Law enforcement will soon have additional powers on area lakes in moves designed to help the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority ensure people stay off of them.
GBRA’s Board of Directors adopted an ordinance Wednesday morning to keep people off the Guadalupe Valley lakes until a safety study is completed as per the agreement between the authority and the entities suing it.
Implementation of the ordinance gives teeth to law enforcers attempting to restrict access to the four lakes: Lake McQueeney, Lake Placid, Meadow Lake and Lake Gonzales.
“This ordinance will allow the county to issue tickets, fines, however they enforce it,” Kevin Patteson, GBRA General Manager/CEO Kevin Patteson said.
Though the board unanimously approved the ordinance, it will not be 100% enforceable for some time, Tom Bohl, GBRA general counsel, said during the meeting on Wednesday.
“It needs to be published in the paper before it goes into effect,” he said. “That’s what the law says.”
The ordinance goes into affect as the clock ticks on a temporary injunction a judge issued related to lawsuits residents filed to stop GBRA’s plan to drain the remaining lakes. The river authority has said the lakes need to be dewatered while officials determine how to repair/replace aging facilities on the nearly-90-year-old dams that create the lakes.
Safety concerns increased following a 2016 spill gate failure at the dam on Lake Wood and then another failure in May at Lake Dunlap. Lives could be jeopardized if someone is on one of the lakes or near one of the dams when it fails, which is practically inevitable due to the deteriorating structures, officials have said.
Citizens concerned about the affects draining the lakes would have on property values, environment and other issues filed suit to stop the drain.
Both sides went to court Sept. 11, just ahead of the Sept. 16 deadline day the authority had announced as the beginning of the lakes’ draw down. Following testimony and arguments on the first day of the court hearing, a few days off and a return Sept. 16, the attorneys came to an agreement to continue working to save the lakes and keep people safe around them.
Per the agreement, navigation and recreational activities on the lakes would be restricted, both sides would choose an expert and the experts would choose a third expert to collaborate on an assessment of safe zones on the lakes, and a temporary injunction would be issued on the lakes’ drainage.
Meanwhile, the ordinance makes it a violation to operate a vessel, motorboat or personal watercraft on the lakes, as well as riding as a passenger on or fishing from such a vehicle. Physically entering the lakes also constitutes a violation, according to the ordinance.
Violating the ordinance is a class C misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500, according to the ordinance.
Guadalupe County Sheriff Arnold Zwicke said deputies will begin to enforce it after river authority staff properly publish the ordinance.
“What we’ll do in the meantime is basically what we’ve been doing just letting the people know the lakes are closed, just giving them a courtesy warning that they are not supposed to be on the lake,” he said. “Most people are abiding by it. Citizens are calling when they see a boat.”
Three of the lakes — McQueeney, Placid and Meadow — are in Guadalupe County, Zwicke said.
His deputies will continue to patrol those lakes from the land and in the water, the sheriff said. The Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Office only has one boat, though, so he will enlist the help of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s game wardens for enforcement, Zwicke said.
“We’ll just respond from lake to lake; the boat’s hooked up to the truck,” he said. “After this thing goes into effect, we will receive assistance from the game wardens.”
On Wednesday at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s board meeting, Patteson announced that the two sides had chosen their experts to inspect the lakes and dams.
GBRA asked Sam Baugh of HDR Engineers out of Austin to help with the assessment, Patteson said. An attorney for the plaintiffs suing GBRA chose Greg Wine, an engineer with the Houston-based firm of Huitt-Zollars Inc., Patteson said.
Once the three experts complete a report, restricted access to the lakes will be lifted in areas deemed safe. A judge gave the experts 30 days to come up with the report with the option of extended the time an additional 30 days.
The agreement that led to the ordinance and closing of the lakes does not end the court proceedings. A trial is scheduled to begin in October 2020 to determine the merits of two lawsuits against the river authority.
There is still hope out there that the parties involved in the lawsuits will be able to work together to come up with a solution that repairs and/or replaces the dam spill gates and makes the lakes safer. They continue to cooperate, Patteson said Wednesday.
“I want to thank the lake associations for working with us,” he said. “Despite what you see in the media and in the courtroom, we really do meet with the associations as often as they’d like.”
During much of the saga of the dams, lawmakers have pitched in to try to solve the issues. For instance, State Rep. John Kuempel and State Sen. Donna Campbell spoke of trying to secure funding to help with the spill gates while the legislature was in session directly after Lake Dunlap dewatered.
This week, State Sen. Judith Zaffirini continued the push.
The District 21 senator sent a letter dated Sept. 23 to the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board asking for assistance. Zaffirini asked that the water development board provide resources to help address the concerns here, craft rules that help with repair of facilities like GBRA’s dams and more.
“Such assistance from TWDB would help ensure GBRA’s aging dams can be improved to current design standards and would prevent the dams themselves from becoming flood hazards,” the senator wrote. “What’s more, it is consistent with the written request that my legislative colleagues and I recently signed.”