Down the Drain

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

In addition, without proper safeguards, the route favored by the landowners would further divert the water in Carpenters Bayou away from Sheldon Reservoir.

Despite the willingness of the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that issues permits for projects that affect wetlands, to plow ahead, a growing din over the proposed route held up approval. In 1991, after more than a year of intense negotiation between various agencies and builders, a compromise was reached: the landowners could have their road, but strict design parameters would allow Carpenters' water to flow from the north side of the parkway to the south without interruption. In addition, the wetlands lost to the parkway itself would be offset by a mitigation plan elsewhere.

Sometime between the agreement and the construction of the road, communications must have broken down. How else to explain that most all of the water that reaches the road from the north now gets drained into Lake Houston?

It doesn't take an engineer to see how it's working. Pate Engineers Inc., the firm that designed the section of the Parkway that runs through McCord's land (and was paid by McCord to do it), called for more than a dozen storm drains in what will eventually be the median of the four-lane road (due to a funding shortage, only two lanes have been built thus far). The drains empty into an outfall ditch that carries the water to the lake.

Meanwhile, the culverts that, in theory, should carry the water from Carpenters across the roadway don't extend from one side to the other, but are broken in two sections. Instead of spilling out on the south side, the water is pooling in the median and exiting via the storm drains, a number of which are concealed by scenic beds of wood chips.

Adios to another healthy bit of Sheldon's remaining water supply.
Pate vice president Jeff Ross says that if there's a problem, it's an accident. "There was never any intent to divert the flow from one place to another," Ross says. Besides, METRO, the county engineer and the Army Corps all saw Pate's plans and had no objections at the time. "All parties were involved in the final approval," he says.

Meanwhile, a number of drainage ditches have been dredged on McCord's land and are further depleting the watershed. Though their source and function is the object of some dispute, at least one seems clearly to subvert the intent of the wetlands agreement. At the precise point where one of the culverts that is supposed to allow Carpenters water to flow unimpeded to the south opens off the Parkway, a ditch waits to capture and haul it away. After a recent rain, the ditch was full of water.

Charles Leyendecker, president of McCord Development Communities, a spinoff of McCord's development group that is managing Summerwood, says his people don't know about the ditch, even though it's visible from the road.

"This is currently the mystery ditch," he says.

If you're a conspiracy theorist, the Sheldon Reservoir story abounds with possibilities. Pate Engineers designed the drainage ditches along the northeast portion of Beltway 8 and the West Lake Houston Parkway segment through McCord's property. McCord bought the tract in November 1985 -- one month before the city signed a contract to extend the ditch. Turner Collie & Braden conducted a much-criticized environmental assessment of the Parkway and designed the city ditch extension. The Army Corps of Engineers has its fingerprints all over the place.

Though no evidence exists to prove they were working in tandem, numerous troubling questions remain unanswered: Who's burying the water treatment plant access road under tons of dirt, which the city claims to know nothing about, and why? How did a reputable engineering firm and at least two agencies charged with oversight of such matters miss the fact that the Beltway would cut off Carpenters Bayou, when even a layman could see it on the maps? Why is there almost no documentation of the city ditch extension? And why is West Lake Houston Parkway diverting Carpenters Bayou, even after intense and technical negotiations to prevent such an occurrence?

This last question has an added element of intrigue. After Parks and Wildlife staff complained about the Parkway diversion late last year, they managed to wring an agreement from METRO, the county engineer and the Corps of Engineers that the problem would be corrected. The solution involved capping the grated storm drains and building berms near others to steer the water through the culverts. "We went back and looked at the drawings and said, yeah, this should have been plugged, that should have been plugged," says Dan Penaloza, METRO's assistant general manager of engineering, construction and real estate.

But as of last week, the work had not been done. Asked why, Penaloza said he thought the two drains had been capped (even though nine were slated for capping). As for the berms, he said METRO had been moving ahead on their construction until a call came from the county to cease and desist. "Our project people were advised to hold off," said Penaloza, who suggested that county engineer Terry Anderson might have an explanation.

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