Flood Blood

Politicians create flooding, not the Bible

At the end of July, flooding in this part of Texas killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. Joe Tillotson is mayor of Lancaster, once a countrified farming community in Southern Dallas County, now a suburban boomtown. He was quick to place blame where he believed it belonged.

On the Bible.

He said the 13-inch rains that fell in seven hours before the floods were "biblical" and told reporters no amount of preparation could have saved lives or property.

Even though people die in floods in this area on a regular basis, the Dallas City Council voted to allow houses to be built in the Bachman Creek flood zone.
Steve Satterwhite
Even though people die in floods in this area on a regular basis, the Dallas City Council voted to allow houses to be built in the Bachman Creek flood zone.

For at least the last 10 years, all the major research on flood control has been identifying a very non-biblical culprit in modern flooding: runoff. The idea that communities can do nothing to prepare for sudden heavy rains, that people just have to die or suffer ruinous economic damage, is obscene.

Not one of those four deaths had to occur. Not one was a freak of nature or an "act of God." Those were all acts of guys. Oh, and women, too, I'm sure. All of the mortal hands, male and female, lifted over the years to vote for runoff bear the same blood.

Nobody wants to talk about runoff, because runoff is money--the vast new subdivisions strewn across a checkerboard of cornfields in Lancaster; the huge commercial development I saw under way when I drove down there last week, with Caterpillar tractors crawling across raw dirt from the highway to the horizon.

In the same way, nobody wants to talk about the fact that the Trinity River project in Dallas, our ambitious "flood control" scheme to rebuild the river where it runs through the center of the city, will actually make flooding worse down at Mayor Tillotson's end of the pipe.

I asked him if he was aware the Trinity River project is going to dump more water his way and make flooding worse than it is already.

"I had no idea," he said.

But he told me he didn't much care. He explained that Lancaster is not on the Trinity. It's on Ten Mile Creek. "Ten Mile Creek empties into the Trinity," he said. "We're not downriver from Dallas."

Well, mayor, actually you are. Your creek may empty into the Trinity, but if the Trinity is flooded, your creek can't empty as fast. Think of a pipe with a wad of dirt stuck in the end. The slower your water gets out of the pipe, the more it backs up. The more you flood.

It all ties together. And it's not that you can't fix it. A substantial body of research has accumulated in the last 10 years, ever since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "Galloway Report" in 1994. Flood researchers have been saying development can coexist with rivers and streams, but only if people find ways for the rain to soak into the ground instead of running off.

If I were Mayor Tillotson, I wouldn't refer to the recent floods as "biblical" anymore without standing near a very tall lightning rod.

And not to make Lancaster the Lone Ranger. The place where the message really can't get through is our own dear Dallas. Mary Vogelson, a member of the Dallas League of Women Voters and an expert on local water issues, still gets angry when she talks about the big floodplain "reform" the Dallas City Council passed four years ago.

Two-thirds of the city's major watersheds were being regulated according to a looser set of standards that allowed new construction closer to creeks. The Bachman Creek watershed was regulated according to a stricter standard based on the "record flood."

Vogelson explained to me: "That was because Bachman Creek was the one area where we had a creek study to show what the actual record flood level was."

"Record flood" refers to floodwaters that have actually been recorded. The other creeks were regulated according to the "100-year flood," which is a theory, an abstraction, a guesstimate.

So guess what our fine city council did? They revised Bachman Creek to the looser 100-year limit. "Their story was that they wanted to make things 'uniform,'" Vogelson told me.

Yeah. Uniform, so that developers could crowd in closer to the creek, even though they would be building down into an area where floods are known to have occurred. Vogelson told me where to go look: It's a stunning view, from atop a soaring cliff at the very tip-end of Bluffview Boulevard, near Northwest Highway and Inwood Road.

Far below, turtles glide in clear waters. And, sure enough, just as Vogelson had promised, I spied rows of shiny-new zero-lot-line town homes, all very high-dollar, marching down to the creek's edge in the new buildable zone created when the Dallas City Council voted to make the lines uniform in 1999.

Back at the office, I looked up those new houses on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps. Sure enough, the whole street is inside a blue area that looks like a lake on the map. All in the flood zone. Isn't that a marvelous accomplishment? Our city council allowed somebody to hawk a bunch of high-dollar houses in the floodplain.

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