Montgomery County, September 5 – While God brought the rain and development brought some of the flooding, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) brought the carnage known as Tropical Storm Harvey on August 28, 2017. When the SJRA began to release 79,131 cubic feet per second of water out of the Lake Conroe Dam gates, at around 2 a.m. on August 28, 2017. the subdivision of the State of Texas unleashed a raging torrent of physical force the likes of which this community has never seen. After the flooding, on Friday, September 1, SJRA’s Jace Houston, its general manager, said in a public relations video, “we understand there will be devastating flooding downstream but we don’t have the option to stop releases to avoid the catastrophic consequences.”
A year later, it’s pretty obvious that Houston still doesn’t get what happened and his and the SJRA’s responsibility for he destruction of lives, families, and property.
SJRA provided almost no warning whatsoever other than a middle-of-the-night press release the agency provided to the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management (a misnomer, that would be more accurately “the Montgomery County Office of Public Relations During Emergencies”) and a few others. SJRA provided no early warning to any of the subdivisions downstream of the massive release of water.
Local mathematician Jim Bays of Conroe has explained the massively deadly force which SJRA released through the Lake Conroe Dam gates early in the morning on August 28th. “The 79,131 cfs terminology may be the politically correct way for SJRA to describe the water, but people need to understand it in human terms. That may be SJRA’s game, but let’s talk about the actual volume of the water,” Bays told The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper. Bays said, “79, 131 cubic feet per second is the same as 591,941 gallons per second, or 35,516,459 gallons of water per minute. That’s 2,130,987,553 gallons of water per hour. That’s right. That’s 2.1 billion gallons per hour of water that SJRA released on our community from pinpoint gates that increase the velocity and force of the water tremendously.”
Bays continued: “The Astrodome has a volume of 41,000,000 cubic feet. The water released, thanks to SJRA, was the equivalent of filling the Astrodome every 518 seconds or 8.6 minutes, and then dumping that into Montgomery County. SJRA dumped an Astrodome of water downstream every few minutes.” The Golden Hammer asked Bays, the mathematician, what velocity he would expect the water to have had as it left the Lake Conroe Dam gates. In response, Bays stated, “Without knowing the width of the gates, it’s difficult to do a precise calculation of velocity. Nevertheless, that amount of water coming out of the dam gates which I have visually observed would move with such great force it would literally knock the skin off of any human being standing in front of it and not moving with the flow.”
More than 5,000 homes flooded as a result of the SJRA’s massive release of water. The force of the torrent was so great that the water swept many structures off of their foundations.
The real issue, however, is what has SJRA done since that time. It’s critical to note that SJRA has had the statutory duty “to provide flood control” since 1937 when the Texas Legislature created the agency. SJRA must also take action to prevent soil erosion and to prevent the deleterious impacts of soil erosion.
In recent weeks, SJRA has begun to work with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto River. Such dredging should have occurred regularly over the past 81 years, since that is a direct responsibility of SJRA.
SJRA hired a Director of Flood Management, Chuck Gilman, at the startling salary of $180,000 per year. Sadly, the “Flood Management Division” of SJRA is little more than a press release, Gilman’s high salary, and the high salary of his secretary.
The Flood Management Division doesn’t do anything. The SJRA’s description of the Flood Management Division follows:
“Located at the Lake Conroe Dam, the Flood Management Division’s primary functions include: developing short-term and long-term regional flood management strategies within the Authority’s portion of the San Jacinto River Basin; building partnerships with federal, state, and local government entities; identifying funding sources and opportunities; and coordinating, collaborating, and potentially partnering with other flood management entities throughout the entire San Jacinto River basin. The Flood Management Division oversees the partnership and implementation of planned and funded projects, including the transfer of operations and maintenance of completed projects to partnering entities.”
In other words, despite its statutory duty “to provide flood control,” SJRA does absolutely nothing by itself to fulfill that responsibility. SJRA obtained a Texas Water Development Board grant and a huge investment from each of the City of Conroe and the Montgomery County government to prepare a flood warning study. SJRA still has not implemented any flood warning plan or operations.
SJRA is one of four government entities putting money into another regional flood control study. The Montgomery County government is putting more money into the study than is the SJRA, which has approximately $55 million of unencumbered funds available to it. SJRA still has not implemented any flood controls or operations.
On August 28, former State Representative Steve 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 continues to suffer 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.
The other big problem: SJRA has taken no action whatsoever to guide development forward in such a manner that proper drainage, detention, and retention of water will occur during heavy rainstorms. SJRA’s Flood Management Division should be a positive force for safe development that doesn’t harm pre-existing residential and commercial development. Prevention of externalities (economic effects of business transactions outside of the parties to those transactions) is a legitimate function of government as long as the prevention is the minimal reasonable action.
Many citizens have called for a “flood control district” in Montgomery County. In truth, Montgomery County doesn’t need such a district, because the community already has one, albeit one which is out of touch with the citizens. That flood control district is the SJRA.