On a sunny Easter Sunday, to the music of kids chasing across a lakeside expanse of brilliant green, I spoke with a smart young lawyer, a commercial litigator with a big firm, who was telling me why she might vote for Donald Trump.
She said she was sick of government not doing what it’s supposed to do. I asked what it’s supposed to do. She said it’s supposed to do what we want it to do. I asked what we want it to do. She said what we tell it to do. I shut up because it was Easter.
But on the morning after Easter Sunday I attended an event put on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and afterward I thought what my answer might have been Sunday if I hadn’t had the good sense to shut up. I would have said that most of the time government doesn’t do what we tell it to do because we don’t really want it to.
In fact, we don’t know what we want, even when we say we do. But then we get mad at government for not doing what we just said. Perfect solution: Donald Trump.
Example: No flooding, please. We tell the government it’s the government’s job to protect us from flooding.
In the 1980s when suburban sprawl in the Dallas/Fort Worth area reached a level of intensity that was the demographic equivalent of nuclear fission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told us that sprawl and the sealing off of the entire landscape with impermeable pavement was creating a flood hazard that might soon overwhelm the framework of river levees, dams, lakes and other public works built and maintained by the Corps to protect us from flooding.
When Dallas and an inner circle of suburbs balked at any restrictions that might slow real estate development, the Corps even threatened to sue. On December 15, 1988, the Corps signed what was in effect an out-of-court settlement with Dallas, Fort Worth, Farmers Branch, Grand Prairie, Irving and Lewisville, as well as Dallas County and Tarrant County.
The agreement used some technical terms, of course, but basically it said that none of the local entities on the list would allow any new development to take place that would increase water runoff. That was pretty tough. It meant that all new development had to be offset by new flood control measures.
One set of terms had to do with flood levels. One level is called the “hundred-year flood.” The other is called the “standard project flood.” Both get defined in different ways by different people, but we can think of them both as bad floods.
The other terms in the agreement had to do with something called “valley storage,” which is the amount of rainwater that can soak into the ground in our area without running off. Water that can soak into the ground isn’t a problem. Water that can’t soak in and runs off across the ground instead can be a problem where it collects.
The 1988 agreement between the Corps and the local governments said that there could be no increase at all in either of the two flood levels — hundred-year or standard-project flood. It said that valley storage could not be diminished by more than 5 percent.
And that’s for everything in the entire watershed. From 1988 on, everything that got built in all of those cities and suburbs could not have a combined cumulative effect that would raise the flood levels by one quarter inch or substantially increase runoff.
So there you have it. We told those feds to protect us from flooding. They kind of told us we were the ones causing the flooding. But we said we didn’t care. They still had to protect us. So they did. They threatened to take us to court if we wouldn’t agree to protect ourselves. So we did. We put our foot down or our toe or something. We signed on the dotted line.
Wait. Is it time for Trump yet? No, he comes on a little bit later, but he’s in the house.
Fast forward to today. For 18 years Dallas has been pushing for something called the Trinity River Project which it swears is a huge new flood control project designed to make us much safer than we used to be, albeit at a cost of many billions of taxpayer dollars to be chipped in by a host of government agencies at all levels.
Just before Easter, I found myself perusing the federal document that is the overarching government contract for this great flood control project. The document is called the “ROD” or “Record of Decision.” The ROD represents years of study by various agencies that have devoted enormous scientific and engineering resources in evaluation.
Our own analysis of the ROD, yours and mine, should be guided by these factors: One, we told the government to protect us from flooding. Two, the government told us in 1988 that the biggest contributor was runoff or valley storage as they call it. We agreed — at their behest — that there would be no increase in the flood levels and no decrease in valley storage.
Now the government is spending billions of dollars in our area on a flood-control project. So, wow. Billions of dollars. They must figure this will lower those flood levels and increase that valley storage by a lot.
But a close reading of the ROD reveals that the Trinity River project, itself, on its own, will increase the hundred-year flood level in our area by just over half a foot — that’s the one the out-of-court settlement said could not increase at all — and decrease the valley storage level by just over the 5 percent level, putting the project beyond the limit set by the agreement.
We have to pause here. This is not new news. People on the inside and people who pay attention to these matters have known about this for years: the multi-billion dollar Trinity River flood control project, when it is completed, will make flooding in the Dallas area worse than it would be without it, not better.
When I confronted former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm with this fact and asked why a flood control project would make flooding worse, she held up her thumb and forefinger in the pinchy-pinchy gesture for just a little bit. But even if that’s true — even if it’s just a pinch — that begs the original question, doesn’t it? Why would a flood control project decrease our control over flooding?
We are seconds away from his curtain call, I promise.
Well, the Trinity River flood control project decreases flood control because it’s not really a flood control project. We also want a new expressway built inside the flood control levees. Plus man-made lakes. Plus a big park with trails. And we probably should have said that when we first ordered the Corps to protect us from flooding, but, you know … busy.
What the Trinity River Project winds up being is an almost perfect expression of how we really talk when we talk to the government. We talk pretty much like a crazy person. We want what we want, but we’re not actually sure what that is. We want tough measures, unless those measures require us to make a tough sacrifice ourselves. But, by God, just … you know …do it!
By the way, the 1988 agreement has been deemed an almost total failure as an attempt to control regional runoff, mainly because subsequent suburban sprawl spread so quickly out beyond the borders of the areas controlled by the agreement.
At Monday’s press briefing, Brigadier General David C. Hill, commander of the Southwestern Division of the Corps of Engineers, headquartered in Dallas, gave us an impressive picture of all the things the Corps did do for us during the flooding emergencies of 2015, which was this region’s wettest year in recorded history.
Hill said levees and flood control reservoirs in the Dallas area prevented $16 billion in flood damages that would have occurred last year without them — almost twice the total value of property saved from destruction by Corps levees, dams and lakes in Houston last year. We beat Houston bad.
But I asked him how it works the other way. In order to protect those levees and dams from us — from the things we do to make flooding worse — and in order to provide real protection from flooding for everybody, doesn’t the Corps have to get way out into the realm of land-use policy? I didn’t say this to him, but I was thinking about the need for a parent in the room.
Hill gave a measured and politically astute response. He said, “We’re out there, but we’re out there in what I think is an appropriate role, recognizing where we have abilities and what the primary missions of the Corps are.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
He talked about cooperative efforts with local governments. “Perhaps in the future those types of collaborative agreements would bring great benefit as the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex expands.”
Good answer. What you might expect from a general. But I also heard in it a no. No, we’re not going to turn the Corps of Engineers into a national land use policy enforcement agency, because America doesn’t have a national land-use law or policy to enforce.
If I may paraphrase, I thought I heard the government saying to us, “No, we’re not going to be your daddy. If you say you want flood control, but what you really want is cheap new housing and expressways, then you just need to get it together and be your own mommies and daddies.”
Now the Donald! Come out now, Donald! The government told us to grow up and be our own mommies and daddies! Beat them up for us, Donald!