Efforts to Reopen Guadalupe River Continue (TX)

Posted: 08/19/2002
by Jason Robertson

American Whitewater Volunteers are continuing to try to reopen Texas' Guadalupe River. The river was closed by Judge Scheel in July by an emergency order following record flooding. Now that the flood waters have receded, American Whitewater's volunteers are advocating for a restoration of the public's right to float on the Guadalupe. Our volunteers' letter to the judge, which was sent last week, is attached below.

More information:

Texas' Guadalupe Closed Following Flooding
County to Vote to Extend Closure on Guadalupe Tonight (TX)

Judge Danny Scheel, County Judge
Comal County Courthouse
150 N. Seguin
New Braunfels, TX 78130

RE: Comal County Emergency Management Plan of July 11, 2002

Dear Judge Scheel and Commissioners:

Several national and statewide boating organizations have expressed concern to me about the continued ban on all boating on the Lower Guadalupe River. It has been over a month since flood waters went over the spillway of Canyon Dam. No more water is going over the spillway and all water now is controlled by releases through the dam. The Disaster Recovery Center in New Braunfels has closed its office since the emergency has ended. The River Road is now open to the public, and construction to repair and rebuild the structures damaged or destroyed by the flood is underway. It is evident that the specific conditions set forth in the Emergency Order have abated. The fact that the river is at a high controlled release does not constitute a condition that justifies the indefinite extension of an Emergency Order under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975. The purpose of the Act is to provide broad, sweeping powers to governing bodies only during imminent or actual emergency conditions. That emergency no longer exists. It is not the purpose of the Texas Disaster Act to allow Governing Bodies to implement broad, sweeping powers(that they would not otherwise have) to continue in effect indefinitely after the emergency has ended.

The boating community understands your interest in protecting the public from possible obstructions in the river while the river flows at a high rate. The Guadalupe River has flooded a number of times in the past and members of the boating community have actively participated in the clean-up operations. They will be glad to help again. But the river has never before been closed to boating and we do not think it should be closed now. It is my understanding that members of the boating community have offered their assistance in inspecting and identifying possible hazards in the river. Adequate warning to the public of those hazards should be the extent of the county's participation and responsibility.

I hope this matter can be resolved promptly and without litigation. I would be happy to discuss this matter further with you and the Commissioners but time is of the essence.

Thank you.

Thomas B. Cowden

August 17, 2002 Update from David Price, President of the Texas Whitewater Association

Many of you have been wondering what is going on with the situation in Comal County, in Central Texas, over the indefinite closure of a public river, by the County Commissioner's Court.

First, a bit of background, then the discussion of the lawsuit.

The Guadalupe River (and Medina River) watershed received high amounts of rainfall in early July. These amounts were so large, and of such intensity, that the downstream areas incurred significant flooding. Canyon Dam, a flood storage/recreation reservoir, experienced inflows into the lake which overwhelmed the flood storage capacities of the dam. The dam overflowed the emergency spillway, for the first time in the 50 year history of the dam. Canyon Lake experience related flooding, due to continuing inflows into the lake, and a phenomena know as a backwater curve (the water is the lake doesn't stay "level"). Much property loss resulted from the relatively static level of the water in the lake. More significant was the property damage downstream, below Canyon Lake.

There are several things that happened downstream of the Lake that are significant. First and foremost, the water overtopped the emergency spillway to the west of the main spillway. For those of you not familiar with dam construction, dams have a primary spillway and an emergency spillway. The emergency spillway is at an overall lower elevation than the primary spillway, to allow water to flow over it before it goes over the primary spillway. Generally the emergency spillway is in native rock, in order that substantial erosion will not occur should it overtop.

Okay, keeping that in mind, the emergency spillway had water going over it, at flows of more than 20000 cfs. This water then when down the West area of the hill to the west of the dam, then headed back toward the river channel. In it's path, it took all of the dirt and fill material in it's path, scouring a wide, deep channel. This material was deposited in it's path around Horseshoe Falls. You can see some good photos of this at www.comalflood.com/floodpics/index.htm

As this water went downstream it took some smaller buildings and stuff with it. However, due to sustained rainfalls and flows from upstream, the volumetric flowrate of the water stayed relatively high over a period of about 3 days. Unlike prior floods (e.g. 1998) in which there was a rapid increase - and decrease - of volumetric flowrates, this flood originated above the dam and passed through Canyon Lake, prior to coming downstream. Due to these sustained flowrates, a significant scouring took place the entire length of the river, downstream of the dam (the upper river took the brunt of the high flowrates, at much higher flowrates).

So the Upper Guadalupe gets hit with over 120,000 cfs, and the Lower Guad gets some peak flows in the 50,000-60,000 cfs range (source, US Army Corps of Engineers). Much personal property on the Lower Guadalupe is saved, because Canyon Dam stored much of the floodwater and acted as a buffer - until the dam overflowed. So then, the property below the dam gets flooded. Houses are ripped from their foundations, or off their stilts, and float away. Trees are bent and uprooted and wash away. The lake is at levels never before seen. The upper and lower river have seen high flowrates before. And there is property damage. Roads are washed out below the dam. There is about 30,000-50,000 cubic yards (or more) of earth from the gorge the emergency spillway has carved out and deposited in the bend of the river where the emergency spillway path rejoins the river coming from the outlet works of Canyon Dam. This material causes the flow out of the outlet works to back up to the East, flooding more property. Quite a mess, especially considering no one thought the emergency spillway would have flows go over it. But this material is mostly just dirt and rock.

Comal County and the State of Texas step in. A disaster declaration is made. The County invokes the special, temporary powers, of the Texas Disaster Act, citing a litany of reasons why the river should be closed, all centered around law enforcement and public safety and welfare. The situation is brought under control, from the law enforcement sitde. So the Judge gets an emergency order drafted, and the river is closed.

The flood subsides, and leaves debris in it's wake. A week goes by, and the County decides to indefinitely extend the ban on river and lake use, for all areas in Comal County, because water is still going over the spillway. The county cites looting, bacteria levels, rescues, and a whole list of reasons why the river should remain closed. To the uneducated, all the reasons sound good enough - until you look at the facts.

- Rivers, when flooding, have normally elevated levels of bacteria. But these levels go down naturally.

- The County had taken no bacteria samples from the river after the flood, up to and including the date of the signing of Emergency Order 80. The City of New Braunfels had taken some samples below the flooded wastewater plant in Gruene.

- The County could not (or would not) provide data on the "rescues" done.

- The County had not done an on-the-water debris survey in the river, yet banned all river use.

- The County would not grant permission for experienced river runners and professionals to survey the river, from the water. The County Judge said it was "dangerous", yet had no basis for his statement. It is our understanding the Judge has no experience on river related matters concerning whitewater skills, river safety, river hydraulics, or hydrology.

- The County would provide no basis for the conditions that would be required to release the ban. Despite higher flow rates on the Upper Guadalupe, and the possibility of more debris in that area as a result of these flows, the Upper Guadalupe had it's ban released a couple of weeks ago.

As many of you know, the Corps of Engineers has started releases from Canyon Dam during the past week. The area immediately below the outlet works has been cleared, as well as the area that the emergency spillway gouged out. Water can flow relatively freely down the river once again. The spillway area is a site to see, as it scoured out an area about 20-25 feet deep, about 150 feet wide, form the overflow spillway, downstream about 1/2 mile. Horseshoe Falls is buried under silt right now, and the river cut a new channel around it (actually the secondary channel that was there all along, it appears). But the river is flowing normally, for the flows now being released.

The County has not lifted the recreation ban on the river, and has not stated under what conditions they will lift the ban. Keep in mind the Emergency Order drafted and signed was based on imminent flooding, on the looting, high bacteria, etc. On Wednesday I went down and surveyed the river with some other competent boaters. River Road was open, and no Sheriff's Deputies were seen. Our group did not see anything in the channel that you wouldn't normally see after a flood. If fact, due to the sustained high volumes of water from the recent flood, the channel appeared more clear than it normally would after a flood. Basically, the river got a good scouring from the really high, sustained flows over three days. The County has opened up River Road to traffic, as there are no longer any Sheriff's Deputies at each end of the road. We also talked to some outfitters, to get their take on the river situation. Their professional opinion was that they didn't see anything that precluded opening the river to guided raft trips or experienced boaters. They were kind of dumbfounded as to why the river hadn't been opened up. However, some of them, fearing retribution from the County in obtaining permits to rebuild, have intentionally not asked the County to lift the ban, or otherwise "rocked the boat" - even though they think the ban no longer serves a purpose.

I sent a letter to Commissioners Court on Thursday, requesting the ban be released. The reasons under which the ban was instituted (imminent flooding, looting, bacteria levels, etc.) simply no longer exist. While we all appreciate the County's quick action during the flood, that was six weeks ago, and it is time to move on. Without exception, all of the liveries we spoke to were ready to resume guided raft trips on the Guad at 5000 cfs. Without exception, none of them has seen anything on the river that would cause them to keep it closed. In my letter, I also asked the County to hold a Public Hearing, if the ban would not be released, in order that public comments could be placed in the record, and the County could justify their continued closing of the River. Basically, the County has no facts to support the continued ban.

Thursday, I also contacted the offices of Senators Barrientos and Wentworth, asking them to check into the situation. Senator Barrientos, who sits on the Natural Resource Committee, has an aide which was quite helpful in the matter, and was amenable to changing State Law to limit the County powers under the Texas Disaster Act (the powers are meant to be only temporary). I will be in touch with Senator Barrientos in the coming months to work on making this happen, so there will not be another situation of an indefinite river closure.

Senator Wentworth has a portion of Comal County in his district. The Sportsmen Conservationists of Texas named him their 1999 Conservation Legislator of the Year for his efforts to preserve Texas' natural resources, his dedication to outdoor sporting activities and his staunch support of youth sporting organizations. Perhaps this staunch support will lend themselves to boating activities, also.

I also contacted Texas Parks and Wildlife, and asked their attorney to look into the access issues surrounding the closing of the Guadalupe River. Since the Guadalupe is a public, navigable river, this falls under the purview of TPWD. Please contact Boyd Kennedy at boyd.kennedy@tpwd.state.tx.us, or call him at 512-389-4584.

I have received e-mails from many groups about the status of any lawsuit against Comal County, and if one is going to be filed, etc. The answer is yes, maybe, or no. It all depends on if the County is willing to rationally discuss the facts of the situation, and can justify why the river remains closed - six weeks after the flood event. Due to the length of time it takes to prepare, the pleading for the suit was started last week. So far, two national organizations have said they would join in, as well as some of the liveries and local clubs. However, we are trying a last ditch effort to avoid this situation entirely. The pleading is being prepared as a parallel course of action, simply because it takes so long to properly prepare. However, if some reasonable dialogue cannot be established, with a course of action, then the suit will be filed as a last resort, to force the dialogue before a District or Appellate Judge. Beyond that people need to talk to their elected officials and people at Parks and Wildlife to look into the closing of the river. However, if no one complains, the County is going to do NOTHING, and keep the river closed. I, for one, could not fathom the river still being closed six weeks after a flood , when there are no obvious dangers not normally part of the sport, beyond the swift waters (but many of us have boated it at that level many times in the past 20+ years).

As I have stated since this started, this is a bad precedent for the people of the State of Texas, and river recreationists in particular. That water in that river is public property, and we all have a right to use it for recreation. No one has the right to take that away for an indefinite period. Furthermore, hiding behind one person's idea of what is "dangerous" on a river - when they have little or no experience with rivers - is nothing short of ludicrous when they insist no one else can go on the river, either. If we do not care about this issue, and what is truly now an issue over river rights, what will keep other officials from trying to close the waterway on which you boat (be it flat water, a gentle stream, a bayou, coastal waters, or a flooded river). This issue is fundamentally flawed from any sense of logic and reasonable thought. Just keep that in mind the next time you boat, or stare at your boat hanging in your garage - thinking about going to boat.

If any of you want to send donations (I've gotten requests for an address), send them to the Texas Whitewater Association, PO Box 5264, Austin, TX 78763.

Thanks, and let's continue to work on this issue in a professional, rational manner. Let's not give up on this and simply fade away.

David Price at DPaustex@aol.com
Texas Whitewater Assoc.
Austin, TX

Jason D. Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349