A few weeks ago, members of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority leadership team visited Guadalupe County Commissioners Court to make a dire plea for help.
The river authority’s six hydroelectric dams — built nearly a century ago and purchased by the GBRA in the 1960s — were in desperate need of replacement and/or repairs to the tune of millions of dollars. A spill gate on one of the dams had failed some three years earlier, draining Lake Wood in Gonzales County and left other structures screaming for attention.
GBRA wasn’t asking Guadalupe County to pay for the repairs/replacement, but to climb on board as a partner to help determine ways to raise up to $35 million per dam to solve problems with the aging facilities.
Then, as if on cue, a spill gate failed May 14 at the authority’s Lake Dunlap dam, effectively draining that lake shortly following the meeting.
“The first thing is kind of the initial shock. My mind and concerns went straight from the dam failing to do we have a flood now, a potential real safety concern,” Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher said. “I thought about the dam and what it was going to look like for the homeowners and all those things. But my first thought was how much water was coming down the river, are we going to have a safety situation and will we have to evacuate some of those houses downstream?”
After learning there were no injuries, Kutscher switched gears. He went into wanting a damage assessment, wanting to find out what happened and why.
GBRA had few answers. Leadership offered some possible reasons as to why the spill gate failed — mainly because it was old and there is no way to stop the flow of the river to perform upgrades on the upstream sides of the dams.
But GBRA hopes to have a system engineered to solve that problem and then replace the spill gates with newer, more efficient ones.
It just needs those millions upon millions of dollars to make it all happen.
Big need, few dollars
That’s where “stakeholders” — ranging from the electric power customers served by the dam system and those residing along the lakes and more — come in, said Jonathan Stinson, GBRA deputy general manager.
“It’s a three-legged funding stool moving forward,” he said. “We believe GBRA has to partner with Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative or whoever buys the electricity. Political subdivisions and property owners have a stake.”
GBRA needs to acquire bond debt before moving forward to operate, maintain and replace the dam spill gates, Stinson said. Revenues generated from GBRA’s six-dam system, he said, wouldn’t be enough to guarantee repayment of such a loan. However, partners with additional financial backing might be able to help GBRA acquire the funds, Stinson said.
GBRA is a quasi governmental entity in Texas, he said. The governor appoints the water authority’s board, which is in charge of policy and oversees the general manager in charge of authority operations.
Yet, GBRA is on its own when it comes to funding, Stinson said.
“We receive no funds from the state of Texas,” he said. “The only public money is in the form of grants we applied for.”
The dams have taken a licking over their 90 years of existence, Stinson said. Major floods, like those in 1932 and 1998 that sent debris downstream, continuously battered them – with GBRA responsible for repairs following such events.
Other area partnerships
The city of New Braunfels is connected to GBRA through New Braunfels Utilities, established in 1942. Canyon Dam and Reservoir is a joint project shared by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the GBRA, which has the rights to stored water that feeds into the Guadalupe River and downstream to its six hydroelectric plants.
Another GBRA hydropower plant located at the base of Canyon Dam generates power sold to NBU. Melissa Krause, NBU’s communications director, said it is one of three major areas connecting the utilities. NBU also pays GBRA for raw water storage at Canyon Lake and participation in the Mid-Basin Water Supply project.
“Basically GBRA provides water resources and energy,” she said, adding NBU payments to GBRA totaled just over $2.1 million in the past 12 months.
Neither the city nor Comal County has a major financial investment in GBRA. Mark Enders, the city’s watershed manager, said GBRA is paid $350 every other month to conduct bacteria testing on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers within city limits. Enders and Comal County Engineer Tom Hornseth said both entities have periodic involvement with the GBRA in joint activities and interlocal agreements.
“We really don’t have an official relationship with GBRA as far as contracts or services,” said Mike Dussere, general manager for the Water Oriented Recreation District of Comal County. “We sometimes work together and have some shared responsibilities over management of the waterways, but no formal agreements.”
Aging systems, expanding growth
The GBRA is planning a satellite office in New Braunfels for engineers and administrative staffers in the city, the geographical center of its 10-county operations area that is still growing.
More staffers are needed to serve more customers in demand for GBRA resources, Stinson said.
No huge revenues are generated by the hydroelectric dams. The capacity of electricity produced by the system is relatively low, as are the revenues earned from selling that electricity.
GBRA sells water to a host of regional distributors. The revenue derived from those sales is separate from what GBRA earns selling electricity generated from the six hydroelectric dams to only one customer, Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, Stinson said.
“Over the last 10-12 years we’ve also had so many droughts — water levels were so low, they weren’t enough to produce electricity,” GBRA board member Rusty Brockman said. “The whole purpose of the dams was to produce power — and that’s made it difficult for us to bank enough funds to replace things.”
GBRA struggles to maintain the spill gates and has for years, Stinson said. He produced a memo dated July 7, 1969, sent from GBRA’s then-general manager at the time to a director. In it, the GM wrote that power generated by the dams, even back then, was minimal and that the lakes could serve a better purpose one day. He wrote that money was an issue then, and likely would continue to be in the future.
“Someday in the future, the power purposes of our hydro systems will likely be outweighed by the possible benefits, but means will have to be found to fund the maintenance of the dams and that is no small item,” the general manager wrote.
That’s where Stinson and his boss are now, after about three years in their positions, he said.
Funding for maintenance continues to prove elusive, partially because the dam activities don’t generate a lot of money. The dams GBRA purchased in 1963 also are a small part of the benefits the lakes provide people in the surrounding region, Stinson said.
“The value of these lakes is recreation and not hydro power,” he said. “GBRA does not benefit from revenues derived through recreation. It was clear in the 60’s that revenue from hydro power electricity generation would not be able to maintain the system.”
While electricity doesn’t generate much, the lake at Dunlap did serve another purpose, Brockman said, serving as where the authority sent water to other entities.
“It’s our responsibility to continue providing water to those customers, and Lake Dunlap is critical to providing water to them,” Brockman said. “They go north to Buda and San Marcos, the regional water plant in Marion, Canyon Regional Water Authority — and it’s absolutely necessary and we continue to serve our customers.”
Federal, state dollars sought
GBRA likely will need governmental assistance to replace and maintain the spill gates so the Guadalupe County judge and others have reached out to state officials to try to help, Kutscher said.
Securing state funding is likely the best way to get the help needed, he said. So he has been working with District 25 State Sen. Donna Campbell and District 44 State Rep. John Kuempel. Both Lake Dunlap-area legislators asked Gov. Greg Abbott to consider spending up to $28 million for damages caused by the spill way collapse.
Campbell on Thursday sent a similar letter to five Senate conference committee members ironing out final language in the state’s 2020-2021 biennial budget. After the session ends Monday, only the governor and Legislative Budget Board can authorize state appropriations.
“This is the 11th hour of the legislative session and most funds have already been appropriated for the next two years,” said Alice Claiborne, Campbell’s communications coordinator. “While repairs to the dam are ultimately the responsibility of GBRA, Sen. Campbell is hopeful that the state can still provide some assistance.”
Senate Bill 8 passed the House on Thursday. If signed by Abbott, it could serve as the framework for the state’s first flood plan which would be based on regional water plans. It would establish a temporary advisory committee, and require updated reports on dam repairs and maintenance.
“It’s the only opportunity our folks have had in getting a positive response toward some funding since Lake Wood failed three years ago,” Brockman said. “Our management staff has been to Washington D. C. six or seven times, and they’re not there.”
Guadalupe officials sympathetic but realistic
Meanwhile, Kutscher said, there is no way anyone can expect Guadalupe County to pony up the funding needed to repair and replace the current dam structures.
“I know a lot of people will be looking to the county,” he said. “Like I said, we will be more than willing to talk, plan and be a partner but if everybody is looking to the county to pay for it, that’s going to be a very difficult discussion to have.”
Kutscher and other commissioners understand how much the spill gate failure affected homeowners along Lake Dunlap, and could affect others along the Guadalupe River and other lakes and dams in the system. All are concerned about safety issues another spill gate failure could present.
County officials will continue to study options and ways to help. Guadalupe County has its own bills and does not have funds set aside to pay for facilities it doesn’t even own, Kutscher said.
“We want to work with them, but I want to be very clear, I’m not saying the county has the funds or should write a check for millions of dollars to pay for something somebody else owns,” he said. “I will say the county has the responsibility to protect the citizens, not only on Lake Dunlap but across the entire county.”
This weekend, Canyon Reservoir slowed water releases from Canyon Dam, creating an additional 12-inch decline in Lake Dunlap water levels. Brockman said it would give GBRA crews brief access to examine what went wrong with the spill gates and inspect others before Canyon Dam begins releasing more water back into the lake early this week.
“Our engineers have been studying all the possibilities for years and will continue to work to find a solution,” Brockman said. “It’s a difficult situation for all of the residents, and all we can ask them to do is be patient.”