This is the second part of a three-part series by the San Antonio Report about the sustainability of area lakes. Read the first part here.
As he stood on his wooden boat dock a dozen feet above grassy ground, Jeff Lindley looked out towards what used to be Lake Dunlap. The dry marsh before him gently sloped toward the Guadalupe River roughly 200 yards away, its shores shrunken from the lingering drought and intense August sun overhead.
Just over four years ago, on May 14, 2019, Lindley had stood in the same spot watching the popular New Braunfels recreational lake unexpectedly drain away.
The sudden disappearance of the manmade lake was the result of a massive dam failure; a spillway gate on the 90-year-old hydroelectric dam that formed the lake had detached without warning. In less than 24 hours, the lake had completely drained into the Guadalupe, leaving dozens of lakeside residents high and dry.
The dam’s failure set off a statewide saga that would affect the Guadalupe River lakes downstream of Dunlap and lead to the creation of a first-of-its-kind water district.
Now, more than four years later, Lake Dunlap is coming back to life, the state-owned dam restored. The gates on the dam were closed for the first time on Thursday, starting the slow process of refilling the lake.
Restoring the water level is expected to take weeks if not months amid the unrelenting drought plaguing Central Texas, but Lindley and his neighbors’ excitement at seeing their beloved lake return is palpable. Lindley said he plans to document the lake’s rising level using timelapse photography.
“We’re all just very excited to get our lake back,” he said. “This is something we’ve all been waiting for since the day the dam broke.”
A shocking collapse
Walking back toward his house and the shade, Lindley recalled the day the dam broke and the panic many of his neighbors experienced.
He recalled how some had rushed to get their boats out of the quickly receding waters while others had only been able to stare in awe from their own docks.
In the weeks following the dam’s failure, many of the lake’s residents found their private wells had run dry. Others whose businesses had been dependent on the lake’s recreational offerings and its visitors were forced to consider if they wanted to stay, move or close.
Behind the scenes of the chaos though, a small group of Lake Dunlap residents were getting to work.
One of those residents was J Harmon, president of the Preserve Lake Dunlap Association (PLDA), a group of lakefront homeowners who had made it their mission to protect the lake and its integrity.
On the morning of the dam’s failure, Harmon was woken up by an emergency call from the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) — the state authority that oversees the dam and five others on the Guadalupe River.
That very day, Harmon set up meetings with GBRA officials to talk about how the dam could quickly be repaired and the lake restored. They told him it wasn’t that simple, he said; the GBRA doesn’t have taxing authority, which meant it didn’t have the kind of readily available funds needed to fix the dam.
“They said they were going to help us, but they just didn’t have the money to do it on their own,” Harmon said. “So we had to come up with a plan.”
Finding a funding mechanism
The first step of that plan had been to go to the federal government, Harmon recalled, but Harmon and the PLDA were soon informed that because the dam was state-owned, it wasn’t under federal jurisdiction, nor was it eligible for federal funds.
The dam didn’t qualify as a disaster, Harmon said, so it did not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds or similar types of support.
“Then we started contacting state officials and our state senators and our representatives and anybody in our area that would lend an ear and try to help us figure out what we needed to do next,” he said.
At the time of the dam failure, the 86th Texas Legislature was still in session but coming to a close.
“We made a rapid run at trying to receive some state funds — that didn’t work,” said Doug Harrison, another PLDA member.
Even though several local representatives had stepped in to try to help — Harmon said state Rep. John Kuempel and former state Sen. John Montford were especially helpful — their group couldn’t secure state money.
Because Lake Dunlap was mostly utilized as a recreational lake, the PLDA had difficulty getting other legislators on board, said Jonathan Stinson, the GBRA’s deputy general manager.
“Because a lot of the properties were vacation homes … and Dunlap isn’t a reservoir like Canyon or used for flood control, it was difficult to say, ‘Hey, we need public funds for this lake,’” Stinson said.
State officials told the residents that if they wanted to see the dam fixed sooner than later they’d have to figure out a way to do it themselves, Harmon said.
“So that’s when we started coming up with different plans,” he said. “Plan A didn’t work, Plan B didn’t work, and none of it worked until we got down to Plan F. And that’s the one that they said would work.”
“Plan F” was for the PLDA to partner with the GBRA to create a first-of-its-kind water control improvement district that would act as a special taxing district for the lakefront property owners, allowing them to fund the necessary replacement pieces for the dam.
“We chose for the district to be any property that touched the water,” Harrison said. “So it’s a little bit of an unusual district because some of the sections are one small residential home lot deep, and some of them are a couple-100-acre tracts of land.”
The preliminary Lake Dunlap Water Control and Improvement District launched in February 2020, with Harmon and Harrison on the board of directors. Voters in Comal and Guadalupe counties — Lake Dunlap spans both counties — overwhelmingly approved the creation of the Lake Dunlap WCID in November 2020.
In January 2021, the GBRA secured $40 million in bond funding at low interest rates through the Texas Water Development Board’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. The GBRA and PLDA agreed the roughly $800,000 in annual revenue generated by the repaired hydroelectric dam would help pay off the bond debt. The rest would be covered by the homeowners over the next 30 years. The water district currently taxes residents 20 cents per $100 of property value.
In spring 2021, construction on the dam began, the repairs concluding with the official shutting of the gates Thursday.
A cascading effect
The dam failure at Lake Dunlap soon proved to be far from an isolated event.
Completed in 1928, Lake Dunlap was one of six Guadalupe River lakes created in the 1920s and 1930s by the Texas Power Corporation to provide hydroelectric power to nearby residents living in the rural area between New Braunfels and Seguin. Management of the so-called Guadalupe Valley lakes — Lake Wood, Lake Dunlap, Lake McQueeney, Lake Placid, Lake Gonzales and Meadow Lake — and their dams were assumed by the GBRA in the 1960s.
Lake Dunlap’s dam failure was the second among the Guadalupe Valley lakes within three years; in 2016, a spillgate on Lake Wood’s dam had failed following substantial rainfall. It was Dunlap’s failure, however, that spurred the GBRA into action.
“When Dunlap failed on a clear sunny day, it was a wakeup call,” Stinson said.
Fearful the dams of the other lakes would eventually fail — possibly with more calamitous outcomes — the GBRA set in motion a plan to drain the other four lakes and repair the dams before they also broke.
Residents of these other lakes, however, put up a fight, arguing the draining of their lakes would cause damage to their local economies. In an effort to stop the drawdowns, they sued the GBRA.
After a state judge hit pause on the draining of the other lakes in September 2019, the GBRA and lake residents agreed the lakes would not be dewatered for 12 months while the GBRA worked to pursue other measures to protect those around the lake.
Residents of Lake McQueeney and Lake Placid reached out to Harrison and Harmon, asking to use their solution as a blueprint. They also voted to create their own water districts in November 2020, and will pay off $40 million in bond funding through the GBRA.
Meanwhile, property owners continued to try and force the GBRA to pay for the dams. However, the river authority in June 2022 prevailed in a lawsuit that ultimately went to the Texas Supreme Court.
In August 2021, a spillgate at Lake Gonzales failed, followed roughly two months later by a failure at Lake Placid. While funding for fixing Lake Placid’s dam has already been put in place, Lake Gonzales wasn’t so lucky. Because it has few residents living on its shoreline, it does not have a tax base that can support the dam’s repair, Stinson said. The GBRA plans to decommission it, he added.
As for Lake Dunlap, sunnier days await the refilling lake. While the lake will likely come up only a few inches a day, Stinson said it won’t be too long until the lake’s residents are enjoying the water once again.
“We are proud to have reached this significant milestone in the restoration of Lake Dunlap,” said GBRA General Manager and CEO Darrell Nichols. “We share in the community’s excitement as we begin the final phase of the project — the refilling of the lake.”