Flood Blood

Even though people die in floods in this area on a regular basis, the Dallas City Council voted to allow houses to be built in the Bachman Creek flood zone.
Steve Satterwhite

At the end of July, flooding in this part of Texas killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. Joe Tillotson is mayor of Lancaster, once a countrified farming community in Southern Dallas County, now a suburban boomtown. He was quick to place blame where he believed it belonged.

On the Bible.

He said the 13-inch rains that fell in seven hours before the floods were "biblical" and told reporters no amount of preparation could have saved lives or property.

For at least the last 10 years, all the major research on flood control has been identifying a very non-biblical culprit in modern flooding: runoff. The idea that communities can do nothing to prepare for sudden heavy rains, that people just have to die or suffer ruinous economic damage, is obscene.

Not one of those four deaths had to occur. Not one was a freak of nature or an "act of God." Those were all acts of guys. Oh, and women, too, I'm sure. All of the mortal hands, male and female, lifted over the years to vote for runoff bear the same blood.

Nobody wants to talk about runoff, because runoff is money--the vast new subdivisions strewn across a checkerboard of cornfields in Lancaster; the huge commercial development I saw under way when I drove down there last week, with Caterpillar tractors crawling across raw dirt from the highway to the horizon.

In the same way, nobody wants to talk about the fact that the Trinity River project in Dallas, our ambitious "flood control" scheme to rebuild the river where it runs through the center of the city, will actually make flooding worse down at Mayor Tillotson's end of the pipe.

I asked him if he was aware the Trinity River project is going to dump more water his way and make flooding worse than it is already.

"I had no idea," he said.

But he told me he didn't much care. He explained that Lancaster is not on the Trinity. It's on Ten Mile Creek. "Ten Mile Creek empties into the Trinity," he said. "We're not downriver from Dallas."

Well, mayor, actually you are. Your creek may empty into the Trinity, but if the Trinity is flooded, your creek can't empty as fast. Think of a pipe with a wad of dirt stuck in the end. The slower your water gets out of the pipe, the more it backs up. The more you flood.

It all ties together. And it's not that you can't fix it. A substantial body of research has accumulated in the last 10 years, ever since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "Galloway Report" in 1994. Flood researchers have been saying development can coexist with rivers and streams, but only if people find ways for the rain to soak into the ground instead of running off.

If I were Mayor Tillotson, I wouldn't refer to the recent floods as "biblical" anymore without standing near a very tall lightning rod.

And not to make Lancaster the Lone Ranger. The place where the message really can't get through is our own dear Dallas. Mary Vogelson, a member of the Dallas League of Women Voters and an expert on local water issues, still gets angry when she talks about the big floodplain "reform" the Dallas City Council passed four years ago.

Two-thirds of the city's major watersheds were being regulated according to a looser set of standards that allowed new construction closer to creeks. The Bachman Creek watershed was regulated according to a stricter standard based on the "record flood."

Vogelson explained to me: "That was because Bachman Creek was the one area where we had a creek study to show what the actual record flood level was."

"Record flood" refers to floodwaters that have actually been recorded. The other creeks were regulated according to the "100-year flood," which is a theory, an abstraction, a guesstimate.

So guess what our fine city council did? They revised Bachman Creek to the looser 100-year limit. "Their story was that they wanted to make things 'uniform,'" Vogelson told me.

Yeah. Uniform, so that developers could crowd in closer to the creek, even though they would be building down into an area where floods are known to have occurred. Vogelson told me where to go look: It's a stunning view, from atop a soaring cliff at the very tip-end of Bluffview Boulevard, near Northwest Highway and Inwood Road.

Far below, turtles glide in clear waters. And, sure enough, just as Vogelson had promised, I spied rows of shiny-new zero-lot-line town homes, all very high-dollar, marching down to the creek's edge in the new buildable zone created when the Dallas City Council voted to make the lines uniform in 1999.  

Back at the office, I looked up those new houses on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps. Sure enough, the whole street is inside a blue area that looks like a lake on the map. All in the flood zone. Isn't that a marvelous accomplishment? Our city council allowed somebody to hawk a bunch of high-dollar houses in the floodplain.

But that's small potatoes next to the Trinity River project. I checked with Gene Rice, the Corps of Engineers project manager for the Trinity River project, to make sure I was still right about what I've always thought was the most astounding aspect of the project--that at a cost of billions, it actually makes flooding worse.

Rice doesn't put it that way. But he did concede that the project had to seek a special "variance" to cover the fact that it "reduces valley storage," a technical concept. Let me give you the shorthand: It increases runoff.

Surprise, surprise: I mean, they're cramming a freeway down there right along the riverbank and paving everything in sight. Don't forget the series of "Signature Bridges" they want to build for decoration.

The backers will insist all day long that the Trinity project improves protection for downtown Dallas. Sure, but it does it the old-fashioned way, by shipping all the water south and making things worse in Southern Dallas County.

After the great Mississippi River floods of 1993, the White House ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study why annual flood damage in this country had tripled since 1951 in spite of huge sums spent on flood control. The Corps' Galloway Report in June 1994 said squeezing water behind levees and then allowing people to build houses and factories next to rivers and streams just makes things worse. The only way to improve flood protection is to back away from the rivers and streams and allow the rain to soak into the earth.

The Trinity project does the opposite. It paves the riverbank, squeezes the river and dumps the water down Joe Tillotson's way. Luckily for the people pushing the project, Tillotson doesn't get the joke.

By the way, I'd like to add a little addendum here, as evidence of the sheer bald-faced chutzpah that public officials and local leaders have brought to the Trinity project. For years now, we have been told we need to tear down all of the major freeway bridges downtown and replace them with designer suspension bridges because the existing bridges are worn out.

Gail Thomas of the Dallas Institute, who has become Mayor Laura Miller's point person on the project, recently told The Dallas Morning News: "The I-30 bridge will need to be started shortly after construction on the Woodall Rodgers bridge because the Texas Department of Transportation is very eager to replace the I-30 bridge, which is very outdated. The same is true with I-35. TxDOT wants to complete those bridges."

The Morning News said in a recent editorial: "The clock is ticking down on the life span of the Trinity River bridges on Interstates 30 and 35. State transportation planners need to start designing replacement bridges soon, like yesterday."

In a recent story on the federal transportation bill, Morning News staff writer Emil Ramshaw described the city as being "just three weeks away from the bill's expiration date, and under pressure from the state Department of Transportation to replace a pair of aging Dallas bridges."

Not one word of that is true. I spent the last three weeks trying to get the Texas Department of Transportation to tell me where the downtown Dallas freeway bridges fall in their inventory of bridges needing replacement.

Finally last week, after I said I was going to do a story reporting that TxDOT was unable to produce its own documentation, a representative called me with the answer:

None of the downtown freeway bridges is slated by TxDOT for replacement. The I-30 bridge was recently rehabilitated and is rated in good shape. The I-35 bridges are nearing a point where they will need rehabilitation--not replacement--after which they will be in fine shape.

I asked several times to make sure I had it right. None of them is slated for replacement. The story that those bridges need to be replaced is a lie. It's a monumental lie, given the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money to replace them. I wonder if any of the people shuttling up to Washington lately pleading for federal money for those bridges has made the mistake of telling Congress that the existing bridges have to be replaced.

Because that is not true.

Let me ask you a question. If people will lie to you about a thing of that magnitude--tearing down all of the freeway bridges in downtown Dallas--what exactly can you trust them on? Flood control?  

There's the underlying thing. Maybe you write off the bridges, because all they cost is hundreds of millions of dollars, and we're a silly ostentatious city that doesn't care about money.

But what about the people who die in floods? How dare the officials of Dallas push ahead with a "flood control" project that increases runoff, the primary cause of urban flooding, in a region where people die in swollen creeks every year? Exactly how pretty can designer bridges be?

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