Development in San Antonio and a lack of resources at the state-level reshaped one of Texas’ largest rivers, resulting in flooding, log jams and the loss of ranch land.
TIVOLI – At the end of what’s left of the San Antonio River, logjams are changing the landscape.
The mighty San Antonio flows as wide as a creek across the bottom of Fagan Ranch, where a three-mile logjam grows daily, backing up water, changing the course of the river and turning the nearly 200-year-old cattle ranch into a wet bog.
“This is the dumping ground for the San Antonio River,” Ginger Fagan, a former county judge known by some as The Iron Lady, said. “We have refrigerators, tires, bowling balls; it’s a dumping ground.”
When it comes to protecting private property and public waters against logjams, the rules are murkier than the clogged-up river.
Fagan and her family say the responsibility belongs to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.
The river authority, which was created in 1933 by the Texas Legislature to develop, conserve and protect the water resources for a 10-county area, says otherwise.
Its enabling act specifies part of its function is “to prevent or aid in the prevention of damage to person or property from the waters of the Guadalupe and Blanco rivers and their tributaries,” including the San Antonio River.
Property owners along the rivers say that sentence is the key.
Despite it spending more than $1.7 million during the past 25 years clearing out logjams and purchasing equipment and barges, officials with the river authority maintain that pulling out logjams is not their job.
LaMarriol Smith, a spokeswoman for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, called the issue “complicated.”
She said the river authority is not mandated by law to clean out the logs, but it does occasionally receive grants to clear the river.
“We want to be able to assist our constituents by keeping the logjams clear,” Smith said.
The bulk of the agency’s budget, about $35 million, is made from selling water and operating lakes.
Other agencies are either unaware of current logjams or do not have immediate plans to address them.
Lisa Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the South Texas Watermaster office has not received any reports of logjams in either the Guadalupe or San Antonio rivers.
The last logjam the agency helped clear was on the Pecos River last September.
Once the office receives an inquiry, staff initiate an investigation to assess the situation and determine what further action is necessary and/or required.
If the agency finds the logjam is creating a hazard or is causing detrimental effects on the stream, it will initiate action to remove it, which could involve soliciting federal and state agencies, she said.
Another agency, the San Antonio River Authority, which collects taxes and holds the permit for the Fagan’s bridges, has not attempted to pull out logjams on that stretch, a fact officials with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority do not hesitate to point out.
Gloria Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio River Authority, said they have staff “that goes out on occasion and cleans the debris.”
Rodriguez was not certain when the river authority last cleared the river in the Tivoli area.
The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority pulled out a jam in 2008 from the Fagan Ranch but has not done any work in that area since.
Cause and effect
Low water velocity, prolonged drought and obstructions in the river are all factors playing into the logjams, said Bryan Serold, the operations manager for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority lower basin.
Getting crews on the river comes down to the right conditions. If the water is too high, there’s a safety risk, and if it’s too low, the barges can’t access the river, he said.
“A lot of time, we get criticized if we don’t spend time on the river clearing logjams,” Serold said.
Removing some logjams could have a negative impact on the environment, meaning the permitting process would be more extensive and expensive, he said.
Funding appears to be the biggest blockade.
The river authority planned for about $25,000 for log-jam cleanup in this year’s budget and is hoping for a $50,000 grant to help fund more projects.
By Serold’s half-million estimate, the budget won’t come close to clearing out the logjams at the Fagan Ranch.
It’s the same song and dance Jim Fagan and his family have heard for years.
“It’s going to be so expensive to do it; it can’t be done,” Fagan said.
History at stake
Fagan’s great-grandfather founded the ranch in 1829 in Tivoli, back when landowners could take care of their own property.
Three generations of Fagan men used dynamite to break apart logjams and snags.
“There are all these agencies and regulations on you, and you can’t do that anymore,” Jim Fagan said. “Parks and Wildlife says you can’t use dynamite because you’ll kill the fish.”
The logjam problems are entrenched in this area of Texas. Unlike the northern half of the state, South Texas doesn’t have the volume of lakes and reservoirs to swallow the problem.
East of the Fagan ranch, along the lower Guadalupe River, John Gibbs’ property has stayed flooded for as long as nine months at a time, reducing a 1,000 acre tract by 50 percent or more.
In times like that, the land is unproductive. Gibbs can’t grow hay; he can’t raise cattle.
About 4.5 million gallons per minute are flowing near his property toward the salt water barrier on the Guadalupe River and from the San Antonio River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey water reports.
However, about a quarter of that, less than 1.3 million gallons per minute, are flowing past the barrier and into the bay.
The rest of the water is backing up on his property, the Fagan Ranch, and other tracts in the area.
Gibbs said logjams are a part of the problem.
“They’ve created a dam out here without calling it a dam,” he said.
His massive oak trees are dying amid the flooding, and hundreds of acres are under water, unusable for raising cattle or growing hay.
He’s complained to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, attended hours of public meetings and taken elected officials up in his plane to get a new perspective on the damage.
“GBRA will try to say it’s all marshland and swamps, but oak trees don’t grow on swamps,” Gibbs said.
Looking for solutions
Whether the state is stepping in, property owners along both rivers are not losing faith that a solution exists.
Victoria County has representation on the river authority board of directors through Dennis Patillo, a Victoria business man who was named Citizen of the Year in 2014.
Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns said he is optimistic that with Patillo’s leadership, property owners will experience some relief.
“We’ve been fighting it for so long,” Burns said. “All we’ve gotten is the runaround.”
Patillo has given himself 60 days to develop a long-term plan of attack on the logjams plaguing the area.
The plan will establish a budget, funding mechanisms, time frame, communication standards and will work within federal regulations.
Whether the plan will come to fruition or have an impact has yet to be seen. Patillo is one vote on a board of nine members.
The logjams are also subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Any funding that goes to clear logjams in the Crossroads means another water project gets cut back.
Nonetheless, Patillo isn’t fazed.
He said he is impressed with the passion in people affected by the logjams but also recognizes the struggles the river authority faces.
“We need to give some serious consideration to talking to federal legislators to provide an ongoing funding mechanism for this,” he said.
The river authority cleared out a jam in March along the lower Guadalupe River, but with April’s record-setting rains, the problem shows no signs of stopping.
Logs are backing up, some 3-feet wide by 40-feet long, as far as the eye can see. The logs are traveling across four pipelines at the Fagan Ranch, posing a potential environmental hazard if one of the pipes laying on the bottom of the river breaks.
Jim Fagan called it a “dangerous situation” that could possibly lead to a lawsuit.
The river authority has acknowledged clearing logjams from the lower reaches of the Guadalupe River provides safe access for navigation and prevents course changes.
At this point, the river is unnavigable, said Ginger Fagan.
She worries about the course changes and implications it may have on county boundaries.
The Guadalupe River’s tributary, the San Antonio River, which serves as the boundary between Victoria and Refugio counties, is shifting in light of the jams. Victoria County is poised to lose 2,400 acres at the Fagan Ranch to Refugio County, she said.
Elm Bayou is now the main river while the San Antonio River sits dry, except during floods.
Ginger is preparing for the day the logjams on the San Antonio River reach U.S. Highway 77, the highway she championed for in the 1980s as a county judge.
She questions whether the logjams would be allowed to exist in places, such as New Braunfels, where the Guadalupe and Comal rivers are major tourism attractions, or whether South Texas could develop its rivers into popular destinations.
She is standing ready to put up a cable and pull out the logs herself, with or without the state’s blessing.
“The Guadalupe will go into the bay, but the San Antonio River will stop right there,” Ginger said. “It’s clogged.”
May 2, 2015