Flood money

The Trinity River Plan's billion-dollar vision of levees, parks, and ponds has Mayor Ron Kirk--and most of Dallas--spellbound. But engineers warn it could lead to a flooding catastrophe and destroy the same poor neighborhoods it's designed to help.

If the grand plan to rebuild the Trinity River floodway through Dallas ever gets done--a one- to two-billion-dollar package of levees, parks, highways, and ponds--someone should erect an obelisk beside it with the words of Noah Cross. This genially evil character from Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 movie, says: "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

In Dallas' case, the civic sewer that has carried away the political sins of the city for a century would become instead its centerpiece--its "economic generator," in the favorite phrase of the plan's boosters.

The question is whether the Trinity River Plan--which actually has more to do with roads and real estate promotion than flood control, even according to its backers--could actually cause disastrous flooding in Dallas in the not so terribly distant future. While the economic dividends it's designed to bring are undoubtedly welcome, is it worth it if the plan means that more people might die in future floods, especially in minority neighborhoods? Is it worth it if the reason for taking that risk is merely to jack up land values along the river's banks?

Questions about the plan's safety--its ability to protect human beings and property from the devastation of flood--have received scant attention in media coverage so far. The few local environmentalists who've raised the issue are always described in The Dallas Morning News with tags like "self-described river-lover, Mary Doe"--which means tree-hugging fruitcake, not to be taken seriously. (Real estate promoters, for example, are not introduced as "self-described money-lover, John Doe.")

But according to flood-control experts outside Dallas, the issue of the Trinity River Plan's basic safety is by no means far-fetched or trivial. In fact, the consensus of national flood-control experts and even government policy-makers is that using flood-control projects--especially levee-building projects like this one--to stir the real estate pot is a prescription for disaster.

Except in Dallas, this sort of thing just isn't done.
"Nobody is building levees anymore," says Ron Flanagan, a Tulsa flood consultant who helps cities and other agencies devise plans to buy people out and move them off the floodplain in lieu of building levees.

"It's so passe," he adds. "It uses the government's money to put people at risk and then bail them out again, while private landowners reap the profit. Dallas is so far behind the curve, it's almost a joke."

The Trinity Plan, involving vast acreages of riverbottom and many of the city's oldest land-holding families and interests, is anything but a joke to Mayor Ron Kirk. More than the arena issue, more than any other single item on his personal horizon, the plan to rebuild the Trinity River has been Kirk's main quest from the time he first announced his candidacy for mayor.

Nervously pacing his office in City Hall recently, the mayor says, "This is an engineer's dream. It's a public employee's dream. You get to do something big and wonderful.

"I honestly believe, within every fiber of my body, that if we do the Trinity development right, I believe this project is a life-changing event for Dallas," he adds. "It will give us some beauty, which is something we're not noted for, but I also believe it can be as much of an economic revival engine for the region as Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was when it was built."

That theme--the river as a money-maker--is the most frequently and loudly trumpeted of the plan's virtues, according to its boosters. In fact, the city is carrying out its own study--something the federal government won't do--just to show how much the plan will be worth to the local economy.

There's a reason the federal government won't examine a flood-control project in terms of its ability to increase land values and spur new real estate activity along the river banks. Since 1993, experts generally have agreed that doing things like that can be a good way to kill a lot of people in order to make money for real estate interests.

In '93, a terrible flood season on the upper Mississippi took 42 lives and destroyed $16 billion worth of property. Watching levee after levee melt and give way, seeing the inexorable tide of muddy froth swallow town after town, was a sobering experience for the engineers and scientists responsible for the nation's flood-control strategies.

A series of stories in the News that same year pressed the urgency of a major levee-building campaign in Dallas. The News reported that upstream real estate development--the thoughtless paving of hundreds of square miles of land during the 1980s oil boom--and poor maintenance of existing levees had created a dangerous threat to downtown, to the Stemmons industrial corridor, and to the Crow family's market center properties.

Thirty percent of the city's entire tax base was at risk, the News said. The paper reported that $13.4 billion worth of property might get flooded in the next really, really big rain. The Dallas Morning News has since claimed--and probably deserves--credit for kicking off the entire mammoth project that Kirk is pushing today.

Predicting Biblical floods and calling for new levee construction is a Dallas Morning News-Dealey family tradition yawning back to 1902, when George Bannerman Dealey bought his first stretch of worthless riverbottom muck-land. The tradition includes scenes that feel as if they were lifted straight out of Robert Towne's Chinatown screenplay, as in 1928 when Leslie Stemmons and two armed cronies drove up from Galveston at breakneck speed in a roadster loaded with eight suitcases full of secretly printed Dallas levee district bonds.

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