SEGUIN, Texas — A settlement has been reached for a temporary injunction between the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and property owners. The injunction will stop the drain of the Guadalupe Valley lakes for at least a year.
The agreement includes closing lakes for at least 30 days to all activity. According to GBRA officials, the closures will take effect on Thursday, Sept. 19.
"I think the citizens of the lakes got a tremendous victory," said Ricardo Cedillo, a San Antonio attorney representing some of the lake property owners.
During the closure, a panel of three experts will be appointed to decide if there are any areas of the lakes that would unsafe for recreation due to the potential failure of the aging dams, according to the GBRA.
Each party will be appointed an expert, and both parties will also hire a third-party expert and split the fees.
The experts will be given at least 30 days, and up to 60 days to determine those unsafe zones, if any, near the dams. County authorities will then work with the GBRA to develop an ordinance that will outline procedures for law enforcement to enforce restrictions for anyone who violates those unsafe areas.
"I think it recognizes and does a good job of balancing the interests of all parties, the property owners, and the interests of GBRA and protecting the public from what it perceives as a as a real hazard," said Lamont Jefferson, a San Antonio attorney representing the GBRA.
After that, the lakes are expected to open for recreation with the exception of unsafe zones, if any are found.
"The important thing is that we did not want to go out and say that we're going to have these experts look for unsafe zones and leave these lakes closed for an indefinite period of time," said Houston attorney, Doug Sutter, representing hundreds of lake property owners.
The GBRA has maintained their primary reason for draining the lakes is safety concerns. In recent weeks, they've cited multiple examples and photos of people ignoring warning signs around the dams, kayaking or boating near the dams.
"I think both client groups that had to sue the GBRA can point to the fact that we are good neighbors. We are willing to roll up our sleeves and work towards a solution. We just would never stand for working with them while they drain the lakes and did everything that was going to have a devastating impact and consequence on this community," Cedillo said.
Attorneys for the property owners said this injunction is to prevent draining the lakes, not a settlement on the lawsuits.
"The GBRA is not off the hook, there is still a day of reckoning," said Cedillo.
"The lawsuit that I filed is to require GBRA to meet their statutory duties, which we believe are to maintain, repair, and more importantly, replace the dams," said Sutter. "What we want at the end of the day is to force GBRA to meet a statutory duties to replace these dams at their expense."
However, attorneys for the GBRA said the river authority has maintained the dams. "If you look at the the history and the record, yes, these dams were very well maintained. That's why they're still standing after 90 years," Jefferson said. "There are parts in these dams or components to the dams that you can't get to, they can't be maintained, all they do is age. You can't make them stronger, so at some point, they may run out of life. And when that happens, they fail,"
Jefferson also said there are not any statutes in place that require the GBRA to maintain the aging dams.
"It does not say the GBRA is required to maintain dams or operate dams or even have hydro electricity. The statute grants the GBRA a very broad authority to do a number of things or not to do a number of things. It has to manage the waters of the state responsibly within its district, and it has done that," said Jefferson.
The injunction will last through the next year until the trial begins on October 5, 2020. In the meantime, property owners are working to come up a solution to replace the dams, and provide long-term maintenance.
Cedillo said plans include enlisting state officials to help come up with a solution that will allow the problems with the dams to be fixed on a permanent basis. "The state of Texas could weigh in. There's a lot of potential solutions. And the citizens are saying, 'we are willing to form a tax district,' so that we can help in that process as well," he said.
If that is not achieved by October 2020, then a permanent injunction is the next stage of the trial.
"People understand that if we have a resolution to fix it, they're going to understand they're not going to have water for a period of time because they know exactly when those repairs will be made. What GBRA was going to do is drain them and then try to figure out what to do, and that's what we wanted to stop," said Sutter.
Attorneys representing GBRA told KENS 5 the agreement was made in good faith and that GBRA is interested in doing "the right thing."
Sutter said after the first hearing ended last Wednesday, GBRA attorneys approached the plaintiffs wanting to discuss a settlement, leaving some to wonder if GBRA leaders were trying to avoid taking the stand.
"They faced the public as they needed to do in their board meetings, and they were perfectly willing to go forward and tell the truth in this proceeding," Jefferson said.
Property owners along the lakes said this is one victory on their quest to save their lakes.
"It will be a number of victories and we’ll get these dams back into operating order and useful for recreation and all the other economic pluses we have with having these lakes," said Steve Pritchard, who owns property on both Lake McQueeney and Lake Dunlap.
GBRA officials released this statement Monday afternoon:
"The dams forming the Guadalupe Valley Lakes remain in dire need of replacement, having surpassed their useful life at more than 90 years old. 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. 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, 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."
While the second day of hearings is in recess, attorneys for Guadalupe City lake property owners are meeting with lawyers representing the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority Monday to see if they can agree on terms for a settlement for a temporary injunction.
A possible settlement would avoid de-watering Lakes McQueeney, Placid, Gonzales, and Meadow and would include keeping people off the lakes until third party experts could determine unsafe zones.
An attorney speaking to KENS 5 said that once unsafe zones are determined, the "rest of the lake would be business as usual."
In August, the GBRA announced plans to de-water the four lakes, citing safety concerns after a spill gate failure at the Lake Dunlap Dam in May.
Property owners filed two lawsuits accusing the GBRA of failing to do their job of maintaining the 90-year-old dams at the six hydro-electric lakes under their authority.
A court hearing was held last Wednesday at the Guadalupe County Justice Center. Judge Stephen B. Ables consolidated the two cases before hearing opening arguments.
Attorneys asked the judge to grant a temporary restraining order against the GBRA to stop the lake drains. The judge granted that restraining order; when or if the lakes will be drained won't be determined until the hearing is complete.