San Jacinto River Authority intentionally obtuse when citizens, County Commissioners ask the pointed questions (has obfuscation become the new form of government?)

San Jacinto River Authority intentionally obtuse when citizens, County Commissioners ask the pointed questions (has obfuscation become the new form of government?)

Image: On October 12, 2017, Precinct 2 Montgomery County Commissioner Charlie Riley asked precisely the right question to engineer Sam Hinojosa of Halff Associates, Inc., the engineering firm doing a $2 million study for the San Jacinto River Authority, which many hold responsible for much of the flooding downstream from the Lake Conroe Dam during Tropical Storm Harvey. In response to Riley’s excellent question, both Hinojosa and Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin were as obtuse as Warden Norton in the movie “Shawshank Redemption.”

Conroe, October 12 – The San Jacinto River Authority has become as intentionally obtuse as a failing bureaucracy can possibly be after it’s caused a man-made disaster destroying thousands of people’s lives. Obtuse. Obfuscation. SJRA is doing them all right now. The citizens can’t get answers. Even Montgomery County Commissioner (Precinct 2) Charlie Riley can’t get the answers.

Riley asked on October 10. The citizens have been asking since SJRA unleashed a raging torrent of charging water through the Dam’s gates around 2 a.m., Monday, August 28, 2017, essentially without any meaningful warning to the neighborhoods and communities downstream. This newspaper made a request to SJRA on September 27, 2017, and, while, The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, didn’t get all of the answers, some very significant information came out of the SJRA’s response.

It’s important to remember that of all of the governmental entities who tax, control, regulate, and confiscate in Montgomery County, there’s one governmental entity that clearly has a legislatively-defined duty “to provide flood control” and “to protect the soil from erosion.” That governmental entity is, of course, SJRA.

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

Now, of course, that raises the question “where’s the San Jacinto River Basin” over which SJRA has this duty to provide flood control? Fortunately, the nice folks at the United States Geological Survey have provided a map with the answer. Please notice that there is not one square inch of Montgomery County that is not within the watershed of the San Jacinto River. Therefore, any lake, river, tributary, stream, creek, pond, or puddle inside of Montgomery County is squarely within the jurisdictional area of SJRA for which the Texas Legislature, in a law which the Governor signed, has given it the responsibility “to provide flood control.”

Watershed of the San Jacinto River. Please note that all of Montgomery County is within it. Source: United States Geological Survey.

Hence, getting answers to these questions shouldn’t be so tough. Riley, the citizens, and even The Golden Hammer ought to be able to get the straight responses without the practiced bureaucratic obtuseness of SJRA General Manager Jace Houston and his henchman.

Riley tried to get the answers

On Tuesday, October 10, 2017, Riley asked precisely the right question to engineer Sam Hinojosa of Halff Associates, Inc., the engineering firm doing a $2 million study for the San Jacinto River Authority which many hold responsible for much of the flooding downstream from the Lake Conroe Dam during Tropical Storm Harvey. SJRA’s David Parkhill, the #3 man at the water and flooding bureaucracy, sat in the audience at Commissioners Court with his mouth as tightly-closed as a clam fighting for its life. Hinojosa, who was into the situation far more deeply than he was able to handle, basically answered with no meaningful information other than to note that he lives in Montgomery County.

During a discussion in the Commissioners Court on the community’s efforts to attempt to recover from the SJRA/Tropical Storm Harvey flooding, while Town of Woodloch Mayor Diane Lincoln sat on the front row of the audience crying, Riley began the colloquy.

Riley: “I need to ask a question: who has the authority and jurisdiction over Lake Creek, Spring Creek, San Jacinto River, all these tributaries…who has the authority or jurisdiction to get in there…the key word was said a while ago, to de-snag, these tributaries? Who has that authority?”

Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack: “The Corps of Engineers.” (Incorrect response.)

County Judge Doyal (always trying to protect his engineering buddies, especially at SJRA): “In talking with Congressman Brady, he indicated if we got a study that showed that it was manageable, that the corps would be involved in actually doing the work.”

Riley (turning redder): “Well, I understand that, but we’ve contacted the Corps many times and we don’t get any assistance from the Corps. We don’t get any assistance from Texas Parks and Wildlife.”

Noack (turning pale): “They didn’t give us any money. All they did was give us permission to pull out the trees.”

If true obfuscation is necessary in the Commissioners Court, Doyal and Meador and the political establishment can always rely on Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin to provide the final dose of misinformation.

Griffin: “The question is who has authority over specific tributaries, but it depends upon the specific tributaries. Overall, you’re going to have to involve the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Excuse the strong language, but BALDERDASH!

Griffin, Hinojosa, Doyal, and Noack should read the Enabling Act from SJRA’s website (shown above) which makes clear who has the authority to de-snag the tributaries within the San Jacinto River watershed: the SJRA.

What makes SJRA’s avoidance of their responsibility over the decades since the October, 1994, flood, which devastated this community, even more frustrating is the sheer money, money, money that SJRA has made through its monopolistic practices of selling water at exorbitant prices, particularly after it enlisted the assistance of Lone Star Groundwater Conservative District to regulate a monopoly into existence.

SJRA’s last full-year audited financial report showed that it had $137 million of cash of which $54.9 million was unencumbered. SJRA’s net worth was $169.9 million.

In other words, SJRA has a fund of approximately $54.9 million in cash that it could easily use to provide the flood control and flood mitigation that Montgomery County so desperately needs!

“…SJRA has a fund of approximately $54.9 million in cash that it could easily use to provide the flood control and flood mitigation that Montgomery County so desperately needs!”

Instead, SJRA spends its money on massive salaries, director fees, a snazzy headquarters building, and tighter security than a Mexican drug cartel kingpin.

Therefore, the answer to Riley’s question is quite straightforward. Here’s how the discussion should have gone.

Riley: “I need to ask a question: who has the authority and jurisdiction over Lake Creek, Spring Creek, San Jacinto River, all these tributaries…who has the authority or jurisdiction to get in there…the key word was said a while ago, to de-snag, these tributaries? Who has that authority?”

Bearer of Truth: “The San Jacinto River Authority has the duty, jurisdiction, the authority, and the money to desnag the tributaries and provide the flood control Montgomery County so desperately needs.”

SJRA’s Brief Response

On September 8, 2017, in response to harsh criticism from officials in the Kingwood area, which suffered some of the worst flooding downstream from the SJRA’s 79,131 cubic feet per second water release out of the Lake Conroe Dam, SJRA issued a very defense press release. SJRA obviously wanted to have the last word, so that citizens would happily leave SJRA alone.

SJRA Press Release, September 8, 2017. Source: SJRA.

What’s so intriguing about SJRA’s press release is the following sentence in the third paragraph:

“Despite the misinformation and speculation that has been circulated in the media, in the pending lawsuit, and elsewhere, the actual facts are that the Authority’s operation of the Lake Conroe dam was in accordance with both the law and a carefully prepared engineering plan that, among other things actually has the effect of reducing downstream peak flow as water passes through the lake from the San Jacinto River.”

Wow! Great news! Maybe SJRA isn’t so sinister after all, because all they were doing was following their own “carefully prepared engineering plan that, among other things actually has the effect of reducing downstream peak flow as water passes through the lake from the San Jacinto River.”

In the midst of the celebration over SJRA’s telling the public the great information about its “carefully prepared engineering plan,” The Golden Hammer decided to go onto SJRA’s website to find that “carefully prepared engineering plan,” study it, and further the citizens’ celebration over how wonderfully SJRA takes care of us all.

It wasn’t there.

Was the SJRA being obtuse?

When prisoner Andy Dufresne asked Warden Samuel Norton (shown here) whether Norton was being “obtuse,” Norton threw Dufresne into solitary confinement for 60 days. Hopefully, Riley, the citizens, and this newspaper won’t suffer the same fate.

The Golden Hammer’s Publisher’s September 27 Open Records Act request

On September 27, The Golden Hammer’s Publisher sent SJRA an Open Records Act request to obtain the following documents:

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the San Jacinto River Authority:
“Pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act/Open Records Act, I request the following documents:
“1. The ‘carefully prepared engineering plan’ to which your September 8, 2017, Press Release (‘SJRA Responds to Lawsuit Regarding Hurricane Harvey Flooding’) referred;
“2. All engineering plans since October 1, 1994, SJRA has prepared or had prepared for it for the operation of the Lake Conroe dam with respect to mitigation or reduction of downstream peak flows as water has passed through Lake Conroe from the San Jacinto River.
“3. All flood control plans SJRA has developed since August 28, 2007.
“I am happy to reimburse the Authority for reasonable research and copying charges, although I prefer production electronically for convenience and to save expense.
“Sincerely,
“/s/ericyollick/s/
“Eric Yollick, Private Citizen
“Email ericyollick@swbell.net
“Telephone 832.496.4898.”
 Now, let’s be clear about the request. All that was requested was (1) a document to which SJRA had publicly referred in a September 8 press release also posted on SJRA’s website, (2) engineering plans to mitigate or reduce downstream peak flows, and (3) flood control plans since 2007.
Nowhere was there any request for the deep dark secret construction drawings for the Lake Conroe Dam. Nowhere was there some request for SJRA’s efforts (if any) to prevent or combat terrorism. Nowhere was there a request for the technical details of particular vulnerabilities of the Lake Conroe Dam, which is a requirement to fall within the “homeland security exception” to disclosure under the Open Records Act.
Clearly, the request for information to SJRA had nothing whatsoever to do with the technical details of the Dam itself at all. Rather, it sought information about the operational planning of SJRA to mitigate downstream flooding.
Therefore, SJRA’s response to an innocent Open Records Act letter requesting documents to which SJRA had already publicly referred in a public press release was quite interesting. The full letter is at the end of this article.
The gist of their response, however, is that the document to which the September 8 press release referred is a secret document protected from disclosure by the Texas Homeland Security Act.
SJRA’s total obfuscation: its purposefully obtuse response to Open Records Act request
SJRA’s high-priced Houston attorney explained that “the only information that is responsive to your Request is contained in the Authority’s Emergency Action Plan for the Lake Conroe Dam and the related 2017 update to the Gate Operation Policy for the Lake Conroe Dam.”
In other words, the “carefully prepared engineering plan that, among other things actually has the effect of reducing downstream peak flow as water passes through the lake from the San Jacinto River” (to use SJRA’s words from the press release) is not “carefully prepared” to reduce downstream peak flow but is, instead, “carefully prepared” to meet the operating requirements of the Lake Conroe Dam as constructed. That would explain General Manager Jace Houston’s heartless comment in his September 1, 2017, video, “we understand there will be devastating flooding downstream but we don’t have the option to stop releases to avoid the catastrophic consequences.” But Houston’s priority is protecting the engineering construction of his Dam.
As to Open Records Request #2 for all engineering plans to mitigate or reduce downstream peak flows from the Dam, there’s only one! That’s the plan to protect the Dam itself. Even though SJRA has the statutory duty – since 1937 – “to provide flood control,” in reality, SJRA has done absolutely nothing. In fact, that’s the response to Open Records Act Request #3.
In Open Records Request #3, SJRA was to produce “All flood control plans the Authority has developed since August 28, 2007.” Notice that there aren’t any!
The bottom line message to the citizens, Charlie Riley, and anyone who cares about flood control: SJRA operates to make money from water sales. Flood control be dammed.
SJRA’s response to Open Records Act request, page 1.
SJRA’s response to Open Records Act request, page 2.

 

 

 

 

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