Down the Drain

Encroaching development and bureaucratic inertia are jeopardizing Sheldon Reservoir, one of east Harris County's last natural outposts

If not for the low thrum of industrial traffic from Highway 90 on the south, Sheldon Reservoir might seem to be 1,000 miles from civilization. Flocks of ducks, egrets and herons scour the 1,503 acres of pond and marshland from above while alligators and beavers forage below. Along the shoreline, fishermen in wading boots cast for the ten-pound bass that have been grabbing hooks at the reservoir for more than 40 years.

But Sheldon isn't 1,000 or even 100 miles away. The prime wildlife habitat and recreation area sits just eight miles outside of Loop 610, an island of green amid a vast expanse of factories, roads and subdivisions. Owned and managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the reservoir is home to at least 200 species of birds and dozens of land beasts. The facility attracted more than 300,000 visitors in 1993, ranking 30th among the 113 state parks that keep such statistics.

Those visitors aren't the usual crowd of well-heeled nature freaks on a tree-hugging expedition, either. If they recorded their names on a register, Sheldon's guest list would probably read like a Who's Who of working-class residents from east Harris County. The Parks and Wildlife Department calls them "non-traditional users," and they're a priority at Sheldon.

As are their kids. Thousands of kids. Sheldon staffers provide free fishing equipment and instruction and do extensive outreach in Houston's inner-city schools. An abandoned fish hatchery on the park's south side is being turned into an environmental education center. "We've got to get to these children," says Sheldon park superintendent Robert Comstock, who sees firsthand how urbanization has isolated today's youth from the natural world. "They're the legacy. Unless we teach them now, who's gonna teach them later?"

At the moment, though, Comstock, whose perpetually muddy boots and cuffs are as much a part of his uniform as his government-issue shirt, has more pressing worries. Attendance at the park has fallen by about 50,000 since 1993, mostly because the fish aren't biting like they used to. That's because the once-excellent water quality at Sheldon has deteriorated -- fish don't thrive in mud -- which, in turn, is being blamed on the runoff from a decade of development north of Sheldon.

Worse still, the water level is more than a foot below where it's supposed to be this time of year. Since it averages only about five feet under normal conditions, the drop is significant. And while the spring drought has contributed to the problem, its primary cause is that the reservoir's water supply has dwindled to a virtual trickle the past ten years.

In short, Sheldon is drying up.
In a prolonged drought, says Andy Sipocz, a TPWD biologist who has been trying to restore Sheldon's water for almost six years, the reservoir could disappear completely. If the summer is only typically dry, it will continue to exist. "But the difference is going to be between a lake with healthy vegetation and healthy animal and fish populations and a stagnant, stinking pool," Sipocz says.

Sheldon gets its water from Carpenters Bayou, a maze of shallow channels and wetlands that fans northward for several miles. But a series of public and private construction projects has diverted more than 60 percent of Carpenters' flow into Lake Houston to the east and neighboring Greens Bayou to the west.

The public projects include the northeast portion of Beltway 8 and a city drainage ditch, both built in the late 1980s, and more recently, the first section of the new West Lake Houston Parkway, which will connect the Beltway to FM 1960 and Kingwood.

On the private side, developer Rick McCord has launched the initial phase of Summerwood, a subdivision that will eventually spread over 1,500 acres he owns directly north of the reservoir.

To a casual observer, the solution seems relatively simple: fill in a piece of the city ditch (which officials agree would be okay with them), reroute the Carpenters channel to avoid the Beltway, or ensure that, as required, West Lake Houston Parkway and Summerwood don't interfere with Carpenters' flow or otherwise suck Sheldon's lifeblood.

But a casual observer might not realize that over the years, the ten different government agencies and several private firms involved in the various projects have staged a comedy of bureaucratic bungling and inaction that has brought Sheldon to the crisis point. And while all have expressed at least token willingness to help forge a solution (while backpedaling furiously from accepting responsibility for the problem), none have claimed the authority to make it happen.

When it comes to development issues in Texas, though, that's almost by the book. "We want highways built, we want certain things built and we don't want anybody to get in the way," says Rollin MacRae, the parks department's wetlands resource coordinator. "State government is designed to splinter power and authority in such tiny pieces that no one can accomplish much of anything."

The lack of a focal point leaves those who want to save Sheldon Reservoir scrambling for a coherent strategy. Or something a little more nebulous.

"We're gonna have to have a little luck on this issue," says TPWD's Bob Spain, who is coordinating the agency's efforts. "At this point, I'm hoping it's not too late."

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