The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and plaintiffs in two lawsuits reached a temporary settlement Monday afternoon which will for the time being prevent draining of the Guadalupe Valley lakes the authority controls.
Among terms of the agreement, the four remaining lakes will be closed, giving three sets of experts time to evaluate the safety of the lakes and the dams that create them. The agreement is a win for people who enjoy the lakes but it is not the end of the fight with GBRA, said Donna Kennedy, a resident who owns property on Lake McQueeney.
“The injunction is in effect,” she said. “In the meantime, there’s a lot of time to go to Austin and nationally and get this settled.
“It’s not over at all.”
People squeezed into a packed courtroom and waited a couple of hours Monday as attorneys for the authority and lawyers for hundreds of interested citizens who sued GBRA haggled over terms of a possible settlement agreement. About 2:20 p.m., litigants and the visiting judge entered the courtroom with a deal to which both sides could agree. It goes into effect Thursday, temporarily closes the lakes to all activities, and holds off any plans to drain them.
“What we have agreed to today is GBRA being enjoined, that is stopped, from draining the remaining reservoirs,” said Douglas Sutter, the attorney representing nearly 300 property owners along GBRA’s six Guadalupe Valley lakes. “These lakes will be closed on a temporary basis.”
Under the agreement, the GBRA will hire an expert to inspect the lakes. The plaintiffs who sued GBRA will retain a separate expert for the same purpose. Those two experts or expert groups will get together and, for the sake of an independent study, will agree on a third expert who will also inspect the lakes and dams for safety.
The agreement gives the experts 30 days to come to a consensus on what parts of the lakes are safe. If they ask for additional time, they will be granted up to 30 more days to come to a conclusion.
After the danger spots have been discerned, GBRA will work with law enforcement and other entities to keep people away from those spots on the lakes.
Both sides will work together on an enforceable ordinance to keep people away from the dangerous areas of the lakes. Property owners along those lakes will work to help deter people from unsafe activities, Sutter said.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll go out like Gomer Pyle and make citizens’ arrests,” he said.
Residents will be sure to warn their guests about off-limits areas and advise others who are venturing into unsafe zones, Sutter said.
Sutter filed his suit against GBRA on Sept. 5 asking a judge to hold the authority responsible for “intentional failures to perform their statutorily imposed duties and their intentional actions outside of their statutory duties, considering the factual circumstances of this case,” according to the legal filing.
His clients want to see that “GBRA be immediately enjoined from dewatering the McQueeney, Placid, Meadow and Green reservoirs until GBRA produces (1) a detailed report from an independent and licensed civil engineering firm which provides specific and valid scientific reasons for such action; (2) a ‘wet-lands’ study prepared by an independent experienced, licensed engineer and licensed attorney regarding this subject and whether the reservoirs can be dewatered without violating applicable law,” among other things, Sutter wrote.
Ricardo Cedillo, an attorney from San Antonio, filed a request for a temporary injunction on the same day as Sutter. Cedillo represents 10 clients from around Lake McQueeney and Lake Placid.
Cedillo’s petition aimed to stop the draining of the lakes.
Neither lawsuit has been decided but Monday’s actions only settled on an agreement to a temporary injunction, Sutter said.
Steve Ables — presiding judge in the 6th Administrative Judicial Region — served as the visiting judge to hear the suits. He said since the lawsuits are still on the table, he needed to set a trial date for further proceedings in the event all parties cannot come to an agreement to end the lawsuits.
Ables said the trial would begin 9 a.m. Oct. 5, 2020, giving parties involved a year to hammer out funding options, to study the needs and more. Before exiting the bench, Ables asked the hundreds of people watching the proceedings in the court to applaud the attorneys and parties who agreed to Monday’s settlement. The audience responded accordingly.
Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher said he was pleased with the agreement but wondered why it took so much effort.
“I’m satisfied with the result because I think it is the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m aggravated because we could’ve done this months ago. We should have been doing this 90 days ago or longer and we would be further down the road with validating and determining if the safety measures worked.”
State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, thinks the outcome was great for what potentially could have been disastrous for the community.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction to come up with a final solution that’s most beneficial for all parties,” Kuempel said.
The same day the parties came to an agreement was the date GBRA officials had set to begin dewatering of its remaining four lakes. The authority’s plan had called for a drawdown to start at Lake Gonzales, then move to Meadow Lake, followed by Lake Placid and end with the dewatering of Lake McQueeney.
Draining the lakes was necessary to ensure public safety, GBRA General Manager/CEO Kevin Patteson has said.
Safety concerns heightened after a spill gate failure in 2016 on Lake Wood and one in May at Lake Dunlap, Patteson said. While the injunction is in place, safety remains important along the lakes with dams and spill gates that are around 90 years old, he said Monday.
“The settlement in the Guadalupe Valley lakes litigation helps the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority achieve its immediate priority of ensuring the safety of those on and around the lakes while simultaneously continuing to work collaboratively with key stakeholders to preserve their long-term sustainability,” Patteson said. “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. While GBRA will work closely with law enforcement officials to enforce activity restrictions, (it) 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.”
The solution is the replacement of the nearly-90-year-old spill gates, said Lamont Jefferson of Jefferson Cano, the law firm defending GBRA and its officials. The spill gates have outlived their usefulness even though the authority maintained them well enough for them to last 90 years, Jefferson said.
“It seems obvious to me these spill gates cannot and will not last,” he said. “The GBRA is open to any realistic solution for these dams. They are beyond their useful life and have to be replaced.”
Kennedy said she and others in the community feel let down by GBRA but are still willing to help the authority find a solution. Community members and several lake associations have been working feverishly to set up taxing districts to come up with funding and reaching out to elected officials for assistance.
Monday’s settlement should help them find time to work on various options, Kennedy said.
“The closing of the lakes for any amount of time doesn’t make me happy,” she said, but added that stopping the drain is a good thing. “This is what we wanted. There’s a lot of work to be done on the issues of how to fund repair/replacement of the spill gates. That starts now.”