Montgomery County’s Pearl Harbor: What Would You Have Done Differently If You Controlled SJRA’s Decisions?

Montgomery County’s Pearl Harbor: What Would You Have Done Differently If You Controlled SJRA’s Decisions?

Image: The wreckage of the United States battleship, the USS Arizona, on December 8, 1941, one day after the Pearl Harbor Attack.

Lake Conroe Dam, September 4 – There are striking similarities between the United States’ handling of the Pearl Harbor Attack on December 7, 1941, and the San Jacinto River Authority’s (SJRA) terrible handling of Tropical Storm Harvey during the past week. For several days, readers of The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, have asked, “What would you have done differently if you controlled SJRA decisions?” Here’s the answer.

The context

Since Friday, August 25, 2017, Montgomery County and surrounding areas have suffered through Tropical Storm Harvey, which brought rain in excess of 25 inches in some areas over an approximately four day period. SJRA estimated that the rainfall in the Lake Conroe Dam area at the southern tip of Lake Conroe northwest of the city center of Conroe on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River experienced 22.4 inches of rain from August 25 to August 29, 2017.

On Monday, August 28, 2017, SJRA was releasing 79,141 cubic feet per second of water (more than 500,000 gallons per second) through the Dam, even though its normal flow of released water from the Dam is 2,700 cubic feet per second. The inflow of water into Lake Conroe was 130,000 cubic feet per second at the height of the storm.

Massive and severe flooding of communities downstream began almost immediately upon SJRA’s release of the water which exceeded the maximum release out of the Lake Conroe Dam during the 1994 flood by 2.39 times.

SJRA provided little warning to downstream communities other than a press release it issued on Sunday, August 27, 2017.

Many people lost their lives and approximately eight thousand families lost their homes in the floods, according to estimates of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court during its Friday, September 1, 2017, meeting.

The flooding occurred in three primary areas moving approximately downstream:

  • West Fork of San Jacinto River: River Plantation, Harpers Landing, Porter, and surrounding communities
  • East Fork of San Jacinto River: Splendora, Patton Village, Roman Forest, and surrounding communities
  • Confluence of the forks of San Jacinto River: Kingwood.

Former State Representative Steve Toth and many others have criticized SJRA for their failure to handle flooding property. Toth’s criticism of SJRA primarily consists of two points:

  • SJRA should have provided real and substantial warning to the homeowners downstream that SJRA intended the massive release of water from the Lake Conroe Dam. “All they did was issue a press release. It’s completely disgusting. They should have gone into neighborhoods with sound trucks and warned people what was coming,” said Toth.
  • SJRA should have begun pre-releasing water in larger quantities than the typical release rate well before the storm actually hit the San Jacinto River watershed, because this entire community had sufficient warning that Tropical Storm Harvey was on its way to southeast Texas several days before it actually struck.

Some, such as Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark, have called for the creation of a flood control district.

Guess what? We already have a flood control district. Its name is the San Jacinto River Authority.

SJRA is a state agency that is out of touch with the community around it. On June 12, 2017, SJRA presented a proposed $2 million engineering study by none other than the seriously conflicted Halff Associates, Inc., engineers, the firm of Bobby Jack Adams, best friend and business partner of County Judge Craig Doyal, and the son of former SJRA General Manager Jim Adams. The purpose of the study is to update flood plain information and enhance flood early warning capabilities in the region.

It’s unclear why SJRA with its massive budget and team of engineers would need to provide such a lucrative contract to an outside engineering firm such as Bobby Adams’ Halff Associates. Flood control and planning are parts of the core mission of SJRA. Flood plain information and early warning capabilities should have been a part of SJRA’s core operations a long, long, long time ago.

“It’s unclear why SJRA with its massive budget and team of engineers would need to provide such a lucrative contract to an outside engineering firm such as Bobby Adams’ Halff Associates. Flood control and planning are parts of the core mission of SJRA. Flood plain information and early warning capabilities should have been a part of SJRA’s core operations a long, long, long time ago.”

Amazingly, the proposed study does not include any analysis of the area around the East Fork of the San Jacinto River. Both Clark and his political opponent, Bob Bagley, who is running against Clark in the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election, have complained that SJRA should include East Montgomery County in the study as well. (Once again, East Montgomery County is receiving treatment as a second-class part of the community without any justification.)

Estimated Peak Water Flows, Tropical Storm Harvey, August 25 to 29, 2017. Source: San Jacinto River Authority.

Comparisons to the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack

In her award winning book (declassified and published in 1962), Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, renowned historian and RAND strategic analyst Roberta Wohlstetter wrote:

“It would be reassuring to believe that Pearl Harbor was just a colossal and extraordinary blunder. What is disquieting is that it was a supremely ordinary blunder. In fact ‘blunder’ is too specific; our stupendous unreadiness at Pearl Harbor was neither a Sunday-morning, nor a Hawaiian phenomenon. It was just a dramatic failure of a remarkably well-informed government to call the next enemy move…

“Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. It includes gaps in intelligence.”

Wohlstetter, one of the great analysts of the twentieth century who spent most of her career from 1948 to 2002 as a military intelligence analyst at RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, concluded after careful study that the United States had sufficient information to foresee and predict the Pearl Harbor attack but failed to identify the signals (especially from signals intelligence) due to the background “noise” of the quantity of other facts.

Montgomery County, SJRA, and our entire community should pay heed to Wohlstetter’s points about Pearl Harbor.

While Tropical Storm Harvey brought a lot of rain, this community has witnessed increasing instances of major flooding events since the October, 1994 floods. There was another flood in February, 1995, that struck areas of Montgomery County. There have been major rainfall and flood damage events in this community each year in the late spring during both 2015 and 2016.

Each year that brings rain (which is every year!) the citizens of Montgomery County observe flooding that has progressively gotten worse and worse. The areas that have continuously suffered flooding most dramatically are the Splendora area of East Montgomery County, River Plantation and nearby neighborhoods.

As development of neighborhoods and roads to them continues, the area of the ground that can absorb rainfall rapidly declines, particularly in those areas where the development has occurred. Master planned communities such as The Woodlands (south central Montgomery County) and Valley Ranch (south east Montgomery County) must plan for drainage, detention, and retention of water as one of the first aspects of infrastructure development. Those communities must continually improve flood control as they develop and grow. The Woodlands experienced very little flooding during Harvey other than along Spring Creek and in Harper’s Landing. Valley Ranch had no flooding problems at all in either the commercial or residential areas.

To understand the terrible failure of SJRA, one must understand its history, because there is a common misconception that SJRA is only responsible for the management of the Lake Conroe Dam which sits on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. SJRA’s responsibility goes far beyond that.

“To understand the terrible failure of SJRA, one must understand its history, because there is a common misconception that SJRA is only responsible for the management of the Lake Conroe Dam which sits on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. SJRA’s responsibility goes far beyond that.”

History of SJRA

There’s a great summary of the SJRA’s history in the Handbook of the Texas State Historical Association:

“The San Jacinto River Authority was established by special acts of the legislature in 1937 as the San Jacinto River Conservation and Reclamation District. Like many such agencies, it was charged with numerous duties and given a broad scope of operational latitude…The district was granted the power to levy taxes but never exercised this power. Its operating income came primarily from the sale of revenue bonds, the sale and distribution of water, and fees collected for the disposal of wastewater. The boundaries of the district embraced all of the watershed of the San Jacinto River outside Harris County, including parts of Walker, San Jacinto, Liberty, Waller, and Grimes counties and all of Montgomery County.

“As a joint project with the City of Houston and the Texas Water Development Board, in 1973 the San Jacinto River Authority completed the construction of Lake Conroe on the West Fork of the San Jacinto at a cost of $30 million. The 21,000-acre reservoir, which lay partially within the boundaries of the Sam Houston National Forest, provided the area a water supply and conservation facilities, as well as many recreational opportunities. The San Jacinto River Authority has provided water supply and waste water treatment to the MUDs at the Woodlands since 1975.”

As the SJRA has acknowledged on its website, its purpose under Article XVI, Section 59(a), of the Texas Constitution includes “the control, storing, preservation, and distribution of its storm and flood waters, the water of its rivers and streams, for irrigation, power, and all other useful purposes.”

Since SJRA’s creation by the Texas Legislature in 1937, during the New Deal era of government expansion, one of its “primary purposes” has been “to provide flood control.”

Enabling legislation giving SJRA responsibility for flood control in the entire San Jacinto River Basin. Source: San Jacinto River Authority.

It’s critical to note that SJRA’s responsibilities and legal duties to provide flood control exist within the entire watershed of the San Jacinto River. Despite efforts by Doyal, SRJA’s General Manager Jace Houston, and others to try to deflect responsibility for flooding on the Lake Creek “watershed” that flows into the San Jacinto River watershed from the west, in actuality Lake Creek flows into the West Fork of the San Jacinto River and is a part of the San Jacinto watershed, as the United States Geological Survey map reveals immediately below.

Watershed of the San Jacinto River. Source: United States Geological Survey.

It makes sense that Lake Creek is part of the San Jacinto River watershed over which SJRA has jurisdiction, because creeks flow into rivers (as most individuals with a third grade education level ought to understand.)

As the Supreme Court of Texas made clear in a 1945 opinion in a case between SJRA and the Texas Attorney General, SJRA’s jurisdiction and responsibility embraced taking public action to prevent public calamities including recurrent devastating flood in the valley of the San Jacinto River. For 80 years, “the boundaries of the…[SJRA] embrace all of the watershed of the San Jacinto River, except that portion thereof lying within the bounds of Harris County,” as the Supreme Court explained.

SJRA has followed the “noise” and lost sight of its mission

One of SJRA’s most highly-developed functions is making money by selling water. Since 1975, SJRA has had a deal to sell groundwater in The Woodlands to the Woodlands Joint Powers Agency and the municipal utility districts in the master-planned subdivision.

SJRA makes most of its money, however, through selling surface water for which it charges mightily. That’s how SJRA has become involved in the controversy over the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD). SJRA’s Jace Houston has a board seat on LSGCD and seems to control that board and entire LSGCD.

LSGCD has adopted some extremely conservative and dire prognostications of groundwater shortages in order to justify stringent regulation of groundwater usage in Montgomery County through groundwater reduction plans (GRPs). By limiting groundwater usage, guess who LSGCD benefits most directly? You got it: SJRA, which can then force water utility companies, municipalities, and other water users to buy water from it under exorbitantly-priced arrangements.

That’s the reason that SJRA, LSGCD, the City of Conroe, and several large groundwater producers are involved in at least two major lawsuits where the City of Conroe and the groundwater producers claim that the GRPs are based upon “junk science” and “arbitrary and capricious” regulation.

In short, SJRA has focused on making money through surface water sales and failed to prosecute its core mission of preventing public calamities in the form of devastating floods in the San Jacinto River’s watershed.

What should SJRA have done differently?

Sadly, Montgomery County just experienced its own version of the Pearl Harbor attack when Mother Nature brought heavy rains to this community without SJRA providing the “flood control” of its core mission under the statutory scheme that created the entity.

SJRA has provided virtually no flood control or planning for East Montgomery County at all. It’s persona non grata around the communities along the East Fork of the San Jacinto River, such as Splendora, Woodbranch, Patton Village, Roman Forest, or Plum Creek. Its team of engineers could have provided municipalities, real estate developers, and road planners with substantial design and planning support along with the truly vast financial resources of SJRA.

SJRA doesn’t need to spend $2 million on paying Bobby Adams’ Halff Associates for a flood plain study when SJRA has the engineering data and resources inside its own computer servers (and in the publicly-available databases of the United States Geological Survey). SJRA should do its job and provide the aforementioned planning to assist communities and transportation developers with flood and drainage control. A good survey crew could assist SJRA in updating the data on the ground for a lot less than $2 million.

SJRA had certainly received the “signals” that catastrophic flooding was on its way, just as the United States had received “SIGINT” prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

SJRA should have developed a strong early warning and communication system with communities, homeowners, municipalities, real estate developers, elected officials, volunteers, and just plain nosy busybodies in order to ensure that massive releases of water from the Lake Conroe Dam would not occur without substantial warning. Incredibly, even business owners near the Dam, such as Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish, a community icon, had little or no warning of the devastating flood.

Wargaming for the next weather event

There’s another aspect of planning where SJRA completely failed and that’s the failure to engage in substantial “wargaming” of flood events.

Before Wohlstetter published her book on Pearl Harbor in 1962, the great strategic minds inside of the RAND Corporation and the United States Air Force had engaged in extensive wargaming scenarios to ensure that strategic surprises, such as Pearl Harbor, would not go unnoticed again. Some of those strategic minds included Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger (both of whom were models for the title role in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), Wohlstetter and her husband Albert, Thomas Schelling, James Schlesinger, and Herbert Goldhamer (arguably the father of modern wargaming).

It seems incredible that SJRA did not engage in wargaming of storm and other flooding scenarios in order to prepare for situations very similar to Tropical Storm Harvey. RAND’s Goldhamer always included “Mother Nature” as one of the military teams in any wargaming. The United States Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment even today still includes “Mother Nature” in many of its wargaming scenarios.

Since SJRA’s core mission includes “flood control,” not just selling water for high profits, it would seem that SJRA would devote substantial portions of its internal resources to “wargaming” scenarios so that SJRA is never caught by surprise again.

Conclusion and summary

Yes, Toth and others are correct that SJRA should have engaged in some pre-releases. Jace Houston’s argument in his September 1, 2017, propaganda video that such pre-releases could harm the structural integrity of the Lake Conroe Dam reveals an ignorance of the history of the Lake Conroe Dam during droughts, of how structural components of a dam behave, and of the core mission of the SJRA itself.

An early warning system and wargaming scenarios for future circumstances seem quite obvious necessities for SJRA.

Most importantly, SJRA should quietly work with those in the business of changing the geography and topography of our community to try to make it even better in order to provide the flood control and planning throughout the entire San Jacinto River watershed (not just restricted to the pretty view immediately outside of the opulent SJRA offices).

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