Down the Drain

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

Sheldon superintendent Robert Comstock is glad his park is finally getting some attention, though sometimes he feels as if he'll bust from frustration. "I've been screaming about this since '86," he says, thumbing through the yellowed pages of a crumbling work journal to prove it.

Originally built in 1942 to provide water to wartime industries, the reservoir was eventually intended to serve as a city water supply. After that idea was abandoned, TPWD took it over in 1952 and has managed it since, though the emphasis has shifted over time from wildlife management to recreation as urbanization swallowed the surrounding lands. Comstock was named superintendent in 1984.

Though Beltway 8 had been in the works for years, work on the northeast portion didn't begin in earnest until after Comstock arrived. When he looked closely at the plans, something seemed very wrong.

Aerial photographs showed it. Surveys showed it. A county flood control map showed it. Even the Key Map had it. But somehow, the agencies and engineering firm responsible for designing the Beltway missed the fact that the road would slice a meander off the Carpenters Bayou channel. So the Texas Department of Highways (now TxDOT) built the Beltway as planned.

It only took the first downpour for the mistake to become evident. Little more than an inch of rain brought sheets of water out of the woods and onto the pavement, forcing TxDOT to haul out flashing beacons and station traffic controllers on-site to prevent disaster. Freed from their natural confines, carp could occasionally be seen swimming up the northbound lanes of the Beltway like a biker brigade.

Motorists weren't the only ones inconvenienced. The water that used to flow into Sheldon from the cut-off Carpenters channel drained from the road and was shunted into neighboring Greens Bayou. That, in combination with a series of drainage ditches authorized by the county, caused massive flooding of houses and property to the south. The landowners sued in 1993, and last year the Harris County Flood Control District and TxDOT settled out of court.

During negotiations, TxDOT insisted that cutting off Carpenters had little or nothing to do with the flooding. But an independent analysis by the engineering firm Dodson & Associates found to the contrary. "Some drainage area which was formerly included in the Sheldon Reservoir watershed was diverted to the Greens Bayou watershed as a direct result of the construction of Beltway 8," the report states.

Today, TxDOT engineer Ruben Martinez acknowledges that Sheldon has lost part of its flow to the Beltway. "That's probably true," Martinez says, though he hedges on the highway's role in the flooding. And he says he didn't find out about Sheldon's problems until Parks and Wildlife pointed it out at a recent meeting. At the time the road was built, Martinez says, "Sheldon was not taken into account for some reason. It was an oversight."

That oversight, according to TPWD estimates, cost Sheldon Reservoir more than a third of its water supply.

At about the same time TxDOT was paving the Beltway, the city of Houston was playing its own version of capture the water. In the early 1970s, the city bought a chunk of property about three miles north of Sheldon for a proposed water treatment plant. To serve the plant, the city built a drainage ditch that extended from Lake Houston due west to the plant site.

In 1985, the ditch was extended another mile, almost to the northeast corner of the Beltway, effectively cutting off the northern reaches of Carpenters Bayou and dumping the flow into Lake Houston. This was done, according to Neil Bishop of Turner Collie & Braden, the engineering firm that designed the extension, to drain a parallel access road the city had to build as part of its purchase agreement. "That was probably the most feasible option," Bishop recalls.

Though the documentation is sketchy (and opinions on other options differ), one fact seems clear: if the same need presented itself today, current federal wetlands rules would require the city to find another way to drain the road. At the time, however, those rules were not in effect.

Good-bye, another 11 percent of Sheldon's water.
As the ditch and the Beltway were both being completed, haggling began over the route for West Lake Houston Parkway, which was designed to relieve traffic on FM 1960 and to and from Kingwood by linking that development with the Beltway. The original idea, part of Houston's Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan, was to run the road into Duessen Parkway, which parallels the eastern shore of Lake Houston. An alternative that would have placed the road to the west extended in a virtual straight line from the Beltway northeast along Union Pacific railroad tracks.

But the proposal that won the day came from area landowners, including Rick McCord. In exchange for their donation of right-of-way and engineering services for the Parkway, the road would find its way directly through their property, zigging due east from the Beltway before zagging sharply north. The city planning commission approved. METRO, the agency that would contract and pay for West Lake Houston Parkway, also agreed.

Unfortunately, the revised route had its downside.
"Wetlands that will be adversely impacted by this proposed project are some of the highest quality wetlands found in northern Harris County," wrote Russell Rhodes of the Environmental Protection Agency in a letter arguing for the railroad alignment.

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