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.

But to some extent, the Corps remains stuck in time. In order to remain eligible for federal funding, the Clear Creek project must meet strict guidelines, one of which re- quires a minimum benefit/cost ratio. (The esti- mated cost of the project now stands at $129 million, with $74 million the current federal share.)

But the agency's definition of benefits rests on the presumed decrease in flood insurance claims and doesn't include the economic value of the watershed environment. So even though channelization could severely damage Clear Creek's worth as a fish hatchery and recreational area, that cost isn't included in the benefit/cost analysis. "It can't be quantified the same way as you can quantify a dollar reduction in damages," says Sid Tanner, who heads the Coastal Planning Branch of the Corps' Galveston district.

What that essentially means is that if additional dollars are spent to protect the environment, it can skew the benefit/cost ratio and kill federal funding.

During the six-month time-out, the project review team looked at a number of alternative elements that would satisfy the concerns about the environmental impact. Among the most attractive was a bypass channel, known as B-1, that would steer excess water east of Friendswood and leave the sensitive upper reaches of the creek essentially unspoiled. The bypass had broad-based support, and although it ran through some Exxon property, preliminary discussions with the oil company indicated that the route shouldn't prove too serious an obstacle.

But there was a problem: The bypass would increase the project cost by at least $14 million, which would throw the benefit/cost ratio out of whack. Can't do it, said the Corps.

The flood-control district offered an easy out: The local communities would pick up the difference, so no new federal money would be required. Everyone could go home a winner.

But the Corps rejected that idea as well. The benefit/cost ratio is calculated on the basis of the overall cost. Who pays for what, explains Sid Tanner, is "beside the point."

When the flood-control district issued its alternative plan, B-1 was missing.

Art Storey could have blown off the federal funding, an option he mentioned early on as one of several to consider in order to get the best project possible. As late as August, a Clear Creek review team report noted that keeping the money was a "secondary" consideration. Soon thereafter, however, adhering to the Corps guidelines became a given, which condemned B-1 and other alternatives to the scrap heap. Many people believe that Storey, who answers to the Harris County Commissioners Court, was pressured to take that position as well as keep to the existing project schedule. That left him little room to maneuver a truly acceptable alternative. "In the box he found himself with elected officials, I think he has improved the project as much as possible," says a source familiar with the issue.

Storey denies that politics had anything to do with it. The decision, he says, was made internally by the review team. "I guess I had an attack of realism that forced me to recognize that this is a federal project," Storey says, "and that federal rules do matter."

Art Storey speaks with the care of someone used to having his words picked apart syllable by syllable. During his agency's review of Clear Creek, Storey had to steer a treacherous course between demanding politicians, angry residents on all sides of the issue, developers, environmentalists and just about everyone with an interest in the creek.

Anxious to spin the district's alternative proposal for Clear Creek in glowing terms, Storey acknowledges that it's impossible to satisfy everyone, especially the "dyed-in-the-woolers" who will accept no compromise whatsoever. But he says the plan hammered out over the last six months represents a solid compromise that meets the needs of the majority. "Probably 80 percent of the groups ended the process delighted with the consensus building that went on," Storey says.

That figure is hard to verify, though early returns from groups weighing in on the proposal affirm the claim. "We applaud HCFCD executive director Art Storey and the HCFCD project team for their efforts to involve the community in improving the project and in responding to citizen concerns," wrote Linda Shead, the executive director of the Galveston Bay Foundation, in a recent letter to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

And almost everyone agrees that the district proposal is an improvement on what the Corps had in mind. "The current plan is light years ahead of what they started with," says Clear Lake Shores Mayor Gary Groover.

But while Storey gets a virtual standing ovation for his political tightrope walk, the compromise plan has failed to ease the anxieties of those who opposed the Corps project in the first place. "My position has not changed," says Taylor Lake Village Councilwoman Natalie O'Neill. "The council's position has not changed."

That position, shared by most of the Clear Lake communities, centers on a concern that channelizing the creek will create a virtual chute that will speed floodwaters directly to the lake. Combined with additional runoff from ongoing development upstream, the project could raise lake levels several inches during a heavy rain. Several inches is more than enough to push the water into kitchens and living rooms.

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