the dams will cause the Guadalupe River to return to its normal channel, which is 12 feet below the existing waterline in most places. Some houses are also on stilts for flood avoidance, putting the new water level 20-30 feet below their porches.
Weak dams are a problem across the state — a problem that was brought to the forefront during Hurricane Harvey, when serious weaknesses were discovered in flood control systems in the Houston area.
Researchers say the state and Harris County are making progress on long-overdue repairs two years after the hurricane. The Texas Legislature approved funding to bolster flood infrastructure this spring, and the county is utilizing a $2.5 billion bond passed on the first anniversary of the hurricane to support flood mitigation.
The Addicks and Barker reservoirs are two of the biggest concerns still, said longtime environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who teaches environmental law at Rice University and studied Harris County’s flood infrastructure after Harvey. As the city was drowning in 4 feet of rain, officials worried the reservoir dams might break and wipe away entire neighborhoods.
“We're going to have to really rethink flooding and flood control almost from top to bottom,” Blackburn said. “If we can keep a lot of those low-lying areas natural, that would be great because those lands can flood without a lot of damage ... but, well, that's kind of contrary to our general philosophy.”
The biggest change the state needs to make is to stop trying to build cities and structures to stay dry all the time, said Bob Gilbert, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has also studied flood infrastructure. Rain is going to come regardless of what Texas does, and it's not always going to take a hurricane to cause flooding, as shown with the historic floods in the Rio Grande Valley last year.
“We're going to need to build cities and build communities so that they can get wet every once in a while and it's not catastrophic,” Gilbert said. “Let's put a soccer field where there's a floodplain, not a hospital or a neighborhood. New Orleans and Houston are great examples of us ignoring the fact that things are going to get worse.”
Coody said the lack of communication from the river authority leaves little reason for homeowners to trust that the dams will someday be rebuilt and the lakes refilled if there isn’t a plan in place before the draining.
“Let's sit down and come up with the right funding vehicle to make [the repairs] happen,” Coody said. “Don't just drain the lakes and walk away. If we had been working on this three years ago, we wouldn’t even be in this situation.”
Residents want to take control of the dams and form a taxing district to support them, something the river authority said it is open to. But they also say they want a plan in place to do that before the lakes are drained. In the meantime, lawyers representing more than 300 plaintiffs from the region filed two lawsuits aiming to stop the lakes from being drained until a plan is in place.
Gilbert, the UT-Austin professor, said river authority officials could have been more proactive in notifying homeowners in the Guadalupe River Valley of the problems with the dams, but at this point they are in an impossible position. The flood conditions the state faces now are nothing like they were when the dams were built, and the risks of keeping the dams in place are likely too great to wait any longer.
“If they ever got too much water coming into them and the water went over the top of the dam, they're not designed for that,” Gilbert said. “That flooding consequence could be a wall of water that goes down the valley and causes huge consequences of life loss and property loss.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
The Texas Tribune provided this story.