Whoa, Noah

Predictions of biblical flood in Dallas may be part of national numbers-fudging scandal

Apparently the top military brass in the Corps have been cooking up their big expansion plans without the knowledge of the civilian chief of the agency, Assistant Army Secretary Joseph Westphal. The Post quoted Westphal as saying, "Oh, my God. My God. I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't believe this."

The day the Post story on the growth plan broke, top Corps officials were roasted at a Senate subcommittee hearing where Senators threw out phrases like "chaos at the Corps" and "hot-wiring the process."

These two related stories -- claims of fraudulent data manipulation and a secret plan to promote expensive construction projects -- are in their very early stages. In the meantime, what may be an even better story is developing around the Trinity River project, not that you'll ever read much about it in The Dallas Morning News.

Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn says, "We are going to bring the Corps down on this."
Peter Calvin
Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn says, "We are going to bring the Corps down on this."

Larry Dunbar, a lawyer and a former Corps of Engineers staffer himself, was hired by Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to pore through the supporting engineering data for the Trinity project. Blackburn represents several Dallas citizens groups that may bring a lawsuit against the Trinity project soon under the National Environmental Protection Act.

The Trinity project is based on a prediction of flood damages to downtown Dallas that the Corps says will happen if the project doesn't get built. To justify the project, the Corps had to find that the damages to downtown would be more expensive than what it would cost to build the new levees.

Dunbar found that a 1987 study by the Corps had determined that the existing levees were high enough to protect downtown by a wide margin. But in 1999 a Corps study found that the levees were far too low.

What had changed? Dunbar tried to figure that out by sifting through the Corps data. What he discovered was startling: Between 1987 and 1999, the Corps had raised its estimate of the level of the maximum floods that can be expected on the Trinity by seven feet.

That's huge. That's like, "Go into the ark, you and all your household."

If this increase is to be believed, it took place during a period when strict local policies were in place, dictated by federal authorities, requiring that no one build anything near the flood plain that would raise flood levels.

So how did it happen?

I called the regional Corps of Engineers public relations staff at their Fort Worth offices for a response. I even faxed them a detailed description of what I wanted to ask. I assume it's because of my previous reporting on the Trinity issue that the Corps' press relations people chose not to return my calls or were not allowed to do so.

They did respond to questions from Victoria Loe Hicks of the Morning News, and the News gave them the less critical treatment they were shopping for. In the News' coverage, buried deep inside the Metropolitan section, Corps spokesman Ron Ruffennach explained that the seven-foot wall of water used by the Corps to justify the Trinity project was the result of more accurate computer models.

Let me tell you: This man, Dunbar, is all over the "more accurate computer models" issue. He knew they would claim that. So he got down deep into those models. And he provided me with information that seems to challenge the claim that a change of computer models accounts for the wall of water. In simplest terms, it doesn't make any difference which computer model you use, because you calibrate all models to the same real-world "high-water marks" from historical floods along the river. I didn't get a chance to challenge the Corps on that. But somebody will.

This is the moment, the brief window of opportunity, when someone inside the Corps staff who knows the truth about the Trinity project can go to the special counsel, blow the whistle, and be a hero instead of a defendant.

Whoever winds up loading the gun in the national inquiries into Corps projects that are sure to take place -- congressional staffers, law enforcement investigators, top officials themselves -- the Trinity case will be too good to pass up. The Trinity project, after all, isn't just about wasting money. It's about playing games with human safety.

And finally, the foes of the project are determined as never before to push all the buttons, yank on every chain, and make sure their voices are heard outside Dallas. Blackburn, the Houston environmental lawyer, said last week that the alliance of groups he represents came out of last week's blizzard of events more determined than ever to bring the city and the Corps of Engineers to heel.

"We're just not kidding around about this," he said. "This isn't a case of doing a lawsuit so everybody can feel better about having tried. We are going to bring the Corps down on this."

So if it does turn out that the Corps fudged the numbers, and if this whole exercise has been an idiotic waste of time, which line do you predict the mayor and his friends on the Dallas Citizens Council will take? They could always say, "We didn't know. We're not that smart."

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