After Governor Abbott orders it to do so, San Jacinto River Authority finally agrees to fulfill its statutory duty “to provide flood control” (after only 83 years!)

After only 83 years of failing to fulfill its primary duty “to provide flood control” in the San Jacinto River watershed, the San Jacinto River Authority has finally agreed to begin to fulfill its duty “to provide flood control.” This proposed reorganization chart, for the first time ever, shows a Flood Management Division in the SJRA. (The entire SJRA should be a flood management division!)

Conroe, March 23 – The beleaguered citizens of the San Jacinto River watershed and its outfall have had to wait 83 years for the San Jacinto River Authority, created by the Texas Legislature in 1935, to begin to fulfill its primary statutory duty “to provide flood control.” After Governor Greg Abbott ordered the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) to take immediate action to fulfill its statutory duty, SJRA only one week later saw that it faced dire peril if it failed to act and finally took some action to begin to do its job.

State Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) had a more sober perspective on the reforms SJRA is finally implementing so that the Authority will begin to fulfill its statutory duty “to provide flood control.” Creighton told The Golden Hammer, “Hurricane Harvey exposed the fact that critical reforms are needed at SJRA . Senate hearings left many unanswered questions but also  led me to believe that the river authority needed a more balanced representation on the board and they also needed to take responsibility for their long standing duty of providing our area with flood prevention efforts .  With the community, new board members, legislators , and the Governor weighing in, significant changes are now being made and more should be coming soon. These much needed reforms will save life and property and I’m pleased to see them being implemented.” Creighton added, “I’m excited about these changes at Sjra and we shouldn’t let up.”

In order to let the community know that it would finally do its job, SJRA vomited propagandistic garbage from its palatial office near the Lake Conroe Dam on March 22, 2018, in an internal email to its employees.

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

On Thursday, March 22, 2018, SJRA General Manager Jace Houston, who argued with the entire Senate Agriculture Committee last October that SJRA didn’t have the statutory duty to provide flood control, has turned about face and now proclaimed that SJRA has “seized” “a new opportunity” (that it was required  to do for 83 years and didn’t do). Houston propaganda waterfall follows:

“SJRA team members,

“I am extremely excited to announce a new opportunity that is being seized by the SJRA!  River authorities have not traditionally taken on flood management responsibilities because they have no funding for it.  River authorities have no taxing authority and all their revenue comes from contracts with customers.  This means that the only entity directly addressing flooding issues in our region is the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).  This leaves an enormous gap for effectively addressing flooding issues in the San Jacinto River basin.

“A week ago, Governor Abbott challenged SJRA to identify how we could be part of the regional solution and how a funding mechanism could be developed to support that effort.  The Governor issued a charge as follows:

•       Directing the SJRA to immediately identify what can be done to prevent flood events along the West Fork of the river.




•       Directing the SJRA to implement immediate and long-term solutions to protect lives and property of Texans living in the watershed.

•       Directing the SJRA to identify funding to implement a long-term plan that better protects areas downstream of Lake Conroe.

“The Board of Directors and leadership team of SJRA have decided to take bold action and assert a leadership role in the region.  As you can see from the map below, SJRA’s boundaries cover almost all of the San Jacinto basin outside of Harris County.  By taking on a leadership role and partnering with HCFCD, we believe we can deliver effective solutions and create real benefits for our region.”

The “bold action and…leadership” the SJRA apparently has stated it will do is to fulfill its statutory mission as the Texas Legislature directed at a time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President and when President Donald Trump had not yet been born.

Watershed of the San Jacinto River. Source: SJRA.

SJRA has focu$ed on matter$ other than it$ $tatutory mi$$ion

The San Jacinto River Authority has focused its money and other resources on making lots and lots of money. SJRA, which currently controls the Board of Directors of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, has effectively caused LSGCD to issue such restrictive regulations regarding groundwater production that municipalities, utility companies, and homeowners associations have been forced to purchase surface water from SJRA at monopolistic prices at least since 2000 when LSGCD began the unnecessary regulation of groundwater, a resource of which there is no shortage or even threatened shortage in Montgomery County or the surrounding vicinity.

As a result, SJRA has enjoyed immense profits in its sale of surface water to those entities which cannot utilize their own groundwater resources.

State Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, cross-examined and politely ripped apart SJRA Jace Houston during a high-profile investigative hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs Committee at the East Montgomery County Improvement District in New Caney on Monday, October 16, 2017. “I’m embarrassed the public has to hear that answer,” said Creighton after Houston tried to justify the SJRA’s failure to fulfill its statutory mandate “to provide flood control” by arguing “we have the power but not the duty to do flood control.”

The Senate Committee, which Senator Charles Perry, Republican of Lubbock, chaired, was fascinating and provided citizens with a glimpse into the completely reckless disregard SJRA has exhibited towards its responsibilities to provide flood control and prevent soil erosion as its two primary statutory purposes since the Texas Legislature created the state agency in 1937. Houston and his primary ally during the hearing, Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, showed an arrogance reminiscent of the shocking flaunting of President Herbert Hoover whom citizens often witnessed playing rounds of golf at lavish golf resorts during the Great Depression.

Jace Houston, General Manager, San Jacinto River Authority

In response to polite, yet firm, questioning from Senator Creighton, SJRA’s General Manager Houston withered. He admitted SJRA’s “Board of Directors didn’t meet before the [Harvey] storm to consider whether or not to pre-release [water from Lake Conroe in order to mitigate downstream flooding when the storm becamore more intense]. We didn’t meet, because it’s not an option.”

Creighton continued, “Are you prohibited from pre-releasing? Didn’t the Sabine River Authority pre-release water prior to the Harvey storm?”

Houston tried to sidestep the question, “Every basin is different…From our flooding standpoint, a pre-release would make the situation worse.”

Creighton asked, “Do you have the math for the Committee to show how many days early you could have pre-released without doing any property damage?”

Houston admitted that neither he nor any of the other of SJRA’s engineers had every done such calculations because, he claimed, “you couldn’t reduce the amount of water moving down the water way.”

The Senate Agriculture Committee (left) faces SJRA General Manager (second from right in foreground) during the October 16, 2017, investigatory hearing.

Houston repeatedly emphasized that the water from the Lake Conroe Dam is only 10 to 20 percent of the water that reaches Lake Houston. Creighton asked, “You keep saying that the Lake Conroe Dam water only contributes ten to twenty percent of the water in Lake Houston, doesn’t that mean you could’ve pre-released without doing any property damage?”

The most tense exchange between Creighton and Houston occurred towards the end of the hearing when Creighton asked whether SJRA has the duty “to provide flood control” since that’s in the SJRA original enabling statute which the Texas Legislature enacted in 1937. “We don’t any taxing authority but flooding control is in our enabling legislation…We haven’t asked for that charge to be removed from the law,” said Houston. “But I would interpret ‘flood control’ as an authority we have but not a duty.”

Creighton responded, “The fact that you don’t feel you have a duty to do it is very troubling. That was written in the 1930s. When there’s danger, we run towards it as a steward of the public. But it sounds like you’re running away from the danger…We can’t wait until there’s thousands of people displaced to make those requests.

Houston admitted that SJRA has the authority to provide flood control and admitted “one option to provide flood control [in Montgomery County] is for the River Authority to do it. We don’t provide flood control now, because we have the power but not the duty to do that.”

Creighton responded, “I’m embarrassed that the public has to hear that answer.”

SJRA’s Houston tried to argue that no governmental entity has the power to do debris cleaning and desnagging from rivers and tributaries, although he eventually conceded those powers are within SJRA’s enabling mandate which the Legislature passed in 1937.

Houston also tried to deflect the responsibility for flood control to a regional authority rather than to SJRA. “Regional is better,” Houston told the Committee.

Houston then played an accounting trick on Creighton and then Committee when Creighton asked, “How much cash do you have in reserves?”

Houston answered, “I don’t know…less than $10 million.” In actuality, SJRA’s most recent audited financial statement shows that SJRA has more than $54.7 million in unencumbered cash. It’s possible that SJRA has set aside a large chunk of its cash for defense of lawsuit arising from SJRA’s conscious flooding of several thousand homes downstream of the Lake Conroe Dam.

The flood SJRA caused during Harvey

On Friday, September 1, 2017, SJRA, which operates the Lake Conroe Dam, released a blood-curdling video in which SJRA Executive Director Jace Houston attempted to rationalize its actions, which resulted in flooding thousands of homes downstream from Lake Conroe and the endangering of hundreds of people’s lives during the Tropical Storm Harvey weather over the past week.

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.

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 and General Manager, 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).

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.”

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.

Artist rendering of SJRA General Manager Jace Houston doing his job of spewing propaganda.

 

 

 

 

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