Devil Creek

For decades we buried our streams beneath concrete. Now they're baaaack.

The old conduits and tanks intended to carry the system have been poorly maintained over the years. In certain areas, especially at Old City Park, around Baylor hospital and in Deep Ellum, flooding can be sudden and severe when the system is overwhelmed. We have written before about a portion of this problem ("Up the Crick," by Paul Kix, June 24, 2004): Kix told the story of the "river of poop" flowing under buildings in Deep Ellum, where the city's decrepit sanitary sewer system has ruptured into the conduits intended to carry Mill Creek.

But it never occurred to me that any of this could impinge on my property, which I believed to be high and dry, far from any water. A day of scrounging on the Internet, however, and the blessed intercession of Google, my new religion, brought me to a huge collection of old city maps, the Murphy and Bolanz block and addition books put up by the Dallas Public Library at dallaslibrary.org/CTX/murphyandbolanz. These maps, hand-drawn between 1880 and 1920, are very early renderings of the city's streets and blocks.

It took some searching (well, I have to say that, don't I), but at last I found the creek beautifully hand-tinted in blue on some of the maps, wide as a street in places. The maps show Mill Creek and branches of Mill Creek--a small river, really--winding through streets all around me, at Worth Street and Prairie Avenue, barely three-quarters of a mile from my house at Ross and Fitzhugh avenues, then all through the area where Baylor is now and over by Old City Park and finally through the southwest end of downtown to the Trinity.

I went to one of the newer branches of my new religion, Google Earth, which not only gives me satellite views of the city (hallelujah) but also pinpoints the elevations wherever I put my cursor (thank you, Google). There is a kind of continental divide somewhere in the M Streets area (below Mockingbird Lane, between Central Expressway and Abrams Road) where the land falls one way toward White Rock Lake and the other way toward me.

At Monticello Avenue and Alderson Street, 1.4 miles from me, the elevation is 592 feet above sea level. At my house the elevation has fallen to 515 feet. Less than a mile away from me at Ross and Fitzhugh, the point closest to my house where I was able to find Mill Creek on the old maps, the elevation is 509 feet. At Baylor it's 464. At Old City Park, 420. Where Mill Creek reaches the Trinity River, it's 385 feet above sea level.

I have always thought of myself as living on flat land. But that's a drop of more than 200 feet--the height of a 20-story building--in five and a quarter miles as the crow flies.

No wonder that water gets in a hurry.

As nature designed the land, much of the eight inches of rain that fell on the area in a few hours two weeks ago would have soaked directly into the ground. The rest would have roared down swollen branches into Mill Creek and on down into the Trinity.

As we have rebuilt the land, that rain fell on huge new expanses of impermeable McMansion rooftop, shot straight down the streets, smashed into the 75-year-old brick-walled conduits and holding tanks we haven't cleaned out or kept up in decades and then went angrily looking for its own way to the river.

I stood on the corner of our street and watched the water thrash against curbs, leap around tree trunks, hurl automobiles out of its way--an enormous angry snake writhing, a demon up out of the earth howling, "Where is my creek?"

At the very worst of it, my sense was that if it rose one more foot, enough to jump the lawns, the water would damn well find its ancient path right along the line where the mariner had chopped with his arm.

Days later I talked about it with city council member Angela Hunt--the representative for my area and the only person on the city council with whom I have ever spoken who seems to understand flood control. She said the measures proposed in the engineering study to correct the drainage of Mill Creek would cost $130 million--10 percent of the entire bond issue now under consideration.

"I don't see that happening," she said.

Neither do I. But something will happen. We are foolish ants who think we have made the river disappear beneath our mound.

Oh yes, and I almost forgot: those hundreds of millions of dollars we're going to pour into decorative suspension bridges as part of our "flood control" program downtown? Think of me doing the chimpanzee jumping-jacks thing right now.

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