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.

Even before the pollution was found, values were low. Now the value of the real estate itself is nowhere near enough to make it worthwhile for any private person to clean it up.

The moment new levees are in place, however, the value and nature of that same land will be enormously changed. All of a sudden, it may be worth someone's while to dig out the polluted soil or pave it over and redevelop the area for some new, more profitable use.

The people who live in the neighborhoods know that. And it affects what they say when someone asks which they'd like better, a levee or a buy-out.

Noel Saldivar, a 42-year-old unemployed roofer, lives in a small frame house in Cadillac Heights. There are no sidewalks or curbs on his street. Storm water runs in open ditches. Standing in his front yard recently, he turns one way and points out eight other houses on the same street that are occupied by his relatives. Then he turns the other way and gestures toward the gleaming towers of downtown, looming above the barren winter branches of the trees.

"Every day we look out here and see big cars going up and down the street, guys in suits talking on telephones," Saldivar says. "Something's going on."

He says his own house was on the tax rolls at an appraised value of $40,000 a few years ago. "Then they told us there was lead in the neighborhood, and now they say my house is worth $13,000."

He says the city was very eager for everyone in the neighborhood to know that their property was polluted. He shakes his head with a rueful smile, as if he can hear the approaching tromp of the Empathy Marines.

Saldivar says he doesn't want to get bought out by the city that, in all its sympathy for his plight, will try to get his house for the new all-time-low, take-it-or-leave-it price of $13,000.

But neither does he especially want to stay. Pointing to a house down the street, he says, "Down on the corner, those were drug people. They're gone now, but it's all around. It's dangerous. And if there is lead in the soil, it's not good for our children."

He just doesn't want to get screwed.
"Somebody else is going to buy all this," he says. "Perot or somebody. I would like more better to sell it to him than to the city."

There is nothing in Ron Kirk's personal history to support the idea that he'd knowingly take part in a scheme to put people like Noel Saldivar at risk or cheat them out of their land. Kirk grew up in Austin in a strong, upwardly mobile family. His mother is a byword and historic figure in the civil rights history of that city. He may work for the downtown establishment in Dallas, but his personal roots and credentials in the black community are impeccable.

But Kirk is a lawyer and lobbyist by trade. Until he became mayor, he'd never been in charge of anything. There may be things he doesn't know about why those levees are really so important to the overall plan.

The biggest problem with the plan's individual components is that none really holds water. When the individual pieces are subjected to normal scrutiny and projections--predictions of how badly they are needed, how many people would benefit by them, and how much each piece would cost--almost none of them passes the test.

For example, when the promoters of the plan tried to give the park portion of the plan--a disconnected string of sumps and dumps along the riverbottom--to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, the state parks people said no thanks, no way, don't call again. They didn't want that park, even for free.

The Texas Department of Transportation looked at the proposed highway part of the deal and said the traffic projections were too low to justify a major project.

The North Texas Tollway Authority, normally a bunch of road hucksters hungry for work, said it could build some roadways for the plan eventually, but it might not be able to get to work on it whole-hog until after more people had been born.

The least impressive piece of the scheme is the levee-building flood-control part. One of the most amazing aspects of the entire plan is that the straight flood-control components--new levees to box the river in and the digging of a swale or huge ditch along the riverbed to make it deeper--work at cross-purposes. Even the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that the plan is partly self-defeating.

A swale is a long, fat trench along the riverbed. It makes the river deeper, as a way of lowering its crest. You dig a swale, in other words, instead of building walls along the edge of the river, or to accomplish the same thing--to keep the river from getting so high.

By combing the data and holding the Corps of Engineers' feet to the fire, environmentalists were able to force the Corps to concede that the new levees will squeeze the river together below downtown--like forcing it through a pipe--and actually back it up and push the crest level higher in downtown itself.

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