Lowering the Lake: When A Win May Not Be a Win

As I walked away on Thursday evening’s SJRA meeting, I could not help but feel Kingwood had not won anything. The news heralded a win because the lake was going to be lowered. Facebook parroted the win because the lake was going to be lowered. And although lake lowering was the goal, to lower a lake in an ineffective and poorly timed manner, it does not really achieve the intended effect, stopping downstream flooding and in particular the Lake Houston communities. The narrative became about lowering a lake rather than this being a tool in the arsenal of flood mitigation. But the good news is Lake Houston, mostly Kingwood residents showed up!

1994 Harbinger is Still Being Ignored

October 1994 was a rainy and weird month. Just a lot of rain. It was not a named storm, just a rainy week in South Texas. Not even something anyone saw coming really. It was just rain. As the week progressed the water started to rise. First a little but then all of a sudden it seems the water rose quickly. And the news had people being airlifted off their roofs in Forest Cove. The water came all the way up through Forest Cove, making it all the way to Walnut Lane.

Working for State Farm, I got to see a lot of the damage that was done not only to Forest Cove but Fosters Mill and Kings Point, Hueni Road, Lakewood Heights and Atascocita Shores. The West Lake Houston Bridge had barely been opened and we had a brand new Randall’s that had not even opened yet with 4 feet of water in it. There was no Kingwood Greens or Barrington like there was in Harvey. I personally was most struck by one home where 1485 and 2100 changes names. A wooden clapboard house completely decimated yet having people living inside it.

NOT a Names Storm: Just Oct 1994

As the mythology of this all goes, the San Jacinto River Authority had opened its gates and sent water downstream and flooded many of the Lake Houston communities, included Kingwood. As time went on, the mythology of this event, started to become surrounded in fact. The SJRA overreacted and the message became they would put in more responsible procedures that would limit property damage moving forward. This is the worst it would ever be, and they had learned. At least that is how I remember it and how I ‘felt’ about it.

What there wasn’t was a discussion about boating and recreational water sports. There wasn’t a discussion over docks and ‘lake life’ and Labor Day.

Sitting in the SJRA meeting on Thursday night I initially was struck by the fact that 1994 was wiped from all the data and I started to wonder why that was. Was it because this was too long ago? That didn’t seem right. Facts were facts and if you could flood an entire community in 1994 that had far less impervious surface than today, it would seem there were lessons we could learn. Maybe because they didn’t want to use something they had been sued for doing and that is why it was expunged from the data. And that seems to make sense to me.

So as I sat thinking about what I wanted to say with my 3 minutes of mic time, I started to read through the 1994 lawsuit. And there were some interesting points in there and maybe why they took a wide berth (see a boating reference) on this.

Wickham II vs. SJRA

First there paragraph #13:  (Flood prevention: Lake should be 197)

The Authority could take other preventative measures to reduce downstream flooding.   For example, the Authority currently strives to maintain the Lake at 201 feet msl.   However, the Authority could store water at lower level, such as 197 feet msl without damaging the Dam’s integrity.   If the Authority stored water at a level of 197 feet msl rather than 201 feet msl, it could provide an additional 78,410 acre feet of water between 197 feet msl and 201 feet msl for flood control purposes. [emphasis added]

Followed by Point #14 (Dam could go as high as 207 so it didn’t all need to be dumped at once at let say 1 in the morning sending a tidal wave down the San Jac threatening people’s lives without warning to get out)

 Adams’ affidavit submitted in support of the Authority’s Motion and review [sic] by me is also overly concerned about the possibility of Dam failure during the October, 1994 Flood.   The earthen Dam is approximately 11,000 feet across with a top elevation of 212 feet msl.   The Authority also holds an easement around the Lake up to 207 feet msl.   Between 201 feet msl and 207 feet msl the Authority could temporarily hold an additional 139,230 acre feet of water.   If the Authority had held water to the full extent of its 207 feet msl right-of-way, the peak flow of the San Jacinto River at I-45 could have been reduced from 115,000 cfs to approximately 95,000 cfs.

Now I am not a lawyer, so I opted to stay away from bringing up ’94 and Wickham vs. SJRA other than to say the causality of both situations were the same. First large amounts of water were released without warning onto an unsuspecting community in what seems to be a knee jerk fashion. But what else struck me is they were hung up on NAMED storms. And reacting to the Gulf, but 1994 was just a rainy week. No named storm, no evacuation, winds, or the guy from the weather channel. It was just rain.

So to my mind having a policy that is based on named storms in the gulf seems to be foolish when we already had an example of a rainy day causing helicopters to rescue people off their roofs.

The other thing that struck me was the policies and procedures that surround releasing water out of the reservoir. And I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the number from Lake Conroe damn at Harvey, but it seems to sure feel like 1994. But there was one troubling fact that seemed to rear its ugly head. The SJRA did not manage the release of the water in a way that favored flood mitigation. Rather they were concerned about the upcoming Labor Day weekend. That lowering the lake ahead of the storm, which may have spared the properties 3 miles inland, would not have allowed good boating for Labor Day. This is the mythology that now surrounds Harvey. Right or wrong in perception and execution, the SJRA was more concerned with boating and bobbing than the lives of people on Lake Houston.

Now It’s Time to Vote

After the talks that started with Jenna Armstrong, who did an outstanding job defending Lake Houston and some guy at the Conroe Chamber telling us how we should all work together, trying to heal the relations between the two lakes. After we had a great talk from Dan Huberty who has represented us fiercely and with integrity, never leaving our side as we fought this fight. He wasn’t representing builders and donors, but simply the people of Lake Houston who he represents, all of us.

And after we heard from someone who didn’t have a dog in the hunt in 1994, the City of Houston, in the form of Dave Martin who closed with this most awesome thought, The City of Houston owns the water and if they want the lake to be 180 feet because that’s what’s best that is what they will do. Their water their choice. In 1994, just Lakewood Heights was part of Houston. This time around Kingwood and its business and its $150M tax base are now part of the discourse. Dave Martin represented us well.

In a very confusing discussion, the SJRA, in a fool hearty moved turned down the compromise offered by the City of Houston. They said they can only make recommendations to the City. They want the city to dictate when the lake should be lowered based on named storms (remember in 94 the event was just called October).

And then an affirmation of the mythology, Lloyd Tinsdale, the Bald guy in the middle start to talk about Labor Day weekend and boats and August and boats and boats and boats and docks and boats. And no one understood what he was saying but I did. He was going to keep talking until he won this for the residents of Lake Conroe.  He was saying we are not going to give Lake Houston an extra foot to 199 that it needs (remember the 94 group says the lake should be 197). No, we are going to keep the lake at 200 though sept and then add the ½ foot (199.5) which the Mayor offered as a compromised to the 199 that was requested. And the Mayor/Public works could request water at any time if a name stormed enters the gulf.

This has missed the point and the intended outcome in my opinion. And we now have what appears as a situation where something was done when the reality is hardly anything was done. The continued concern about recreational activities on a body of water that was not designed as a recreational lake but rather a reservoir is disingenuous and does not conform to the original intent of the lake.

I knew in the first 10 minutes at  January meeting that this guy was not there to do what was best for all citizens or with the charter placed on him by the governor and I hope the governor rescinds his appointment. He ran a show hearing that gave undo preference to Lake Conroe. From time enforcement to admonishing the Lake Houston side for cheering for Dan Huberty, the entire proceeding was rigged.

Additionally, in one of the most troublesome months of the year, he is ‘recommending’ not to lower a lake to 199 that has been recommended or to take extreme care to preserve human life in the event of another catastrophic storm like 10/94 or Harvey. He is not a good steward and has made more trouble because he basically flipped a bird to the owner of the water in Lake Houston.

So at 200, this is not a true win for Lake Houston or for Kingwood, 199 was and 199.5 was the compromise. In light of not accepting the mayor’s generous offer, I urge Dave Martin, and Carol Haddock to look at the recommendations put forth by Dr. James in 1998 and his suggestion that 197 is far more effective. This would give a full 10 feet of wiggle room for more controlled releases because, after all, that is the true problem that lowering the lake temporarily solves until the permanent gates are put in place, the rate at which water is released.

Counting the Dimpled Chads. Lake Conroe’s version of Bush v Gore

2 thoughts on “Lowering the Lake: When A Win May Not Be a Win”

  1. I agree with everything you said. I was at the meeting and you expressed my concerns as well. Living on Lake Houston for 11 years now , I was not in the area in 1994. I witnessed 3 , over my bulkhead flooding events before Harvey. Since Harvey the only other one was Imelda. I am forever grateful to Dave and Dan for the prereleases of Lake Houston ahead of storms, ANY STORM!!! I attended the meeting in hopes to represent the many people from Kingwood and surrounding areas that could not be there.
    I know it is the past but holding the meetings away from our area is more evidence that this is set to go our way and quite frankly it is beyond disappointing that this happened. Then to sit through hours of stories of people that flooded and are still experiencing get back to a normal life , it was shocking to hear Mr Tinsdale ask for a compromise to Mayor Turner’s compromise, it was further evidence that cooperation was not their goal.
    Onward , but hoping pre releases, dredging and the much needed gates will come into our reality sooner rather than later.
    Thank you for a great article!

    Donna Dewhirst

  2. You know, I lived in Spring in 1994 and knew at the time that Kingwood flooded because of rapid release of water by the SJRA. And reading your article I find I am rescinding my belief that the so-called compromise actually will be of much help. You got me to thinking: Nothing was said about the rate of release, either. Isn’t that a huge factor?? Whoever has their finger on the button and decides how many cubic feet of water per second to send rushing our way……. shouldn’t there be some accountability for that? I heard someone mention that the SJRA is ‘immune’ when it comes to legal action. I’d like to know more about that as well. Why can they not be held directly responsible for damages if their actions are what caused the millions of $$$ in loss? Thank you for your article. It put a different light on things for sure.

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