Deep Into the Corps: Agency's Own Leaky Docs Express Doubts About City's Levee Fixes

Deep Into the Corps: Agency's Own Leaky Docs Express Doubts About City's Levee Fixes

On November 10 I wrote a column for the paper about documents leaked to me from within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicating that the corps has no faith in repairs to the Trinity River levees being proposed by the City of Dallas. I can show the documents to you now. They tell quite a story.

Not to oversimplify, but when I review what these documents have to say about the city's efforts to protect downtown Dallas from catastrophic flooding, the word that comes to mind is nightmare.

Yesterday, James C. Frisinger, a spokesman for of the USACE Fort Worth District, informed me that the documents in my possession are authentic. He emphasized that these are only briefing documents and "not the final product."

In other words, this is internal chit-chat and not at all the formal policy position of the corps. But it's very disturbing chit-chat.

The city was informed in 2009 by USACE that the 23-mile dirt levee system protecting downtown from wall-of-water flooding during our bi-annual monsoon seasons was no good. USACE said the city, which is responsible for maintaining the levees, had allowed them to go to fall apart.

If the city can't fix the levees, it's a disaster for property owners even if we don't have a flood. The federal government will label their land near the river flood-prone; they will have to buy flood insurance; but the big thing is that their land will be worth a lot less for development.

At first, City Manager Mary Suhm said the necessary repairs would cost upwards of $200 million. More recently, her staff revised that number down to more like $30 million.

Brigadier General Thomas W. Kula
Brigadier General Thomas W. Kula

The briefing document leaked to me by my informant shows that top USACE personnel including Brigadier General Thomas W. Kula, commander and chief engineer of the corps division that covers Dallas, have been informed that USACE technical staff thinks the Dallas proposed repairs may do nothing to restore flood safety.

"Do we want to insert the disclaimer," the document asks Kula and other top managers, "and start the process of informing HQ that we do not endorse what they are proposing? Or at least mention that we had some serious disagreements ..."

At the very end of the document, an ominous remark: "USACE (Engineer Research and Development Center) analyses identified larger-scale stability and seepage issues than identified by city consultants ..."

Since I began questioning USACE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency about these documents, both agencies have attempted to play down their significance. FEMA even scheduled a conference call for me with several of their experts in an attempt to convince me that the information in the documents was of no importance to them.

One of the central themes running through these documents is that the repairs proposed by Dallas are a bare minimum effort designed only to keep FEMA from kicking Dallas out of the National Flood Insurance Program entirely -- sort of like getting terminated by your car insurance company because you're too bad a risk.

FEMA told me there was no way that could happen, even if Dallas was entirely negligent in maintaining its levees. They said the insurance would just cost more. But I found FEMA's own guidelines as well as provisions in the underlying federal law providing that a city can be expelled from National Flood Insurance Program for various kind of negligence, specifically including failure to maintain a diverted waterway, which is what the Trinity River is through downtown.

That's what these documents say Dallas is doing -- a bare minimum just to maintain eligibility for insurance, with no actual improvement to flood safety itself. The documents make it plain that USACE does not believe the proposed city repairs will restore the levees to the minimum 100-year flood protection level.

I was not supposed to see this stuff. Neither were you. But the corps, in addition to authenticating the documents, has confirmed to me over the last week that the basic actions called for in the documents in fact did take place subsequently.

The disclaimer called for was in fact entered into the record. The corps did rewrite a key environmental assessment to strip out language that endorsed what Dallas is doing.

I think FEMA's responses to me have been less than candid and were intended mainly to mask a public danger from public view in order to maintain cordiality between officials. I have to say the corps has been more forthcoming, with this exception: Since I came into possession of this information, the corps has insisted that the disclaimer and the rewriting of the environmental document were business as usual. It was never their job, their duty or their intention to endorse the Dallas levee repairs, they have told me.

If you have time, take a gander at these documents, at least the first page. Then tell me what you think is going on here.

By the way, my informant tells me that the star-crossed Trinity River Toll Road project is still very much at issue in debates on how to fix the levees. The city could develop the lakes and park it has promised voters and fix the levees at a reduced cost by using the dirt from digging out the lakes to fatten the levees, the source says. But engineers are at an impasse because toll road proponents want to use the dirt for the toll road, to lift it up above flood levels.

To hell with the lakes. To hell with the park. To hell with flood safety. We want our highway.

Tell you what. If we ever do have a levee failure and people die because of that damn road project, there needs to be a way to bring some homicide charges. Corps Doc-1

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