Harvey flooding dominates San Jacinto River Authority’s first meeting after the disaster: Part 1 of 2, SJRA’s view

Harvey flooding dominates San Jacinto River Authority’s first meeting after the disaster: Part 1 of 2, SJRA’s view

Image: San Jacinto River Authority General Manager Jace Houston (center, dark suit) looks somberly at the audience just before 7:30 a.m., Thursday, September 28, 2017, as the first SJRA Board of Directors meeting since the Harvey flooding was about to begin at the opulent Board Room overlooking the Lake Conroe Dam.

Conroe, September 29 – On Tuesday, September 28, 2017, at 7:30 a.m., the San Jacinto River Authority Board of Directors held its first meeting after the Tropical Storm Harvey flooding disaster before a small crowd overwhelmed with the police protection the SJRA arranged for the meeting. The Harvey flooding dominated the discussion.

SJRA General Manager Jace Houston presented the SJRA’s viewpoint in a production entitled, “Hurricane Harvey Storm Event: Briefing Regarding Lake Conroe Operations.” Since there was little notice for the meeting and the time of the meeting was more than a bit inconvenient, there were not many citizens there to provide public comments but the citizens who did were extraordinary.

The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, will provide full coverage of this extraordinarily important meeting in two parts. Today’s coverage will highlight General Manager Houston’s and the SJRA’s viewpoint. Tomorrow’s coverage will focus on the citizen response.

It’s a shame that very few citizens had the opportunity to attend this meeting. Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley listened to Houston’s presentation. State Senator Brandon Creighton’s representative listened as did local political activist Gary Henson.

Houston and the SJRA staff had obviously put an enormous amount of time and effort into the preparation of Houston’s presentation for the Board of Directors meeting. It seems only fair to present their view of the Harvey events first.

Police state

The extent of police protection for the SJRA Board of Directors meeting was nothing short of bizarre. Law enforcement officers stopped citizens at a checkpoint at the front gate of SJRA’s headquarters. Then as citizens drove into the headquarters building parking lot, there were no less than three-uniformed police officers and three Constable’s vehicles. At the front of the headquarters building were two additional officers. Then citizens rode the elevator to the third floor just inside the building. Upon arriving on the third floor three more uniformed peace officers stood at various points along the forty or so feet to the front door of the opulent SJRA Board Room. Inside the Board room were an additional five uniformed officers, including Precinct 1 Constable Philip Cash.

A confidential source confirmed that the Montgomery County government paid for the services of all but three of the deputy constables who work as contractors for SJRA during Board meetings.

Precinct 1 Constable Philip Cash confers with two of his Deputy Constables at approximately 7:23 a.m., Thursday, September 28, 2017, at the back of the SJRA’s Board Room.

Mark Mothersbaugh’s song “Too Much Paranoia” came to mind as citizens walked into the meeting.

General Manager Jace Houston’s Hurricane Harvey Storm Event briefing

Houston’s briefing was thorough and informative. Every citizen of Montgomery County should read this article and Part 2 which will appear in tomorrow’s edition of The Golden Hammer, because these issues are vital to the future of our community.

Board President Lloyd Tisdale opened the meeting, “We recognize Harvey is a concern. Please refrain from interruptions during the presentation.”

Houston explained that the “purpose of the brief…[was] to give answers to common questions for any large storm event.” He added, “the staff of the SJRA gives our sincere thoughts and prayers to the victims of this destructive and catastrophic event. We also give our thanks to our law enforcement personnel who did such a great job during the storm.”

Houston discussed the time sequence from August 18 to 31, 2017. He noted that seven days prior to Harvey’s landfall, the National Weather Service began daily briefings with related agencies and emergency responders. He explained that the Weather Service suggested that the storm posed no threat to southeast Texas as late as August 22. On August 19, NWS informed SJRA and others that Harvey had actually dissipated. Three days later, the storm’s track was uncertain, according to Houston. By August 22, rainfall predictions were as much as eight inches and could double, according to NWS.

Houston emphasized that on August 22, he did not believe that Harvey would be a major storm even for the southeast Texas area. By August 23, two days prior to landfall, the National Hurricane Center began advisories and NWS’s predictions were for 10 to 15 inches of rain near the coast, although only 6 to 10 inches of rain for the Lake Conroe watershed at that point, according to SJRA’s Houston.

By August 24, however, NWS provided notice that Harvey was intensifying but still predicted a 6 to 10 inch rain band for the Lake Conroe area. Houston explained that prediction began to change by the afternoon of Thursday, August 24, when the NWS briefing forecast increased rainfall. By 4:42 p.m. on August 24, NWS had upgraded the Lake Conroe watershed to 10 to 15 inches of rainfall with south Montgomery County likely to receive 15 to 25 inches of rainfall. Those estimates stayed approximately the same after Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Lockport on August 25.

On Saturday, August 26, “our area began receiving rainfall in the morning,” Houston said. “The 5 day prediction was 10 to 15 inches of rain…Our watershed extends into Walker County.”

At the 4 p.m. brief on Saturday, August 26, NWS gradually increased the rainfall estimates and notified SJRA that the area of high rainfall was “creeping north.” By Saturday evening, August 26, heavy rainfalls moved through the Conroe area. Houston said “our staff was operationally on alert.”

Houston averred that Lake Conroe levels were “7 to 8 inches below normal pool levels.” He said that the lake was at 201 feet above sea level on the morning of August 26 but received 6 inches of rainfall. By Sunday, August 27, Lake Conroe had received 17.8 inches of rainfall. “The NWS briefing on Sunday, August 27, was that the Lake Conroe watershed would like receive an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain from what already occurred,” the SJRA General Manager explained.

By Monday, August 28, at 11 a.m., Lake Conroe had received substantial rain with predictions of an additional 1 to 4 inches of rain, although NWS and the NHC predicted the storm would move to the east by Tuesday, August 29.

The following chart shows the levels of Lake Conroe on Saturday and Sunday, August 26 and 27, 2017:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

This chart from among Houston’s slides shows the high level of Lake Conroe as it rose through the Sunday portion of the Harvey storm:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

 

Houston summarized that southeast Harris County received 40 to 50 inches total rain during the storm and that “the size in magnitude of the rainfall was unprecedented.” He acknowledged that the Tax Day event in 2016 had a  tremendous amount of flooding, but the rainfall was not as extensive. The Memorial Day 2016 event had rainfall of over 20 inches in small areas around Spring Creek and Cypress Creek.

The following is the San Jacinto River Basin Peak Flows Map for the period from August 25, 2017, to August 30, 2017. All of the basins were at or above record levels. Cypress Creek discharged at 28,000 cubic feet per second, while Spring Creek was at 83,000 cubic feet per second. The West Fork of the San Jacinto River reached 130,000 cubic feet per second discharged at Porter, although the Lake Conroe Dam discharge portion of that was 79,000 cubic feet per second.

Source: San Jacinto River Authority.

General Manager Houston explained that the Lake Conroe Dam is an embankment that is two miles long. He explained that there are reasons to explain why SJRA opened the Dam gates at all. He noted that Lake Conroe is a water supply reservoir with very little space to capture inflows of water. The Dam is structurally designed to release water run under the spillway gates. Each gate is 40 feet wide and 30 feet high. When Lake Conroe is at its normal 201 feet elevation above sea level, there are 18 inches of “freeboard” at the top of the spillway gates.

Houston added, “In Harvey we passed over 15 feet of lake level…There was no option not to open the gates.”

Houston made six “key points” the first of which was that the Harvey storm was unprecedented.

The second key point was his contention that “Lake Conroe REDUCES downstream flooding” as explained in the following slide:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

General Manager Houston argued that, since 130,000 cubic feet per second of water was coming into Lake Conroe at the peak of the storm, the Lake Conroe Dam reduced the contribution from the Lake Conroe watershed into downstream areas by restricting the flow to 79,000 cubic feet per second.

SJRA wanted to make clear that the Lake Conroe Dam was only a small part of the flows into Lake Houston, the area where the greatest amount of flooding from the Harvey storm occurred with his third “key point” that Lake Conroe is only a small portion of the Lake Houston flows:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

Houston stated that the peak flow at Interstate 45 (just above River Plantation subdivision) was 130,000 cubic feet per second of flow at the height of the Harvey water discharge, but the Lake Conroe Dam discharge was only 79,000 cubic feet per second of the discharge. The implication was that the other discharges came primarily from the Lake Creek watershed to the west.

He also noted that The Woodlands is on the Spring Creek watershed 15 miles upstream from the San Jacinto River, except that Harpers Landing (on the east side of Interstate 45 and north of State Highway 242) is impacted by flows from Lake Conroe.

Houston’s fourth point was that Lake Conroe’s water levels remained within the authorized flowage easement around the lake:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

Arguing against criticism of Kingwood officials, State Representative Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), and former State Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), General Manager Houston stated that SJRA does not pre-release prior to storm events as a matter of longstanding policy, because:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

Houston provided the following chart to show how long it would take to lower Lake Conroe’s water levels safely:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

Houston said “it would take weeks to safely lower Lake Conroe’s water level for a number of reasons…The small increase in storage makes no difference in a large storm event like Harvey…Weather predictions are not accurate enough.”

Houston also claimed that just 2,500 cubic feet per second release would fill the San Jacinto River downstream of the Dam, but at that release rate you’re only changing Lake Conroe levels 3 inches per day. He further claimed “that’s not a safe release rate.” Houston’s point was that with the weather preductions just six days prior to the storm, since Harvey had dissipated and had become an area of low pressure, there was no way the SJRA could “make an impact on storm operations.”

Houston claimed that SJRA would need a full month’s notice of a storm before it could pre-release effectively.

Houston responded to the criticism that SJRA had not provided sufficient early warnings to the downstream community before opening the flood gates on August 28 at 2 a.m.

“We are partners with emergency response agencies in both Montgomery County and Harris County,” Houston said. “SJRA has no ability to order or control evacuations but we can partner with agencies that can do that…We have a publicly-facing website. All storm date we monitor is on our website.”

Houston summarized his points about early warnings:

Source: San Jacinto River Authority, Jace Houston.

Houston concluded,

  • “In hindsight, the reservoir operations were run very effectively and in accordance with the engineering protocols for the dam.”
  • “The lake stayed within its flowage easement, but we used the entire flowage easement.”
  • “We reduced flowage down the West Fork as much as possible.”
  • He recommended against moving away from “tainter gate dams” like Lake Conroe, because “I believe tainted gates are better operationally because of the flood mitigation they accomplish…They reduce downstream flooding.”
  • “It requires a tremendous amount of education to understand how they [tainter gate dams] function.”
  • He recommended additional basin modeling (the ongoing $2 million Halff Associates, Inc., project!).
  • He recommended large scale flood control projects.
  • He recommended “channelization of certain streams.”

After the approval of the consent agenda and various spending projects by unanimous votes, the Board of Directors went into executive session in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, because the agenda notice failed to specify the specific topics of the sessions.

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