The Debate Over Cape’s Dam

By Z.D. Bennett

Cape’s Dam is a damaged structure of old rocks, wood and metal. It does not have the most inviting appearance, but what it lacks in majesty, it makes up in controversy.

The San Marcos City Council voted in May 2016 to remove the remaining structure of Cape’s Dam from the San Marcos River. The city carried out the vote after a local biologist it hired, Dr. Thom Hardy, did an assessment of Cape’s Dam and deemed it unsafe, recommending it be removed.

But some San Marcos residents do not accept the assessment produced by Hardy, a biology professor at Texas State University and chief science officer at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

The debate between the two sides of the issue has become personal. Brian Olson, a San Marcos resident and local business owner, has called Hardy a “bully” and “arrogant,” while Hardy has said that Olson attempted to “personally discredit” him.

Olson said he has been in contact with many biologists that have been helping him. However, he said the biologists do not wish to be named.

“They made is very clear that I got to keep their names out of it,” Olson said. “That’s why they talk to me, I think, is because I don’t bring them in.”

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, the original dam was built some time between 1866 and 1867 for milling and ginning cotton. Now because of severe flooding, the dam is damaged to point that the city has declared it unsafe for river users.

Olson is part of an organization called Save the SMTX River, which wants to stop the dam removal. The group claims removing the dam would cause more harm than good.

Olson has also expressed concerns over what he calls errors in Hardy’s report on the dam. If you ask him, he’ll go over the report point by point.

“It’s very troubling to find that citations of reports that do not exist, references of reports that are not cited, and changing of conclusions in other past reports make you really question how good the science really is,” Olson said in an interview.

Hardy believes that Olson’s assessment of the reports is incorrect.

“It’s just so much mis- and disinformation, even though he has been repeatedly told he’s interpreting it wrong,” Hardy said.

Hardy said there was one citation mistake that is a cut-and-paste error.

“It doesn’t change anything in the report,” he added. “That’s none of the data. It’s none of the results. So how does that affect any of the answers?”

As he has done in previous interviews, Olson said that Hardy received $500,000 per year for four years. He said the money was being paid to him by the University of Houston-Clear Lake, but the city of San Marcos was paying Clear Lake to do work on the river. Olson said that is a “definition of funneling money.”

Hardy denied the accusation.

“I’m an endowed professor,” Hardy said. “I don’t make any money on any research that I do because my salary is paid.”

Olson also implied that Hardy might want to remove the dam in order to keep funding research he conducts on the river — which would change after the dam is removed.

“How often are you going to keep getting funds from anyone to keep studying the same thing over and over?” Olson said.

Hardy said Olson has been told many times that he is paid by salary. He said Texas State University pays his salary, and that the grants do not pay his salary. He said he works on many grants, and much of that work has gone to fund hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students who are pursuing degrees and not having to take out loans.

“I want to stress the point that there’s no motivation for me to remove the dam in order to acquire research funding,” Hardy said. Referring to his work at the Meadows Center, he added: “My job description says I’m going to monitor the river.”

Despite the animosity of the two men on opposing sides of the debate, there is one thing they agree on. Most San Marcos residents do not do enough of their own inquiries to form their own educated opinions.

“People just don’t read,” Olson said. “That’s the problem these days. They don’t want to educate themselves. It’s easier to say, ‘Well, Dr. Hardy says it’s going to be better, and it’s going to be deeper if we take out the dam.’ ”

Hardy said residents have preconceptions about the dam.

“They don’t want to know the truth because they have already made up their mind,” he said. “They are not willing to independently fact-check either.”