San Jacinto River Authority faces potential flood of lawsuits after adverse court rulings

San Jacinto River Authority faces potential flood of lawsuits after adverse court rulings

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 and Houston, May 24 – The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) faces a potential flood of lawsuits after some adverse court rulings in the trial court of 152nd District Judge Robert K. Schaffer in the lawsuit of approximately fifty (50) families of homeowners whose homes and belongings suffered flooding after SJRA began to release water from the Lake Conroe Dam at the monstrous rate of 79,141 cubic feet per second around 2 a.m., Monday, August 31, 2018, during Tropical Storm Harvey.

Judge Schaffer ruled that sovereignty immunity (the legal concept that “the King can do no wrong”) does not protect the SJRA from lawsuits where the homeowners can show that SJRA flooded their homes intentionally, which would constitute an unconstitutional “taking” of real property without just compensation both under the Texas Constitution and under the United States Constitution applied to Texas through the Fourteenth Amendment. Immunity does not normally apply if the governmental taking occurred as a result of an intentional act of the government authority.

The fundamental argument of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, styled Thomas and Beth F. Ross, et al., versus San Jacinto River Authority, is that SJRA knew that it would cause devastating flooding downstream when he chose to release the massive amount of water from the Lake Conroe Dam on August 31, 2018, and for several hours thereafter.

On Friday, September 1, 2017, SJRA Executive Director Jace Houston may have made one of the worst statements of his career in a carefully-rehearsed video the script for which the SJRA’s team of attorneys approved. 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.”

“…we understand there will be devastating flooding downstream but we don’t have the option to stop releases to avoid the catastrophic consequences.” – SJRA Executive Director Jace Houston, September 1, 2017.

SJRA, which operates the Lake Conroe Dam, released a blood-curdling video on September 1 in which 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, 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 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, 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.”

SJRA has appealed Judge Schaffer’s rulings to the 14th Court of Appeals at Houston. SJRA has filed its Appellant’s Brief. The plaintiffs will file their responsive Brief later this month.

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