All wet

Buried at the back of a report by the Army Corps of Engineers is an admission that the $2 billion Trinity River project may make flooding in the region worse, not better.

The Corps says the increased threat of flooding should be allowed because of the project's value as a real estate promotion.

Opponents of the plan think that the Corps' statements fly in the face of national policy, the Corps' own guidelines, and the law, and that it will be serious enough to bring the river project to its knees.

The opponents, who have been successful at fund-raising in recent months, have hired a well-known Houston environmental lawyer and a hydrologist and are gearing up for a legal challenge.

The fact that the plan won a narrow victory at the polls last May, the opponents say, is only the beginning of their fight to stop the city and the Corps.

"They still have the law to surmount," says Ned Fritz, chairman emeritus of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, a nonprofit environmental group.

Opponents of the Trinity River project--a road and levee plan that will change the shape of the river and the face of the city--have come up with several possible legal objections to the plan in recent months. None is so startling as the information on page 186 of the Corps' environmental impact statement for the project.

In a low-key one-paragraph section, the Corps concedes that the Trinity River project will actually worsen the very problems it was supposed to correct in the first place.

"The analysis," the Corps says of its own study, "indicates that a reduction in the valley storage in the project reach would result in an increase in the peak discharges."

Valley storage and peak discharge are technical terms the Corps has used consistently over the last decade to explain why Dallas has a flooding problem in the first place.

Valley storage is the amount of space in the river's drainage area where rainwater can stand around without doing much harm until it has time to soak down into the soil. Peak discharge is the amount of water that comes roaring down the river at full flood. Pave over the former with houses, shops, and fast-food joints, and you have more water discharging more quickly into the river. That spells flooding.

A report issued by the Corps in 1986 said real estate development upriver from Dallas in the '70s and '80s had depleted valley storage and increased peak discharge. That was why, the Corps said, Dallas was in danger of flooding again after more than a half century of flood-control efforts.

The reason the huge new plan for rebuilding the Trinity River would make things worse, not better, goes to the heart of the objections plan opponents brought to the debate originally: This plan, unlike work the Corps is doing on the Napa River in California and in many other places in the country, depends on an old-fashioned concept of choking the river down to control it.

On the Napa--in accordance with what is now supposed to be the Corps' own nationwide policy--an effort is under way to let the river spread out naturally wherever possible. Even in places where levees are necessary to protect downtown areas, as in flood-ravaged Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Corps is building new levees farther away from the river and buying out people between the levees and the river.

The Dallas plan, which would build new dikes close to the river, will decrease the amount of space where water can soak into the soil, and it will push peak flood levels higher, according to the Corps' own study.

What is even more astonishing to critics of the plan is the justification the Corps offers for allowing Dallas to do it. Dallas should be given a "variance" from current flood-control requirements, the Corps says, "in light of the very broad ranging economic benefits accruing to the residents, commercial activities, and public-service facilities within the project reach as well as upstream of the project reach."

In plain English, the Corps is saying Dallas should be allowed to spend $2 billion, most of it in federal flood-control and highway money, to make flooding worse in order to promote real estate values in the floodplain.

But real estate development is what the Corps' own study says caused the current flood threat to downtown in the first place.

In a melodramatic videotape produced by the Corps in 1996 to promote the Trinity River Project--with many scenes of African-American families fleeing their homes in boats and a scratchy 1928 rendition of the "Trinity River Blues" by T-Bone Walker playing in the background--the Corps itself cited the issues of valley storage and peak discharge as reasons why Dallas was in danger again.  

In its movie, the Corps said real estate developers during the 1980s boom had dried out and paved over vast amounts of formerly soggy land. Based on its own 1986 study, the Corps pressured local communities along the Trinity to enter a "Corridor Development Certificate" or CDC pact, severely curbing the ability of developers to do any land-filling or draining of land that would decrease valley storage.

In fact, the Corps threatened to cut off federal flood-control money for any community that failed to join the pact. Eventually, Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Carrollton, Coppell, Farmers Branch, Grand Prairie, Irving, and Lewisville signed the agreement.

Honoring the agreement has been expensive and sometimes difficult. It means any developer in those cities who fills in or drains off a piece of land in order to build on it must dig out another equivalent piece of property where the same amount of water can soak into the ground.

Now the Corps is offering increased real estate development as the reason why Dallas should be allowed to deplete valley storage and increase peak discharge.

Gene Rice, the Corps' project manager for the Trinity, did not return repeated calls for comment on the issue. The Corps' public affairs office in Fort Worth also did not respond to requests for comment.

But the language of the Corps' official environmental impact report on the Trinity project is plain. In order to be able to carry out the Trinity project, according to the report, Dallas would have to seek a "variance" or permission to be let out of the CDC pact.

Breaking that agreement--in effect setting a precedent that would allow other communities upriver from Dallas to make things worse too--would be suicidal for Dallas, says Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer representing the Texas Committee on Natural Resources.

"Dallas would be asking for permission to make things worse," Blackburn says. "There has never been a variance granted by either the Corps or the CDC signers."

Blackburn points out that the communities upriver from Dallas, where there tends to be greater development pressure than in Dallas, might be only too happy to see the city abrogate the agreement so they could get out of it too.

"Dallas, by its actions, might undermine what is probably the most successful flood-control agreement in the state, maybe in the nation," Blackburn says.

John Promise, director of environmental resources for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, oversees the CDC agreement. He confirmed that "there has never been a variance granted, and no one has ever sought a variance."

Critics of the Trinity plan are especially incensed by the idea that Dallas, which has the most to lose if the CDC agreement comes apart, would be the first to break it. Dallas joined the Corps in pushing for the pact in the first place because, in terms of its position on the river, Dallas is at the bottom of the pipe, with the most to lose if other cities above it deplete valley storage.

"The arrogance of Dallas going to these other cities and asking them to let Dallas out of this agreement that Dallas pushed them into in the first place is just unimaginable," says Mary Vogelson, a member of the Dallas League of Women Voters, which opposed the Trinity plan.

By a narrow majority, Dallas voters on May 2 supported a $246 million bond issue to cover the city's share of the tab for the Trinity plan. But the fact that the Corps knew the plan would make things worse, not better, was not officially made public before the election.

The valley storage issue was not public because the Corps withheld the official registration, publication, and mailing of its full environmental impact statement--originally due out last January--until two weeks after the May election.

Now that the valley storage issue is out, Pete Vargas, director of the Trinity River Project for the city of Dallas, dismisses it as a "technical question." Vargas says he does not know whether Dallas will seek the variance.

Vargas, a former city manager in Laredo who is not a water engineer, says, "Until the design is actually done, we really don't know what we're really talking about."

The Corps recently agreed to extend the deadline for comments on its environmental impact statement until August 14. Critics of the plan say The Dallas Morning News has assiduously avoided coverage of the comment phase or any of the issues they have raised with the Corps, especially the valley storage question, in keeping with the News' heavy-handed management of the issue before the election.

The News, a major editorial booster of the plan, suffered a newsroom meltdown shortly before the election when publisher Burl Osborne ordered that coverage of the objections to the plan be curtailed. City Hall reporter Robert Ingrassia demanded that his name be removed from a story until Osborne allowed Ingrassia's story to be evenly balanced between boosters and critics of the plan.  

Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant who worked for plan opponents before the election, says she has been relentlessly lobbying News reporters and editors in recent weeks to give some coverage to the issues the opponents have raised since the Corps study was published.

"They keep telling me it's not a story," Bartos says. "I tried to get a letter to the editor published just telling people they had until August 14 to comment on the environmental impact statement, as a public service, and now I can't even get that in.

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