They gathered along the banks of what used to be Lake Wood and talked.
A group of neighbors, property owners, friends and elected officials looked out into the forest that sprouted up in the three years since a spill gate failure drained the lake, leaving only the river channel.
“Here’s the wood where the lake once stood,” resident Dale Schellenberg said.
They understand the pain those on Lake Dunlap felt as they watched the water rush out of the 91-year-old hydroelectric dam.
Residents here watched the almost 100-year-old dam at Lake Wood face a similar fate when a spill gate malfunctioned on March 10, 2016, draining the lake they love.
From the loss of aquatic life and trees, to failing retaining walls and bulkheads, to an overgrowth of grass, brush and trees towering 25 to 30 feet high in the lake bed, they’ve lived the loss of Lake Wood for the past three years. Or, as property owner Joe Solansky said, for 1,169 days.
“We feel real bad about the situation because we know what it is going to look like in a short while,” Solansky said about the failure at Lake Dunlap. “We feel it, we see it. They’re feeling it right now, but they ain’t quite seen it all yet. That is not going to be a quick fix because they got a lot of hurdles to be able to correct it.”
The long-term effects the loss of the water has had on properties and the land surrounding the former lake’s banks is concerning, Schellenberg said.
“Your bulkheads fail. Without having the water pressure against them, they start falling in,” he said. “But the main thing is the growth. How do you clear out this growth? If you were to put the gate back in place and it was to start filling up, look what you’ve got — a pasture that is filling up.”
A look around the banks of where the water reached three years prior shows the depths of the impact on the flora and fauna in the area. Cypress trees are either dead or dying due to the lack of water. The decades old pecan trees that line the shores are suffering, Solansky said.
“These big pecan trees, we’ve lucked out this last year, two years, we’ve had some pretty wet weather that is keeping their roots as well as it can,” he said. “These things grew up around shallow water because of the level of the lake. There are cypress trees and pecan trees that have cratered. Like a stack of dominoes, when one falls another falls, then another.”
The environmental damage goes beyond the foliage harmed when the lake drained, property owner J.R. Anderson said.
“Parks and Wildlife did a review and there were 122,000 mussels killed — giant washboards and the threatened golden orb,” he said. “What is the impact on the flora and fauna and how they are going to respond to that?”
The cattle roaming on the lake bed present another issue, Schellenberg said.
“The water is a barrier for raising cattle here on this lake … and without that water being there, those cattle were free going into the lake bed and roamed on into whoever else’s property they wanted to roam onto,” he said.
The immediate reaction
Lake Dunlap residents will go through several stages.
“First you’re in shock, then you’re in grief, then you try to build optimism,” Anderson said. “We’ve had to go through a transition of which all of 2016 (no information) was shared, 2017 we woke up and started doing what Lake Dunlap started doing in hour two of their event. Now we are in year three and we’re looking for solutions because we’ve been told for three years ‘we can’t do anything until we find funding.’”
Now, the residents are doing the leg work of trying to get their lake back, Anderson said.
“We rolled up our sleeves and we’ve been working with the legislature and we’re going out looking for funding solutions, working with the city, working with the county in conjunction with Parks and Wildlife, with our reps and our senators in trying to identify opportunities and options,” he said. “It almost feels like we’re doing their job for them, but we know they have their hands tied as well. They are doing their efforts.”
With the second of the six hydro-electric dams under GBRA now out of commission, the group feels a tinge of hope a solution will come forward.
“Now that the Dunlap event has occurred it has put renewed awareness on that, it has put significantly more pressure on their board and their staff to respond to that larger, squeakier wheel because of the contracts on water supply and wastewater and consumption, so that now they are at the capital,” Anderson said. “We have a renewed hope that now something is going to get done.”
The group agreed the answer and solution won’t appear overnight. And they don’t feel like placing blame is the answer.
“The current administration from GBRA inherited a used vehicle that was wore out when they inherited it. It was in bad shape and then it fell apart on them. Then it looks like they’re to blame,” resident Dave Borrough said. “But 80 to 90 years of steel being underwater like this, you can expect things like this to fall apart.”
While Lake Wood sits just outside the Gonzales city limits, Mayor Connie Kacir said it is still part of the city’s way of life and she is concerned about the lake remaining empty.
Not long after the spill gate failed, Solansky and Schellenberg reached out to Kacir.
“I met with them. I immediately put it on my next agenda and we adopted a resolution in support of the lake and those efforts for rebuilding the lake,” she said. “I also have some action to look at funding an economic impact study. This is not within the corporate city limits, but it is a quality of life. It does have a direct impact on sales tax that are spent in the city and comes back to benefit us financially.”
While a study will get the cold, hard numbers, Gonzales County Commissioner Kevin LaFleur said the impact is visible.
“There hasn’t been a study done, but from the volume of people we see out here, you know it has got to have an impact,” he said. “The family gets together and has to go other places.”
Just as in Guadalupe County, LaFleur said property taxes are a concern residents have.
“What we are finding is everyone is up in arms about the taxes,” he said. It has been an ongoing battle. “The county doesn’t set the appraisals, the appraisal board does.”
Just like visitors aren’t coming to town, lakefront property owners are leaving town to get their recreational fix.
Anderson and Solansky both said they’ve traveled out of town to fish or enjoy a peaceful, relaxing weekend by the waterfront, instead of getting to stay where they love.
“My wife and I went to Lake Texana and we met a couple of people who said they routinely came here,” Anderson said.
“They mentioned they had not been here since the dam failure and thought about dropping by to look at it since we shared with them what it looked like. That is at least some people that go camping that had been impacted.”
Anderson, who purchased his property for retirement, said Lake Wood was a place where his children grew up and learned the lessons a lake has to offer.
He hopes to one day pass that on to his grandchildren.
The same is true for LaFleur, whose family spans generations of living along the banks of Lake Wood.
Working to make a change
Kacir reached out to the city’s state legislators — District 17 State Rep. John Cyrier and State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of District 18 — for any assistance they may be able to provide.
“(Cyrier and I) had many discussions on how the state may look at supplemental funding to assist in repairing the dam and the spill gate,” she said. “To date, what we have seen is Rep. Cyrier has co-authored some bills with Kolkhorst. He spoke on the House floor Saturday night … and he was speaking on the Senate floor on Sunday. The state is looking at some appropriations through the general fund to hopefully repair that dam.”
The mayor is hopeful that if passed, the bill will help funnel sales tax dollars to recreational funding.
“I think those dollars would be well spent, in highest and best use, for additional growth, additional amenities, a comprehensive plan to not only rebuild what we knew as the lake here in Gonzales but to have that vision expanded, and really be a catalyst for tourism that comes back to benefit the city and the county as well,” Kacir said.
Residents fear the lake will not return, which is why The Friends of Lake Wood pooled their money and hired a lobbyist to fight on their behalf.
“The Dunlap situation actually just enhanced everything of our efforts to get something done about the lake,” Solansky said. “It may not serve GBRA’s purpose for water or whatever … but we want the lake and that is why we went with the lobbyist. I want to see something done now. I’m hoping this week things will materialize in Austin, Washington, wherever this is going to happen at to get this thing back. We have the love of the lake just like those people, but we’ve been without it for three years and three months.”
The group agreed that to get things done and back to normal, everyone needs to work together.
“There has been a tremendous impact for us and we’ve sat idly by with diminishing hope, expecting something to occur and we’re at the will of the board of GBRA,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, now we have something to hang our hope on.”