If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail

They've already been labeled "high risk." Experts say the resulting damage could be bigger than Katrina in New Orleans.

"We came across a document in a Freedom of Information Act that pointed out that the Corps of Engineers had changed the operating plan for Addicks and Barker reservoirs due to the highest level of risk," says Merz about the July 2010 internal memo.

In an attempt to get some answers, Merz wrote letters to Harris County officials, the mayor's office and the Corps of Engineers. She scored a meeting with a Corps staff member on a Tuesday, but three days before, the Corps' Galveston District Regulatory Branch okayed the building of Grand Parkway's $350 million Segment E.

Merz and Blackburn were appalled. They say that Segment E and the potential development will reduce Katy Prairie's ability to retain runoff during major storms. That's because water travels faster on a paved chunk of land than it does across the spongy soil of the Katy Prairie.

After Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club stumbled upon the operational changes for Addicks and Barker, she scheduled a meeting with the Corps of Engineers. But before she could voice her concerns, the Corps gave approval to the continued construction of the Grand Parkway between Interstate 10 and Highway 290. Environmentalists say the future toll road, located west of Highway 6, will stress the shaky dams even more.
Lisa Ramirez
After Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club stumbled upon the operational changes for Addicks and Barker, she scheduled a meeting with the Corps of Engineers. But before she could voice her concerns, the Corps gave approval to the continued construction of the Grand Parkway between Interstate 10 and Highway 290. Environmentalists say the future toll road, located west of Highway 6, will stress the shaky dams even more.

The Houston Sierra Club is trying to halt the construction of the Grand Parkway's Segment E, claiming that the prospective toll road might have a devastating impact nobody can imagine. "The long-term effects are significant of what we will face if we don't get the issue of runoff controlled and accounted for in those watersheds," says Merz.
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Because long-term improvements are at least five years away, the Corps' interim fix was to shave 975 years off of Addicks's and Barker's 1,000-year-flood capability. Currently, the reservoirs are permitted to hold only around 60,000 acre-feet of water, a level the reservoirs nearly reached during the April 2009 downpour.

Additionally, the Corps doubled the maximum amount of water that can be released downstream (from 2,000 cubic feet per second to 4,000 CFS). If reservoir water levels swell to 2,500 CFS, properties will start to flood. At 4,100 CFS, homes near West Beltway Bridge, North Wilcrest Drive and Chimney Rock Road could be marinating in floodwaters.

"In trying to protect the safety of the dams, which I have no problem with, they're saying better flooding a few homes than let the dams fail," says Dunbar. "They're pushing the ­envelope."

In the meantime, Dunbar believes that the Corps is crossing its fingers, hoping that a big storm doesn't sweep through the region.

"They or anybody can't tell you what the current risk of failure is because they don't know," says Dunbar. "They don't know if, during a ten-year event, if the water level rises to less than a 25-year event that it won't fail. They just don't know."

Dunbar says there's another issue to consider. During its risk analysis in 2009, the Corps discovered that the natural ground at the top of Addicks and Barker dams had subsided. If water started to spill over the top of the reservoirs — an unlikely but not impossible scenario — there might be hell to pay.

"When the reservoir fills up high enough, before it can spill over and out over the concrete part, it will start spilling out over the natural ground, which is dirt, which means it can start eroding right next to the concrete part of the dam," explains Dunbar. "It would create the same problem as if the concrete wasn't there."

If the reservoirs bubbled over with rainwater, Dunbar says, a 30-foot wall of craziness could be released.

"I've done a little bit of analysis and if the dam is full and it fails, you're getting flooding that's higher than a 500-year event. Depending upon where Barker dam fails — for example, on the north end — it's not going into Buffalo Bayou, it's going over land and maybe into White Oak." According to Dunbar, the Corps hasn't addressed the over-the-top spillage scenario.

While the Corps is scrambling to ink a deal so that they can start repairing Addicks and Barker dams, work is in progress to shore up Kentucky's Wolf Creek and Tennessee's Center Hill dams, which protect Nashville from Cumberland Lake's pent-up water. When it's complete, the project, which will help protect the Music City against a 200-mile flood, will cost an estimated $584 million. At press time, the Corps hadn't determined estimated repair costs to Addicks and Barker.

Along with filling the voids, Dunbar says that more needs to be done to prevent additional water from making its way to Addicks and Barker. One option would be to direct overflow to Cypress Creek, but that probably wouldn't work because the creek is plagued with its own flooding issues.

Instead, Dunbar says, "The best thing to do is to get more capacity within the reservoir and don't let more development occur upstream that would send more water to the watershed. Then let the water be retained in the Katy Prairie west of the Grand Parkway — you can almost use the Grand Parkway as a dam — and let it sit there and not let it get into the reservoir quickly."
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While Dunbar thinks that the Army Corps of Engineers is definitely addressing the complex situation from an engineering standpoint, he has an issue with the Corps' hush-hush strategy.

"I hear that the dams are not at risk of imminent failure and to an extent, I agree. 'Imminent' meaning it's about to fail. There's no water in the reservoir, so it's not going to fail if there's no water in the reservoir," says Dunbar before last week's storms. "The problem is that they're giving the public a false sense of 'Oh, don't worry, it's not a problem.' Well, it is a problem."

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13 comments
stit60
stit60

LOL!  I always enjoy these apocolyptic weather articles yall do.  Makes me laugh, makes me worry and makes me think.  WHAT IF???  Holy shhhhh.  Okay.  I'm in Mission Bend---close.  I'm goin' to Home Depot RIGHT FRIGGIN NOW and buy some wood.  Time to build an ark!

red.marcy.rand
red.marcy.rand topcommenter

More leftist apocalyptic alarmism ! The sky is falling ! Govmint must come to the rescue !

Can you believe that we folks out here in San Fransicko don't give a fiddler's fart what happens to Houston ?

turtletxn
turtletxn

Allison did not "destroy" 90 of 105 buildings on the University of Houston campus....

There is a giant difference in a building being flooded and/or damaged and a building being "destroyed."

For the record, call me a "nitpicker" but I quit reading the article at this point.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Too bad they can't fix thee dam. Too many trees to cut down for bike paths that already exist. 

tlafaver
tlafaver

It is difficult to believe much of this when it is infused with such hyperbolic statements; like water up to the tenth floor of buildings in the Energy Coriddor, and 90 of 105 buildings on UH campus destroyed during TS Allison. Get your facts straight!

Inthedamsshadow
Inthedamsshadow

Before claiming that 99 percent of the people in West Houston are not aware of the current situation, you might try actually coming out and speaking with some of the residents beyond simply those who are involved in the lawsuit. Most of my neighbors are hyper sensitive to the issues, including those concerning the City's efforts to destroy our forests to gain a paltry (but politically expedient from a Memorial super neighborhood perspective) 110 acre feet of water detention. The most important part of the story is left out - what are Congressmen Culberson, McCaul, Green, Paul and Olson doing to get funding and approval for not only upgrading the dams, but also for the Clodine Regional Detention Basin? What are Harris County and Fort Bend County doing to encourage the Congressmen to fund the dam upgrades and the development of the Clodine Regional Detention Basin? What are any of our elected officials doing to encourage the construction of a new reservoir northwest of the Addicks Reservoir? Our Mayor seems to think water stops at the City of Houston boundaries and she does nothing to work with other government entities responsible for water being fed into Buffalo Bayou from beyond. This story is larger and more complex than just the dams. See www.briarforestsn.org for some additional information. By the way, there were four meetings put on by the Corps, not just one (and they were all very well attended by our residents). Just because the local media does not question us or report our concerns does not mean we are ignorant to the issues.

1967warren
1967warren

here is just a reminder for all the newcomers to houston. google alvin or friendswood on july 25 and 26 1979. the N.W.S. weather station in alvin recorded over 42" of rain in 24hrs. yea that's right! for the few that lived in this,we will never forget and we have a good laugh when we read about these projected events based on just a few inches and what they could do to houston, ha. wait for the big one, it has happened before and will happen again some where

lovemadjc
lovemadjc

wow! i worry bout storms and heavy rains but to know we can be wiped out from this dam....when is this going to be a problem when were all gone?

Shummel67
Shummel67

I believe most taxpayers would be willing to fund a worthy project like this. We are unwilling to continue funding the waste that is rampant in all forms of government. I believe the City of Houston just received a grant to do some "improvements" along Buffalo Bayou like install a public shower?

Anse
Anse

If a psychic has an office out there and hasn't packed it up and left, then what in the heck are we worrying about?

nitpicker
nitpicker

I believe Barker's on the north of I-10 and Addicks on the south. "nitpicker"

ypman
ypman

The government has been playing a game of chance when it comes to dams for years. One only needs to visit the site of the Teton Dam collapse in Idaho for proof. While the USACE may say the problem is not really imminent they also can't say it will not happen soon. Then again part of the problem is also taxpayers unwilling to pay any additional taxes to make improvements to the nations aging infrastructure.

Interested Bystander
Interested Bystander

"thud against upper-floor windows of an Energy Corridor office tower" is pretty hyperbolic since a 10 story building would be over 100' high. Would be a enormous stetch to get water that high. However it might wash away 2nd Baptist on Voss away so al might not be so bad.

 
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