By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For 11 years the Dallas Observer has been reporting the existence of serious, fundamental life-and-death design errors in the Trinity River project, a huge public-works undertaking to rebuild the river through downtown Dallas alongside a new highway and parks.
Above all else, this was to be a flood-safety project, but the Dallas Observer has quoted experts and cited scientific findings to show that building a highway between the city's flood-control levees will make flood dangers worse, not better.
The city's political and business leaders and the only daily newspaper in town consistently have dismissed those issues as goofy negativism.
In 2007, Angela Hunt, a freshman city council member, brought about a referendum on the project. With help from lots of other people, Hunt made a great case for killing the road.
But to win that election, she would have had to persuade voters in a conservative, pro-development city that their trusted elected and business leaders were lying to them. In fact, during the 2007 referendum campaign, a frequent refrain from pro-road partisans was, "How could we all be lying?"
Now we know.
Even at that, Hunt came close. But in the end the city voted to keep the highway project and tacitly to continue trusting its local power elite.
Now we are at a watershed. The federal agencies funding most of the multibillion-dollar project finally must fish or cut bait—give it the green light or give it the red. So far, things are looking red.
In the first week of March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the single biggest problem that the Observer had reported—danger to the levees that would be caused by construction in the floodway. Weeks later a draft environmental impact statement by the Federal Highway Administration revealed that Dallas officials were fully informed of federal officials' safety concerns before the 2007 referendum.
In spite of that knowledge, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert repeatedly deceived voters before the election by telling them federal agencies had no safety concerns and in fact had already signed off on the project.
Now, as the truth begins to emerge, we are witnessing an entire political fandango by public officials and also by local media—especially The Dallas Morning News—in which they try to reposition themselves for the fallout.
Let's deal with the first bit of positioning first, because it's the dumbest and easiest to dismiss. Like a barker at a carnival gulling in the yokels to see a two-headed calf, the Morning News has been reporting an amazing phenomenon, an astounding freak of nature heretofore unseen by American audiences: Ladies and gentlemen, a geological layer of sand has been discovered beneath the Trinity River bottom!
This sand is important, the News tells us, because it might contribute to a certain instability which could, ahem, cause downtown to flood.
In this bit of carnie comedy, the News is joined by Leppert, by D magazine Publisher Wick Allison and by a host of City Hall mopes, all chanting, "Sand! Sand! Who knew?"
The Observer has reported for years there will be problems for this project related to soil. Soil conditions have been raised in lawsuits against the project. Maybe we should have guessed it would be sand in particular. Our first big hint should have been the huge industrial sand-mining operations along the banks of the Trinity River.
But the responsible experts had to know. The Federal Highway Administration draft environmental impact statement reminds us that sand layers are a basic element in the geography of this river. Anecdotal evidence—serious problems caused by sand in the construction of the Sterrett Justice Center 30 years ago—suggest that the existence of a layer of sand beneath the river bottom has always been an engineering concern and difficult obstacle.
Even in conceding that there is sand beneath the riverbed, the News and local officials have been notably imprecise about why a sand layer might be an issue. The suggestion in some News stories has been that the sand is "in the levees," sort of mixed in with other dirt. There also have been vague references to "seepage issues."
Seepage? No. More like Vesuvius.
In terms of what local officials and the Morning News should be telling you, this is all still a form of cover-up and deception that feels as if it ought to be against the law somehow.
When the floodway is at flood stage—water from levee to levee—the weight and velocity of that water create enormous forces. Those forces will dig down through the cracks and gaps that occur inevitably around any concrete structure you stick down into the dirt out in the floodway.
When that force of water hits a sand layer, it causes the sand to do something like boiling. The water can tunnel out in any direction through that boiling sand and burst up out of the earth far from where the water first encountered the sand.
One of the best descriptions of a sand boil I have come across is in John M. Barry's 1998 book, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, published by Simon and Schuster and a winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Lillian Smith Award. In this excerpt he is writing about New Orleans more than 80 years ago: