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.

That Storey has cobbled together even a semblance of cooperation among these seemingly irreconcilable camps qualifies him for an ambassadorship. But while the various parties pay lip service to regional cooperation, the coalition is fragile at best and may dissolve as soon as the Corps announces its intentions, which may take up to 18 months. "We're all in this together," says Nassau Bay Mayor Don Matter, who was active in the review. "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem."

On the other hand, says Matter, perhaps voicing the sentiment of everyone connected to the creek, "We're gonna continue to look out for our own necks."

Not far south of Clear Creek, Dickinson Bayou flows through Galveston County and empties into the bay near San Leon. Like Clear Creek, Dickinson remains largely unspoiled and provides valuable environmental and recreational benefits to the community. But unlike Clear Creek, Dickinson has a flood-control plan that almost everyone has accepted.

Oddly, the plan looks much like the one Terry Hershey was pushing for Clear Creek 30 years ago. Relying mostly on detention and land-use controls, the project completely avoids any alterations of the main bayou channel. "We started by rejecting some of the assumptions on which the Clear Creek flood-control plan was built," says Galveston County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who spearheaded the plan.

The cities in the Dickinson Bayou watershed have signed an accord that guarantees protections for the downstream communities, and plans are being readied for a bond vote to acquire the necessary regional detention sites. Environmental interests are pleased. Everyone is pleased.

So why can't that happen with Clear Creek?
"It's too late to do a detention project on Clear Creek," says Johnson. "We had the freedom to start from a fresh perspective."

Johnson may be right: The Dickinson plan was hatched in 1989, with the benefit of modern flood-control thinking and without any federal baggage to weigh it down. After 30 years, the Clear Creek project may simply be the victim of bad timing, too firmly entrenched to discard no matter how much better the options may be. The pressure to move forward with some plan is tremendous, and the Corps project and flood-control district alternative are the only ones on paper.

But as each day passes, getting either of those projects built becomes an increasingly tricky proposition. For one thing, the costs have escalated. The federal project, penciled in for $83 million in 1986, now has a $129 million price tag, with the local communities expected to pick up most of the difference. That may not be an easy thing: Galveston County has already spent the money its county commissioners allocated to the project and will have to pass a referendum to authorize more.

That cost doesn't include maintenance of the project, which the locals must also absorb and could total millions annually. Under the flood-control district alternative, those costs are even higher, because maintenance will be done from the water instead of the land in order to keep the channel narrower. Project review team leader Steve Fitzgerald won't even hazard a guess as to what the annual bill might be.

In addition, the amount of land available for detention, wetlands mitigation, reforestation and dredge disposal -- significant requirements for either channelization project -- continues to shrink. At one point during the six-month review, a 900-acre tract thought to be ideal as a detention site was targeted as a possibility. By the time someone inquired about it, a third of the property had been sold to a developer who plans a 200-home subdivision on the site. The absence of any specific plan to buy detention sites or mitigate for environmental damage could seriously jeopardize the project.

Nor does the cost estimate include a $519 million regional watershed flood-control plan for the creek that was developed in 1992, which depends on construction of the federal project for success.

Even if the technical issues can somehow be resolved, opponents stand ready to block the project if the Corps comes back with a decision they find unacceptable -- a virtual certainty. "I don't think the Corps project will ever go through," says Mona Shoup of the Friends of Clear Creek. Shoup says her group will continue to press forward with demands that channelization be abandoned.

Opponents will also try to sway public opinion against funding of the project. That may not be too difficult, especially if the downstream communities lack confidence that their interests will be protected. "A lack of local funds can stop the project," observes Wayne Johnson.

But starting from scratch with a Dickinson-style approach would require the cooperation of everyone involved, an equally unlikely scenario. And the costs of such a plan could well equal or exceed those of the current project. In the chess game that Clear Creek has become, a stalemate looms.

Developers aren't waiting around for a resolution. And residents in the area report that new subdivisions and shopping centers are digging ditches that feed into Clear Creek, to handle runoff. Sometimes there are no rules such as mandatory onsite detention to prevent it; other times, developers circumvent the rules. "Everywhere you turn, they're trying something to get around putting in detention systems," says Clear Creek Drainage District board member Ray Rogers, who has tried to hold developers to the letter of the law. "They know every trick."

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