As Houstonians struggle to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, it’s become increasingly clear that the Army Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District could have taken steps to prevent the catastrophic flooding to upstream and downstream properties long before the storm made landfall.
1940’s: Catastrophic Floods Prompts $32 Million Flood Control Project – But the Diversion Canal and Levee Were Never Completed
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both were built as part of a $32 million flood control project undertaken in response to historic floods that devastated the City of Houston in 1929 and 1935.
Authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of June 20, 1938, the project originally called for:
- The construction of three reservoirs: Addicks, Barker, and White Oak;
- A diversion canal that would channel flood waters from Houston to Galveston Bay; and
- A levee along Cypress Creek to block overflows into the Addicks Reservoir watershed (which would protect upstream home and business owners from flooding)
The Barker Reservoir was completed in 1945, while the adjacent Addicks Reservoir was completed in 1948.
The project stalled, however, after World War II, and the plans to build the White Oak Reservoir, the diversion canal, and the Cypress Creek levee were abandoned.
In 1951, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a less expensive (and effective) alternative: deepen and line the bayous with concrete, so that more water could be released from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs into the Buffalo Bayou.
As in years earlier, however, that project was abandoned as well.
1963: Rapid Development in West Houston Forces Army Corps of Engineers to Drastically Alter Operations at the Addicks & Barker Reservoirs
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are designed to function as retention basins, which were supposed to remain dry except during periods of significant rain—when the dams serve to temporarily hold back flood water.
Each of the dams was built with five conduits – one gated and four ungated. As initially designed, water could escape from the reservoirs at a rate of 15,700 cubic feet per second.
But when the Army Corps of Engineers purchased the land for the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, they chose to only acquire land that would be flooded during a 100-year flood event.
The privately owned land that surrounded the reservoirs but was not inside the 100-year floodplains was never purchased, because the Army Corps of Engineers determined that any damage that would result to that property—which was primarily undeveloped at the time—would be minimal.
In the following decades, however, thousands of new homes, neighborhoods, and businesses were built in that surrounding land and along the Buffalo Bayou downstream.
According to the Houston Chronicle, residents living in those downstream developments soon began complaining about the flooding that occurred whenever water was released from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.
In response to continued pressure by homeowners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to place gates on the remaining 4 conduits so that they could control the amount of water that was released from the reservoirs during a storm.
The Corps was well aware that adding these gates would not only weaken the dams, but also cause water to remain in the reservoirs far longer than was originally intended.
1977: Signs of Seepage at the Addicks & Barker Dams
By the 1970s, the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs were holding more water for far longer than was ever intended, placing even more stress on their foundations.
The silt and sand used to construct the dams washed away easily, while subsidence had caused the tops of the dams to drop 3 feet.
By 1977, the Addicks and Barker Dams were exhibiting signs of seepage. To mitigate the problem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent the next several years constructing miles of slurry trench.
But because the trench was not extended across the embankments, areas beneath the conduits were still rapidly eroding.
In 1985, the Corps came up with a temporary solution designed to prevent the dams from failing: it raised the tops of the reservoirs and installed concrete at the ends of the dams for strength and support.
1994: Fort Bend County Adds Flood Warnings to Barker Reservoir Subdivision Plats But Harris County Chooses Not To
Despite the strong resistance from private builders and developers, Fort Bend County started including a flood warning for subdivisions that were built behind the reservoir.
The warning stated the following:
“This subdivision is adjacent to the Barker Reservoir and is subject to extended controlled inundation under the management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
Unfortunately, most residents living in the upstream subdivisions never saw the maps (known as “plats”) and, as result, were unaware of the inconspicuous warnings.
Nor were the homeowners told that their homes were technically located within the boundaries of the Addicks and Barker flood pools, which were intended to function as emergency lakes during major storm events like Hurricane Harvey.
Harris County (which has even more subdivisions located in the Addicks and Barker flood pools) choose not to include these (or any other) warnings on their plats, making it impossible for homeowners to definitely determine if their homes were inside the flood pools.
1996: Harris County Flood Control Study Predicts Addicks & Barker Reservoir Flooding
More than two decades before Hurricane Harvey brought unprecedented rains and flooding to Houston, a 1996 study prepared by the Harris Flood Control District predicted the very scenario that would result in the flooding of more than 4,000 West Houston properties following controlled releases at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs:
“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.”
“Under the original design of the reservoirs with free outflow conditions, it would have taken a storm of unusually large magnitude to threaten properties not acquired by the federal government,” they wrote.
“However, under current conditions with the addition of gates and the restrictive operations criteria, it no longer takes an extreme storm. Just a wet period, consisting of a series of “normal” frequent storms (like the rainy period between November 1991 and June 1992) is enough to “ratchet” reservoir levels upward and severely flood private properties. “
To reduce the risk of flooding, the authors of the study proposed building a single conduit to safely carry water out of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, past downstream developments, and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The estimated cost of the project was $400 million.
The timing of the project could not have been better, as the Texas Department of Transportation was just beginning the expansion of the Katy Freeway, which would have provided an ideal route for the drainage conduit.
As before, however, the study was ignored and the conduit was never built.
2010: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Reclassifies Addicks and Barker Dams as “Dam Safety Action Class I – Urgent and Compelling (Unsafe)
Concerned with the flooding that could occur to both upstream and downstream reservoirs during storms, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a series of safety reviews of the Addicks and Barker Dams in 2007.
Initially the dams received a safety rating of Dam Safety Action Classification DSAC II: Urgent (Unsafe or Potentially Unsafe). But more tests were needed to determine their overall condition.
Ground-penetrating radar scans that were conducted as part of a 2009 safety review indicated that the Addicks and Barker Dams were in far worse shape than thought.
- Voids had formed beneath conduits at both dams
- Large cracks were discovered through the conduits and spillways, and
- the conduits and spillways had shown signs of movement and potential failure.
As a result of these deficiencies, the Corps reclassified the Addicks and Barker Dams as DSAC I Urgent & Compelling (Unsafe):
“CRITICALLY NEAR FAILURE: Progression toward failure is confirmed to be taking place under normal operations. Almost certain to fail under normal operations from immediately to within a few years without intervention.”
“EXTREMELY HIGH RISK: Combination of life or economic consequences with probability of failure is extremely high.”
But rather than correcting the deficiencies that led to the DASC I classification, the Corps again chose temporary solutions, such as filling voids and cracks with polyurethane and grout.
It also instituted several operational changes as part of an “Interim Control Action Plan,” which represented a significant departure from the way the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs had been operated over the previous four decades.
One of the key changes involved raising the “allowed combined flow limit (including local runoff) at the downstream regulating gauge in [West Houston/Piney Point] from 2,000 cfs to 4,000 cfs.”
The modifications were made even though the Corps was aware that downstream homes and businesses would be placed at even greater risk of flooding.
“Homes in the vicinity of the West Beltway Bridge . . . [experience] inundation at discharges of 2,500 cfs and above.”
“At flows greater than 4,100 cfs, a large percentage of the structures located between the bridges over Buffalo Bayou at North Wilcrest Drive (approximately 5 miles downstream of the reservoirs) and Chimney Rock Road (approximately 16 miles downstream of the reservoirs) will experience flooding.”
The Corps also limited the pool elevation at the Addicks Dam to 97.5 feet, while the pool elevation at Barker Dam would not be allowed to exceed 93.6 feet.
The Interim Control Action Plan indicated that private property behind the Addicks Reservoir would flood at pool elevations of 103 feet, and that homes and businesses behind the Barker Reservoir would be inundated at pool elevations of 95 feet.
August 2017: Hurricane Harvey Forces Unprecedented Releases at the Addicks & Barker Reservoirs
Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast on the evening of August 25, 2017.
Once the historic storm made its way to Houston, it stalled for five days, dumping up to 50 inches of rain over parts of the city.
By 5:00 p.m. on August 28th, the pool elevation at the Addicks Reservoir had reached approximately 105 feet, while the pool elevation at Barker had risen to approximately 99 feet.
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs quickly filled to capacity, which—as predicted in the Interim Action Plan—caused the flood pool to extend beyond government-owned land, causing severe flooding in the surrounding homes and businesses..
To prevent additional flooding to upstream properties and potential failure of the dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District began making controlled releases from the reservoirs on August 28.
Within 48 hours, the Corps chose to increase the release rate from 718,000 gallons of water per minute to over 6 million gallons per minute, knowing that doing so would inundate homes and businesses located downstream along Buffalo Bayou that had not flooded during the storm.
Several people tragically drowned and over 4,000 homes, apartments, and businesses downstream were severely flooded as a result.
If Your Home or Business Flooded as a Result of the Addicks and Barker Reservoir Release, the Government May Owe You Money. Call 1-888-603-3636 or Click Here to Contact Our Undefeated Flood Damage Lawyers for a Free Consult
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