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Bob Wickman

"If we allow GBRA to destroy the Guadalupe and Canyon Lake, and all they mean for our economy, we'll be just another dry, struggling Texas county," says Bob Wickman, a member of the citizens' group, Friends of Canyon Lake. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Down the Drain - Part Two

San Antonio Current
December 11, 2003

Part 2 of the Current's series on the Guadalupe River.
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll

When Bob Wickman started to build his dream home, the 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and his wife, Nancy McDonald, 56, an advertising executive, chose a hillside site overlooking the south shore of Canyon Lake. Thirty miles north of San Antonio, it was "one of the most picturesque places they had ever seen," Wickman says.

Less than a year after the building project was finally finished, Wickman stood in front of the picture window with the million-dollar lake view, shaking his head with disgust. It wasn't because the lake was a muddy brown mess following rains that dumped 20 inches in less than a week, submerging docks, blotting out the shoreline, and inundating roads. It was the prospect that in the coming years, there could be no lake at all.

Wickman and four other men gathered around the table - Everett Deschner, Bob Watts, Bob Carter, and Gorman Dorsey - are members of Friends of Canyon Lake, a group claiming a membership of 3,000 that represents homeowners' interests around the lake. The group is engaged in a Texas death match with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the agency that manages the Guadalupe basin.

The GBRA has successfully applied to the state to take twice as much water from the lake as previously allowed and sell, treat, and deliver it. Potential buyers are municipalities, businesses, and developers including the cities of Bulverde, Fair Oaks Ranch, and Boerne in western Comal County; SAWS, Bexar Met, and SARA in San Antonio - much of it outside the GBRA's 10-county jurisdiction. Other suitors are subdivisions and golf courses in unincorporated areas of Bexar, Comal, and Kendall counties including the controversial PGA Village resort; and booming Austin suburbs including Blanco, Buda, and Kyle, the latter of which was fined $160,000 last year for overdrawing 60 million gallons beyond their authorized pumping limits from the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

While water from Canyon Lake would satisfy the demands of those growing communities and developments, Wickman and the other men think the GBRA can and will drain the lake for profit, regardless how that impacts people who live and rely on the lake. So they have challenged the GBRA - at hearings, in state court, and now in federal court.

"We're being asked to sacrifice our future to accommodate the future growth of other communities, many of which are using golf courses to attract more residents and visitors," Wickman said, the others nodding in agreement. "It's as ridiculous as draining the San Antonio River Walk so Comal County can grow."

While the men talked that morning in July 2002, water rushed over the spillway, just south of the dam, for the first time since the lake started to fill in 1964. The hydraulic torrent carved a deep gorge out of the rolling Hill Country landscape, doing 1,500 years' worth of erosion in a matter of weeks. Horseshoe Falls directly below the dam disappeared. Farther downstream toward Gruene, through New Braunfels, and along Lake McQueeney toward Seguin, more than 400 homes were being flooded, causing more than $87 million in damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated damage to the Army's parks, recreational facilities, and infrastructure alone was at least $12 million. Lake and river businesses would lose more than $1 million a day through the end of the season, according to the Water Oriented Recreation District that monitors business activity on the Guadalupe below the dam. Comal County lost $800,000 in sales tax revenues. Both the City of New Braunfels and Comal County were forced to make personnel cuts as a result of lost income.

The five men around Wickman's table agreed that as bad as the flooding was, the pipeline could have more a long-term negative impact on the 34,000 people who live around the lake and the hundreds of businesses that serve them.

Since Canyon Lake was created, the GBRA has been allowed by permit to take an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the lake to service municipalities and businesses - about one-sixth of its capacity; although no more than 17,000 acre feet has been diverted in a single year. (An acre foot of water is about 325,850 gallons of water.)

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas' 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio's 1.5 million residents and the region's determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Friends of Canyon Lake formed in response to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality's decision in 2001 to amend the GBRA's permit and increase the allowable amount to an average 90,000 acre-feet annually and as much as 120,000 acre-feet in a given year.

The increase reflects the GBRA's rising profile as a water purveyor competing with other river authorities, public entities, and private businesses to move water to where there is demand for it. With no budgetary support from the state or other government bodies, the GBRA depends on capturing, distributing, and selling surface water, which is theoretically owned by the people of Texas.

But not everyone is buying in. Although Friends of Canyon Lake have been consistently vocal, even supporters such as the Comal County Commissioners Court howled, as they did in August 2002 when the locations of the three pipeline intakes in the lake were announced. The lowest intake is to be sited at 810 feet above sea level, just 16 feet above the historic riverbed. "No water intakes should be allowed below 850 feet," County Judge Danny Scheel told the Express-News last year. "It's ridiculous. Just the thought of them sucking the lake down to the last drop blows my mind."

Bill West, general manager of GBRA, has stated the water will be above the lowest intake level 97 percent of the time, or about three days a year. GBRA spokesperson Judy Garner said the lowest intake would be used in only a worst-case scenario.

"It is a slap in the face to let the public even think the GBRA would take this down to that low of a level, regardless," Judge Scheel replied.

Former New Braunfels City Councilwoman Juliet Watson said the intake locations confirmed her initial suspicions: that profiteering is pushing these decisions. "There is going to be no lake if they have their way. It's all about money and selling as much water as they can, while destroying the ecosystem, destroying the livelihoods of people at the lake and destroying the Guadalupe River."

For close to 50 years, Canyon Dam worked as its builders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, intended. Whenever flash floods broke out in the Hill Country, as they do more frequently and with more force than anywhere else in the United States, the dam held back excess waters, releasing the floodwater downstream in a kinder, gentler flow.

Built for the same purpose as other lakes in Texas - to hold back floodwaters and store water during dry spells, an almost a permanent condition in Central Texas - Canyon Dam unwittingly started the tourism industry that dominates Comal County. The dam formed Canyon Lake, the largest and most popular lake for recreation near San Antonio, and home to five marinas, seven parks, and two military recreational areas. According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the lake logs more than 1 million recreational user visits per year.

Dennis Szewczyk

Comal County resident Dennis Szewczyk (center) comments on the issues during a recent town hall meeting near Canyon Lake. About 250 local concerned citizens attended the meeting held by the Friends of Canyon Lake to discuss the future of Canyon Lake and outline thier legal case against GBRA and TCEQ. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The dam also transformed the 25 miles of river below it into the state's most heavily used riverfront for recreation. Floating the Guadalupe in an inner tube is practically a Texas tradition, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors on summer holiday weekends. More than 4 million visits to the lake and the river below are recorded annually. And because the water comes off the bottom of the dam, it runs swift, clear, and cool enough at a constant 60 degrees to foster Texas' only year-round trout fishery.

Lake and river users have consistently voiced concerns that the increased amount of withdrawals by the GBRA will also increase the frequency that the lake will dip below the 903 feet level deemed the minimum for recreational activities on the lake and the river below it. Only one time since the lake was impounded 40 years ago has the level dropped below 899 feet. Yet, by the GBRA's own estimates, with the increased withdrawal, the lake will fall below that minimum level 10 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, recreation doesn't count in Texas water politics. "Recreation is not an intended purpose of Canyon Reservoir," Bill West has stated. According to the authority's official terminology, Canyon Lake isn't a lake, but a reservoir, its water meant to be sold and used.

Try telling that to the hundreds of businesses on the lake and river that rely on visitors to fuel Comal County's economy. Or to the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the United States, which sued GBRA to guarantee a minimum flow for trout to survive in the river. Or to the Army Corps, for whom the lake generates more income than any Corps-managed park in Texas.

Friends of Canyon Lake have responded to the GBRA plan with a litany of charges:

  • Increasing the withdrawal of water from the lake will compromise water quality. Environmental engineers fear that GBRA will siphon the "sweet" water from more oxygenated level of the lake, Bob Wickman says, leaving lake residents with turbid, dead water.
  • The planned expansion of the Canyon Parks Estate Wastewater Treatment Plant, built and operated by the GBRA to service the Silverleaf "Hill Country Resort" timeshare apartment community which discharges treated sewage directly into the lake isn't helping.
  • No thorough environmental impact studies were done prior to TCEQ's approval of doubling the GBRA's allowable limit from Canyon Lake, although GBRA did conduct a Canyon Reservoir Benefits Study - after the fact.

The approved amount of withdrawal violates the Texas Water Board's original decision issued in 1958 that limited withdrawal to just 50,000 acre feet a year through 2008. Extra withdrawals could legally empty the reservoir. State courts respectfully disagreed. The local economy will be destroyed. The dollars don't lie. Whatever amount of money generated by delivering more water to meet growing demand, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic losses suffered by area businesses during periods of low and no water. Bob Wickman uses the July 2002 flood as an analogy. George Cushanick, the Water Oriented Recreation District manager in Sattler, reportedly told Wickman that last summer about $1 million per week in business revenue was lost because flooding closed the lake and river. Wickman estimates the flood's economic impact would be similar to that of lake/river closure due to low water.

Recreation is now a federally sanctioned activity, even if Canyon is a reservoir and not a lake, as GBRA insists. The National Recreation Lakes Act of 2001 passed by Congress to privatize recreational opportunities on public lands including Corps land on Canyon Lake, encourages industrial-strength recreation. Like power generation, irrigation, and yes, water sales, recreation is a beneficial use.

To gain political support of those same buyers in applying for the increase, GBRA was aggressively seeking water buyers before applying for the amended permit. By making token deals with SAWS and Bexar Met, GBRA was also trying to establish precedent to sell water out of its 10-county jurisdiction. The backroom negotiations may not be against the law, but they do speak volumes how done deals get done.

GBRA already mismanages the lake. It is in charge of allocating and releasing water that is above the 909 feet conservation pool. Below that level, the Army Corps of Engineers calls the shots. Criticism has echoed downstream all the way to the coast about how and when the GBRA releases water above 909 feet.

The GBRA responded with advertisements in local newspapers describing opponents of the deal as self-interested obstructionists.

In turn, the obstructionists presented the TCEQ petitions with 8,000 names. The Friends filed 59 allegations of administrative violations by GBRA and TCEQ. Twice, the TCEQ denied Friends of Canyon Lake a hearing. The Third Court of Appeals rebuffed the Friends' appeal. Last January, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

Water Tower

A water intake tower juts out of Canyon lake Dam. Due to a wet year, the lake level remains normal. Increasing water demands are threatening the lake. Some local residents fear the lake's future is uncertain. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Now they're taking it to the next level, hiring Houston water lawyer Jim Blackburn, who in August filed an attorneys' request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an environmental impact statement. Turned down, Friends of Canyon Lake will take the case to court, and their lawyers are likely to dwell upon the potential collapse of real estate values and the school tax base if the GBRA renders the lake unusable.

Blackburn has a track record for stopping projects including the Dallas Floodway on the Trinity River and the Wallisville Reservoir. He is working farther downstream on the Guadalupe, representing interests opposed to GBRA pipeline project. He says the GBRA's use of state laws to manipulate its draw is irrelevant since federal courts are hearing the case. "Canyon is a federal lake and subject to federal environmental laws," Blackburn said. "That's different than Texas law, and requires that certain procedures be followed. We have been hired to make sure that every step taken by GBRA complies with federal law. If it does not, we intend to sue."

Attorneys' fees were already in the hundreds of thousands to work through Texas' courts and may soon reach $1 million. It is expensive to fight authorities and governmental oversight, but there is no choice, Wickman says. They have a stake in the lake, and the government isn't going to take it away from them until it pries their cold, dead bodies out of it.

Bob Wickman compares the strategies employed by the GBRA, developers, attorneys, and politicians as straight from the script of the film Chinatown, with San Antonio in the role of Los Angeles, out to steal water and dry up the Guadalupe like LA did to the Owens Valley in the early 20th century. In this contemporary Texas scenario, like in old Southern Calfornia, the dealmakers are willing to do anything to get water, or so goes the implication. "GBRA will not be satisfied until they have obligated for processing and distribution every drop in the lake and river," he says. "It is all revenue for them."

For Wickman, it's just his life.

Part 1: A Force of Nature
Part 2: Down The Drain
Part 3: The Dead Zone
Part 4: Fresh Water Fight

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