The Power of Lobbying: Trinity Levees Are Unsafe SUPER Safe, the Corps Says Now

OK, wait, wait, before we start the party, can I ask a couple questions? Could we maybe just try to put ourselves in a global context first?

In July, 2011, the city of Copenhagen was ravaged by the worst flood in recorded history, rated by scientists as a "1,000-year" flood, meaning it could be expected to occur once in 1,000 years.

Yesterday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told us that the Trinity River levee system is safe from being undermined by seepage to the 100,000-year flood level, meaning seepage could be expected to wreck the levees once in 100,000 years.

But as Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs observed (listen to it in BJ Austin's report on KERA ), Dallas, under federal threat of being forced to redraw its whole flood-safety mapping system, is about to embark on a $30 million construction campaign to build concrete walls underground beneath the levees. That is necessary, according to a private engineer and according to the Corps of Engineers up until yesterday, to make the levees safe from under-seepage at the 100-year level.

Let me run that by you one more time. We're about to spend $30 million in tax money building underground walls along the levees because we have been told by our engineer, by the corps and by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that without those walls the levees aren't even safe to the minimum 100-year flood level.

But yesterday in response to questions from Griggs, the corps said on the record that the levees are safe from seepage to the 100,000-year flood level.


Armed with this stunning news and in no mood to ask questions, Mayor Mike Rawlings is off to the races: "It's not just about safety," he told Austin after the briefing. "There's a lot of plans in place. We have got to get some lakes built down there. We've got to get trails built, and we've got plans for a highway as well."

Lakes. Trails. Highway. Wait.

I'm going to ask the corps for enlightenment this week on how they came to this startling turn-about from their decision in 2009 to rate the Dallas levees as "unacceptable."

That ruling triggered the threat of a "decertification" by FEMA, and that is what put the city under the gun to fix the levees. If FEMA says the levees are no good, everybody who owns property in their path will have to buy flood insurance and property values will plummet, not to mention the prospect of baby carriages and wheelchairs floating off to the Gulf of Mexico one day.

So, uh, please wait again. Now they say they've changed their minds. At least in terms of sand beneath the levees and under-seepage, we have just about the safest levees on earth. But we're still going to spend $30 million on underground walls that we obviously do not need.

As a former Dallas City Councilman, the late Albert Lipscomb, was so fond of saying, something is rotten in Denmark. In trying to figure out from whence that odor may emanate, we might want to take a closer look at the intense lobbying effort of which Dallas has been a part over the last two years, joining hands with our sister in clean government, East St. Louis, to jaw-bone Congress and presumably the White House into getting the corps off our backs on this whole levee safety deal.

You remember how this worked, right? In 2009, federal Judge Stanwood R. Duvall found the corps culpable of "insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness" in its failure to protect New Orleans from disaster in the 2005 Katrina floods. The corps was already under fire from Congress.

Claiming that they had not changed any of their flood safety standards but were merely enforcing them for a change, the corps retested levees all over America and rated many of them unsafe. But when communities like our own found out what the price tag was going to be for fixing the levees, the lobbying effort began -- a well-wired attempt to get the corps to water down its standards.

Apparently Dallas is the first place where the new standards are being unveiled. And here is the hard part for us: It's wonderful news. Party-time news! It's incredibly wonderful. It's so wonderful, it's unbelievable. It's so unbelievable, it makes no sense.

Wait, wait: we have to spend $30 million to be safe from the 100-year-flood? But even without that work we're already safe from the 100,000-year flood? That just makes no sense at all.

And we're getting this from whom? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? The people who have a history of ... what was it again? Insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness?

So the mayor wants to get busy-busy and just get going on our new lakes. Oh, yeah, and a highway. And this is after a national lobbying effort of which we were a part to get the corps to back down from its standards.

Talk about backing down. This is way way down. I mean, this is so much backing down, I think we could name a dance step for it. "The Back-Down." You wave your palms in the air, bend at the waist, stare at your toes and you BACK DOWN, man! Doin' the BACK DOWN!

So I made you wait and wait already. Now I have one question for you. Are you totally ready to do this dance? I mean, hey, if you are, turn on the music, and let's par-TAY. Livin' large, man, makin' the lakes, that's the way. I'll try, I swear. Maybe some of the people from the Observer's youth division can teach me how to wave my palms and walk backwards at the same time.