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.

It's a point the Corps still can't own up to without a lot of grimacing and irritation. Gene Rice, the Corps official in charge of a comprehensive study of the river, holds a forefinger and thumb in the air, pinched real hard together, to express the effect. Rice and a group of other top Corps officials had gathered in a conference room in the federal building in Fort Worth, where the Corps has its regional headquarters, in order to answer questions about the Trinity Plan.

"When you put the levees in," he says, "you do constrict the river somewhat, backing it up a little. But you're only dealing in tenths of feet."

Ned Fritz, chairman emeritus of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, an environmental group, says sure, it's tenths of feet. But it's tenths of feet that mean a flood of downtown. Fritz says the numbers show an effect that is much more dramatic, followed to its logical implication, than anything you could express with your fingers pinched together.

He argues that the levees will effectively negate what the News and former Mayor Bartlett presented as the original mission of the project--to protect downtown, the Stemmons Corridor, and the Crow family market center properties from the 800-year flood.

Flood levels are predicted according to weather records, geological knowledge, and a lot of guess-work about how often a certain level of flood can be expected to happen. The 800-year flood is a height of the river that can be expected to happen once every 800 years. The problem is, you don't know if you're in Year One or Year 799. It's all very imprecise in real life, but at least in engineering terms it gives everybody an agreed-upon benchmark from which to work.

"The 800-year flood is now 3.5 feet above the existing levees downtown," Fritz says. "The swale they want to dig will lower the flood 3.6 feet, which will put the flood back down one tenth of a foot below the top of the levees."

Ah, those tenths.
"The new levees below downtown," Fritz adds, citing the Corps' own data, "will push the crest back up 2.5 feet downtown. That means the new levees will put the flood back up over the tops of the levees and cause untold devastation."

Rice and the others around the conference table in Fort Worth all begin gesticulating and shaking their heads irritably at once when Fritz's theory is propounded to them.

"No, no, no," says Bill Fickel, Trinity River project manager for the Corps. "That's not right."

When pressed, Fickel concedes that the new levees downstream will indeed have the hydrological effect of pushing the water up higher on the existing levees through downtown.

But Fritz's point, that it would push the flood over the levee, they say, assumes you're talking about the 800-year-flood.

But aren't we talking about the 800-year flood?
Not necessarily, they say.
Which flood, then?

Fickel and his colleagues at the conference table, full of facts and figures up until that moment, are suddenly overcome with imprecision when asked exactly what level of flood protection the Trinity project is designed to protect against.

"Well, it's 700-and-something, something in that range," says Elston Eckard, a hydrologist.

"The point is," Fickel says, "that this project will give the city twice the level of protection it now has."

But that's not the point. "Twice the level of protection" is an imprecise phrase that doesn't mean much of anything.

Corps officials suggest the City of Dallas might have the precise answer.
Sophia Iliadou, the engineer who was in charge of the first several years of development for the Dallas levee project, was similarly offended by the suggestion that responsible civil engineers would deliberately do anything to subject the downtown of a major American city to devastation. Energetically scribbling notes and diagrams, she labors to show that the water doesn't go over the top.

But she, too, falls into imprecision on the question of precise flood levels. "It's something like 700 or 800 years," she says. "Ask the Corps. That's not the point, anyway."

Actually, it's a very important point.
That's because this is water. It goes up and down. It's like the bathtub. The water comes in from the tap, goes back out the drain. There's a big difference between a flow that stays just a teensy-weensy bit below the edge of the tub and an amount that goes just a teensy-beensy, fingers-pinched-together bit over the top.

In order to measure it--the effect you're having on it by putting stuff in, taking it out--there has to be a benchmark. Iliadou has been quoted in the News using the 800-year figure. Corps officials--not Fickel and company, but an earlier crew--were quoted in 1993 saying that their goal for Dallas was 800-year protection.

But now, confronted with Ned Fritz's finding--based on their own numbers--city and Corps officials are pushing the benchmark around like a rubber ducky.

Fritz, who thinks the new levees will help ruin the Great Trinity Forest downriver from downtown, had hoped that his finding would kill the levees, no matter where the benchmark was, simply because the Corps cannot by law build anything that doesn't have a positive effect on flood protection.

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