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The Difference Between Upstream and Downstream Flooding Related to the Addicks & Barker Reservoirs


In the two months since Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, it’s become clear that the design and operation of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs contributed to the unprecedented flooding that accompanied the historic storm.

As such, our firm has been contacted by numerous Houstonians who sustained property damage in reservoir-related flooding, including upstream property owners whose homes and businesses were built within the Addicks and Barker flood pools.

We’ve also heard from many downstream home and business owners whose properties were flooded as a result of the controlled releases conducted at both reservoirs beginning on August 28th.

We believe these property owners are entitled to recover damages from the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This article was written to help those individuals better understand the differences between the upstream and downstream flooding related to the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs and how those differences will affect any legal claims they choose to pursue.

How the Addicks & Barker Reservoirs Work

The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs were built in the 1940s to protect the City of Houston from uncontrolled flooding.  They remain dry under normal conditions, collecting and storing storm water only during times of significant rain.

Each of the reservoirs’ dams are outfitted with several gated conduits to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water at a controlled rate into Buffalo Bayou, where it eventually makes its way to the sea.

Flood pools located behind the dams are designed to store storm waters up to a certain elevation—approximately 115 feet for Addicks and 106 feet for Barker. The size of the flood pools is determined by the amount of rain that falls during a storm event, as well as the rate at which water is released through their gated conduits.

When the federal government purchased land for the Addicks and Barker project, it only acquired property located within the 100-year flood plain.

  • The elevation of the 100-year flood plain at the Addicks Reservoir is 100.5 feet, with the government owning up to 102 feet elevation.
  • In Barker, the elevation of the 100-year flood plain is 95.5 feet, with the federal government owning up to approximately 95.5 feet elevation.

A fringe of land consisting mostly of undeveloped prairie and pasture was left unpurchased, with the Corps determining that any flooding that did occur there would result in minimal damage.

By the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall, however, more than 100 neighborhoods had been built on the non-government owned land within the Addicks and Barker flood pools.

The Corps does not own drainage or flowage easements on the private properties inside the reservoirs, nor has it ever offered to purchase such easements.

Upstream Claims Focus on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Storage of Storm Water on Private Property Located Within the Addicks & Barker Flood Pools

During Hurricane Harvey, the water level in the Addicks Reservoir reached 109.1 feet, while the Barker rose to 101.5 feet.

Both reservoirs performed exactly as intended and detained more than 350,000 acre-feet of storm water behind their dams. As a result, their flood pools extended well beyond the 100-year flood plain, inundating thousands of private properties built behind their dams.

Unfortunately, many of these property owners were completely unaware that their homes and businesses were located within the reservoirs’ flood pools. And because their properties were built outside of the 100-year flood plain, a significant number lacked flood insurance.

While upstream property owners were often kept in the dark about the flood risk to their homes and businesses, a growing body of evidence suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control had known for decades that the design and operation of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs posed a significant threat to the private properties located behind their dams.

Under both the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, the state and federal governments are prevented from taking, using, or destroying a person’s private property without just compensation. A legal theory called “Inverse Condemnation” holds that property owners have a right to sue the government when a government entity takes private property without paying the owner just compensation.

Property owners pursuing “upstream” lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assert that the federal government had no legal right to store storm water on their property. They seek compensation for the permanent taking of property and the taking of drainage or flowage easement that the Corps utilizes on their properties.

Liability in these lawsuits will focus on whether the Corps effected a taking by flooding private properties located within the Addicks and Barker flood pools.

“Downstream” Claims Focus on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Controlled Releases at the Addick & Barker Reservoirs

On August 28th, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a controlled release at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs to prevent further flooding of upstream neighborhoods and avoid potential dam failure.

Less than two days later, the Corps increased the rate of release from 718,000 gallons of water per minute to over 6 million gallons per minute.

By September 1st, the water level at Buffalo Bayou had reached a record-setting 62.7 feet, resulting in the flooding of more than 4,000 downstream homes, apartments and businesses, including many that had escaped flooding during the storm.

Once again, a significant body of evidence indicates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knew that the operation of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs posed a major flood risk to downstream developments  in the event of a major storm.

Home and business owners pursuing claims for downstream flooding contend that the Corps conducted the releases at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs knowing that the rate of release would flood those private properties.

Liability in the downstream cases focuses on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “took” private property as a result of the August 28th-30th releases at the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.

The Government May be Liable if Your Home or Business Was Flooded Due to the Addicks & Barker Reservoirs. Call 1-888-603-3636 or Click Here to Contact Our Undefeated Flood Damage Lawyers for a Free Consultation.

If you have any questions regarding upstream or downstream flooding that occurred at the  Addicks and Barker Reservoirs during Hurricane Harvey or you simply want to discuss your legal options moving forward, call our  Undefeated Flood Damage Lawyers at 1-888-603-3636 or send us a confidential email through our “Contact” form by clicking here.

All inquiries and consultations are free. And because we represent clients exclusively on a contingency-fee basis, you’ll pay nothing unless we win your case.