Flood money

The Trinity River Plan's billion-dollar vision of levees, parks, and ponds has Mayor Ron Kirk--and most of Dallas--spellbound. But engineers warn it could lead to a flooding catastrophe and destroy the same poor neighborhoods it's designed to help.

By Jim Schutze

published: January 22, 1998

If the grand plan to rebuild the Trinity River floodway through Dallas ever gets done--a one- to two-billion-dollar package of levees, parks, highways, and ponds--someone should erect an obelisk beside it with the words of Noah Cross. This genially evil character from Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 movie, says: "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." In Dallas' case, the civic sewer that has carried away the political sins of the city for a century would become instead its centerpiece--its "economic generator," in the favorite phrase of the plan's boosters.

The question is whether the Trinity River Plan--which actually has more to do with roads and real estate promotion than flood control, even according to its backers--could actually cause disastrous flooding in Dallas in the not so terribly distant future. While the economic dividends it's designed to bring are undoubtedly welcome, is it worth it if the plan means that more people might die in future floods, especially in minority neighborhoods? Is it worth it if the reason for taking that risk is merely to jack up land values along the river's banks?

Questions about the plan's safety--its ability to protect human beings and property from the devastation of flood--have received scant attention in media coverage so far. The few local environmentalists who've raised the issue are always described in The Dallas Morning News with tags like "self-described river-lover, Mary Doe"--which means tree-hugging fruitcake, not to be taken seriously. (Real estate promoters, for example, are not introduced as "self-described money-lover, John Doe.")

But according to flood-control experts outside Dallas, the issue of the Trinity River Plan's basic safety is by no means far-fetched or trivial. In fact, the consensus of national flood-control experts and even government policy-makers is that using flood-control projects--especially levee-building projects like this one--to stir the real estate pot is a prescription for disaster.

Except in Dallas, this sort of thing just isn't done.
"Nobody is building levees anymore," says Ron Flanagan, a Tulsa flood consultant who helps cities and other agencies devise plans to buy people out and move them off the floodplain in lieu of building levees.

"It's so passe," he adds. "It uses the government's money to put people at risk and then bail them out again, while private landowners reap the profit. Dallas is so far behind the curve, it's almost a joke."

The Trinity Plan, involving vast acreages of riverbottom and many of the city's oldest land-holding families and interests, is anything but a joke to Mayor Ron Kirk. More than the arena issue, more than any other single item on his personal horizon, the plan to rebuild the Trinity River has been Kirk's main quest from the time he first announced his candidacy for mayor.

Nervously pacing his office in City Hall recently, the mayor says, "This is an engineer's dream. It's a public employee's dream. You get to do something big and wonderful.

"I honestly believe, within every fiber of my body, that if we do the Trinity development right, I believe this project is a life-changing event for Dallas," he adds. "It will give us some beauty, which is something we're not noted for, but I also believe it can be as much of an economic revival engine for the region as Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was when it was built."

That theme--the river as a money-maker--is the most frequently and loudly trumpeted of the plan's virtues, according to its boosters. In fact, the city is carrying out its own study--something the federal government won't do--just to show how much the plan will be worth to the local economy.

There's a reason the federal government won't examine a flood-control project in terms of its ability to increase land values and spur new real estate activity along the river banks. Since 1993, experts generally have agreed that doing things like that can be a good way to kill a lot of people in order to make money for real estate interests.

In '93, a terrible flood season on the upper Mississippi took 42 lives and destroyed $16 billion worth of property. Watching levee after levee melt and give way, seeing the inexorable tide of muddy froth swallow town after town, was a sobering experience for the engineers and scientists responsible for the nation's flood-control strategies.

A series of stories in the News that same year pressed the urgency of a major levee-building campaign in Dallas. The News reported that upstream real estate development--the thoughtless paving of hundreds of square miles of land during the 1980s oil boom--and poor maintenance of existing levees had created a dangerous threat to downtown, to the Stemmons industrial corridor, and to the Crow family's market center properties.

Thirty percent of the city's entire tax base was at risk, the News said. The paper reported that $13.4 billion worth of property might get flooded in the next really, really big rain. The Dallas Morning News has since claimed--and probably deserves--credit for kicking off the entire mammoth project that Kirk is pushing today.

Predicting Biblical floods and calling for new levee construction is a Dallas Morning News-Dealey family tradition yawning back to 1902, when George Bannerman Dealey bought his first stretch of worthless riverbottom muck-land. The tradition includes scenes that feel as if they were lifted straight out of Robert Towne's Chinatown screenplay, as in 1928 when Leslie Stemmons and two armed cronies drove up from Galveston at breakneck speed in a roadster loaded with eight suitcases full of secretly printed Dallas levee district bonds.

The News' clarion call in 1993--Flood! Flood!--was never subjected to any rigorous public testing or debate. Normally--that is, in a normal city--you might think policy-makers would want to see some fairly major study done before everybody agreed with the local newspaper that the region's central geographic feature--the only big river in a real flat place--needed to be totally rebuilt.

But Dallas is not normal. Then-Mayor Steve Bartlett pretty much took the News at its word and announced in urgent tones that something must be done.

NEWSPAPER FINDS OUT RIVER BROKEN, PREDICTS FLOOD. MAYOR ALARMED. GIVES SERIOUS CONSIDERATION TO BIG BOAT, ANIMALS TWO-BY-TWO. DECIDES ON BIG LEVEES INSTEAD.

In spite of all that, the conclusions drawn since the 1993 floods by the nation's flood-control experts, both in and out of government, have been the diametric opposite of what the News has urged in both its news columns and on its editorial page.

Simple intuition told many experts after '93 that flooding and flood damage in the nation seemed to be getting worse the more levees we built. In fact, a raft of studies after '93 concluded that the intuitive appearance of worsening floods was not only accurate, but was only half the story. The other half was that the levees themselves were a lot of what made flooding worse.

Scott Faber, a floodplain expert with American Rivers, Inc., a Washington environmental group, says the only conclusion to be drawn from the post-1993 studies is that the nation has been spending its money on things that make flooding more severe.

"The 1993 floods on the Mississippi woke people up to the fact that, as a nation, we spent $38 billion on flood control between 1960 and 1985," Faber says, "yet flood losses in that same period have more than tripled to more than $4 billion annually."

The reason, according to Faber and others, is that new levees are often the first step on the road to flooding hell:

A community builds levees where there were none before. Land values behind the new levees soar, because now the land is deemed safe from flooding and therefore safe for building. All of a sudden, it's possible to get financing and flood insurance for development behind the levees. So development happens.

But as development increases, more land is paved. Water that used to get soaked into the ground now runs off like tap water across a china dish. Faster runoff creates flooding.

The new flood levels spill over the new levee, and this time, where the river used to find the welcoming arms of its own muddy bed, it crashes instead into billions of dollars worth of new man-made structures.

The new development may or may not be insured against flooding. But even if it's not, the landholders can count on the news media to purvey gripping images of the damage to lives and property; the publicity puts pressure on politicians to declare major public-relief efforts; and the taxpayers wind up bailing everybody out.

Faber says the whole scenario is part of the math you do when you build a new levee. It isn't humanly possible to build a levee so big that neither nature nor man's interference with nature can ever defeat it. There is always a terrible, inevitable moment out there in the future when the stress of new development will collide with the strength of the new levee, the lines will cross, and the river will have its way.

"Levees are designed to fail," Faber says.
And it's not just a bunch of academics and Washington environmental lobbyists who are saying it. After the '93 floods, the White House commissioned a special panel of experts to find out why flooding seemed to be getting worse, not better, in America.

That group, headed by retired Army Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, concluded that the nation's levee-building campaign since World War II had contributed to a vicious cycle, inducing huge amounts of development in floodplains, worsening the runoff of water, and eventually subjecting more people and more property to worse flooding.

Galloway said recently that he wasn't familiar in detail with the Trinity River project, but that the general idea of a levee and road-building campaign to spur development sounded like exactly the wrong medicine, wrong place, wrong time.

Like many experts who talked about the Dallas plan, Galloway referred to Grand Forks, North Dakota, the city whose downtown burned above the floodwaters last spring.

"There is a residual risk to every levee," Galloway said. "The people in Grand Forks understood they were protected. They didn't understand that there was a residual risk that the levee would fail and flood them out."

He said he didn't think Dallas should make a decision to build new levees until everyone understood those risks. "I don't know if they're getting the whole story," he said.

Mayor Kirk, who is always well versed, knows all about the anti-levee argument, sometimes described as the "non-structural" approach to flood control: Instead of diking the river with a levee, you buy out the people who live next to the river, move them to safety, and then let the river spread out naturally.

"It's a more sophisticated, modern version," Kirk says, "of the same thing the same kind of people were saying and doing 50 years ago. It's environmental racism."

In the mayor's version of history, he has the people switched around curiously: The national hydrological experts making the non-structural argument now are hardly the same folks as the big land-holding families who dominated all the levee-building decisions in Dallas for the first half of this century.

But Kirk nevertheless has a powerful, deep-rooted, and intensely emotional argument going for him in the racist history of past Trinity River projects. What's new is hearing it from a mayor of Dallas, especially one who was elected to office with the support of the city's old business and land-holding elite.

Ron Kirk is black, of course, and should be expected to have a view different from his all-white predecessors. But the fact that he is so closely allied with--and employed by--the downtown business establishment makes his version of Trinity River history all the more startling.

"In the 1940s and '50s, the way this river was managed was as glaring an example of environmental racism as anything in the whole country," Kirk said recently.

"Those projects stopped where the white people stopped," he said. "It's very dramatic to take a helicopter ride now and see where the levees end and where poor black people and Hispanics are forced to live adjacent to the part of the river where there is no protection."

Kirk argues that the new levees below downtown are a necessary tool of racial justice--a way to set the scales of history right at last. The three-mile Lamar Street Levee would protect Rochester Park, a poor black neighborhood on the east bank, and the 2.3-mile Cadillac Heights levee would protect a poor Hispanic neighborhood on the west bank.

Kirk says the levees are a "Holy Grail" of racial justice. He says people in those two neighborhoods look to the huge levees north of them and say, "You did it for the folks up there. Now do it for us."

The mayor seems absolutely sincere in making the argument that the city should ask the federal government to spend $32 million building new levees for the express purpose of righting an ancient wrong.

There are a couple of problems with the argument, however, one from the here-and-now and the other from Dallas' Chinatown past.

The immediate issue is that where the mayor sees levees as a "Holy Grail," the sentiment in the neighborhoods where they'd be built seems lukewarm. People there tend to have as many reasons to want to get out as to stay.

Cadillac Heights, in particular, has been devastated several times over the last 20 years by revelations of lead and other contaminants in its soil. A long and elaborate citizen-input process on the river, which took place before Kirk became mayor, concluded that residents of flood-prone areas should be offered a buy-out instead of new levees.

John Loza, a new city councilman who represents some of the area, walked door-to-door soon after he was elected in order to ask people which they preferred--new levees or a chance to get out entirely.

"It was mixed," Loza says. "There was no clear consensus. One person would say he wanted the levee. The person next door would say he wanted a buy-out."

The other unsettling aspect of the mayor's racial justice argument for levees is that it harkens back--in ways he may not even be aware of, having grown up in Austin--to some very unpleasant river history in Dallas. It's a history not merely of environmental racism, but more specifically of exploiting empathy itself as a trick for getting black people out of the way.

In the plan for the Trinity, there is an eerie echo of Robert Towne's screenplay for Chinatown, a tale of water politics in early Los Angeles. The overlapping mysteries of the movie revolve around shoddy dams, flood and disaster, incest, bodies floating in the reservoir, and vast fortunes made in water.

In the Los Angeles of Chinatown, the secrets that got Jack Nicholson's nose slashed had to do with spreading the water around, using it as a tool of urban sprawl and agricultural speculation. In the Dallas of the 1920s and '30s, the water game was similar: It involved turning the river this way and that like a fire hose, using it to stir development in one spot, to push black people off the land in another, to make things happen where the major land-holding families wanted them to happen.

Levee-building is an exercise in human magic. Take land that floods every couple of years, where nobody in his right mind would invest money. Push up a wall of dirt. Proclaim the land dry and safe from flooding. All of a sudden, you've turned nothing into something.

That's what people like the Stemmonses and the Dealeys were doing in the early part of the century. But the first levees were only poor little farm-quality dikes that family money--even the big family money--could afford to build in those days. Real levees, levees that could change history, took public money.

The big Trinity River levees and the big public money came into play first in the late 1920s and early '30s, then again on a grander scale in the post-war boom years of the late 1940s and early '50s, when the federal government started sluicing out vast sums for local flood control and other programs like the euphemistically titled "urban renewal" program. (Snickering land promoters of the time called it "negro removal.")

In the late 1940s, there was one particular sticking point in the grand scheme to dike the Trinity and turn the mudflats into an industrial and warehouse district. The encumbrance was a place called Eagle Ford, where West Dallas is now. Eagle Ford had always been vulnerable to flood. It wasn't serviced by sewers or drains. The city had encouraged black families to settle there. Ads for property in Eagle Ford were listed in the classified sections of the local newspapers under "Colored Lots."

During the period after the war when African-Americans were flooding into the city in search of jobs, there were few other places in the still rigidly segregated city where they could settle. So the population of Eagle Ford grew by 1500 percent in the 1940s.

By white standards it was a black hellhole, a jumble of dirt lanes and little frame "shotgun" houses on stubby stilts, with trash blowing in the streets, typhoid brewing in the wells, and infant mortality rates to rival the worst of the Third World. But to black people coming to the city with nothing, owning one's own home in Eagle Ford was a stake, even a leg up. It was home ownership--the same tough but promising start that all the waves of immigrants to American cities have had to make at some point in their own beginnings.

The problem was that the people who wanted to redevelop West Dallas and the Trinity River floodway as industrial property needed Eagle Ford in order to make it all work. It was in the middle of their strategic map--one of the pieces they needed to make the whole deal happen.

The new federal programs, which brought with them the power of eminent domain--the ability to order people off their own land whether they wanted to go or not--supplied the river schemers with the power to coerce. It was a morally smelly business, especially in a place where people bragged about their belief in private property rights.

In early 1950, the Morning News published a series of articles detailing miserable living conditions endured by residents of Eagle Ford. The publication of the series was an unparalleled outpouring of empathy, unlike any feeling in the white community before Eagle Ford had become a desirable piece of real estate or after. In a sense, the journalists who executed the series, whether consciously or not, functioned as the Empathy Marines, sent in to soften up the beachhead before a total takeover.

Some people, including "liberals" of the era, took comfort in the promise that the dispossessed black families would be compensated by a new program to herd them into massive government-owned concentration centers, specifically the new West Dallas public housing projects.

A few lonely voices in the power structure called it by its name--a jackboot land-grab. At a Dallas Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1950 where the plan for the Eagle Ford confiscation was unveiled, John W. Carpenter spoke against it. Carpenter was president of the Chamber at the time. He rose to his feet and said, "I don't think it's right to condemn homesteads and resell them again."

He concluded a moving, emotional speech by saying, "If I were one of the people who had a home, even one of the so-called shotgun variety, I would be heartbroken if it were taken away from me by force."

Carpenter was overruled. Eagle Ford was overrun. The black families were pushed off the land and into public housing. Four decades and two generations later, white liberals in Dallas today are talking about ways to teach home-ownership skills to the residents of the West Dallas projects.

This sordid chapter, conveniently swept from view and treated as forgotten for decades, was brought back into the light of day in the late 1980s when lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Walker public housing desegregation suit recounted it to federal District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer. People close to the case at the time said Buchmeyer was personally appalled and outraged, not least by the fact that people of the stature of John Carpenter had publicly called the seizure of Eagle Ford for what it was.

There was no mystery, in other words. No one could claim to have been confused. The city leaders knew exactly what they were doing. They did it anyway--for the money.

In 1989, Buchmeyer ruled that the city had helped build a separate and unequal system of public housing in Dallas, and in that ruling he described the West Dallas projects as a "gigantic monument to segregation and neglect."

The sudden concern of white Dallas in the '50s for the plight of the people of Eagle Ford--just before they took land away from them--is not without some modern parallels. The city has been energetic in recent years about identifying areas along the Trinity that have suffered chemical contamination. Most of the worst lead and other pollution has been found in poor neighborhoods like Cadillac Heights.

Even before the pollution was found, values were low. Now the value of the real estate itself is nowhere near enough to make it worthwhile for any private person to clean it up.

The moment new levees are in place, however, the value and nature of that same land will be enormously changed. All of a sudden, it may be worth someone's while to dig out the polluted soil or pave it over and redevelop the area for some new, more profitable use.

The people who live in the neighborhoods know that. And it affects what they say when someone asks which they'd like better, a levee or a buy-out.

Noel Saldivar, a 42-year-old unemployed roofer, lives in a small frame house in Cadillac Heights. There are no sidewalks or curbs on his street. Storm water runs in open ditches. Standing in his front yard recently, he turns one way and points out eight other houses on the same street that are occupied by his relatives. Then he turns the other way and gestures toward the gleaming towers of downtown, looming above the barren winter branches of the trees.

"Every day we look out here and see big cars going up and down the street, guys in suits talking on telephones," Saldivar says. "Something's going on."

He says his own house was on the tax rolls at an appraised value of $40,000 a few years ago. "Then they told us there was lead in the neighborhood, and now they say my house is worth $13,000."

He says the city was very eager for everyone in the neighborhood to know that their property was polluted. He shakes his head with a rueful smile, as if he can hear the approaching tromp of the Empathy Marines.

Saldivar says he doesn't want to get bought out by the city that, in all its sympathy for his plight, will try to get his house for the new all-time-low, take-it-or-leave-it price of $13,000.

But neither does he especially want to stay. Pointing to a house down the street, he says, "Down on the corner, those were drug people. They're gone now, but it's all around. It's dangerous. And if there is lead in the soil, it's not good for our children."

He just doesn't want to get screwed.
"Somebody else is going to buy all this," he says. "Perot or somebody. I would like more better to sell it to him than to the city."

There is nothing in Ron Kirk's personal history to support the idea that he'd knowingly take part in a scheme to put people like Noel Saldivar at risk or cheat them out of their land. Kirk grew up in Austin in a strong, upwardly mobile family. His mother is a byword and historic figure in the civil rights history of that city. He may work for the downtown establishment in Dallas, but his personal roots and credentials in the black community are impeccable.

But Kirk is a lawyer and lobbyist by trade. Until he became mayor, he'd never been in charge of anything. There may be things he doesn't know about why those levees are really so important to the overall plan.

The biggest problem with the plan's individual components is that none really holds water. When the individual pieces are subjected to normal scrutiny and projections--predictions of how badly they are needed, how many people would benefit by them, and how much each piece would cost--almost none of them passes the test.

For example, when the promoters of the plan tried to give the park portion of the plan--a disconnected string of sumps and dumps along the riverbottom--to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, the state parks people said no thanks, no way, don't call again. They didn't want that park, even for free.

The Texas Department of Transportation looked at the proposed highway part of the deal and said the traffic projections were too low to justify a major project.

The North Texas Tollway Authority, normally a bunch of road hucksters hungry for work, said it could build some roadways for the plan eventually, but it might not be able to get to work on it whole-hog until after more people had been born.

The least impressive piece of the scheme is the levee-building flood-control part. One of the most amazing aspects of the entire plan is that the straight flood-control components--new levees to box the river in and the digging of a swale or huge ditch along the riverbed to make it deeper--work at cross-purposes. Even the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that the plan is partly self-defeating.

A swale is a long, fat trench along the riverbed. It makes the river deeper, as a way of lowering its crest. You dig a swale, in other words, instead of building walls along the edge of the river, or to accomplish the same thing--to keep the river from getting so high.

By combing the data and holding the Corps of Engineers' feet to the fire, environmentalists were able to force the Corps to concede that the new levees will squeeze the river together below downtown--like forcing it through a pipe--and actually back it up and push the crest level higher in downtown itself.

It's a point the Corps still can't own up to without a lot of grimacing and irritation. Gene Rice, the Corps official in charge of a comprehensive study of the river, holds a forefinger and thumb in the air, pinched real hard together, to express the effect. Rice and a group of other top Corps officials had gathered in a conference room in the federal building in Fort Worth, where the Corps has its regional headquarters, in order to answer questions about the Trinity Plan.

"When you put the levees in," he says, "you do constrict the river somewhat, backing it up a little. But you're only dealing in tenths of feet."

Ned Fritz, chairman emeritus of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, an environmental group, says sure, it's tenths of feet. But it's tenths of feet that mean a flood of downtown. Fritz says the numbers show an effect that is much more dramatic, followed to its logical implication, than anything you could express with your fingers pinched together.

He argues that the levees will effectively negate what the News and former Mayor Bartlett presented as the original mission of the project--to protect downtown, the Stemmons Corridor, and the Crow family market center properties from the 800-year flood.

Flood levels are predicted according to weather records, geological knowledge, and a lot of guess-work about how often a certain level of flood can be expected to happen. The 800-year flood is a height of the river that can be expected to happen once every 800 years. The problem is, you don't know if you're in Year One or Year 799. It's all very imprecise in real life, but at least in engineering terms it gives everybody an agreed-upon benchmark from which to work.

"The 800-year flood is now 3.5 feet above the existing levees downtown," Fritz says. "The swale they want to dig will lower the flood 3.6 feet, which will put the flood back down one tenth of a foot below the top of the levees."

Ah, those tenths.
"The new levees below downtown," Fritz adds, citing the Corps' own data, "will push the crest back up 2.5 feet downtown. That means the new levees will put the flood back up over the tops of the levees and cause untold devastation."

Rice and the others around the conference table in Fort Worth all begin gesticulating and shaking their heads irritably at once when Fritz's theory is propounded to them.

"No, no, no," says Bill Fickel, Trinity River project manager for the Corps. "That's not right."

When pressed, Fickel concedes that the new levees downstream will indeed have the hydrological effect of pushing the water up higher on the existing levees through downtown.

But Fritz's point, that it would push the flood over the levee, they say, assumes you're talking about the 800-year-flood.

But aren't we talking about the 800-year flood?
Not necessarily, they say.
Which flood, then?

Fickel and his colleagues at the conference table, full of facts and figures up until that moment, are suddenly overcome with imprecision when asked exactly what level of flood protection the Trinity project is designed to protect against.

"Well, it's 700-and-something, something in that range," says Elston Eckard, a hydrologist.

"The point is," Fickel says, "that this project will give the city twice the level of protection it now has."

But that's not the point. "Twice the level of protection" is an imprecise phrase that doesn't mean much of anything.

Corps officials suggest the City of Dallas might have the precise answer.
Sophia Iliadou, the engineer who was in charge of the first several years of development for the Dallas levee project, was similarly offended by the suggestion that responsible civil engineers would deliberately do anything to subject the downtown of a major American city to devastation. Energetically scribbling notes and diagrams, she labors to show that the water doesn't go over the top.

But she, too, falls into imprecision on the question of precise flood levels. "It's something like 700 or 800 years," she says. "Ask the Corps. That's not the point, anyway."

Actually, it's a very important point.
That's because this is water. It goes up and down. It's like the bathtub. The water comes in from the tap, goes back out the drain. There's a big difference between a flow that stays just a teensy-weensy bit below the edge of the tub and an amount that goes just a teensy-beensy, fingers-pinched-together bit over the top.

In order to measure it--the effect you're having on it by putting stuff in, taking it out--there has to be a benchmark. Iliadou has been quoted in the News using the 800-year figure. Corps officials--not Fickel and company, but an earlier crew--were quoted in 1993 saying that their goal for Dallas was 800-year protection.

But now, confronted with Ned Fritz's finding--based on their own numbers--city and Corps officials are pushing the benchmark around like a rubber ducky.

Fritz, who thinks the new levees will help ruin the Great Trinity Forest downriver from downtown, had hoped that his finding would kill the levees, no matter where the benchmark was, simply because the Corps cannot by law build anything that doesn't have a positive effect on flood protection.

The levees make protection downtown worse by some measure, anyway. Therefore, Fritz reasons, they're dead. Levees have to make things better, or the Corps can't build them.

But Bill Fickel and his colleagues at the conference table in Fort Worth wag long index fingers in the air and shake their heads no. They have a little list, they say. A system. A formula.

"When the positive effect of the new levees on the property next to them is balanced against their negative effect on property downtown," Fickel says, "we still come out ahead."

Hmmm. So they come out ahead. But do we?

If the plan has trouble holding together as an adventure in engineering, it nevertheless works like a Swiss watch as an exercise in leveraging public money. None of the parts quite meets its own test, dollar-wise, but each one helps to pay for the next in sometimes ingenious ways.

The toll-road project, for example, requires all kinds of fill dirt for use in building up new embankments for the road along the existing levees upriver from downtown--sort of like terraces on the sides of the levees.

The toll people can go dig that dirt out of the bottom of the riverbed, in effect creating the swale or big ditch along the riverbed, at no cost to the city or the Corps.

The whole deal, in fact, is totally dependent on road projects to be carried out by both the Texas Department of Highways and Transportation (TxDot) and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), which will bring $916 million in road money to the table. Without the road money, the river plan doesn't work financially.

The city hopes to be able to put in a mere $118 million in bond money in order to leverage the $916 million in road money. But that means, in what was originally a flood-control deal, that roads have become the tail that wags the dog.

The toll-road design is for a road that will link the Stemmons Freeway with 175, the C.F. Hawn Freeway. (Don't know where the Hawn Freeway is? That's why the highway department didn't want to spend a lot of money building a way to get to it.)

At a conference table in the regional headquarters of TxDot, planner Sandra Wesch-Schulze concedes that the Lamar Street levee is an important element in making the highway component work financially.

She should know: Wesch-Schulze is often credited with being the genius who figured out how to spin all of these roads and flood projects together into a viable package in the first place.

In order to get state highway money into the deal, she explains, it must be shown that the deal will alleviate traffic congestion in the downtown "mixmaster" and "canyon"--the big snarl where some idiot thought of having all of the region's major freeways meet in the middle of downtown Dallas. The only way to show any improvement there in the projections is by proposing a link--of tollway or highway--between the Stemmons and Hawn Freeways.

Hawn, again?
Wesch-Schulze says the projections assume that 20 years from now, a lot more people will be traveling between the general area of D/FW International Airport and the Balch Springs-Seagoville area.

Well, who knows? Twenty years is a long time. Maybe they'll be expanding that prison in Seagoville a lot.

It's a very thin projection. One of the problems with the plan is that both TxDot and NTTA have said they can't really justify doing much of this stuff much sooner than 23 years from now, unless the city or someone else kicks in a lot of the money, either in the form of cash or land or...

How about a big long levee to carry a new highway over four to five miles of wetlands along the river's eastern bank, in order to get the road down toward that Hawn Freeway?

How important is it for that piece of road to get done?
"If you eliminate the piece from 35E to 175 [the Hawn]," Wesch-Schulze says, "then you get no improvement in the canyon and mixmaster."

No improvement in the canyon-mixmaster interchange downtown means no state highway money. No deal.

And how important is it to give the state that new levee to build its road on? All of a sudden, Wesch-Schulze and a conference-table-full of assistants, all of whom had been firing off numbers like AK-47 bullets up to that point, fall into a mood of gentle imprecision.

"If you don't have the levee, we would have to build a bridge," she says.
A long bridge?
Yes.
How much would that cost?
No idea.
But a lot more than without it, right?
"It would be more expensive," Wesch-Schulze says with a shrug.
Oh, that. The "more expensive" thing.

But the entire massive billion-dollar-plus thing--the levees, the lakes, the wetlands, the highways, the toll roads, even the hike 'n' bike trail, the whole thing--it barely hangs together by a financial thread, anyway.

The NTTA has informed the city that it can't build the proposed Trinity River Parkway--that shortcut from D/FW to Balch Springs--unless the city kicks in $84 million of the total $394 million cost.

Why? Because the NTTA people, no slouches, did their own traffic study and didn't come up with a whole lot of people who'll be hurrying down from the airport to Balch Springs anytime soon.

In other words, the whole plan is a fragile, complicated arrangement that has been spun and spun in order to make the numbers barely come out right. In that context, Wesch-Schulze's casual diagnosis--"It would be more expensive"--probably means the whole deal would be dead on arrival if there were no levee.

The levee is the bridge that carries the road that pays for the digging that makes the lakes that lower the flood that the levee makes. So it all makes sense.

But to whom?

The last argument of the levee-boosters is that a public buy-out would shaft the people being bought out because of just what Noel Saldivar fears--that the city will buy him out at the new lead-contaminated price and leave him with not even enough money to buy a new car, let alone a new house.

Pete Vargas, the mayor's special "czar" in charge of the Trinity project, points out adamantly that the city, by law, cannot pay people a higher price for their property in a condemnation proceeding than the property's current market value. If neither you nor anybody else in his right mind would pay Noel Saldivar more than $13,000 for his house, then the city can't pay him more, either.

But in recent years, as national flood-control experts have come down more and more solidly on the side of buy-outs, not levees, many communities elsewhere have found a way around this same problem. Ron Flanagan, a nationally respected floodplain consultant in Tulsa, helped that city buy out more than 300 homes after severe flooding in 1984. Now Tulsa has an ongoing program of floodplain buy-outs, funded with bond money, and the city has found a number of ways to get around the legal requirement that it pay only market value for the properties.

"There is [federal] Community Development Block Grant money that you can use to help people in addition to what you pay them for the property," Flanagan says. "There is money for areas with hazardous-waste problems. There is all kinds of money out there available for communities that want to do things."

Linda Mele, a planner in DuPage County on the suburban fringe of Chicago, helps run an ongoing buy-out program, also funded in part with bond money. The DuPage program finds many ways to pay people more than market value.

"We pay closing costs and taxes," she says. "There is no Realtor's fee. We provide the survey and title insurance. There are a number of things the seller would normally have to pay for that they don't when we do a buy-out."

There are even options beyond levees and buy-outs. In the small but resourceful community of Chickamauga, Georgia, officials offer people in areas subject to flooding three choices, one of which is putting the house up on an elevated foundation.

"They can say, 'Raise my house above the 100-year flood,'" says Chickamauga city utilities manager John Culpepper. "Or they can say, 'Buy me out.' Or they can say, 'Don't do nothing.'"

The don't-do-nothing solution entails staying on at one's own risk, which Culpepper says is better than building a levee and putting a lot of new people at risk too.

At the bottom of the page, there may or may not be a need for more flood control downtown. But the levees below downtown make the risk to downtown greater, not less. They are flood makers, not flood controllers. And there are powerful arguments against building new levees to stir real estate development.

There is no strong demand for the levees in the neighborhoods. A fair buy-out that didn't screw people would be just as easy or easier for leadership to sell as the levees.

So why? Why all of this? What is it, really?
It's the age-old dream of the city's biggest and oldest land-holders, all the way back to that fateful day in 1902 when George Bannerman Dealey, the new business manager of The Dallas Morning News, strolled out onto the Commerce Street bridge to smoke a cigar.

Gazing down at the cracked mudflats of the Trinity River bottom, Dealey was suddenly struck by the notion that this broad expanse of worthless yuck next to downtown could be worth something someday, if someone just figured out a way to protect it from floods. He made up his mind to buy a chunk of that land, "notwithstanding the fact that I had no money to buy anything with," as Dealey recounted years later.

That was always the real secret of Chinatown--the secret of vision, the ability to gaze on miles of worthless muck-land, or miles of desert, see visions of teeming life and wealth there, then conjure those visions to reality by relentlessly stirring the cauldron.

The Trinity River Plan today is George B. Dealey's vision of 1902, dressed up, rouged, ready to dance, and just in time for the new millennium.

And what's so terrible about that idea? Isn't it fairly benign--pushing some mud around on a riverbottom nobody cares about, in ways that may bring new excitement to blighted regions?

But it's just that core of the idea--the real core, the place where it does hang together--that frightens and astonishes so many of the national flood-control experts outside Dallas.

The real core of the idea is stirring the pot to make things happen in real estate.

Clancy Philipsborn, a Denver consultant who helps governments work out new flood-control strategies, says it is unusual, given the overwhelming sentiment in the field, that leaders in Dallas would even admit publicly that they want to build levees in order to spur development. "I'm surprised they're coming out and saying it," he says.

Constance Hunt of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington says the whole idea of using a flood-control project to boost development is wrong-headed, especially given the strong evidence that flood levels will rise in urban areas in the next century.

"It's a really bad idea," she says. "Most structural ideas are based on hydrological data that goes back 100 years or less. During the 100 years that we've collected the data, conditions have changed significantly, mostly in ways that make rivers more prone to frequent flooding."

Flanagan, the Tulsa expert familiar with the Trinity Plan, says only Dallas would consider such a plan. "Dallas is the 800-pound gorilla. It does and gets exactly what it wants." He predicts that, if the Trinity Plan gets done, "it will be the last of its type ever, anywhere in this country."

When the Corps officials and city officials and even the tree-huggers talk about the project, it's usually in a language of almost total abstraction--hydrology, probability, land values plotted on a curve, crests, volumes, impedances, and that 800-year or whatever-it-is flood level.

But the real language of the issue is in the roar of the river--the awful sound of the crest coming up at night, the agonizing thrill of watching the angry water creep up the levee banks, closer and closer to disaster.

Seeing a flood with your own eyes is a life-changing event. All the most solid and permanent inventions of man begin to warp and groan against the raw force of the water. The man-made world flexes at its foundation, lifts up in a watery ascension, and then simply floats away.

We call them acts of God, but floods--especially floods in cities now--are the product of entirely human acts of will. It's what we decide to do about it. Noah--the real one--didn't build a levee.

The real mystery of the Trinity is whether anyone could or would deliberately devise a plan, knowingly, that would send souls away on the flood. But then that may depend on who it is and what the stakes are.

Near the end of Chinatown, Noah Cross says, "Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything.