The flooding catastrophe from Tropical Storm Harvey was largely man-made

The flooding catastrophe from Tropical Storm Harvey was largely man-made

Image: On Friday, September 1, 2017, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) released a video in which the Authority tried to explain its actions. The video did little more than enrage Montgomery County citizens who saw through the video for what it was: a thin rationalization. This photograph is from the video. On the front row are, from left to right, Laura Fillault (Woodlands Township Board), Jace Houston (SJRA Executive Director), Mike Meador (Precinct 1 County Commissioner). In the back row, from left to right, Lloyd Tisdale (SJRA President), Darren Hess (Montgomery County Emergency Management Director), and Craig Doyal (Montgomery County Judge).

Conroe, September 3, 2017 – On Friday, September 1, 2017, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA), which operates the Lake Conroe Dam, released a blood-curdling video in which SJRA Executive Director Jace Houston attempted to rationalize the actions of the state agency which resulted in flooding thousands of home sdownstream from Lake Conroe and the endangering of hundreds of people’s lives during the Tropical Storm Harvey weather over the past week. For some odd reason, Laura Fillault (Woodlands Township Board), Mike Meador (Precinct 1 County Commissioner), Lloyd Tisdale (SJRA President), Darren Hess (Montgomery County Emergency Management Director), and Craig Doyal (Montgomery County Judge) joined Houston in the video but didn’t speak.

The video has enraged many citizens who watched it. Former Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) who is now running for his previous State Representative, District 15, seat in the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election, has become the primary critic of the SJRA. Bob Bagley, who is running for County Commissioner, Precinct 4, which is East Montgomery County, is also a major critic of the SJRA. Jim Clark, the incumbent Precinct 4 County Commissioner, is a defender of the SJRA.

Why was there so much flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey?

To be fair, Tropical Storm Harvey was a very unusual storm. It brought record levels of rainfall during the past week. It made landfall in Rockport, Texas, east of Corpus Christi. As a tropical storm, the weather made landfall into the Greater Houston area beginning around Friday, August 25, 2017.

The flooding in the Greater Houston area was widespread. Areas in Fort Bend County and south Houston experienced terrible flooding. Arguably, the worst flooding was in Kingwood.

The lack of planning and zoning in the development of the City of Houston and surrounding areas cost a dear price during the last week. Subdivisions in Fort Bend County suffered mandatory and recommended evacuations. People were trapped inside their unflooded homes even for several days, because roads had flooded and were impassable.

Montgomery County and Kingwood seemed to experience the worst of the Houston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Montgomery County experienced the worst flooding in Porter, the Splendora-Patton Village-Woodbranch area, River Plantation, Harper’s Landing, some areas of The Woodlands, Benders Landing in far south-central Montgomery County, and elsewhere.

One of the most bizarre areas where a road flooded was the Grand Parkway, Highway 99, at Birnham Woods, as the brand new roadway should not have flooded at all.

The following map is not necessarily accurate, but it is nonetheless helpful in this discussion. The geographic is largely accurate, although some people dispute whether there is so little interconnectedness between the West Fork and the East Fork along F.M. 1314. The flow numbers are tentative, however.

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

SJRA: September 1 video and Executive Director Jace Houston’s statement

Jace Houston, SJRA’s Executive Director, conducted a briefing for elected officials on Friday, September 1, 2017, at the extraordinarily plush offices of SJRA adjacent to the Lake Conroe Dam. After the briefing, Houston invited elected officials to participate in his video presentation that Houston intended to release on social media.

It’s understandable why County Judge Craig Doyal and Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador would participate in a video wherein SJRA attempted to explain its actions. Doyal and Meador are scions of the “establishment” and seek to fool the public even in the face of obvious catastrophe. Also with Houston during the video were Darren Hess (the County Emergency Management Director who was just following Doyal’s and Meador’s orders) and Lloyd Tisdale (SJRA President). The bizarre participant in the video was Laura Fillault, a Woodlands Township Board member who defeated Bruce Tough in the 2014 election and at least claimed to be a reformer and pro-resident politician. During the Jace Houston video, however, Fillault and Meador were the two participants obviously nodding their heads in agreement with Houston’s bizarre presentation.

Houston explained that Lake Conroe reached a peak level of 206.2 feet above sea level during the morning of August 28, while normal levels for the lake are 201 feet above sea level. Houston noted that the SJRA has a legal duty to keep the water levels in the lake below the 6 foot flowage easement around the perimeter of Lake Conroe.

On Friday, September 1, the flow of water from the Lake Conroe Dam was 2,700 cubic feet per second. The maximum flow out of Lake Conroe, which the SJRA released during Tropical Storm Harvey, was 79,141 cubic feet per second. Houston remarked that the inflow into Lake Conroe reached 130,000 cubic feet per second at the height of the storm.

In comparison, during the 1994 500-year flood event, the Lake Conroe watershed received 13 inches of rainfall, while it received 22 inches during Tropical Storm Harvey. During the 1994 flood, the peak elevation of Lake Conroe was 205.6 feet above sea level and the peak flow rate from the Dam was 33,000 cubic feet per second. The 1994 flood damaged River Plantation and other subdivisions along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River severely.

Houston stated “our primary goal at SJRA is to protect life and property…the release rate [of water through the Dam] has to be lower than the inflow.” Incredibly, SJRA’s Houston admitted in the video, “we understand there will be devastating flooding downstream but we don’t have the option to stop releases to avoid the catastrophic consequences.”

For SJRA, Houston said, “our concern is around the lake levels…We have to protect the structural integrity of the Dam itself…” Houston admitted, however, that there was no time during Tropical Storm Harvey when there was any risk to the structural integrity of the Lake Conroe Dam.

Houston added, “We never pre-release water from Lake Conroe for numerous reasons.” Those reasons which Houston listed during the video included:

  • “it would take weeks to safely lower Lake Conroe”
  • SJRA would then “artificially fill up Lake Houston and cause flooding problems downstream”
  • “it’s impossible to predict how much rain will fall and when to safely pre-release”
  • if you lower the Lake Conroe levels too quickly, “then soils become fluidized and threaten the structural integrity of the dam.”

Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Clark.

Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark largely came to SJRA’s defense, even though many neighborhoods in his East Montgomery County Commissioner’s Precinct were the victims.

“This storm was an 800-year flood. There’s no prevention for this event. It’s like pouring a 5-gallon bucket of water into an 8 ounce water glass that you set on the table,” Clark told The Golden Hammer. “I don’t think the SJRA release caused the flooding at all. It was the weather. They could’ve lowered the lake by 2 feet but that would only have delayed the inevitable. While SJRA may have aggravated the flooding, they probably only caused 10 percent of the problem, while 90 percent was the rain.”

Toth’s criticism of SJRA

Toth has been vehement in his criticism of the SJRA’s handling of Tropical Storm Harvey.

First and foremost among Toth’s criticism is that SJRA failed to notify subdivisions and neighborhoods downstream from the Lake Conroe Dam that SJRA was increasing the outflow dramatically. “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,” Toth emphasized.

Toth made clear that he doesn’t believe Houston’s and SJRA’s rationale for failing to pre-release water in order to control the volume of water flowing through the Lake Conroe Dam during the actual storm.

On August 28, Toth issued the following statement:

“Shame on the San Jacinto River Authority.
“In anticipation of Harvey and a possible 50” of rain you probably filled your car with gas and did some grocery shopping. What did the San Jacinto River Authority do? Nothing

“Did they start to bring Lake Conroe down a small amount over an extended time? Nope.
Instead they waited until the spill way was at a record level and released a record amount of water at 77,000 cubic feet per second. That’s over a half million gallons water per second. What are the consequences of their poor planning? Residents down stream including Harper’s Landing are being flooded out of their homes. Shame on this foolish board.”

Toth argued that during recent droughts, Lake Conroe water levels were extremely low, but the SJRA continuously claimed that the structural integrity of the dam was never at risk. Houston’s argument that lowering Lake Conroe’s water level could cause soils to become fluidized and risk the Dam’s structural integrity does not make sense as a result, according to Toth.

Toth added, “I’m appalled at the complete lack of coordination with local officials to warn them and to ensure that residents in cities and subdivisions downstream received real and adequate warnings, not just a flimsy press release. The SJRA released two-and-a-half times more water than they’d ever released before. There is no excuse for not adequately warning in a meaningful way.”

Toth pointed to the devastating flooding in Kingwood, Harpers Landing, and River Plantation as areas which SJRA harmed.

Despite the heavy rainfall above the hydrologic levels of the Lake Conroe Dam, there was little flooding in those areas. Neighborhoods below the Lake Conroe Dam suffered greatly. There’s no question that Spring Creek areas also flooded and that water had little, if anything, to do with the West Fork of the San Jacinto River.

SJRA has at least three major problems. First, as an agency whose board comes from gubernatorial appointments as opposed to direct election by local citizens, SJRA seems largely out of touch with the concerns and needs of this community.

Second, SJRA suffers from incestuous relationships with engineering contractors. Halff Associates, the same engineering firm whose vice president is Bobby Jack Adams, Craig Doyal’s best friend and business partner, is one of the primary engineering contractors for SJRA. Adams is the son of longtime SJRA Executive Director Jim Adams who was Houston’s predecessor. Halff is very slowly working on a drainage study, although it’s unclear at this point what such a drainage study will contribute beyond reiterating the fact that water flows downhill into tributaries with which longtime residents of Montgomery County are already very familiar. There’s no reason whatsoever to wait to pay Halff almost two million dollars for a seemingly unnecessary study in order to resolve the third problem, which SJRA should have resolved long ago.

The big problem: SJRA should develop an effective early warning system in order to communicative – effectively – with people downstream of its flood intentions. Jace Houston said in the video, “we understand there will be devastating flooding downstream but we don’t have the option to stop releases to avoid the catastrophic consequences.” Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Houston’s conclusory statement about SJRA’s lack of options to stop releases, SJRA most certainly has the financial resources and ability to develop the early warning system it should have implemented a quarter of a century ago.

Those five people in the video with Houston – Fillault, Tisdale, Meador, Doyal, and Hess – have become willing or unwilling spokesmen for SJRA. They should turn the tables on SJRA and insist – aggressively and vocally – that SJRA never permit such insensitive destruction of people’s lives to occur again (whether they enjoy sovereign immunity or not).

 

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