1996 Study Predicted Flood Risks to West Houston Residents From Addicks and Barker Reservoirs
Twenty-one years before Hurricane Harvey brought historic and unprecedented flooding to Houston, a 1996 reported prepared by the Harris County Flood Control District predicted and emphasized the precise flood risks that lead to over 4,000 West Houston homes being flooded by the Addicks and Barker reservoir releases:
“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 went on to conclude that the reservoirs would not even be able to handle a series of “normal frequent storms,” much less a major one like Harvey.
Their words became prophecy on August 28th, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a series of releases from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs that would ultimately flood thousands of homes in West Houston – the majority of which had remained unflooded during the worst of Harvey’s rains.
Had the warnings and recommended design changes proposed by the report’s authors actually been heeded, it’s likely that much of the recent flooding, particularly in West Houston and the areas surrounding the reservoirs, could have been avoided.
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was granted authorization to build the structures in 1938, following two major flood events that ravaged the city of Houston in 1929 and 1935.
The original authorization provided for:
- Construction of the Addicks and Barker dam facilities;
- A channel project to enlarge and straighten Buffalo Bayou downstream of the reservoirs to a point where a diversion canal would convey flood waters to Galveston Bay;
- A levee along Cypress Creek to block overflows into the Addicks Reservoir watershed.
The detailed plan was approved in 1940. Construction of the Barker Reservoir was completed five years later, while the Addicks Reservoir and the 7.4 miles of outlet channel were completed in 1948. However, the diversion canal and the levee along Cypress Creek were never built.
At the time of their construction, none of the earthen dams at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs had floodgates. When the reservoirs filled to a certain level, water could escape at a rate of 15,700 cubic feet per second.
Rapid Development Along Buffalo Bayou and Reservoirs’ Fringe Brings New Flood Dangers
While acquiring land for the Addicks and Barker project, the government only purchased property inside the reservoirs that would be covered by water in a 100-year flood event. As a result, a “fringe” of unpurchased land remained outside of the 100-year flood zone that would rapidly fill with new homes and businesses in the decades after the reservoirs were completed.
“At the time, potential inundation of the fringe areas caused little concern and was viewed as an acceptable low risk for the government to incur,” the 1996 flood control report states. “Since the fringe areas were primarily either agricultural land or undisturbed prairie land, the government presumed that damages resulting from inundation would be minimal.”
As Houston grew in the 1940s and 1950s, new homes and neighborhoods began springing up along Buffalo Bayou upstream from Houston. This drove the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to alter the operation of the Addicks and Barker Dams in two important ways:
- Gates were added to all outlet conduits at the Addicks and Barker Dams to limit reservoir discharges to no more than 4,000 cubic feet per second.
- A restrictive gate operations criteria was imposed that would allow water to remain in the reservoirs far longer than was originally intended.
The changes were implemented to prevent the reservoir from draining too quickly and flooding the new developments along Buffalo Bayou. However, the authors of 1996 Study predicted that the modifications would cause the reservoirs to empty too slowly, placing other homes at risk.
“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. “
Flooding Predictions Became Reality After Hurricane Harvey
The flooding scenario predicted by the authors of the 1996 study turned out to be all too accurate.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas on the evening of August 25, 2017. By the next day, the storm had made its way to Houston, bringing with it extreme flooding from torrential rains that would plague the city for five days. Some sections of Houston received an unprecedented 50 inches of rain.
As predicted over 20 years earlier, the rain caused the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs to quickly fill. Around 2:00 a.m. on August 28th, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District made the deliberate decision to open the floodgates to improve water storage capacity at the reservoirs and spare other areas from flooding.
Less than 48 hours later, the releases at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs were increased from 718,000 gallons of water per minute to over 6 million gallons of water per minute. The decision was made knowing that the increased rate of release would result in the flooding of downstream homes that had not been flooded during the storm.
Soon, 4,000 previously dry homes were inundated with water from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has indicated that it could take three months to completely drain the reservoirs.
And just as the 1996 Study predicted, many of those homes would remain flooded for days, others for weeks.
A “Once-in-a-Lifetime” Fix Could Have Saved Thousands of Houston Homes and Businesses
The authors of the 1996 Study did more than predict the catastrophe that unfolded in the days after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston.
They also offered a fix that could have spared thousands of homes that were flooded solely from the Addicks and Barker Reservoir releases.
The remedy involved constructing a single underground conduit to safely carry water out of the reservoirs, past downstream developments, and into the Gulf. The report estimated that the project would cost around $400 million.
The timing couldn’t have been better, as the Texas Department of Transportation was beginning to reconstruct the Katy Freeway. The stretch of I-10 west of downtown Houston slated for reconstruction would have provided an ideal route for the drainage conduit.
“The potential flood control problems are severe enough to consider this magnitude of project, and the major transportation construction in the Katy Freeway corridor presents a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consider this type of flood control option,” the report said.
Unfortunately, The Katy Freeway Corridor Flood Control Study’s warnings were ignored, and the conduit was never built.
Arthur Storey, who served as Harris County’s flood control director when the report was created—and whose own home was also flooded as a result of the Addicks and Barker Reservoir releases—told the Dallas Morning News that the proposal went nowhere for various reasons.
“Anytime anybody comes up with a good idea, there are lots of studies and information about why it won’t work, it can’t be afforded, or it’s not practical or politically expedient, and there was all of that,” he said.
“They built the highway, and there’s no storm sewer under it, and don’t we wish it were today.”
If Your Home or Business was Flooded By the Addicks and Barker Reservoir Releases, Call 1-888-603-3636 or Click Here for a Free Consult with Our Flood Damage Lawyers
If you have any questions about the Addicks and Barker Reservoir flooding, your rights as the owner of a flooded property, or the inverse condemnation cases we’re filing on behalf of our clients against the Army Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District, contact our Undefeated Flood & Reservoir Release Lawyers by calling 1-888-603-3636, or Click Here to send us a confidential email through our Contact Form.
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