Citizens set the San Jacinto River Authority straight about Harvey flooding, SJRA Board meeting, Part 2: Where’s the “common sense”?

Citizens set the San Jacinto River Authority straight about Harvey flooding, SJRA Board meeting, Part 2: Where’s the “common sense”?

Image: National Hurricance Center graphic map, dated August 13, 2017, predicting formation of a major storm heading westward from the Lesser Antilles gathering strength through tropical depression number 8 and going towards the Gulf Coast.

Conroe, October 2 – At the San Jacinto River Authority’s Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, September 28, 2017, the first since the Tropical Storm Harvey disaster during which floodwaters released from the Lake Conroe Dam hit homes downstream of the SJRA facility with such force that they were literally swept off of their foundations beginning early in the morning of August 28 and thereafter, General Manager Jace Houston tried to make the case for why he and his staff had acted properly in beginning a release of 79,131 cubic feet per second of water in the middle of the night, at 2 a.m., Monday, August 28.

Houston’s primary points were:

  • Even by August 22, he did not believe that Harvey would be a major storm even for the southeast Texas area.
  • Lake Conroe reduces downstream flooding by reducing the amount of water flowing from the Lake Conroe watershed.
  • Lake Conroe is only 10-20% of the water flows into Lake Houston.
  • Lake Conroe remained within the authorized flowage easement surrounding the lake.
  • SJRA does not pre-release prior to storm events
  • SJRA follows pre-planned emergency communication protocols.

Immediately following Houston’s hour long presentation, four eloquent citizens made citizen comments, which SJRA restricted to five minutes each. Each of those comments hit their target quite thoroughly.

 

Republican and community activist Bernadette McLeroy of Conroe’s River Plantation.

Bernadette McLeroy: critical of the failure to analyze the weather data, failure to communicate, failure to pre-release

Bernadette McLeroy is a longtime community activist who lives in River Plantation in Conroe. McLeroy has been an active member of the Texas Federation of Republican Women for decades. She began her comments, “I am here as a concerned community activist from River Plantation where I live…As a mother and grandmother, I was concerned about 2 a.m. flooding, as children could’ve easily drowned at that time of night.”

McLeroy was very critical of the lack of women or minorities around the Board of Directors table. In fact, the SJRA Board of Directors consists of five Anglo businessmen none of whom live downstream from the Lake Conroe Dam. “I think a woman is needed around this table…a woman has common sense…all that information you’ve [Jace Houston] shown, a woman would’ve based it on her experience.”

McLeroy was very critical because Houston obvious showed that he and the SJRA staff possessed enormous information in their computers, but they failed to use their experience to analyze the data and take appropriate actions. McLeroy emphasized, “I’ll bet, if you had involved woman, a woman would’ve said 5 days out, we couldn’t predict weather, by the time it’s coming to Yucatán, let’s not take the chance…a woman would’ve dropped the lake. It should’ve been ready to accomodate minimal effect on homes.”

McLeroy noted that now thousands of families are having to tear sheetrock to the second floor of their homes. People in River Plantation are trying to accommodate their families and children while restarting construction of their homes from the slabs.

The Republican activist concluded, “There was no effort to communicate this information out. You have to form a community committee. No engineers. Invite the local grass roots to sit on this committee. Let people in who are mothers.”

David Fannin: critical of water rates, high SJRA salaries, but no dedication of resources to communicate a major release of water in the middle of the night

David Fannin, the President of Municipal Utility District Number 42’s Board of Directors, which governs a neighborhood right under the Lake Conroe Dam’s spillway, criticized the SJRA’s budget and its plan to increase water rates. Fannin noted that SJRA already made an operating profit at the end of Fiscal Year 2016 and was on track to make an operating profit for the end of Fiscal Year 2017 as well. Therefore, there is no need to increase water rates.

Fannin noted that salaries and wages of SJRA have increased to $11.7 million, plus an additional $4 million for employee insurance and benefits. He noted that “the average person [at SJRA] is paid $66,239 per year, while average per capita income in Montgomery County is $33,455 per year.” Fannin explained that SJRA’s payroll had increased almost four times since 2007.

He complained that SJRA provided no information about the water release the night and morning of August 27 and 28, even though his neighborhood was literally a “stone’s throw” from the Lake Conroe Dam. “I don’t see how ramping up release rates in the middle of the night contributes to public safety…There was no notice ahead of time…hundreds of people under that Dam could have slept right through the flooding and died.”

Fannin explained that a fire truck came through his neighborhood and notified people.

Fannin also stated that “there needs to be set planned pre-release rates” before major storms.

“You guys are not doing a good job for us,” Fannin concluded.

River Plantation Property Owners Association President Jamie Goodman: SJRA needs to fix the situation

Jamie Goodman, President of the River Plantation Property Owners Association gave a tearful summary of the circumstances. “Over 500 homes were flooded, many that had never flooded before…it was a catastrophe…what are you going to do to fix it?”

Interestingly, while Goodman spoke, Houston never looked directly at her. Instead, he looked down at his notes on the table in front of him.

“If you’d seen the devastation I’d seen, you wouldn’t be sitting here but you’d be crying too,” Goodman told the SJRA Board. “The community feels you guys let us down.”

Robert McLeroy: SJRA should have pre-released water to mitigate the flooding

McLeroy noted that there was no flood control in Montgomery County. He cited a scholarly article from Texas A&M University which argued that, prior to a storm, SJRA should have lowered the Lake Conroe water level to 195 feet above sea level rather than the standard 201 feet above sea level at which SJRA maintained the lake even through the beginning of Tropical Storm Harvey.

“People with boats and docks can dig deeper channels and docks, or they can put floating docks out in the lake…[SJRA] should widen the river and deepen it and improve the downstream flow,” McLeroy told the SJRA Board. “There’s lots of money available from FEMA and other federal sources to obtain funds to dig out the silt from the past several decades,” McLeroy suggested. “The first thing you should have done was to drop that lake level when the storm approached. You have shown that you can drop that lake level in one day’s time.”

Houston’s primary points are actually very disturbing in light of known facts:

  • Even by August 22, Houston said he did not believe that Harvey would be a major storm even for the southeast Texas area.

Citizen response: Houston and the SJRA staff must not have observed the same weather information that the Montgomery County community observed. As early as August 13, 2017, two weeks prior to the storm hitting Montgomery County, the National Hurricane Center had predicted a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast.

National Hurricane Center forecast, August 13, 2017.
  • Lake Conroe reduces downstream flooding by reducing the amount of water flowing from the Lake Conroe watershed.

Citizen response: While in total downstream flow, from the entire Lake Conroe watershed, Lake Conroe may reduce downstream water flow, the Lake Conroe Dam channels the force of the water to one point so that the force (mass times velocity) is immensely higher than any water flow in sheets would otherwise be heading downstream towards the east.

  • Lake Conroe is only 10-20% of the water flows into Lake Houston.

Citizen response: (1) SJRA is statutorily responsible for flood control throughout the entire watershed of the San Jacinto River which extends northwest to Waller County and which extends to the east to Liberty and San Jacinto counties. Therefore, SJRA should have provided flood control for the entire region rather than focusing its resources and attention on water sales to increase revenue and salaries. (2) The force (mass times velocity) accumulation from the pinpoint (practically) Lake Conroe Dam swept down stream with such great strength that it swept homes off of their foundations.

Source: San Jacinto River Authority.

As the SJRA Archives reveal, as well as the Enabling Act which still is good law in Texas, SJRA has a duty (1) to protect the soil from erosion and (2) to provide flood control. SJRA’s management of the storm was the very antithesis of those two primary duties.

  • Lake Conroe remained within the authorized flowage easement surrounding the lake.

Citizen response: So what?! That’s nice that a few boat and dock owners could enjoy the lake for a bit, while SJRA swept thousands of homes off of their foundations downstream.

  • SJRA does not pre-release prior to storm events.

Citizen response: Well, if it’s not the classic trademan’s reply, “I don’t know why; it’s just our policy!”

It’s outrageous that SJRA, which manages the Lake Conroe Dam would not pre-release during hurricane season and keep the lake at a level substantially below 201 feet above sea level. Let’s look at the history:

Hurricane David hit the East coast on AUGUST 25, 1979. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on AUGUST 23, 2005. Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast on SEPTEMBER 18, 2005. Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast on SEPTEMBER 11, 2008.

Can the SJRA and General Manager Houston really seriously say that they didn’t know when the hurricane season would strike southeast Texas. As Ms. McLeroy stated, it’s “common sense” that SJRA should have prepared for a hurricane during late August and early September every year! 

  • SJRA follows pre-planned emergency communication protocols.

Citizen response: Issuing a press release to your “media partners” and “government partners” in the middle of the night as SJRA was opening the flood gates to 79,131 cubic feet per second of water is unacceptable. SJRA is the flood control district for the entire San Jacinto River watershed. SJRA had a public safety duty.

Instead, SJRA sat on its hands. Jace Houston, all of the engineers earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year of public funds, all of the Board members, and all of SJRA’s 161 employees should have descended into the community from their ornate offices and gotten the word out in neighborhoods long before they set the raging torrent loose.

The citizens are correctly enraged. The citizens should take this issue up with Montgomery County’s delegation to the Texas Legislature, create direct accountability to the voters, and make sure SJRA fulfills its statutory duties rather than focusing on making profits from the sale of water and from monopolistic lawsuits for the same.

 

 

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