The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Conroe, January 13 – When government takes on management of a task outside of its traditional roles of law enforcement or national defense, government almost always messes up the task. The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) is certainly no exception, especially with respect to its management of the level of Lake Conroe, an issue the Montgomery County Commissioners Court will confront squarely on Tuesday, January 14, 2020, during the Court’s regular meeting.
Precinct 1 Montgomery County Commissioner Mike Meador has placed a resolution on the Commissioners Court agenda calling for an “immediate halt” of further water releases pursuant to SJRA’s water level reduction strategy. Commissioner Meador’s resolution follows:
SJRA began seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe after the wayward river authority, a subdivision of the State of Texas, suffered criticism for its failure to release water early before Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast area. But rather than managing releases of water based upon specific credible weather threats, SJRA decided to release water by rote.
The out-of-touch SJRA Board of Directors set a policy, upon the recommendation of SJRA’s staff, to lower Lake Conroe during hurricane season to an elevation of 199 feet above sea level, or 2 feet below normal pool levels. SJRA lowers the lake 1 foot below its normal pool level during April and May each year right before the official beginning of the hurricane season.
No one would seem to criticize SJRA for lowering Lake Conroe levels in the event of a likely weather emergency, such as Tropical Storm Harvey, but, at the same time, no one seems to have called upon SJRA blindly to follow a policy of lowering lake levels which requires no careful management of Lake Conroe by the SJRA’s highly-paid engineering staff.
In November, 2019, the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) met with the SJRA Board to discuss the Board’s policy. Board members and SJRA staff told LCA’s Board that SJRA began the periodic lake lowering program, regardless of weather threats or the lack thereof, after Kingwood residents complained that the decision not to release water early during Harvey, in addition to record rainfall totals, helped fuel record releases from the dam and increased flooding downstream.
Meador’s resolution, as well as a political campaign, including signs, emails, text messages, and direct mail, presage a January 23, 2020, presentation by LCA to the SJRA Board on the negative impacts of Lake Conroe lowering. SJRA’s Board will likely vote whether or not to continue the Seasonal Lake Level Adjustment Program at SJRA’s February 27, 2020, Board of Directors meeting.
LCA President Mike Bleier issued a December 4, 2019 statement in which he summarized the complaints about SJRA’s lake lowering program:
“October 1, 2019, marked the end of a second year of the San Jacinto River Authority’s (SJRA) Seasonal Lake Level Adjustment Program on Lake Conroe where the lake level is reduced by a minimum of two feet (2’) between August 1 and September 30. Of course, what we’re seeing is not a lake level reduction for only 2 months. Even with 5.2 inches of rain since October 1, we have now seen a Lake Conroe down 2 or more feet for over 4 months (with a lake level of 198.79 on December 2, 2020). Were we in a drought, we may well be looking at lake levels down 3 to 4 feet. SJRA’s Board will vote in February 2020 as to whether to extend, modify, or eliminate the program going forward. If you are tired of artificially low lake levels, the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) is asking you to make your feelings heard.
“The lake lowering program was implemented by SJRA following the significant flooding of communities located well downstream of Lake Conroe during Hurricane Harvey. The emergency releases from Lake Conroe contributed a relatively small portion of the total water flow (estimated at not more than 15%) downstream and were necessary as the water level in Lake Conroe was threatening to exceed dam design levels and flooding many lake front properties as well. The lake level rose almost 5 1/2 feet before the releases and was over two times the largest ever historical storm effect.
“Local businesses and residents that have ties to lake activities have been negatively impacted for two years by the decision to lower lake levels. Many cannot launch their boat or fear damage navigating through lowered lake levels. Boats have run aground on sand bars exposed by lowered lake levels that would normally have been safely submerged. The Southern Empress, a commercial paddleboat operating on Lake Conroe was stranded on a sand bar on September 7th with 83 people aboard. Those people had to be rescued and returned to shore in the dark by small boats called in to help. Businesses relying on boat traffic such as lakeside restaurants experience a decrease in business as customers fear docking in shallow water and accessing high fixed dock decks from their boats. Stumps normally 3-5 feet underwater are now much closer to the surface and causing damage to boats and jet skis. These uncharted and unmarked hazards cause significant risk to the boating public especially those towing children or adults on tubes, on skis, or on wake boards. Marinas are being forced to spend thousands of dollars to dredge adequate access to their facilities. Potential lake front home buyers squirm when see sand bars and vegetation hindering lake access from their potential dream home. Anglers fear damage to shallow native vegetation that supports the lake ecosystem and serves as a breeding ground for the next generation of fish. Professional angling organizations hosting lucrative national competitions on Lake Conroe may choose to go elsewhere. Many fear bulkhead damage due to the lack of hydrostatic pressure as lake levels are reduced.
“SJRA’s Seasonal Lake Level Adjustment Program was designated as ‘temporary’ by the SJRA Board when it voted to implement the program. “Temporary” was tied to completing dredging of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. The dredging is designed to improve the flow of water through the river and reduce flooding in Kingwood and surrounding areas. Dredging is expected to be completed before the end of 2019. It is reasonable to expect that the seasonal “temporary” program should be over by then.
“The LCA met with a SJRA Management Team on October 8 to discuss their Seasonal Lake Level Adjustment Program and how we ended up here. While they could not speak for the SJRA Board’s individual votes to implement and continue this program, they stated that the Board was most likely influenced by the fact that Kingwood-area residents have written letters and attended SJRA Board Meetings demonstrating their desire for and support of SJRA reducing lake levels on Lake Conroe. Conversely, they described Lake Conroe-area residents as apathetic and uninvolved noting that they do not write or attend. We need to be seen and heard, and it starts with you.
“The LCA invited 61 POA’s/HOA’s to a meeting on November 13 to discuss their concerns over lowered lake levels and what steps should be taken prior to the SJRA Board’s February 2020 vote. Those in attendance agreed, without question, that our residents and businesses need to make their opinions heard by SJRA. If you disagree with SJRA’s Seasonal Lake Level Adjustment Program and want to see it removed, let SJRA’s Management and Board know how you feel. To write letters, SJRA’s mailing address is PO Box 329, Conroe, Texas 77305. To send e-mails to Management, the General Manager’s e-mail address is email@example.com. To contact the SJRA Board, please visit www.sjra.net/about/board or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also express your feelings by attending a SJRA Board Meeting on December 12, January 23 or February 27 which start at 8AM and are held at SJRA’s Lake Conroe Campus at 1577 Dam Site Road in the 3rd Floor Conference Room. If you don’t take the time to let SJRA’s Management and Board of Directors know how you feel, you should expect continued lower lake levels for years to come.
“The LCA will be presenting to the SJRA Board in the January 2020 Board Meeting in advance of the February 2020 SJRA Board vote. LCA’s goal is to ensure the SJRA Board holds a transparent, objective, and fact-based assessment of the lake lowering program. We believe the current program was enacted by the SJRA Board with minimal technical basis against the recommendations of the SJRA Management and without extensive notice or debate. Our intention is to represent what YOU WANT. We will be preparing that presentation over the next couple months.”
SJRA’s Harvey mess
While God brought the rain and development brought some of the flooding, the 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.”
Three years 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.
SJRA has worked 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 83 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, 2017, 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.
Neither Toth nor anyone else, however, ever called for mechanical lowering of Lake Conroe levels each year regardless of actual weather conditions. Clearly, Toth and the community wanted SJRA to manage each weather situation as it occurred.
Ironically, Meador has always been very defensive of SJRA’s policy formulations. Nevertheless, the political storm over damage to properties around Lake Conroe and the enormous harm to recreational uses of Lake Conroe have forced Meador to mark a different position to protect the interests of property owners in Commissioner Precinct 1 from SJRA’s policy which fails to take into account actual weather.