Big, Dirty Secret

I recently commented on a federal court case involving the claims of thousands of homeowners who lost their homes due to flooding during Hurricane Harvey.  The claimants accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of “taking” their private property for a public purpose without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by flooding their property.  The homeowners won the case or at least they won round one of the case.  Losses are expected to be in the vicinity of $1,000,000,000.00. 

On December 24, 2019, the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story, How did counties avoid fault for floods?”, by Gabrielle Banks and Zach Despart, which examines the long, tortured history of flood control in Harris and Fort Bend counties.  I highly recommend this article.

The article describes how the Barker & Addicks reservoirs were constructed in response to catastrophic flooding in 1935.  The reservoirs were designed to hold floodwaters, but during all but the most severe times of flooding, land above the reservoirs, some but not all of which was owned by the Corps of Engineers, was dry and appeared to be nothing more than parkland.  Based upon the facts revealed in the story, there was a 1996 study by the Harris County Flood Control District which noted that ‘as development continues behind the reservoirs there is the potential to expose as many as 25,000 homes and businesses in the reservoir fringe areas to flooding.”  The study also noted that “the maximum flood pool levels of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs extend far beyond the limits of government owned land.” 

The facts adduced at trial show that developers, counties and cities all played a role in the development of land adjacent to the potential flood pool of the reservoirs without warning the homeowners.  In fact, maps showing the 100 year flood plain were completely deceptive because just about everyone except the buyers of property knew that the area was “subject to extended controlled inundation under management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”  Neither Houston nor Harris County adopted any flood-pool rules or disclosure requirements. 

As you will see from the article, there is more than enough blame to go around among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cities, counties and developers.  Nevertheless, Harris County escaped liability because, as their lawyer rather smugly said, “We don’t have keys to the car.  We don’t have control to make the decisions.”  By this she meant that the county could not be liable because it “neither owns nor maintains the reservoirs.”

One of the lawyers representing the homeowners, Larry Dunbar, summed up the situation pretty well.  He said, “It was the big, dirty secret around town that the developer and engineers and Harris County and the city of Houston politicians knew.  It’s their job to know that stuff.   They were approving plats for development.  They knew the dams were there.  They just didn’t want to lose their tax base.  They didn’t want to upset developers.”

There are lessons to be learned from this case, although our national history does not indicate we learn our lessons from flooding very well.

 In our own area we have had several flooding episodes over the last 5 or 6 years which exceeded the so-called 100  year floodplain.  We are bounded on the west by the Brazos River and on the east by the Navasota River.  When flooding rains occur upstream the Brazos River can rise to a point that the Navasota River cannot drain itself into the Brazos.  When this occurs, the Navasota River is literally pushed backward.  It is as if there is a plug in  a bottle.  Obviously, if the Navasota River can’t drain into the Brazos, widespread flooding occurs and this can be made much,  much worse if the operators of the Limestone Dam decide to release water.  And, as the operators of Lake Limestone often remind us, they are not a flood control lake.

I have been a partial owner of land in the Navasota River Bottom for almost 50 years.  In the last six years or so, we have had three floods which reached a depth of 15-18 feet at our cabin, which is approximately ½ mile from the river channel.  These floods are historic and we know this because one of our original owners (now deceased) meticulously recorded the levels reached by prior floods and marked their maximum height on landmarks on our property.  Is this type flooding the new normal?  When you have three floods in about 6 years which are worse than anything previously experienced, you have to seriously consider the possibility. 

I recall as a teenager in the early 1960s that the Brazos River overflowed its banks.  I recall going to the bridge at Highway 60 and seeing the road to Snook meandering off to the west through flooded cotton fields.  There was also a catastrophic Brazos River flood in the early 1900s I have read about which destroyed many of the farms, cotton gins, houses, communities, roads and bridges in the river bottom.  However, our real danger is the Navasota River.

If you are a prospective buyer of property in Brazos County, it is mandatory that you find out where the 100 year and 500 year flood plains are. 

As our county continues its rapid development into areas that are only marginally safe from flooding, we could experience flooding problems we never expected.

On December 24, 2019, the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story, “How did counties avoid fault for floods?”, by Gabrielle Banks and Zach Despart, which examines the long, tortured history of flood control in Harris and Fort Bend counties.  I highly recommend this article.

The article describes how the Barker & Addicks reservoirs were constructed in response to catastrophic flooding in 1935.  The reservoirs were designed to hold floodwaters, but during all but the most severe times of flooding, land above the reservoirs, some but not all of which was owned by the Corps of Engineers, was dry and appeared to be nothing more than parkland.  Based upon the facts revealed in the story, there was a 1996 study by the Harris County Flood Control District which noted that ‘as development continues behind the reservoirs there is the potential to expose as many as 25,000 homes and businesses in the reservoir fringe areas to flooding.”  The study also noted that “the maximum flood pool levels of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs extend far beyond the limits of government owned land.” 

The facts adduced at trial show that developers, counties and cities all played a role in the development of land adjacent to the potential flood pool of the reservoirs without warning the homeowners.  In fact, maps showing the 100 year flood plain were completely deceptive because just about everyone except the buyers of property knew that the area was “subject to extended controlled inundation under management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”  Neither Houston nor Harris County adopted any flood-pool rules or disclosure requirements. 

As you will see from the article, there is more than enough blame to go around among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cities, counties and developers.  Nevertheless, Harris County escaped liability because, as their lawyer rather smugly said, “We don’t have keys to the car.  We don’t have control to make the decisions.”  By this she meant that the county could not be liable because it “neither owns nor maintains the reservoirs.”

One of the lawyers representing the homeowners, Larry Dunbar, summed up the situation pretty well.  He said, “It was the big, dirty secret around town that the developer and engineers and Harris County and the city of Houston politicians knew.  It’s their job to know that stuff.   They were approving plats for development.  They knew the dams were there.  They just didn’t want to lose their tax base.  They didn’t want to upset developers.”

There are lessons to be learned from this case, although our national history does not indicate we learn our lessons from flooding very well.

In our own area we have had several flooding episodes over the last 5 or 6 years which exceeded the so-called 100  year floodplain.  We are bounded on the west by the Brazos River and on the east by the Navasota River.  When flooding rains occur upstream the Brazos River can rise to a point that the Navasota River cannot drain itself into the Brazos.  When this occurs, the Navasota River is literally pushed backward.  It is as if there is a plug in  a bottle.  Obviously, if the Navasota River can’t drain into the Brazos, widespread flooding occurs and this can be made much,  much worse if the operators of the Limestone Dam decide to release water.  And, as the operators of Lake Limestone often remind us, they are not a flood control lake.

I have been a partial owner of land in the Navasota River Bottom for almost 50 years.  In the last six years or so, we have had three floods which reached a depth of 15-18 feet at our cabin, which is approximately ½ mile from the river channel.  These floods are historic and we know this because one of our original owners (now deceased) meticulously recorded the levels reached by prior floods and marked their maximum height on landmarks on our property.  Is this type flooding the new normal?  When you have three floods in about 6 years which are worse than anything previously experienced, you have to seriously consider the possibility. 

I recall as a teenager in the early 1960s that the Brazos River overflowed its banks.  I recall going to the bridge at Highway 60 and seeing the road to Snook meandering off to the west through flooded cotton fields.  There was also a catastrophic Brazos River flood in the early 1900s I have read about which destroyed many of the farms, cotton gins, houses, communities, roads and bridges in the river bottom.  However, our real danger is the Navasota River.

If you are a prospective buyer of property in Brazos County, it is mandatory that you find out where the 100 year and 500 year flood plains are. 

As our county continues its rapid development into areas that are only marginally safe from flooding, we could experience flooding problems we never expected.