- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (AP) - The tranquil gurgling of Guadalupe River rapids was broken only by bird calls and occasional inner-tube floaters as Sylvia and Robert San Miguel relaxed in lawn chairs on its banks.

“We used to come here as kids,” Sylvia, 65, recalled Thursday.

“It’s beautiful. We love it,” said Robert, 69, waking from a nap at a River Road campground.

The San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1VtSWr5 ) reports the San Antonio couple know that heavy rains can quickly transform this idyllic waterway and others in the Hill Country into a life-threatening nightmare, as evidenced by major flooding here in 1998, 2002 and 2010 and as recently as May 24 on the Blanco River in Wimberley, one county to the north.

A new flood alert system, using solar-powered gauges and sirens, has been installed along the Guadalupe in Comal County upstream from New Braunfels.

The $308,000 project, tentatively set for dedication Sept. 10, was underwritten by Comal and Guadalupe counties, the city of New Braunfels and a local recreation district.

“We’re running tests right now to make sure everything is working the way it’s supposed to,” said Mike Dussere of the Water Oriented Recreation District of Comal County, which covered $119,000 of the cost.

Eight gauges installed between Spring Branch and New Braunfels have transmitters designed to provide real-time data on the water’s height.

“That’s something we didn’t have before,” said Dussere, noting that the two U.S. Geological Survey gauges in that stretch of river have a lag time in reporting flow data.

The new system will expand the ability to identify and react to potentially dangerous river rises before they reach low-lying campgrounds and houses. Five of the installations below Canyon Lake are equipped with large sirens.

Of particular concern is nighttime flooding, which, without some kind of warning, could catch sleeping campers and residents unaware.

“In a flash flood, the river can come up quick. You saw what happened in Wimberley,” said Eddie Gillespie, manager of Camp Huaco Springs, referring to deadly flooding on the Blanco River in Hays County over Memorial Day weekend this year. “The same has happened here and could again.”

Gillespie said his River Road campground was wiped out by the 2002 Guadalupe River flood, pointing out the water’s crest near the top of a light pole.

The new alert system will replace more than 20 small sirens that were installed by the recreation district in 2011, mostly in riverside campgrounds, but proved to be undependable and insufficiently audible.

“The new ones are going to be much louder and much better,” said Jennifer Bretzke, a WORD board member who manages a campground called KL Ranch Cliffsides. “We want everyone to wake up.”

Data from the new gauges will be posted for public access on a yet-to-be-identified website.

The installations will complement a downstream alert system of eight sirens, four of which can also function as loudspeakers, erected in 2011 in New Braunfels.

“The new gauges will enhance our ability to make critical decisions that much faster, if they need to be made,” said Steve Harris, emergency management coordinator for the city, which provided $59,000 for the project.

Comal County contributed $115,000 and Guadalupe County, farther downstream, pitched in $14,000 for the system, which had a planned debut in May that was delayed by bad weather.

“Getting good real-time data is essential to knowing what’s going on and what action we may need to take next,” said Jeff Kelley, Comal County’s emergency management coordinator.

The county already has a system to automatically monitor water levels at 19 low water crossings on local roads, he said, noting that motorists can see on the county website (its county engineer page) if the crossings are passable or flooded.

Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher called the expenditure a prudent public safety investment. “It’s imperative to have real-time information as soon as we can get it,” he said.

Kerr County officials recently began discussions with the Upper Guadalupe River Authority about installing such a system on the river there.

“We don’t have anything like that, but that’s one of our goals. We’ll look to Comal County to see what they’re doing,” said Ray Buck, UGRA general manager.

After deadly flooding in Kerr and Kendall counties in the 1980s, the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority installed a series of rain gauges along the Guadalupe from Kerr to Guadalupe counties, but without sirens, to help predict flooding, said GBRA spokeswoman LaMarriol Smith. The authority is looking to develop a similar system on the Blanco River.

Besides the sirens, emergency responders utilize reverse-911 calls and door-to-door notifications, if needed, to spread flood alerts. But experience shows that those getting such notifications don’t always heed evacuation warnings.

Longtime River Road resident David Hammond said the siren system will mostly benefit campers and visitors, not local homeowners.

“We know when it’s flooding, and we know what to do,” said Hammond, 55. “When they blow, we won’t go.


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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