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Go With Your Gut

This is Sylvan Avenue looking south across the Trinity River on June 28, 2007.

Trust your eyes. Go with common sense. If you've seen pictures of the Trinity River flooded from levee to levee in downtown, believe your gut: It's a fat angry cottonmouth snake inside your house.

If you have driven over the river, I don't have to tell you: That slimey thick-shouldered beast is surging beneath the bridges, shoving its round snout against the mud banks of the levees, searching for weakness.

Think of Katrina. This is the same story—rivers and human tinkering.

In his history of flooding on the Mississippi, Rising Tide, author John M. Barry describes 130 years of Katrina-like disasters that preceded the hurricane of 2005. Again and again he comes back to the same theme: Nature provides the raw force, but man creates the disaster by trying to tinker with the force.

One of the images that sticks with me from his book involves an early 20th-century attempt to make the Mississippi change its course in order to shelter some real estate. Men built earthen levees, as they have done here, to serve as prison walls, forcing the river to turn in a direction it didn't naturally want to go.

When the river flooded, that brown snout found soft soil beneath the levee and scoured it out in a huge tunnel. The river burrowed beneath the levee and exploded straight up into the air in a gigantic geyser inside the neighborhood on the other side.

Today in New Orleans people nurture a fervent hatred of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which they blame for building the levees and canals and flood walls that failed them two years ago. But blaming the Corps is a way for New Orleans to dodge its own responsibility for its demise.

Not that the Corps is blameless. But we have to go back to the way the Corps is set up by law. The Corps can do almost nothing without a "local partner." By statute and by political reality, the Corps can't come into New Orleans or Dallas and build what it wants to build.

I firmly believe—I will swear to you based on 10 years of watching them—that if the engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been able to build their own independently designed flood control system in New Orleans, there would have been no Katrina disaster.

But huge areas of New Orleans also would never have been drained, sliced up into lots and peddled as prime real estate. Instead of neighborhoods, those areas would be wetlands today. And somebody would have missed out on big piles of money.

If New Orleans says to the Corps—if Dallas says to the Corps—"Thanks but no thanks," then the Corps can't do any work in New Orleans or Dallas. And the Corps, like all of us, wants work.

Imagine we say, "We're sure that's a real engineer's daydream you want to build there. But it doesn't let us peddle the land. So forget it. We don't want it. We want cheap floodwalls and higher levees and no real control of runoff, so we can make money off the land. And if you won't do that for us, take a hike. We don't want to be your partner."

In that case, the Corps is out of business. It has to have a local partner.

And then you have the factor of both U.S. Senators and every Congress member in sight calling the commander of the Corps in Washington and saying, "If you can't help my friends down there in Dallas a little better than you've been doing, you can sure as hell count on a rough year for appropriations next time around."

So what you get are compromises. The cheap flood walls and worn-out pumps in New Orleans were compromises that New Orleans forced on the Corps every bit as much as the other way around. Generally speaking, engineers don't design things to fail. It's the quick-money guys who do that for us.

At key points along the way, the Corps of Engineers has signaled in fairly plain language that it does not want the city of Dallas to build a high-speed limited access toll road along the river downtown inside the flood control levees.

Early on, now almost 10 years ago, the Corps stated in a study of the overall project that a highway inside the levees would seriously impair any recreational value the remaining space might offer.

More recently the Corps changed its mind about where the road can be built and told the city the road could not be built on top of or into the sides of the levees, as the city had planned to do. The Corps had to know that this edict would create huge new challenges for the road.  

Then the Corps told the city the road must be designed in a way that is "hydraulically neutral" in its impact on the overall levee system. That's a whopper. It says the city can put a superhighway down there as long as its presence between the levees does not lift the flood waters between the levees by even a fraction of an inch.

Imagine a footed bathtub full to the very brim and your fat uncle Waldo standing with a towel around his big middle, looking longingly. It's like saying, "You can get in the tub, Uncle Waldo, as long as not one drop spills out."

You know what that really means? Waldo! Use the shower!

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who has become the de facto captain and commander of the anti-highway forces, pushed and pulled and tugged on the Corps recently and finally got them to admit something that really hasn't sunk in publicly yet: If the Trinity River tollway gets built, it will be the first major highway the Corps has ever allowed to be built inside a Corps of Engineers levee system.

First time. Ever. There we will be—messing with the river in a big way. Gambling it will work, like that time they tried to make the Mississippi turn.

On top of that, you have the city now telling people that the toll road won't flood, because they're going to put a wall next to it. Think about Katrina. Walls don't work. Huge, brown, angry rivers knock walls out of their way like wet paper.

That's why levees are big and fat and sloped—so they can't easily be flattened. The only way to protect that highway from flooding will be with a second levee system inside the flood control levees.

Think of the area between the flood control levees as a pipe big enough to carry all that flood water through downtown without letting any of it spill. Now inside that pipe we're going to stick an entire freeway and another levee system, leaving a space only two-thirds to maybe half the size of what we now have to carry the water.

Back to that idea of making the road "hydraulically neutral." How to get this much Waldo into the tub without spilling? Make the tub deeper. Way deeper. In this case, we would have to dig the river channel out deeper and wider by an amount that would totally offset the mass of the entire freeway and the levees built to protect it.

What's wrong with that? A little issue called "scouring"—just what the Mississippi did when it dug that tunnel and blew up like Vesuvius on the other side of the levee.

For example: I've been talking off and on this week with Corps officials about water releases from flooded lakes upriver from Dallas. At a certain point, the Corps has to release water from those lakes, or the water will overtop the dams and possibly blow them out.

That would be Katrina in Dallas.

But they have to let the water out in trickles because of scouring. If they pull open a floodgate and allow a major release all of a sudden, that water will come roaring downstream and rip down bridges, dig through levees and cause who knows what mayhem.

If you dig the Trinity River channel down into a deep channel, you create huge new velocities and brutal, unpredictable forces contributing to scouring. I know somebody is going to tell me that engineers can do anything. And I am going to point to New Orleans and say, "Yeah, but engineers with politicians on their backs can create havoc beyond imagining."

So back to Dallas. Last week I watched while Angela Hunt and her small army of volunteers delivered boxes of petitions to the city secretary, calling for a referendum on the toll road. Most of these are people I have known for years. They are motivated by all of the issues I have raised here.

I can't prevent the road hucksters from denigrating them as tree-huggers and trouble-makers. But I do know better. These are people who have taken the time to learn about these issues and who are genuinely horrified by the mistake the city seems determined to make with this highway.

On the other hand, we have our newly elected mayor, Tom Leppert, a construction executive who was unknown in the city until he was recruited and funded by the Dallas Citizens Council, a private group that meets in secret. Leppert's stance on the referendum so far has been the worst imaginable, a line that is both utterly irresponsible and crassly exploitative:  

Just do it. People want to see some pretty stuff built down there. Just get going. No more delays.

People are stupid.

He ignores the fact that the toll road is slowing down the overall project. Getting rid of it will speed up the rest of the project, not slow it down. He ignores all of the flood control issues. He dismisses Hunt and her effort as a distraction.

Don't worry. Be happy. Just do it.

Leppert is exactly what happened to New Orleans. The difference between Dallas and New Orleans?

This referendum.


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