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Tom Goynes at Rio Vista. Photo by TRPA Member Paula Sandridge Goynes

San Marcos River – Rio Vista History

How Rio Vista Dam Became Rio Vista Falls

Never miss an opportunity to be nice; it may pay off later.

In my case it involved the United States Geological Service and the Fire Chief of the San Marcos Fire Department.

You see, the USGS operates thousands of gages on the rivers and watersheds throughout the United States. At intervals (usually every 15 minutes) you can find the flow of pretty much any river you like. Each gage measures the depth at of the river at their location on the river, and the folks at the USGS have studied (and continue to study) what flow corresponds to that depth for that creek or river. So, if for instance, the San Marcos River at Highway 80 in Luling has a depth of 4.58 feet, the flow of the river at that point, for that depth is 180 cubic feet per second.

A cubic foot of water is about 7.48 gallons of water, so a flow of 180 cfs equals about 1,346 gallons of water per second. Which is about the average flow of the San Marcos River at that bridge in Luling.

And, we canoeists like to know what the flow of a river is before we head out on a trip. We figure that the trip will take an average amount of time if the river is running average – or it will take longer if it is low. Or, if it is flooded, we might be wise to choose something else to do that day.

Since we have this inside information, canoeists tend to be local experts when it comes to floods. We are the wizards who know how high the river is going to get hours before the floods arrive. If the Blanco River is running at 40 feet in Wimberley, we know that in about 8 hours, give or take, it will be running at 40 feet (which is a pretty good flood) in San Marcos.

And nowadays, most fire departments know about these river gages. But back in the 20th century, many did not. Or, at least Dan O’Leary, who was the Fire Chief for the City of San Marcos did not.

Me, being a member of the Martindale Volunteer Fire Department (Martindale is a little town just east of San Marcos) and being a pretty nice guy, would call the San Marcos Fire Department and warn them that a big flood was coming. And, since the fire department was responsible for putting up barricades across roads that regularly go under water, such knowledge was a matter of life and death.

So, one day after such a flood event, Dan called me and wanted to know how I knew how big the flood was going to be before it got here. And I shared with him the secret to my wizardry. I walked him through the process of opening up the USGS page that shows all the flows for the rivers of Texas and finding the gages for the Blanco and the San Marcos Rivers. And as importantly, I gave him the approximate times that it takes for a crest to get from Wimberley to Kyle (about 4 hours) and from Kyle to San Marcos (another 4 hours). And those times aren’t on the USGS gages. You just have to figure that info out based on past floods.

Anyway, Dan really appreciated that information. And, like I said at the beginning, my kindness eventually paid off.

Rio Vista Dam was built around the turn of the century (the previous century) in 1904. So, by Thanksgiving of 2005, it was over 100 years old and it was falling apart. In fact, it was in such bad shape that the city decided to immediately hire an engineering firm to begin repairs ASAP.

It happened so quick, that I totally missed the news (it seems that the decision happened over the Thanksgiving holidays).

And, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about the repair job, except that I heard that the plan was to add approximately eight feet of ledge (the original apron or ledge was about four feet wide) to the downstream side of the dam. That would have meant that the resulting ledge would be about 12 feet wide. I couldn’t see how any canoe, kayak, or even tube could run that kind of dam without slamming down on that 12 foot ledge. The dam wouldn’t be runnable any more. And it had been one of the few runnable dams in Texas. In fact, more than once we had recommended that, if a small dam had to be built, it should be built like Rio Vista Dam – with a runnable slot.

The estimate for the repair job was kinda confusing (it talked about various cost overruns and so forth) but the city officials all seemed to think that the repair job was going to cost about one million dollars.

The San Marcos River, especially the first few miles of it, is habitat for several endangered species especially Fountain Darters and wild rice. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is very concerned with protecting that wild rice. And, they were very concerned about a large stand of wild rice upstream of Rio Vista Dam that would be dewatered if the dam failed. That is why the city of San Marcos, which owns the dam, was under lots of pressure to repair the dam as soon as possible.

I got word that a large delegation of biologists, lawyers, and other experts were going to be meeting at the TPWD A. E. Woods Fish Hatchery to discuss the Rio Vista Dam situation and what sort of emergency plans could be put in place in the event that the dam suddenly failed. So, I invited myself to that meeting. To this day, I can’t believe they not only let me in, but they gave me a seat at the table.

After listening patiently about the need to repair the dam, I asked how wild rice had managed to exist for thousands of years without dams. I suggested that one of the experts at the table, who happened to be sitting right next to me, had once written that the best thing we could do to increase wild rice habitat would be to remove all the dams on the river.

You see, it turns out that wild rice doesn’t like stagnate water. It much prefers moving, medium depth water. It does not thrive in the deep portions of Spring Lake (the first lake on the San Marcos River) or in the deep water above Rio Vista Dam. Lakes are not good for wild rice. They kinda agreed, but pointed out that the dams have created a new normal for the river, and that while the deep portions of the lakes were not good habitat, the medium depth water upstream of the dams was good habitat, and that that habitat would be lost if the dams failed.

Their plan was to use sandbags at places like the railroad trestle just below City Park in San Marcos to create small impoundments in the river to save the wild rice upstream. I suggested, that if that was the emergency plan anyway, why not pull a flatbed rail car, full of limestone boulders onto the bridge just about the spot where the impoundment needs to be and unload those boulders into the river. Voila, impoundment! Wild rice saved and a new rapid created.

I thought (and still think) that it was one of the wisest solutions I have ever come up with. And on the spur of the moment. But it fell on deaf ears. The problem could not be solved so easily. At least a million dollars needed to be spent.

I still think that a series of small rapids, starting just below the springs and extending all the way to Cummings Dam (which would then be known as Cummings Falls) would increase the wild rice habitat, improve the water quality, and make the San Marcos River even more popular than it is today.

But, the experts didn’t see my vision. Nonetheless, I did learn that Rio Vista Dam (or at least something like a dam) was going to have to be repaired.

It was at that time that I thought of Gary Lacy. Gary is a kayaker from Colorado who raced the Texas Water Safari back in 1980 in an Olympic K2 with fellow Coloradan Fletcher Anderson. I happened to be in that race as well, and that is how we met. He is now building whitewater parks, and he is especially good at turning ugly dams into beautiful rapids. I contacted Gary and asked if he could send me some pictures of some of the projects he had completed. He sent me a really good Powerpoint presentation.

Ed Travis is a long time Texas Rivers Protection Association member and a good friend. He is also a great photographer. And, I figured he had Photoshop. So I called him and asked if I sent him a current photo of Rio Vista Dam and Gary Lacy’s slideshow, could he superimpose a picture of one of Gary’s man-made rapids in the foreground of Rio Vista Dam? He had it done that same day.

Now, you’ve got to understand, that everything happened very quickly. From the time I heard about the city’s plan to repair the dam until the day I got the Photoshopped picture of “Rio Vista Falls” only took about a week.

But there was no time to waste. The San Marcos City Council was set to have an emergency meeting in a couple of days to approve the contract with the engineering firm from Austin that was going to rebuild the dam.

So, I called my buddy Dan O’Leary and asked him if I could have a quick meeting with him to talk about an alternative to the plans to rebuild the dam. He told me that things were already too far along. And that in a couple of days the city would approve the existing contract and fast track the construction process. Nonetheless, because I had shared my secret info about the USGS, he would give me 15 minutes of his time the very next morning.

I called two people to accompany me to that meeting. One was Ben Kvanli, a local kayaking instructor who had previously competed in slalom kayaking in the Olympics. Ben had actually alerted the city, a couple of weeks before about the horrible condition of Rio Vista Dam. So, he had the city’s ear. The other friend was Gib Hafernick. Gib is a draftsman who had talked the city of San Antonio into building kayak runs through some of the dangerous (and ugly) dams on the San Antonio
River. I also happened to know that Gib owned a suit.

Gib did, in fact show up at the meeting wearing his suit, and that scared the bejabbers out of the San Marcos staff. They thought I was wearing a suit and they knew that that would be a mighty serious occurrence.

We showed the manager and staff the Powerpoint presentation, and Gib rolled out his impressive drawings of man made rapids. We really wowed ’em. But Dan O’Leary lamented that fact that we didn’t have time to get Gary Lacy or one of his engineers to the City Council meeting that was set for the very next day.

That is when Ben Kvanli pushed one button on his phone, got Scott Shipley, Ben’s paddling partner and one of Gary Lacy’s engineers on the phone and, within minutes of talking to Scott, Ben asked what time the city council meeting would take place. Scott was willing to fly in for the meeting.

Dan was obviously impressed. He thought for a minute and then decided that we would wait a week for Scott’s visit (the council was planning its final emergency meeting the following week) and that I would do the initial talk and Powerpoint presentation to the council the following day.

The Council liked the presentation, but had some reservations. They were concerned about how the citizens of San Marcos would view the plans. But that next Sunday, on the front page of the local paper, there was a full page color photo (the one that Ed Travis had created) showing the proposed Rio Vista Falls. I happened to know the editor.

I had a call that following Monday from City Councilman Johnny Diaz. He told me that he liked the plan. I had the Hispanic vote. I knew that the deal was as good as done.

The next week Scott Shipley himself addressed the city council. He is one impressive guy. And his pictures of other artificial parks around the country show how natural and beautiful these things can be. Then when he said he could build it for less than $400,000 it was all over. The city went on to spend considerably more than that original estimate. Partly because they were in a hurry. Partly because they wanted some really pretty limestone boulders (and they ended up getting them from a limestone bluff near Fredericksburg – I was appalled) and partly because they decided to beautify a lot of the river banks and replace a bunch of concrete retaining walls with limestone boulders, plus landscaping. There was talk that the project might have cost as much as 2 million dollars. Some of the taxpayers were not happy. Especially since I live downstream of the city limits.

I’m sure that this is the start of something very big for Texas. Once towns like Luling and Gonzales see the recreational potential of their now dangerous, ugly dams, they will obviously want what San Marcos has. Towns like Del Rio will be able to turn unattractive creeks like San Felipe into whitewater parks that will draw millions of tourists.

The work on Rio Vista was scheduled to begin in March of 2006 and it was finished by Memorial Day Weekend.

Tom Goynes, TRPA President Emeritus

This is a composite picture showing (in the background) the then-current Rio Vista, and (in the foreground) a man made rapid (from a whitewater park in Reno) built by Gary Lacy and Scott Shipley. It was intended to give the viewer an idea of what the new Rio Vista may look like.
Rio Vista Dam Repair Project Drawing
Above is the preliminary design draft.