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.

The News' clarion call in 1993--Flood! Flood!--was never subjected to any rigorous public testing or debate. Normally--that is, in a normal city--you might think policy-makers would want to see some fairly major study done before everybody agreed with the local newspaper that the region's central geographic feature--the only big river in a real flat place--needed to be totally rebuilt.

But Dallas is not normal. Then-Mayor Steve Bartlett pretty much took the News at its word and announced in urgent tones that something must be done.


In spite of all that, the conclusions drawn since the 1993 floods by the nation's flood-control experts, both in and out of government, have been the diametric opposite of what the News has urged in both its news columns and on its editorial page.

Simple intuition told many experts after '93 that flooding and flood damage in the nation seemed to be getting worse the more levees we built. In fact, a raft of studies after '93 concluded that the intuitive appearance of worsening floods was not only accurate, but was only half the story. The other half was that the levees themselves were a lot of what made flooding worse.

Scott Faber, a floodplain expert with American Rivers, Inc., a Washington environmental group, says the only conclusion to be drawn from the post-1993 studies is that the nation has been spending its money on things that make flooding more severe.

"The 1993 floods on the Mississippi woke people up to the fact that, as a nation, we spent $38 billion on flood control between 1960 and 1985," Faber says, "yet flood losses in that same period have more than tripled to more than $4 billion annually."

The reason, according to Faber and others, is that new levees are often the first step on the road to flooding hell:

A community builds levees where there were none before. Land values behind the new levees soar, because now the land is deemed safe from flooding and therefore safe for building. All of a sudden, it's possible to get financing and flood insurance for development behind the levees. So development happens.

But as development increases, more land is paved. Water that used to get soaked into the ground now runs off like tap water across a china dish. Faster runoff creates flooding.

The new flood levels spill over the new levee, and this time, where the river used to find the welcoming arms of its own muddy bed, it crashes instead into billions of dollars worth of new man-made structures.

The new development may or may not be insured against flooding. But even if it's not, the landholders can count on the news media to purvey gripping images of the damage to lives and property; the publicity puts pressure on politicians to declare major public-relief efforts; and the taxpayers wind up bailing everybody out.

Faber says the whole scenario is part of the math you do when you build a new levee. It isn't humanly possible to build a levee so big that neither nature nor man's interference with nature can ever defeat it. There is always a terrible, inevitable moment out there in the future when the stress of new development will collide with the strength of the new levee, the lines will cross, and the river will have its way.

"Levees are designed to fail," Faber says.
And it's not just a bunch of academics and Washington environmental lobbyists who are saying it. After the '93 floods, the White House commissioned a special panel of experts to find out why flooding seemed to be getting worse, not better, in America.

That group, headed by retired Army Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, concluded that the nation's levee-building campaign since World War II had contributed to a vicious cycle, inducing huge amounts of development in floodplains, worsening the runoff of water, and eventually subjecting more people and more property to worse flooding.

Galloway said recently that he wasn't familiar in detail with the Trinity River project, but that the general idea of a levee and road-building campaign to spur development sounded like exactly the wrong medicine, wrong place, wrong time.

Like many experts who talked about the Dallas plan, Galloway referred to Grand Forks, North Dakota, the city whose downtown burned above the floodwaters last spring.

"There is a residual risk to every levee," Galloway said. "The people in Grand Forks understood they were protected. They didn't understand that there was a residual risk that the levee would fail and flood them out."

He said he didn't think Dallas should make a decision to build new levees until everyone understood those risks. "I don't know if they're getting the whole story," he said.

Mayor Kirk, who is always well versed, knows all about the anti-levee argument, sometimes described as the "non-structural" approach to flood control: Instead of diking the river with a levee, you buy out the people who live next to the river, move them to safety, and then let the river spread out naturally.

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