All wet

Supporters call the Trinity Plan a flood-control project. It isn't.

In fact, the Corps threatened to cut off federal flood-control money for any community that failed to join the pact. Eventually, Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Carrollton, Coppell, Farmers Branch, Grand Prairie, Irving, and Lewisville signed the agreement.

Honoring the agreement has been expensive and sometimes difficult. It means any developer in those cities who fills in or drains off a piece of land in order to build on it must dig out another equivalent piece of property where the same amount of water can soak into the ground.

Now the Corps is offering increased real estate development as the reason why Dallas should be allowed to deplete valley storage and increase peak discharge.

Gene Rice, the Corps' project manager for the Trinity, did not return repeated calls for comment on the issue. The Corps' public affairs office in Fort Worth also did not respond to requests for comment.

But the language of the Corps' official environmental impact report on the Trinity project is plain. In order to be able to carry out the Trinity project, according to the report, Dallas would have to seek a "variance" or permission to be let out of the CDC pact.

Breaking that agreement--in effect setting a precedent that would allow other communities upriver from Dallas to make things worse too--would be suicidal for Dallas, says Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer representing the Texas Committee on Natural Resources.

"Dallas would be asking for permission to make things worse," Blackburn says. "There has never been a variance granted by either the Corps or the CDC signers."

Blackburn points out that the communities upriver from Dallas, where there tends to be greater development pressure than in Dallas, might be only too happy to see the city abrogate the agreement so they could get out of it too.

"Dallas, by its actions, might undermine what is probably the most successful flood-control agreement in the state, maybe in the nation," Blackburn says.

John Promise, director of environmental resources for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, oversees the CDC agreement. He confirmed that "there has never been a variance granted, and no one has ever sought a variance."

Critics of the Trinity plan are especially incensed by the idea that Dallas, which has the most to lose if the CDC agreement comes apart, would be the first to break it. Dallas joined the Corps in pushing for the pact in the first place because, in terms of its position on the river, Dallas is at the bottom of the pipe, with the most to lose if other cities above it deplete valley storage.

"The arrogance of Dallas going to these other cities and asking them to let Dallas out of this agreement that Dallas pushed them into in the first place is just unimaginable," says Mary Vogelson, a member of the Dallas League of Women Voters, which opposed the Trinity plan.

By a narrow majority, Dallas voters on May 2 supported a $246 million bond issue to cover the city's share of the tab for the Trinity plan. But the fact that the Corps knew the plan would make things worse, not better, was not officially made public before the election.

The valley storage issue was not public because the Corps withheld the official registration, publication, and mailing of its full environmental impact statement--originally due out last January--until two weeks after the May election.

Now that the valley storage issue is out, Pete Vargas, director of the Trinity River Project for the city of Dallas, dismisses it as a "technical question." Vargas says he does not know whether Dallas will seek the variance.

Vargas, a former city manager in Laredo who is not a water engineer, says, "Until the design is actually done, we really don't know what we're really talking about."

The Corps recently agreed to extend the deadline for comments on its environmental impact statement until August 14. Critics of the plan say The Dallas Morning News has assiduously avoided coverage of the comment phase or any of the issues they have raised with the Corps, especially the valley storage question, in keeping with the News' heavy-handed management of the issue before the election.

The News, a major editorial booster of the plan, suffered a newsroom meltdown shortly before the election when publisher Burl Osborne ordered that coverage of the objections to the plan be curtailed. City Hall reporter Robert Ingrassia demanded that his name be removed from a story until Osborne allowed Ingrassia's story to be evenly balanced between boosters and critics of the plan.

Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant who worked for plan opponents before the election, says she has been relentlessly lobbying News reporters and editors in recent weeks to give some coverage to the issues the opponents have raised since the Corps study was published.

"They keep telling me it's not a story," Bartos says. "I tried to get a letter to the editor published just telling people they had until August 14 to comment on the environmental impact statement, as a public service, and now I can't even get that in.

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