Changing the Channel

For years, homeowners, developers, environmentalists and the federal government have wrangled over a flood-control plan for Clear Creek. Now a compromise is in view -- but the creek's future is murkier than ever.

Thirty years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers drafted a plan to solve flooding problems along Clear Creek. About 500 homes in the fledgling communities of Friendswood and Pearland had been built directly in the creek's floodplain, and those homes had suffered damage after especially heavy rains. With the area primed for continued development, the problems would only intensify. The homeowners wanted relief. With the backing of Harris and Galveston counties, the Corps agreed to design a solution.

Like most of the Corps' plans at the time, the one for Clear Creek involved bulldozing and dredging much of the waterway into a glorified drainage ditch, as the agency had done with Brays, White Oak and other area bayous. In 1968, Congress authorized funding for the project.

But federal projects have a tendency to drag, and the channelization of Clear Creek was no exception: Except for a few minor revisions, some preliminary design work and an almost-finished second outlet between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay that will help drain storm water from the lake, little work has been done on the plan.

While the project has languished, much has changed in the Clear Creek watershed. Sections of the once-pastoral creek, which divides Harris County from Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston counties before spilling into Clear Lake and then Galveston Bay, have become part of the suburban landscape. The population of the communities around the lake has grown to 175,000. Housing developments and shopping centers dot the 47 upstream miles, with dozens more under construction or in the planning stage.

Development means more runoff when it rains, which in turn means more water flowing into Clear Creek. Major storms in 1979, 1983, 1989 and 1994 had the inevitable results -- hundreds of insurance claims by flooded homeowners and an increasing clamor for the Corps to get on with the flood-control project.

But pressures have also been exerted in the opposite direction. As one natural river system after another in the region has been claimed by the bulldozer, Clear Creek's value as an ecological and recreational resource has increased exponentially.

Spend an afternoon canoeing the quiet meanders of Clear Creek, and it's easy to see why. Pink and orange sprays of wild morning glories and trumpet vines line the verdant banks; the silence is broken occasionally by the flapping of a great blue heron or a roseate spoonbill. The creek's murky waters harbor 50 species of salt- and freshwater fish. Last year, according to creekside resident and fisherman Marty Nottbohm, one angler landed a 53-pound catfish. Catching a ten-pounder "isn't unusual at all," says Nottbohm.

For the residents and other users who value the creek's treasures, the prospect of a channelized Clear Creek is unacceptable. "Channelization has destroyed the majority of Harris County's other creeks and bayous," says Mona Shoup of the Friends of Clear Creek, a grassroots group that wants to preserve the creek as it is. "Why will this project be any different?"

But the project will be different, at least according to its backers. The Harris County Flood Control District recently completed a six-month review of Clear Creek, and the district has recommended an alternative to the Corps plan that will be considerably less traumatic to the creek. At least some of those involved in the debate have endorsed it. "I'm very supportive of the proposal," says Marie Flickinger, who chairs a regional watershed board and co-owns and publishes the South Belt-Ellington Leader, a community newspaper. "I think they came up with a proposal that people can live with."

That remains to be seen. While the majority of people who had objected to the Corps plan agree with the flood-control district's direction, many say the compromise doesn't go far enough. Improved as the district plan may be, it still calls for channelization, which opponents argue is an obsolete and ineffective method of flood control. "There's still a lot of problems with the alternative," says Ted Scruggs, a Clear Creek resident who served on a citizens' advisory committee established during the review.

And for those who agree with the general concepts of the plan, a number of concerns remain. Foremost among them is the risk of environmental damage and the possibility that the project will increase the risk of flooding downstream in the Clear Lake area. "These issues weren't really answered to my satisfaction," says Galveston County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who had the concerns formally adopted at a recent Commissioners Court meeting. "They really don't know."

Johnson may have identified the one sure thing in the whole Clear Creek debate: No one can say for certain just what effect the flood-control district's alternative plan would have on the creek, how much it will cost and who will pay for it --or whether it will even control flooding to any significant degree.

Nor is it clear that the Corps will accept all or even part of the district's recommendations. Because the agency follows a rigid set of criteria, Corps officials rejected the chance for a workable compromise that all parties might truly embrace. And changing course in midstream, especially after so many years, may prove too difficult for the Corps, which has earned a reputation over the years as a hidebound bureaucracy unwilling to accept new ideas. "It's easy for a project to acquire a life of its own when it comes with tens of millions of federal dollars attached to it," says Johnson.

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