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.

Though unpredictable, the effects on the creek will be significant, and perhaps irreversible, even if the Corps accepts the more environmentally friendly alternative proposed by the flood-control district. "Regrettably," says Art Storey, "there still are some [impacts]."

During the six-month review, Art Storey managed to instill an air of civility into the proceedings. At public hearings, speakers politely stated their cases for a hundred different variations of a dozen different themes, usually careful to praise the process and thank everyone in sight. But the passions that inflame most everyone with an interest in Clear Creek have bubbled near the surface for 30 years, and though he has tried to tout the alternative as a consensus plan, Storey will have a tough time keeping the peace when it's time to actually move forward.

The most obvious tension exists between the upstream and downstream communities. Friendswood and Pearland have experienced the worst of the flooding; many residents in those towns want the project to move ahead as quickly as possible. They see the objections from the Clear Lake area as obstructionist and self-serving.

In a letter to the Clear Creek project team after one public meeting, Brazoria County Commissioner Jack Harris identified a block of adversaries as "a large group of downstream residents using specious environmental arguments (Brio site, etc.) to oppose the project because they do not trust your engineering calculations and are more than happy to allow those upstream to suffer so that they may continue to have their creature comforts and protection."

Conversely, it's not surprising that residents around Clear Lake should be suspicious of the project and those who favor it. After all, the channelization of Clear Creek was specifically designed to alleviate the flooding in Friendswood, not Kemah or Seabrook. They resent the idea that they should pay for poor land-use planning and uncontrolled development upstream. "You're just moving the problem from upstream to downstream," said Nassau Bay resident Lou DeVita at a public meeting in League City last July.

If the conflicts were as simple as upstream versus downstream, Storey might have a relatively easy time reaching consensus. But a host of other interests break geographic boundaries and muddy the waters. While some Friendswood residents only want protection from the creek's floodwaters, others insist on preserving the natural beauty and character that drew them to the creek in the first place. "We are vehemently opposed to the whole concept of a channel," says Patricia Rosendahl, president of the Laurelfield Homeowners Association, a Friendswood subdivision.

The list goes on. Preservationists decry the continued loss of wetlands and riparian forests. Out-of-towners want Clear Creek available for boating, fishing and other recreational activities, opportunities for which continue to dwindle as Houston's urban sprawl pushes ever outward. Fishermen want to ensure the health of the estuarian system.

Ultimately, though, the interest that will best be served by either channelization plan has been conspicuously silent during the review. It's not the downstream communities, who will be at some risk for increased flooding for decades to come. It's certainly not the preservation faction, which can only hope that the degradation of the creek environment won't be too severe.

And it's not the flood victims who have been the hardest hit and whose stories of suffering have fueled the project from the outset. Both plans call for a buyout of the 50 or so homes most susceptible to flooding, though no one has yet said specifically which ones. But at least some of them are in the Imperial Estates subdivision, located at the junction of Clear Creek and St. Mary's Creek, where residents have been among the most vocal in support of the Corps plan.

Instead, the biggest beneficiaries of the channelization of Clear Creek will be the development interests that have most contributed to the flooding problems in the first place. "You inevitably provide additional land for development when you protect houses that are already in the floodplain," says Art Storey.

Just how many houses will be protected from flooding when the project is done is a matter of conjecture. The Corps says 2,000. The flood-control district says between 400 and 500. "We were a little curious about how they got their numbers," says the flood-control district's Steve Fitzgerald.

One thing is more certain. Of the 12,800 acres in the watershed's 100-year floodplain, more than 60 percent will be removed after the regional detention plan and federal project are in place. The federal project alone will reduce the floodplain along Clear Creek itself by 74 percent. That land, freed from the restrictions that make construction inside the floodplain much more costly, will soon be on its way to what the Corps glibly calls "ultimate build-out."

A good chunk of the developable land lies in Brazoria County, which will receive roughly 30 percent of the benefits from the project, according to Corps calculations. But Brazoria County pulled out of the project in 1986, citing a lack of financial resources. Brazoria officials have nonetheless been quite active in pushing for its implementation. "We are concerned that if nothing is done, more and more of our citizens will suffer, and we can no longer accept that as a reasonable alternative," wrote County Commissioner Jack Harris in a letter urging forward motion. "The property rights of Brazoria County citizens are no less valuable than the rights of those downstream."

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