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New Documents Reveal Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority's Detailed Design For New Lake Dunlap Dam

This story has been updated to reflect a new cost estimate from GBRA.

A preliminary design from the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) shows the potential new spill gates and structural reinforcement at the severely damaged Lake Dunlap dam.

The spill gates were swept downstream during the 2019 collapse, but part of the Lake Dunlap dam structure remains in place.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
The spill gates were swept downstream during the 2019 collapse, but part of the Lake Dunlap dam structure remains in place.

The old spill gates collapsed in 2019, resulting in the drainage of the lake. Part of the dam remains in place.  

According to the documents, obtained through an open records request, the total cost of the planned construction at Lake Dunlap was just over $32 million. A previous plan discussed in October 2019 had a price tag of $24 million.  GBRA raised the cost estimate in September 2020 to about $34.8 million, with a possible range from about $29.6 million to $41.8 million.

A preliminary bid document dated to March 2020 asks project bidders to "assume a notice to proceed date of April 01, 2021." The document notes that the date is an estimate. 

An October trial will decide who pays for the repairs, as well as the future of Lakes McQueeny, Placid, Meadow and Gonzales. More than 300 lake-side property owners are suing GBRA over its plan to lower the four other lakes.

As the litigation continues, water-side property owners — some of whom live in other cities, like Houston — have begun the process of forming small taxing districts to pay for the repairs themselves. Residents who live in the Lake Dunlap and Lake McQueeny districts will vote for or against the proposed districts in November. 

The property owners’ attorney, Douglas Sutter, said the hydraulic design is far too expensive. 

“They (GBRA) chose the most expensive dam possible so that the taxing districts have no way to pay for it,” he said. “It’s outrageous.”

He said there are much cheaper options that will still be effective. 

In a written statement, GBRA said “Doug Sutter is a trial lawyer from Houston. He owns a lake house on McQueeney, and he represents himself, some of his neighbors and others suing GBRA. To the best of our knowledge, he has no expertise on hydroelectric facilities, dam design, or spill gate operation and maintenance.”

The agency also said the necessary taxes to pay for new spill gates at the lakes varies from district to district, but on average, a property valued at $100,000 would pay between $200 and $500 per year, and a property valued at $1 million would pay between $2,000 and $5,000 per year. 

“This assessment cost could be less with GBRA committing revenue from the sale of hydroelectricity,” GBRA said. 

Cost Breakdown Of GBRA Spill Gate Proposal by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

According to GBRA, the collapse of spill gates at Lake Wood and Lake Dunlap could be repeated at the other lakes at any time. The agency said such a collapse could cause harm to life and property, and it wants to drain the lakes to avoid that outcome. 

But area landowners question the gravity of the safety threat. They are concerned about the local economies and the value of their properties. They want GBRA to pay for the repair and replacement of the remaining and collapsed dams. 

Bob Gilbert is the chair of the department of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He said improving this kind of aged infrastructure won’t come cheap.

“What I do understand is the dams were designed a long time ago, and they were not designed according to the standards and guidelines that we have today,” Gilbert said. “So, if you're going to do anything to those dams to try to improve them, the first step would be to try to get them up to today's standards and guidelines. And that may be a very, very expensive thing to do.”

He said developers need to consider the state of infrastructure in the area before building, and governmental agencies need to be proactive about maintaining infrastructure. 

“We need to be really thoughtful about what we're doing and making sure we're planning for the future,” he said. “Not just assuming that everything's going to be fine and sweeping the problems under the rug.”

Mark Ogden is a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. He also sits on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on America’s Infrastructure, which authored a 2017 report card that took a comprehensive look at the country’s instructure.

According to Ogden, more than 2,300 of the nation’s 91,000 dams are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, and are also considered “high-risk potential” — failure will lead to probable loss of life. 

“There is some known deficiency that needs to be corrected with those dams,” he said. “And the situation that we saw with the failures in Michigan (in May), you know, unfortunately, that is something that could play out in other places.”

Without a clear authority tasked with maintenance, Ogden said, dams can deteriorate to a dangerous condition.

“It's really important that the owner or the responsible parties come together and figure that out, so that this piece of infrastructure can be maintained and operated safely,” he said. 

“Both for the use and the benefit of whatever that structure was designed to do to — whatever it was designed to provide —  and also, most importantly, for the safety of people who may live in that property downstream of those dams, to make sure that they're not impacted if the dam were to fail.”

GBRA and the landowners were in court earlier this week, and the trial is slated for October.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony