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Drowning in Lies About the Levees

I can tell you this much for sure: You and I do not know the truth about the mortal danger to downtown Dallas posed by potential flooding on the Trinity River.

I will give you specific important instances here of misleading statements by public officials, but I can't give you one thing. I can't tell you how much worse it is.

Since February 2009, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the 23-mile-long Trinity River flood-control levee system "unacceptable," we have been told that our levees failed inspection because the corps, embarrassed by the 2005 Katrina debacle in New Orleans, applied new, tougher safety standards to us.

The repeated suggestion was that Dallas had done nothing wrong. We were just paying a price for the sins of New Orleans. That's not true.

The corps, which is responsible for most of the nation's big flood-control dams and levees, confirmed to me last week that the safety standards that our levee system failed to meet were in effect years before Katrina struck New Orleans.

A worse example: As recently as October 3, city staff and corps officials told a Dallas City Council committee that the city was steaming ahead full-speed with plans for restoring the levees to the minimum "100-year" flood protection, with approval of the plan by the corps anticipated in February 2012.

Also not true. The corps confirmed to me last week that it has modified its "environmental assessment" of the city's levee repair plan to remove any language that might express agreement with or endorsement of the city's plan to get the levees back to the minimum required 100-year protection level.

The corps, which has a kind of business interest in keeping the city happy as a major client, had more to say about it than that, and I have chopped up their responses a bit to get to what I think is the meat. They do not say the city misled anyone, and I will get to that, but first let's recall what city officials have been telling us for years.

In a story in The Dallas Morning News October 12, 2010, former city councilman Dave Neumann, then chairman of the council's Trinity River Committee, said the corps was running the city ragged: "Each time we move forward and we think we have an agreement with the Corps of Engineers — at the district office, the division office, the headquarters office — we keep getting basically re-engineering of the engineering that we agree on."

Tom Leppert, mayor at the time, echoed the refrain: "We'll go down one path and be told that's the path that we need to go down, and then all of a sudden there's another path," he told the News.

Sometimes city officials have even been specific in their explanation of how the corps switched up the game on them. In August 2010, referring to an arcane soil engineering concept called "fully softened sheer strength," City Manager Mary Suhm said, "The corps will tell you they changed their mind and added something else in."

No. They won't. They told me the standards haven't changed since pre-Katrina. But I knew to ask. I'll tell you why in a minute.

Fully softened shear strength is a measurement of the strength of a dirt levee when it is soaked with water. Suhm has maintained for three years that the corps is subjecting the Dallas levees to a new standard appropriate to the Mississippi River, where levees are barraged by water, a standard she says is too tough and not appropriate for conditions here, where levees are dry most of the year.

Two weeks ago I came into possession of internal Corps of Engineers documents that paint a very different picture. I don't know who sent them to me. I have not shown the documents to the corps yet for confirmation, because I am not sure whether doing so might betray the identity of my source. But when I questioned the corps on key elements within those documents, I received what I consider confirmation.

I referred the corps to their own 2003 manual for levee construction standards, which called for the fully softened shear test as a measurement of levee strength — in Dallas and elsewhere — two years before Katrina. I also asked if another, technical standard regarding the shape of the levees had changed.

James Frisinger, a corps spokesman, agreed that "earthen levee design standards have not changed" since before Katrina.

What has changed since Katrina is inspection standards. After Katrina in 2005, the corps began looking harder to see if the nation's levees were being maintained to the standards prescribed by law, by federal rules and by the corps' agreements with local governments.

The flaws in our levees didn't just happen. They've been there for decades, long before Katrina. Our levees are the only barrier between downtown, Oak Cliff and the wall-of-water floods that would occur if a levee collapsed during one of our biannual monsoon seasons.

 

Long before Katrina, the levees fell shockingly short of the "800-year" levels claimed for them — meaning they might not withstand the sort of flood expected to happen once every 800 years, a guarantee made for years to property owners by the city. When the corps finally did a real inspection of them in 2007, it found the Dallas levees didn't even meet the minimum 100-year level needed to avoid mandatory flood insurance for property owners in the flood plain behind the levees. Those results were not made public until 2009 when the corps withdrew its own imprimatur from the Dallas levee system.

Why was I citing Corps of Engineers engineering standards to the Corps of Engineers? I did it because I had been urged to do so by the anonymous source of the documents.

Those documents clearly came from inside the corps technical staff. The picture painted by them is of Dallas city officials misleading the public about the nature of the problems with the levees, while front-office management in the corps, eager to avoid alienating Dallas City Hall, leans on the technical staff to keep its mouth shut.

But let's go back to what the corps has conceded to me in response to my questions. The levees failed to meet legal requirements and existing standards long before 2005. The only thing that's changed is we've learned the truth, which brings us to another even more troubling aspect of what the anonymous documents told me.

At the city's October 3 council committee briefing, city and corps staff showed council members a PowerPoint presentation stating that "City and corps have collaborated to identify safe and cost effective construction methods to complete the 100-year fixes" with "anticipated savings of $30M-$50M."

The source of my documents told me in a letter that this is not true. The source said that the technical staff of the corps has refused to endorse the new cheaper repair scheme the city has devised for bringing the levees back up to the minimum 100-year level of protection. The proof of this, the source said, is twofold.

First of all, the technical staff insisted they be allowed to enter into internal corps documents a disclaimer to the effect that the staff does not and will not endorse what the city is doing as contributing in any way to restoring the 100-year level of protection. The only assurance the corps' staff is willing to give is that the planned repairs will not harm the existing levee system or make it any worse than it already is.

Secondly, the source told me that if I asked the right way, I would find that the corps, at the insistence of its own engineers, has gone back into its own official "environmental assessment" report on the planned levee repairs and stripped out any language that might appear to endorse the repairs as restoring 100-year protection.

So I did ask. First, I presented the corps with the internal statement of disclaimer contained in the leaked document. Here it is for you to read:

"The currently proposed modification is accepted for the limited purpose of being not injurious to the function and operation of the existing federal project. USACE provides no opinion as to the efficacy of the modification for providing flood risk management benefits."

The corps response, in part, was: " ... the comment cited accurately reflects the USACE review comment for the City's proposed plan ... "

They said more than that. I will get to that, but here's what they did not say: That's some crazy stuff. We don't know where it came from, but it's total garbage.

They know where it came from. It's not garbage.

Secondly, I asked them if it was true they were going back through the environmental assessment to strip out language endorsing the city's repair scheme. They said " ... the EA was modified ... "

The corps told me it allowed the disclaimer to be entered into the record and also modified the EA only because it had never been the corps' intent to endorse or not endorse the city's proposed repairs as a means of restoring 100-year protection.

I asked: If it was never the corps' intent to endorse or approve of the repairs, why did the corps have to enter the disclaimer into its own records and why did it have to remove language from the EA approving of the repairs? I asked that question at the end of the day last Friday and had not heard back yet early this week in time for deadline for this story.

I also asked Suhm why the city keeps asserting that the corps has changed its engineering standards for levees. She emailed me back: "The City has always striven to meet applicable design standards."

 

That's it.

In their responses to me, the corps basically concedes that two important stories, both repeated as fact by public officials, are not true.

So here is my question for you: Given this level of misinformation on these important life-and-death issues, why, exactly, would we trust anything else they tell us?


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