By the way...

Lawyer Jim Blackburn says granting Dallas one flood variance could lead to others.
Peter Calvin

Imagine the surprise the people opposed to the Trinity River plan felt recently when they opened their June 27 copies of The Dallas Morning News and saw a story boldly confirming a fact the News had refused to report for more than a year: Dallas' massive $1 billion-plus flood-control scheme will make flooding worse, not better.

Of course, the News didn't say it that way. What the newspaper told its readers was that the plan "would breach floodplain guidelines" -- an accurate phrase unlikely to cause anyone to know what's happening. But even at that, the story by City Hall staffer Robert Ingrassia was quite a breakthrough. Buried beneath layers of numbing detail was a fact that river foes had fought unsuccessfully for months to get the News' reporting staff to admit in a story -- that the plan creates more runoff and violates an 8-year-old agreement the city had signed under federal pressure to reduce the growth of flooding.

In fact, to carry out the plan, the city will have to seek a variance from the 13 other communities that are signatories to the anti-flooding agreement.

What seemed strange to the critics was the timing of the story. It came out of the blue, seemingly untied to any event, in a Pravda-like tone of official proclamation, as in, "It is the will of the leadership that the people take note of the following facts."

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"The story just appeared," says environmentalist Ned Fritz, "and we were trying to come up with a theory about why."

The question -- whether or not the city would have to breach the terms of the anti-flooding agreement in order to build a flood-control mechanism -- had been hotly contested. In response to direct questions about it from the city council, Dallas public works director David Dybala had said the city would not have to seek a variance.

Not true.

Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan later said the city would have to seek a variance. But even Jordan tried to minimize its importance. And the News had simply failed to mention any of this to its readers. So why the story on the front page of the Metropolitan section all of a sudden?

The following Tuesday evening a big light bulb appeared over the heads of some of the river critics: At a City Hall meeting to discuss the plan, the city's main consultant on the river plan made a startling revelation. Not only will the city have to seek a variance, engineers from Halff and Associates told an audience at City Hall, but the amount of damage to the floodplain caused by the Trinity River project will be five to 10 times what they had been promising the public and federal officials over the last year.

If it is ever built to completion, Halff engineers said, the Trinity River project will diminish the ability of the watershed to hold back and control floodwaters by almost 10 percent.

Consistently over the last year, Halff engineers and city officials have said in public statements and in correspondence that the maximum damage caused by the project would be 1 to 2 percent.

As soon as the river critics heard the new, much higher numbers, they thought they understood why the News had run this one up the flagpole for the city the week before the meeting.

"The Dallas Morning News article on the need for a variance failed to report any of the details," says Joe Wells, a volunteer environmentalist and a member of the group Save Open Spaces. Wells points out that the story allowed river boosters to get something on the record, admitting they will have to seek a variance, without telling anyone how big the variance will be.

The story, he says, provided readers with "no indication of the degree to which the Trinity Parkway [toll road] in the floodway project varies from the city of Dallas and Corps of Engineers' adopted regional floodplain...criteria.

"It's almost like they printed the story on Saturday before the details were released so the Morning News wouldn't have to print the details," he says

News reporter Robert Ingrassia did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on the story.

Halff hydraulic engineer Walter Skipwith told the Dallas Observer his study shows the Trinity project will cause a loss of 9.7 percent valley storage in the event of the 100-year flood.

Valley storage is the ability of the area around the river to hold water in one place until it soaks into the ground. When the valley can't store the water, the water flows downhill toward the river and contributes to flooding. The so-called 100-year flood is a description of weather odds: What's the worst the river will flood in a 100-year time span? That level is the 100-year flood.

If you decrease valley storage by covering the ground with buildings, streets, and parking lots, you provide less room for water to sit and soak. Therefore, flooding will happen more often.

On April 29, 1988, after a massive study of flooding along the upper Trinity River, Col. John E. Schaufelberger of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed a "record of decision" or official finding that loss of valley storage was the reason flooding was getting worse along the Trinity. In other words, valley storage, according to the Corps' study, was not an incidental factor. It was the central reason why floods in recent decades have kept coming more often and doing more damage.

The reason for the loss in the 1970s and '80s was obvious: Development had greatly diminished the amount of space left for water to sit and soak. Most of the space left, in fact, was crowded up against the river.

Under strong pressure from the Corps, Dallas joined Fort Worth and 12 other communities along the river's reach to sign an agreement vowing they would not allow any development to take place that would diminish valley storage. That was even supposed to mean that a developer who did fill in or pave land would have to dig out or set off an equivalent amount of land somewhere else to reduce runoff.

The reason why the Trinity plan diminishes valley storage and makes flooding worse, critics believe, is because the plan includes an eight-lane toll road inside the river's levees, covering much of the floodway with concrete. The toll road, they say, is the real reason for the whole project, designed to enhance real estate values in the Stemmons Industrial corridor.

The Corps of Engineers, a staunch champion of the river project, has consistently assured critics that the road itself will cause no loss of valley storage whatever. In a May 11 letter, Corps engineer Jerry A. McCrory said the proposed toll road "would be required to maintain the performance of the Dallas Floodway" and that Corps' requirements called for "no loss of valley storage."

Last year, in a study they carried out for the Texas Department of Transportation, Halff engineers said the loss of valley storage might be 2 percent but could easily be reduced to zero.

One of the issues critics have raised is that the agreement to protect valley storage signed by the 14 Trinity River communities in 1991 has worked well and has not been significantly violated before. Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, who represents a group called Citizens for Sensible Priorities, has said, "If variances are granted to one, it becomes a matter of right for all."

Last August, John Promise of the North Texas Council of Governments (NTCOG), which administers the anti-flooding agreement, told the Observer that no community had ever sought or been granted a variance. That would have compounded the issue for Dallas by making the Trinity River variance a major precedent.

Later, after the Observer had reported on the precedent issue, NTCOG announced it had found an earlier variance, which allowed Dallas to say its variance was not precedent-setting. But in response to questions, the NTCOG staff member who came up with the variance conceded he actually had found a road construction project in Irving that could have required a small variance, then wrote to Irving officials and asked them to apply for one.

The Dallas project will actually require two separate variances. One would cover the construction of new levees downriver from downtown. The second would cover the effect of building the toll road on top of the river.

Wells, of SOS, who has attended most of the briefings on the project hosted by the city and Halff and Associates, says the latest numbers released by Halff on the size of the variance stunned him because they are so far off from what Halff and the city have been saying for a year.

"The thing that really threw me was that it was so different from what I was told. They must have known what they were saying to people wasn't accurate," he says.

Fortunately for Halff and city officials, they were able to get the variance story out, through the official newspaper, without having to explain what any of it meant.

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