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Engineers 20 years ago warned of flooding risk in Houston area

DALLAS - A report released two decades ago on the Harris County reservoir system predicted with alarming accuracy the catastrophic flooding that would besiege the Houston area if changes weren't made in the face of rapid development.

The report released in 1996 by engineers with the Harris County Flood Control District said the Addicks and Barker reservoirs were adequate when built in the 1940s. But it noted that as entire neighborhoods sprouted over the years around the reservoirs in western Harris County, as many as 25,000 homes and businesses at the time were exposed to the kind of flooding Harvey has now brought.

In the report obtained by The Dallas Morning News, engineers proposed a $400 million solution that involved building a massive underground conduit that would more quickly carry water out of the reservoirs and into the Houston Ship Channel. The conceptual plan envisioned a conduit consisting of eight channels to carry water out of the reservoirs and safely past developed areas downstream.

"The primary flood threat facing the citizens of west Harris County and west Houston comes from the inability to drain the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in an efficient manner," the report said.

When asked about the report, Harris County flood control officials said they could not immediately locate a copy and were unfamiliar with the details.

"What I recall is, and I haven't read the report since back then, was that it was going to be very difficult to do physically," said Steve Fitzgerald, the flood control district's longtime chief engineer.

But the timing in 1996 was right, the engineers noted. The Texas Department of Transportation was launching a reconstruction of the Katy Freeway, a portion of Interstate 10 west of downtown Houston that leads directly from the two reservoirs to the downtown section, and it would have been a suitable route for the drainage channel, they said.

Other solutions were offered, such as digging the reservoirs deeper, buying out properties at risk of flooding and imposing new regulations on development.

"Do nothing and accept risk of flooding," the report warned.

The report was filed away without action, then last week Harvey struck. The usually dry Addicks and Barker reservoirs quickly filled until, on Aug. 28, they were nearly full and water had spread to their surrounding neighborhoods. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates to let a controlled amount escape. But instead of the normal 4,000 cubic feet per second, Corps officials opened the gates wide enough to release more than 13,000 cubic feet per second to keep the rising reservoir levels from overtopping the dams. They did so knowing it would flood neighborhoods downstream.

And just as the 1996 report predicted, water in many of the flooded homes would not drain for days or even weeks.

Who gets the blame? The Corps said with no federal money appropriated, there was no federal project, although Harris County is "welcome to do that if they can work with whatever partners they need to do that, and we would encourage it to happen," said Richard Long, supervisory natural resources manager for the Houston Project Office of the Corps' Galveston District.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct includes the reservoirs, blames Congress, which never allocated the money and credited the Corps with "an outstanding job of managing this reservoir, outstanding."

The issue is moot for Aaron Voges, whose family home is in a neighborhood located inside a flooded reservoir.

"For some stupid reason I thought that levee that I see on my way home, I thought that protected me," he said. "I had no idea that there were plans in place to flood me to protect other people, which blows my mind."

On Tuesday, a Houston lawyer whose home was among those flooded filed a federal lawsuit against the Corps. Bryant Banes said the class-action suit seeks compensation from the federal government for what was effectively condemnation of their west Houston properties when water released from the reservoirs flooded Buffalo Bayou.

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