Destiny Does Dallas, or: Why the Corps' "Unacceptable" Levee Rating is a Blessing

Back during the campaign season for the 2007 referendum on the Trinity River toll road, Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow and I got into this really high-flown intellectual debate where I said, "Steve, you're stupid," and he said, "Jim, you're dumb," and I said, "Steve, you're a ninny," and .... You get the picture. I'm not sure how many hearts and minds we reached with all that.

Today Blow has a column in the paper about the announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the levee system protecting downtown Dallas from flooding is "unacceptable." Blow writes, "If I'm reading this right, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is saying what the Trinity project planners have been saying all along: The levee system needs work."

Steve, you're not reading it right.

Right now I am sort of bouncing up and down in my desk chair biting my tongue and trying to force myself not to add, "Steve, you're ... you're ... you're a you-know what." But I ain't gonna say it. I will, however, say this ...

If nothing else, Blow is a useful bellwether warning us what the party line will be from the toll road partisans. Indeed, the other verse of the song is coming already from city officials who are telling us that construction of a toll road inside the levees will actually improve flood protection. It's really important to understand how nonsensical and dangerous this kind of talk can be.

But maybe we have to know something even more fundamental first, a thing that's hard to grasp.

Downtown is on the wrong side of the river. If Dallas had understood what Mother Nature was telling it in the early part of the 20th century, the towers of downtown would be on the Oak Cliff side, up on the bluff. It was the construction of earthen berms or levees along the river that allowed old Dallas families like the Stemmons clan and the Belo-Decherd-Moroneys (owners of Steve's newspaper) to push development instead on the flood-prone eastern bank of the river.

Only problem? Only the levees keep downtown from being wiped out every spring and summer when the river floods. The arrangement of downtown is a fist in the air to Mother Nature, a defiance.

Some people love that stuff. It's the can-do spirit of the city, they will say. And I can live with that, as long as the city takes the risk very seriously.

Let's get back to Blow. What he says about the Corps and the levees amounts to a really serious misunderstanding of the issues. The News began reporting back in the early 1990s that the Corps was worried about the huge amount of increased run-off in the Dallas watershed and the pressure on the river. The Corps has indeed been saying that the levees need to be higher.

What the Corps is saying now is that we can't even build the levees higher yet, because we have allowed the foundation they stand on to deteriorate, and we have done actual damage to that foundation with recent construction.

My own criticism of the toll road project started back in the mid-'90s when I was the Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. I interviewed the late Ned Fritz, dean of Texas environmentalism, who steered me to national flood control experts: They all told me that filling in a floodway with concrete was a gravely dangerous, absolutely upside-down, wrong-headed and irresponsible idea, flying in the face of everything the world has learned about flood control, from China to the Netherlands. None of the national experts I interviewed could even believe Dallas was considering such an idea.

And here, not in reference to Blow but to the idea, I finally have to use that word: Stupid.

Building a new highway out in the middle of the floodway is a monumentally stupid idea that puts lives and property at risk. What the recent announcement by the Corps tells us is that before we can even think abut the toll road project, we're going to have to deal with the damage we have done to the levee system already with the very early elements of the Trinity River Project.

Concrete piers already sunk into the levees in preparation for construction of the Margaret Hunt Hill "signature" bridge, for example, have created a weak spot in the levee system that Dallas will have to find a way to repair. That's just one example.

Look, there are lots of good questions to be answered about how this got done in the first place. What political factors caused the Corps to sit on this report for two years? Why did the Corps sign off on those bridge piers if it knew the piers would weaken the levees? There are lots of serious questions to be asked and answered here. But the most important thing for us to keep in mind as citizens of Dallas is that flood safety for downtown Dallas is not a minor issue or a problem easily solved.

This new revelation by the Corps -- that the levee system won't protect downtown even before we subject it to even greater stress -- is a true bombshell. The mentality that Blow expresses -- doncha worry 'bout a thang, everthang gonna be fine -- is exactly the mentality that produced the ravages of Katrina in New Orleans.

This doesn't have to be a dark moment. If we can get that toll road out of there, this will amount to the most marvelous opportunity in the history of the city for re-creating downtown. Finally we will have a chance to build one of the most wonderful urban parks in the world.

I always come back to a thing city council member Angela Hunt said to me on the phone one day a couple years ago. She said her daydream was of somebody living in a tower downtown. That person gets his or her mountain bike down off the wall hooks, rides down on the elevator with it, gets on that bike and glides through the canyons of downtown and out onto a trail winding through fields where people are playing everything from softball to cricket, on out into a vast urban forest.

We can change what it is to be in Dallas, to live in Dallas. We can change the city's destiny. But first, we have to be smart and responsible about protecting what we already have. This does not have to be a bleak moment. This should be a moment of enormous promise. It's just going to take a little getting used to. Steve is ... Steve is .... Steve is a nice person with good intentions who is sort of .... sort of ... mistaken. I'm gonna have an aneurysm.

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