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On Flood Control, Dallas Better Think Nationally or Be Ready to Drown Locally

On Flood Control, Dallas Better Think Nationally or Be Ready to Drown Locally

Man, talk about whistling past the graveyard. At yesterday's Dallas City Council meeting, council members Tennell Atkins and Delia Jasso asked good questions about the city's flood control plans, and City Manager Mary Suhm and her assistant, Jill Jordan, gave good answers. But it was all deck chairs on the Titanic.

Nobody gets it yet. Dallas is in for a major ass-whipping on flood control, because guess what? So is the whole nation.

American cities were built in the 19th and 20th centuries on the basis of certain assumptions about flood control. The assumptions are obsolete. We're in for less flood control, not more, at least in terms of man-made structures -- levees, dams and reservoirs.

The only kind of flood control that can fix what's wrong now falls under the rubric of land-use reform, as in, "Hey, man, get off that land you're on now, because it's gonna get hit by a bad flood, and there's not a damn thing we can do to stop it." Or, as I might be tempted to put it, get off my lawn.

The Trinity River, 1908
The Trinity River, 1908

In The New York Times today is a flood control story that The Times doesn't understand, either. It's about rebuilding the Birds Point levees along the Mississippi in southeastern Missouri.

First off, just think about what happened there last spring. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came in and did to the town of Pinhook what the regular Army might do to a Taliban encampment in Afghanistan. They blew up the levees and flooded Pinhook off the map.

Well, they told everybody in advance. I don't want to make them look too bad. And actually, Pinhook only lost 30 houses, whereas if the Corps had not blown the levees the larger community of Cairo, Illinois, (population 3,000) upriver from Pinhook would have been swept down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

Those are the choices these days.

Buried in The Times story is the real news: When the Corps came back to rebuild the Bird Point levee, they only had enough money to build it back to a height of 55 feet, fully 12 percent lower than its height of 62.5 feet before it got blown up. (These measurements are in relation to a river gauge near Cairo.)

I stop doing math at simple arithmetic. I have no idea know how to extrapolate that reduction in levee height to discover how much less flood protection it means for the surrounding territory, but it's less. Way less. And that's how things are going to be nationwide.

The Times doesn't get that. They think the story is about fixing the levees back the way they were. The story quotes a local official who goes unchallenged as saying residents in Missouri "were basically guaranteed protection from Congress to 62.5 feet."

Nah, I don't think so. Show me that guarantee on paper, will you? The corps does what it can. Local communities do what they can. But the assertion that anybody anywhere is "guaranteed" a specific level of protection is absurd.

Maybe they counted on that level of protection, and now it's gone. So that puts them in the legal political status generally known as "screwed." But I never heard of a guarantee that you can't get screwed.

There's even a line in the story, not attributed to anyone and placed in magic parentheses, that says: "(The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, passed last month by Congress, may provide the money to finish the job.)"

I actually know who said that. The Tooth Fairy. In your dreams. The national flood control funding story is that there is a huge national funding shortfall for flood insurance, let alone capital money for flood works, and that shortage is not going away.

Let's bring this back home: If the Trinity River levee system in Dallas winds up getting built back to a lower level of protection -- say 12 percent lower -- that alone will kick off an earthquake in real estate values in the center of the city.

The corps, meanwhile, has been signaling in every way it can that the Trinity levees will not be built back to the level of protection thought to be in place before the levees were discovered to be no-damn-good in 2007. The levees will never be as good as people thought they were before 2007.

Of course, they were never that good, anyway, but having them officially not that good will deliver a body blow in terms of development value and insurance costs.

What council members Atkins and Jasso were asking for yesterday was a comprehensive briefing on citywide flood control efforts. Suhm said she'd do it. They're all right, as far as they went. We do need a citywide view of the problem.

But, look. What the Dallas City Council really needs is a nationwide, maybe global view. The Corps of Engineers has a task force working on this picture and putting it in context with flood control efforts worldwide. Our City Hall needs to get somebody from that outfit to come talk to them.

Hey. There's no use taking care of flood control in Pinhook if you're only going to find out later there's an even bigger problem in Cairo.


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