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Lake Kemp Fish Death Toll Near 190,000
BRUSHY CREEK FISH KILL - Over the last few weeks, fish at Lake Kemp have been dying due to drought conditions. From top photo: fish carcasses line the shores of Brushy Creek at Lake Kemp; Game Warden Donnie Fitts measures a yellowcat on the shore. The cat measured out at over 36 inches long and would probably have weighed over 20 pounds if it had lived. A soft shell turtle was also found on the shore.
Lake Cabin Owners Looking For Answers
Owners of cabins at Lake Kemp are appealing to lawmakers in Austin and Washington, D.C., to intervene in a sticky situation that threatens to spawn an expensive legal battle involving the city of Wichita Falls, a water district and the W.T. Waggoner Estate.
About 305 lake cabins face a Jan. 1 deadline to be moved from the lake. The cabins are located below a flood elevation first set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1972 as part of a project to rebuild Kemp's dam.
The lake's three owners - the city of Wichita Falls, Wichita County Water Improvement District No. 2 and the W.T. Waggoner Estate - have been negotiating since late 1996 on how to deal with the federal deadline while not suddenly disrupting the lives of the cabin owners.
But those people, many of whom live at Lake Kemp year-round, haven't been included in the negotiations. And they have grown increasingly frustrated, saying that officials are keeping them in the dark.
"We can't get any response, a meeting or anything, from the city, the water district or Waggoner," said Kemp resident Elmer Gernster. "We want someone to help us find an answer."
In late January, dozens of letters were sent to state Senator Tom Haywood, U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry and U.S. Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison. The cabin owners hope the federal and state lawmakers will pressure everyone involved to be more forthcoming about the problem and possible solutions.
"They could tell the people of Wichita Falls that if you don't let these people stay, or compensate us in some way, then they're not going to sponsor any programs for Wichita Falls, provide any government money or programs for you," cabin owner Elizabeth Hewitt said.
Gernster and other cabin owners say that only Thornberry and Hutchison have answered their letters, so far. Thornberry said in a telephone interview this week that he's sympathetic, but uncertain that anything can be done to prompt the lake's owners and the Corps of Engineers to act.
"The parties are trying to get something worked out as quickly as possible," said Thornberry, a Republican who represents the 13th Congressional District of Texas. "I'm trying to be as helpful as I can."
For the most part, the lake's owners remain tight-lipped about what they are doing. But city officials imply that the time is approaching when the three groups can take something to the cabin owners.
"It's not appropriate now (to meet with the cabin owners)," City Attorney Greg Humbach said. "I'm not sure. Maybe in two or three months it might be appropriate."
The secret negotiations are important to the future of people who live and play at Lake Kemp. But they also have a direct impact for residents of Wichita Falls and the water district, who would pay the legal bills if talks fail and the various sides start launching lawsuits at each other.
The source of the messy dispute dates back three decades, when officials discovered structural flaws in the Lake Kemp dam. As owners of the water rights, the city and the water district turned to the Army Corps of Engineers for assistance.
The Corps determined that with a new dam, flood waters might someday reach an elevation of 1,159 feet, washing away homes and cabins built along the shoreline. In exchange for the $4.408 million reconstruction project, the city and water district signed a contract that promised to remove about 500 cabins by January 1, 2000.
Space for the cabins was leased from the Waggoner Estate, which owns the land underneath and around the lake. Waggoner signed a subsidiary contract with the city and water district, outlining the loss of land because of the new lake elevation and the removal of cabins.
Everyone agrees that officials in 1972 had assumed a 28 year deadline would allow the cabins to gradually disappear through age and abandonment. Instead, the cabins have provided income to Waggoner and an economic boon to Baylor County. Officials estimate 305 buildings are still below the 1,159 foot flood elevation.
The passage of time and the loss of records have created confusion about what the lake owners were supposed to do if the cabins were still there as the deadline approached. The city and water district have claimed the subsidiary contract makes Waggoner solely responsible for the cabins, and a $350,000 payment in 1972 sealed the deal.
But Waggoner lawyers have disputed that, saying the money paid for the estate's loss of acreage because of the water levels, not for dealing with cabins.
Since negotiations first started, the Corps of Engineers has always said it is willing to consider an extension of the deadline. But the three lake owners need to present a concrete plan to remove a certain number of cabins each year, corps officials say.
Talks among the lake owners have intensified since Thanksgiving, with officials for all three groups releasing almost no information.
Meanwhile, cabin owners say they are now saddled with homes and cabins they can't sell and they can't afford to move. Baylor County won't collect ay property taxes on the cabins this year, saying the Jan. 1 deadline has made them worthless.
"I can face reality. All I want is someone to give me compensation, or I'm out," Gernster said. "We still need somebody to get us some assistance. That's the gist of it."
So Lake Kemp residents have turned to their elected representatives, knowing that those who write the laws often wield serious political clout to make things happen.
But for now, lawmakers say they can only keep in touch with the lake owners and the Army Corps of Engineers.
"If possible, we don't want to just end up with only lawsuits that last for a number of years and the (Lake Kemp) residents are left out there to suffer," Thornberry said. "I understand the residents' concerns. But I feel, from all the parties I know about, they are trying to work things out. And hopefully that will happen sooner than later."
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Taken August 2000, from Lake Shore Marina looking north, same as photo below except zoomed in a little.
Cabin Owners Fear
The various owners at Lake Kemp have been talking for more than a year about a federal requirement to remove all cabins below 1,159 feet to avoid possible flooding. No answers have been found, and cabin owners are worried they could become victims of poor planning and miscommunication.
"No one's ever asked us to a meeting or nothing," resident Elmer Gerstner said. "No one wants to tell us anything."
What started as an effort to rebuild Lake Kemp's dam nearly 30 years ago appears to be headed toward a messy and costly legal battle. While the lake's owners are trying to keep their dispute quiet, the city of Wichita Falls and the Wichita County Water Improvement District No. 2 have squared off against the W.T. Waggoner Estate of Vernon.
Unless the three find an acceptable answer soon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a signed contract that says the cabins will disappear within the next 13 months.
"We'll listen, but I don't know what can be done at this point," said Ross Adkins, a Corps spokesman in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "It has to be done between them (the Waggoner Estate and the water improvement district) and the city."
In 1972, the corps provided $4.408 million to shore up the lake's dam and improve it's ability to hold back flood waters. In return, the city and the water improvement district promised to remove about 500 cabins that rested in the lake's "flood pool". That phrase refers to areas of the lake where Army Corps engineers say they can reasonably expect waters to reach at some point within 100 years.
The city and the improvement district only control rights to water in the lake; the land around and underneath is owned by the Waggoner Estate. So a second contract was signed with Waggoner that said the cattle and oil enterprise would see that the cabins were gone when the deadline arrived. Waggoner also was paid $350,000 to cover the cost of any necessary removals.
At least, that's the interpretation of the city and the water district.
"Clearly, it was the city's intent to meet its contractual obligations (with the federal government) by entering a contract with Waggoner to make sure the end result took place," said George Bonnett, the city's public works director.
But the only payment mentioned in the contract deals with land rights, not removing the cabins. Waggoner officials believe that responsibility remains with those specifically listed in black and white.
"The city and the district have the duty to remove those cabins," said Lonny Morrison, a Wichita Falls attorney who represents the Electra Waggoner Biggs family, one of the owners of the estate.
The assumption was that attrition through old age and abandonment would remove enough cabins to meet the federal government's requirements, Bonnett said.
But only about 40 percent of the cabins disappeared, and nearly 100 of the remaining buildings now are permanent homes instead of seasonal getaways. Twenty-seven cabins were built after 1972, which Morrison admitted was a violation of the second contract.
One Lake Kemp resident, who asked that her name not be used, said her lease with Waggoner must be renewed each year, and that document says removal is the sole responsibility of the cabin owners. But she and her neighbors never heard about an inflexible deadline.
"I know it's Waggoner's property, but it's my home and if somebody would have told us that in 2000 we would have to move, we would have looked at another place," said the woman, who has lived in a Lake Kemp cabin with her husband for a decade.
The lake's three owners have made no effort to tell the cabin owners about the negotiations or what could happen next, Gerstner said. After a few news stories, the owners realized just how serious the problem was when they received their annual tax statements from the Baylor County Appraisal District. Appraisers say the cabins have no value because of the 2000 deadline, and so the owners don't have to pay any taxes this year.
Cabin owners see that as bad news because they own buildings that can't be sold and they can't afford to move.
"I was (trying to sell) at one time, but I can't" Gerstner said. "Nobody will give me nothing for it."
Gerstner and others are worried that they have received new leases to sign for 1999. But Morrison said lake administrator Sue Walker has been dealing with a family emergency, and the leases should be mailed soon.
Waggoner officials want to save the cabins and protect the dollars that flow into the coffers of the estate and Baylor County. They are asking the Army Corps to reconsider the flood elevation, giving nearly 27 years of history with the improved dam in place.
Morrison said the cabins have never been threatened, and changes in the North Texas landscape have significantly reduced the risk of flooding.
"The first thing they'd like to see is a carefully studied and analyzed determination of whether there's any real need to eliminate those cabin leases," he said.
The Corps of Engineers says that's one answer it will not accept.
"If we get a flood of record, we are going to lose cabins," Adkins said. "It could happen at any time. But we were trying to be fair as much as we could, so they wouldn't have to tear the cabins down tomorrow. One of the stipulations was that they would be removed, period."
Wichita Falls officials say they are sympathetic to the cabin owners' plight. But city taxpayers provided for their needs in 1972 when they paid Waggoner to deal with the problem, Bonnett said.
"We believe we have done everything we can and should do," he said. "We do not see any action we can take."
The woman cabin owner doesn't know who to blame, but she's angry with everyone involved.
"Waggoner is going to cut a deal with the city of Wichita Falls and the Army Corps, and we're going to be out of luck," she said.
Staff Writer Le Templar can be reached at (940) 767-8341 or (800) 627-1646, Ext. 596; or with e-mail at email@example.com.
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