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.

Art Storey and his project team think they've got that problem licked. While their computer models showed that the old Corps plan might indeed raise lake levels from one to four inches in adverse conditions, the alternative plan reduces the creek's flow by 25 percent, and the models show no increase in lake levels.

That's not quite good enough for Larry Dunbar, an engineer and environmental consultant hired by the Friends of Clear Creek to scrutinize the district's findings. For several reasons, however, Dunbar doesn't trust the district's calculations, which conflict with previous Army Corps analyses. "I think there's a problem with their model," he says.

Even the staunchest proponents of channelization agree that the flooding question will have to be answered by the Corps before the project can move forward. But assurances can only go so far -- in order to work, the plan presumes that dozens of variables will fall into place over a 50-year period, a risky assumption at best.

For example, the Corps calculates stormwater flows based on its prediction of how much development will occur in the watershed, and its track record on that issue is shaky. "I would challenge those assumptions," says Kevin Shanley, the incoming president of the Bayou Preservation Association. "They have demonstrated to me that they are incapable of coming up with full development numbers that are accurate."

Besides, the Corps has determined in the past that downstream flooding wouldn't be a problem with Brays Bayou and other projects, only to find out otherwise. If the models prove faulty after the fact, the fallout could last for decades. "The people down here ask me, 'If we flood, who do we sue?' " says Gary Groover.

Flooding may be the biggest worry for Clear Lake area residents, but it's not the only one. The massive amount of dredging needed to deepen and widen the channel, even under the alternative plan, will likely result in tons of sediment being deposited downstream in the lake. Gary Groover notes that natural buildup has already made the private Clear Lake Hilton marina impassable for larger boats. Groover fears the consequences if the lake starts to fill up as a result of the project, especially since neither the Corps nor the flood-control district has addressed the issue. "This is a major flaw in the plan," he says. "In any channelization plan, for that matter."

To some residents along the creek, the potential volume of sediment pales in comparison to another misgiving about dredging the channel. Just upstream from Friendswood on the north side of Clear Creek sits Brio, one of the nation's worst toxic sites. Migrating carcinogens and other poisons from Brio, home to a series of now-defunct chemical companies, forced the evacuation of dozens of homes in the adjacent South Bend subdivision and the closure of an elementary school in the 1970s. Though added to the Superfund list 13 years ago, Brio has yet to be cleaned up.

Meanwhile, Brio's 22 unlined chemical pits continue to leak. Some of the effluent seeps into Mud Gulley, which runs through Brio and dumps directly into Clear Creek. In addition, numerous documented spills while the chemical plants were still operational flowed into the creek, and some of that material remains buried in the creek bed.

In November 1993, elevated levels of carcinogens in fish captured downstream from Brio prompted the state health commissioner to issue a "zero consumption" warning against eating fish from the creek. Two years later, flood-control district workers encountered a noxious patch of sediment while clearing the creek south of FM 2351, a couple of miles downstream from Brio. Though preliminary tests found no immediate threat from the patch, various state and local agencies recommended further analysis to determine the extent of the potential hazard. That analysis has yet to be done.

The potential health threat if dredging disturbs chemical deposits from Brio is enough for some residents to insist on an alternative to dredging, or at least a comprehensive environmental study to determine the extent of the deposits. And while those pushing to proceed with the channelization say the Brio argument is just a concoction to block the project, local officials aren't so sure. In an April letter to the EPA concerning the Superfund cleanup, Harris County Pollution Control Department director R.L. Barrett expressed his concerns about Brio's impact on the creek. "The presence of the contaminated sediments in Clear Creek, the extent of which is not fully defined, represents a challenge to anyone involved with or proposing construction activity that disturbs the contaminated sediments," Barrett wrote.

And Steve Fitzgerald of the flood-control district says the Corps will have to resolve the Brio issue before the project can proceed, whether or not the district's alternative is adopted. "We're concerned," Fitzgerald says.

Even if the questions over downstream flooding and Brio can be answered with some degree of certainty, the repercussions from channelizing Clear Creek could still be substantial. Toying with the sensitive estuarian zone in the central part of the creek, a major breeding ground for shrimp, blue crab and other staples of Galveston Bay's seafood industry, could seriously hurt the fishery and those who depend on it to make a living. The effect of removing significant wetland and forest acreage on the 125 species of resident and migratory birds who use the Clear Creek habitat is also unknown, and could in turn damage the area's burgeoning eco-tourism trade, which Taylor Lake Village's Natalie O'Neill says brought $3 million to local communities last year and continues to grow.

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