Not Worth A Dam

Clear Creek is on the rise, and local flood-protection methods have been helpless against it. Soggy residents, tired of being perpetual victims, are ready for a fight.

For 15 years Carl Hopper had no reason to fear the little stream behind his Friendswood home, which is shaded by towering oak trees on a half-acre lot in Imperial Estates. Clear Creek seemed far enough away from Carl's two-story house, and most of the time there wasn't much water in it anyway.

Then in 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette delivered four and a half feet of Clear Creek to Carl's living room. It destroyed his furniture and his belongings and, much worse, washed away pictures, letters and other remembrances of his late wife.

Carl repaired the damage and kept the house, but for more than a decade he lived in a drier part of town. In 1994 he moved back with his new bride, Barbara. Just a few months later, after two days of steady rain, Carl and Clear Creek met again under the same miserable circumstances.

Barbara and Carl Hopper stand in what's left of the front hallway of their home.
Margaret Downing
Barbara and Carl Hopper stand in what's left of the front hallway of their home.

The Hoppers considered moving for good after the '94 flood. They changed their minds, though, when they heard the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a plan to solve their problem. It involved the channelization -- the widening and deepening -- of an 18-mile stretch of Clear Creek from the Brazoria County line all the way to Clear Lake. The project was first proposed in 1968, but for various reasons, some of which have been forgotten, it was never carried out. Determined to see the Corps get started, Barbara became a vocal supporter of channelization.

"We checked and it was always, 'Oh, yes, we have a project. The contract's going through. Not to worry,' " Barbara recalls. "A lot of people made major improvements to their houses because they were told they were fixing the creek."

But environmentalists vehemently opposed the Corps plan, claiming it would destroy the vibrant riparian habitat around one of the last untouched waterways in the Houston area. Critics also argued it would funnel so much storm-water runoff from upstream development that downstream property owners, particularly around Clear Lake, would flood instead.

The Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District reworked the plan to reduce both the downstream flow and the ancillary destruction of hardwood forests and wetlands. That proposal didn't gain a consensus either, however, and the Corps called for a top-to-bottom review of the project. That study won't be finished until April 2003 -- which didn't do the Hoppers a bit of good this past June.

On its first pass, Tropical Storm Allison poured almost seven inches of rain on Clear Creek in one hour. The creek's upper and middle reaches in northern Brazoria County were still swollen with runoff three days later, when Allison circled back to strike again. When it was over, Clear Creek had flooded a total of 1,500 homes in Pearland, Brookside Village and Friendswood, including Imperial Estates, which remains virtually uninhabitable. Almost every house within two blocks of Clear Creek is empty. On Imperial Drive, 49 houses, including the Hoppers', are waiting to be demolished.

This time, there's no going back for Carl and Barbara. They've bought a house in what she calls "a cookie-cutter subdivision" out of harm's way. Meanwhile, it's hard to tell what they blame more for their trouble: the weather or the environmentalists.

"My house is ruined, my life has been altered drastically, and they're going to bulldoze the entire neighborhood," Barbara says. "And for what? To satisfy those pooh-koo tree huggers."

It can't be known whether a wider, deeper Clear Creek would have contained Allison's fury or, as many seem to believe, she was a freak of nature that couldn't be tamed. But for three decades, the Hoppers, their neighbors and many others believed channelization was their only hope against the floodwaters of Clear Creek.

In a sense, they were duped -- by federal officials who knew channelization and other so-called structural flood- control methods had grown obsolete; and by local officials who, expecting the Corps to take care of Clear Creek's problems, ignored a fundamental law of nature in encouraging new construction in the floodplain.

Clear Creek is just 47 miles long, but it provides the only storm-water drainage to Galveston Bay for a 260-square-mile area that includes parts of four counties and 16 cities. Over the past decade, the creek has become overwhelmed by the relentless urbanization of the watershed, particularly in Pearland. The city's population grew from 16,000 to 39,000 during the 1990s, a rate of expansion that has been accompanied by an exponential increase in flood damages.

Indeed, tension between city officials and local residents frustrated over repeated flooding of their neighborhoods came to a head September 6, less than a week after Clear Creek spilled its banks yet again. In Pearland, a standing-room-only crowd of homeowners at City Hall blasted councilmembers and the city's drainage plan for failing to protect their lives and property from the impact of new development.

Meanwhile, just to the north, councilmembers for the City of Brookside Village directed their legal counsel to gather information for a possible injunction to stop new construction in Pearland, where the population is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

To many, the only solution is to proceed with the channelization of Clear Creek. But even if it's approved 18 months from now, the Corps plan could take eight years to complete. In the meantime, history has proved that it doesn't take a storm of Allison's magnitude to turn the once-benign stream into a meandering menace.

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