Image: State Senator Brandon Creighton (center in dark suit), Republican of Conroe, cross-examined San Jacinto River Authority General Jace Houston during the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs Committee hearing at the East Montgomery County Improvement District in New Caney on Monday, October 16, 2017.
New Caney, October 17 – State Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, cross-examined and politely ripped apart San Jacinto River Authority (“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.”
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.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick began the hearing with the observation, “Senator Creighton has been relentless in trying to help people and small businesses through this very difficult time…This hearing is just the beginning…It’s just the first step in a very long process in getting plans and getting the funding, mostly from the federal government, in order to help mitigate the damage in the future.”
Patrick mentioned flood mitigation steps he supports are “releasing water beforehand,” “transparency,” and “doing everything we can to make sure our rivers are clear and bridges are free from debris.”
“You can’t stop the rain but you can work on the impact,” Patrick concluded. “We need to be better prepared for a storm.”
Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal’s misunderstanding of his community
Doyal seemed more concerned and excited about politicians in the area than showing care for flood damage or prevention. “It’s exciting to see that each of our local legislative contingent showed up in our Emergency Operations Center.”
Doyal noted that the main concern of Montgomery County citizens was to know “how high is my boat going to come up or down relative to the boat lift.” Doyal bragged about how Montgomery County prevented many people from building in the flood plain. Of course, he didn’t mention all of the homes surrounding Lake Conroe that are actually in the flood plain. Doyal also didn’t mention the tragic losses in River Plantation, other Conroe area neighborhoods, and the homes farther downstream in East Montgomery County.
Doyal made an interesting comment in defense of SJRA, “SJRA was working hard to protect people downstream and upstream.” Of course, Doyal failed to disclose to the Senate Agriculture Committee that his criminal legal defense fund is under the leadership of the SJRA’s main engineering vendor, Halff Associates, Inc., the engineering firm of Bobby Jack Adams, Doyal’s best friend and business partner. Adams is also the son of the late Jim Adams who was a predecessor General Manager at SJRA to Houston.
Doyal also seemed to want to project flooding away from areas which SJRA’s terrible decisions didn’t cause. “Most of the flood damage occurred along the southern part of the county along Spring Creek.” As an afterthought, Doyal mentioned, “and some in the eastern part of the County.”
In response to questions from Creighton, Doyal admitted that neither he nor the County government had ever asked SJRA to prove up its argument that it cannot pre-release water in order to mitigate the effect of downstream flooding. “No one in the County or the SJRA has the authority to clean up the debris in the San Jacinto River or its tributaries.”
State Representative – and Montgomery County Judge candidate – Mark Keough
State Representative Mark Keough, who is running for Montgomery County Judge in the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election, contradicted several of Doyal’s misinformative statements.
“There are a number of issues that have to do with how the San Jacinto River flows and where it ends up. A few weeks after the flood, I flew from Lake Conroe down the San Jacinto River. The water had subsided but the intense turning of the river, the sand-mining operations, and the buildup of wood and logs in the river is mind-boggling,” Keough told the Committee.
Keough noted that both Lake Houston and the San Jacinto River and its tributaries are heavily silted and require dredging and desnagging. The longtime businessman and pastor explained “the River Authority’s release of 79,131 cubic feet per second of water pushed a thrust of water down the river that stopped other rivers and tributaries from flowing into the San Jacinto, pushed water back up those tributaries, and caused flooding upstream.”
SJRA’s Big Lie
In a desperate effort to try to justify its abject failure ever to provide any flood control, Houston and SJRA repeatedly argue, “Lake Conroe reduces downstream flooding by reducing the peak flow that would’ve gone down the West Fork and the San Jacinto River.”
Sadly, that statement doesn’t make any sense whatsover. If Lake Conroe didn’t exist, then rain would simply fall on the 21,000 acres where it sits, seep into the ground and move downstream as a broad sheet flow. With the Lake Conroe Dam, SJRA channels the water into a pinpoint flow with a much higher velocity – and force – than it would otherwise have had.
That’s one of the reasons that SJRA’s massive release of water on August 28, 2017, at around 2 a.m. didn’t just flood. The water actually swept many homes right off of their foundations.