When It Comes to the Trinity River Project, History Keeps Repeating Itself, Repeating Itself

Your Trinity River correspondent and advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist, which would be me, had two interesting experiences yesterday. First up was a screening of Living with the Trinity, KERA Television's hour-long documentary by award-winning producer-director Rob Tranchin, which airs Monday at 9 p.m. The second experience was a "scoping meeting" (which, as it turned out, had nothing to do with dating) held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Fort Worth Division to discuss the Dallas Trinity River Project.

So, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity. What could be more fun?

As it happens, there was a certain common thread.

The main body of the KERA Trinity documentary brings the history of the river into the 1970s, with the defeat of a bond proposal that was to pay for turning the entire river, from Fort Worth to the Gulf Of Mexico, into a concrete canal. Tranchin does a great job of illuminating the culture of leadership in Dallas at the time, especially the Carpenter family (I would add, by implication, the Stemmons clan). They saw taming and "improving" nature almost as God's work. If it happened that doing God's work also filled their own pockets, well, that was between them and God.

They were opposed by the late Ned Fritz, Texas's pioneering environmentalist. Fritz won. Voters killed the canal project by a narrow margin in 1973.

In the documentary Ned's wife, Jeanie, remembers that proponents of Trinity barge canal accused Ned and his followers of being communists.

Lowell Duncan, former executive director of the Trinity Improvement Association, the private business group behind the canal plan, sort of kind of somewhat suggests in the documentary there could have been something to those charges. He points out that Ned and the environmentalists were critical of wealthy interests at the time.

The Trinity Improvement Association is one of the direct links between the barge canal scheme and the proposed Trinity River Toll Road, which the TIA now champions from behind the scenes. Another direct link is Ned, who was my own initial primary source when I started writing articles critical of the project in 1996, when I was working for the Houston Chronicle.

In many ways, the Trinity River Toll Road battle is merely an extension of the canal fight -- a last gasp of the old land-owning interests, who view the river as a ditch to be tamed and exploited, and the newer view, which sees the river as a natural wonder to be salvaged and protected.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments, a so-called planning agency, was born out of the whole canal-flood control effort of the 1970s. Its operatives, including its "director of transportation," Michael Morris, stumped like tough old pols for the toll road before the 2007 referendum to take the road out from between the levees. That's because they are beholden to the canal-toll road interests and know which side their bread is buttered on.

The Corps of Engineers meeting yesterday evening was very dry toast: a bunch of placards on easels describing aspects of the ongoing effort by the Corps of Engineers to analyze the condition of the earthen levees that protect downtown from catastrophic flooding and then prescribe whatever corrections or improvements may be necessary. The meeting, required by law under the National Environmental Protection Act, was designed to gather comment from the public. As usual at these things, the public consisted of the same two or three dozen people who attend all Trinity-related events.

I was struck by one placard: It said that the current study of the levees being carried out by the Corps is looking at the proposed toll road to "determine if the parkway would be hydraulically, geo-technically and structurally sound and comport with the levee remediation plan." You know where things stand now. After Katrina, a Congressional committee chaired by Dallas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson ordered the Corps to reexamine all of the nation's major urban levee systems. As a result of that study, the Corps ruled that the Dallas levee system is unsafe. Oops.

The current study is to determine what we have to do to fix or replace it.

Tom Leppert, the current mayor, swore to voters in 2007 on multiple occasions that the Corps had already signed off on the design of the road. That was patently untrue -- a lie. He is swearing to voters now that building the roll road will improve or strengthen the levees. That clearly is unknown; it's what the current study is trying to find out. The much more common theory, based on national flood control policy, would be that piling up a structure out in the middle of the flood plain will stress the levees, not strengthen them.

So my common thread? I think you have to view Leppert as sort of the current version of Lowell Duncan of the Trinity Improvement Association. He's the hired guy who carries water for the old river dirt families. They believe their early 20th Century view of the river is God's view and the people who oppose them are commies. And anything they have to say or do to get God's work done is O.K.

I have one word for that whole culture.