Changing the Channel

Thirty years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers drafted a plan to solve flooding problems along Clear Creek. About 500 homes in the fledgling communities of Friendswood and Pearland had been built directly in the creek's floodplain, and those homes had suffered damage after especially heavy rains. With the area primed for continued development, the problems would only intensify. The homeowners wanted relief. With the backing of Harris and Galveston counties, the Corps agreed to design a solution.

Like most of the Corps' plans at the time, the one for Clear Creek involved bulldozing and dredging much of the waterway into a glorified drainage ditch, as the agency had done with Brays, White Oak and other area bayous. In 1968, Congress authorized funding for the project.

But federal projects have a tendency to drag, and the channelization of Clear Creek was no exception: Except for a few minor revisions, some preliminary design work and an almost-finished second outlet between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay that will help drain storm water from the lake, little work has been done on the plan.

While the project has languished, much has changed in the Clear Creek watershed. Sections of the once-pastoral creek, which divides Harris County from Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston counties before spilling into Clear Lake and then Galveston Bay, have become part of the suburban landscape. The population of the communities around the lake has grown to 175,000. Housing developments and shopping centers dot the 47 upstream miles, with dozens more under construction or in the planning stage.

Development means more runoff when it rains, which in turn means more water flowing into Clear Creek. Major storms in 1979, 1983, 1989 and 1994 had the inevitable results -- hundreds of insurance claims by flooded homeowners and an increasing clamor for the Corps to get on with the flood-control project.

But pressures have also been exerted in the opposite direction. As one natural river system after another in the region has been claimed by the bulldozer, Clear Creek's value as an ecological and recreational resource has increased exponentially.

Spend an afternoon canoeing the quiet meanders of Clear Creek, and it's easy to see why. Pink and orange sprays of wild morning glories and trumpet vines line the verdant banks; the silence is broken occasionally by the flapping of a great blue heron or a roseate spoonbill. The creek's murky waters harbor 50 species of salt- and freshwater fish. Last year, according to creekside resident and fisherman Marty Nottbohm, one angler landed a 53-pound catfish. Catching a ten-pounder "isn't unusual at all," says Nottbohm.

For the residents and other users who value the creek's treasures, the prospect of a channelized Clear Creek is unacceptable. "Channelization has destroyed the majority of Harris County's other creeks and bayous," says Mona Shoup of the Friends of Clear Creek, a grassroots group that wants to preserve the creek as it is. "Why will this project be any different?"

But the project will be different, at least according to its backers. The Harris County Flood Control District recently completed a six-month review of Clear Creek, and the district has recommended an alternative to the Corps plan that will be considerably less traumatic to the creek. At least some of those involved in the debate have endorsed it. "I'm very supportive of the proposal," says Marie Flickinger, who chairs a regional watershed board and co-owns and publishes the South Belt-Ellington Leader, a community newspaper. "I think they came up with a proposal that people can live with."

That remains to be seen. While the majority of people who had objected to the Corps plan agree with the flood-control district's direction, many say the compromise doesn't go far enough. Improved as the district plan may be, it still calls for channelization, which opponents argue is an obsolete and ineffective method of flood control. "There's still a lot of problems with the alternative," says Ted Scruggs, a Clear Creek resident who served on a citizens' advisory committee established during the review.

And for those who agree with the general concepts of the plan, a number of concerns remain. Foremost among them is the risk of environmental damage and the possibility that the project will increase the risk of flooding downstream in the Clear Lake area. "These issues weren't really answered to my satisfaction," says Galveston County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who had the concerns formally adopted at a recent Commissioners Court meeting. "They really don't know."

Johnson may have identified the one sure thing in the whole Clear Creek debate: No one can say for certain just what effect the flood-control district's alternative plan would have on the creek, how much it will cost and who will pay for it --or whether it will even control flooding to any significant degree.

Nor is it clear that the Corps will accept all or even part of the district's recommendations. Because the agency follows a rigid set of criteria, Corps officials rejected the chance for a workable compromise that all parties might truly embrace. And changing course in midstream, especially after so many years, may prove too difficult for the Corps, which has earned a reputation over the years as a hidebound bureaucracy unwilling to accept new ideas. "It's easy for a project to acquire a life of its own when it comes with tens of millions of federal dollars attached to it," says Johnson.

The conflict has pitted neighbor against neighbor and exacerbated tensions between the upstream and downstream communities. During the six-month review, the five cities around Clear Lake passed resolutions opposing the Corps plan, while League City, Friendswood, Pearland and Brazoria County all went on record supporting it.

With various interest groups prepared to take more dramatic measures to see their visions for the creek realized, the issue may soon come to a head, possibly in the courts. But that may only serve to mire any resolution in a legal bog for years. In the meantime, as development continues at a rapid clip and opportunities to save the creek erode, everyone will end up the loser.

"Something has to get done," says Nassau Bay mayor Don Matter, who favors the flood-control district's alternative. "Nothing getting done is the worst of all possible worlds."

Surrounded by stacks of paper, boxes and books that fill almost every inch of open space in her cramped office, Terry Hershey digs through her Clear Creek files. They're thick: Hershey has been fighting the Army Corps channelization project since it first took shape in 1968. "It's a bad project," Hershey says. "It always was a bad project, and it's still a bad project."

Perhaps Houston's most effective environmental advocate, Hershey knows a bit about bayous and flood control. In 1966, she co-founded the Bayou Preservation Association and helped stop a similar Corps plan to channelize a significant portion of Buffalo Bayou. And she was recently appointed to the board of the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation, a national organization involved with floodplain issues.

To Hershey and most everyone else involved with floodplain management, the old idea that channelizing bayous is an effective means of flood control has given way to alternative methods that preserve the natural waterways -- regional detention ponds, bypass channels, restrictions on development in the floodplain and buyouts of those who should never have built there in the first place. "The floodplain is the river's detention basin," says Hershey. "We ought to stay out of it."

That view has gained almost universal acceptance in the wake of the disastrous Mississippi River floods of 1993. But Hershey and her allies used those same arguments back when the Clear Creek project was first unveiled. "We spoke from common sense in the '60s and '70s," Hershey says. "Our common sense told us it was stupid to channelize rivers and streams. In the '90s we speak with a lot more authority."

Common sense failed to carry the day, however. To the Corps, flood control and channelization were inseparable, and Clear Creek would simply have to conform to conventional wisdom. The Corps and Harris and Galveston counties held public hearings and other meetings to rehash the issue in 1974, 1976 and again in 1982, and each time environmental groups offered alternatives. Invariably, the Corps dismissed them as impractical. "They said, 'All we can do is channelize the creek,' " recalls Mary Ellen Brennan, a Friendswood resident who has opposed the project since its inception.

Finally, in 1986, the Corps signed a contract with the Harris County Flood Control District and Galveston County to build a channel that would extend from Clear Lake to the Brazoria-Galveston County line. The feds would provide $69 million of the estimated $83 million total, with the two counties splitting the difference. Though reduced in scope from the original plan, the strategy remained the same -- bend the creek to the will of the people.

Slowed by a lawsuit over right-of-way acquisition, the project plodded along for another decade. The design for the three project segments was approved, and in July 1996 the Corps began to construct the second outlet between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.

Though many opponents of the project were skeptical that the Clear Creek project would ever get off the ground, the construction work on the second outlet convinced them otherwise. A flurry of calls to flood-control district executive director Art Storey ensued. The outcry was loud enough and the arguments salient enough that Storey asked last April for a six-month hiatus to consider the situation. "It is never too late to abandon a wrong course of action," he said on several occasions.

Storey assembled a project review team to study alternatives and staged several public meetings to air opinions. Once again, opponents called for modern flood-control methods to supplant channelization. This time, they had more ammunition: Across the country, cities and counties are rejecting the old methods as outdated and are increasingly employing detention, buyouts and land-use management as the primary tools to control flooding.

In part, the change is practical -- not only has channelization destroyed the ecological benefits of waterways, but in many cases it did little to alleviate flooding. Brays Bayou, an ugly concrete monument to misguided thinking, was supposed to take care of flooding problems along its banks. Instead, neighborhood streets have filled up with Brays water on several occasions, and the entire Medical Center goes into a panic every time there's a major downpour.

Even the Corps has altered its view of the world, though usually in response to lawsuits and court orders. In Florida, California and Tennessee, the agency is actually tearing out channelized projects and restoring the rivers and streams to their original condition.

But to some extent, the Corps remains stuck in time. In order to remain eligible for federal funding, the Clear Creek project must meet strict guidelines, one of which re- quires a minimum benefit/cost ratio. (The esti- mated cost of the project now stands at $129 million, with $74 million the current federal share.)

But the agency's definition of benefits rests on the presumed decrease in flood insurance claims and doesn't include the economic value of the watershed environment. So even though channelization could severely damage Clear Creek's worth as a fish hatchery and recreational area, that cost isn't included in the benefit/cost analysis. "It can't be quantified the same way as you can quantify a dollar reduction in damages," says Sid Tanner, who heads the Coastal Planning Branch of the Corps' Galveston district.

What that essentially means is that if additional dollars are spent to protect the environment, it can skew the benefit/cost ratio and kill federal funding.

During the six-month time-out, the project review team looked at a number of alternative elements that would satisfy the concerns about the environmental impact. Among the most attractive was a bypass channel, known as B-1, that would steer excess water east of Friendswood and leave the sensitive upper reaches of the creek essentially unspoiled. The bypass had broad-based support, and although it ran through some Exxon property, preliminary discussions with the oil company indicated that the route shouldn't prove too serious an obstacle.

But there was a problem: The bypass would increase the project cost by at least $14 million, which would throw the benefit/cost ratio out of whack. Can't do it, said the Corps.

The flood-control district offered an easy out: The local communities would pick up the difference, so no new federal money would be required. Everyone could go home a winner.

But the Corps rejected that idea as well. The benefit/cost ratio is calculated on the basis of the overall cost. Who pays for what, explains Sid Tanner, is "beside the point."

When the flood-control district issued its alternative plan, B-1 was missing.

Art Storey could have blown off the federal funding, an option he mentioned early on as one of several to consider in order to get the best project possible. As late as August, a Clear Creek review team report noted that keeping the money was a "secondary" consideration. Soon thereafter, however, adhering to the Corps guidelines became a given, which condemned B-1 and other alternatives to the scrap heap. Many people believe that Storey, who answers to the Harris County Commissioners Court, was pressured to take that position as well as keep to the existing project schedule. That left him little room to maneuver a truly acceptable alternative. "In the box he found himself with elected officials, I think he has improved the project as much as possible," says a source familiar with the issue.

Storey denies that politics had anything to do with it. The decision, he says, was made internally by the review team. "I guess I had an attack of realism that forced me to recognize that this is a federal project," Storey says, "and that federal rules do matter."

Art Storey speaks with the care of someone used to having his words picked apart syllable by syllable. During his agency's review of Clear Creek, Storey had to steer a treacherous course between demanding politicians, angry residents on all sides of the issue, developers, environmentalists and just about everyone with an interest in the creek.

Anxious to spin the district's alternative proposal for Clear Creek in glowing terms, Storey acknowledges that it's impossible to satisfy everyone, especially the "dyed-in-the-woolers" who will accept no compromise whatsoever. But he says the plan hammered out over the last six months represents a solid compromise that meets the needs of the majority. "Probably 80 percent of the groups ended the process delighted with the consensus building that went on," Storey says.

That figure is hard to verify, though early returns from groups weighing in on the proposal affirm the claim. "We applaud HCFCD executive director Art Storey and the HCFCD project team for their efforts to involve the community in improving the project and in responding to citizen concerns," wrote Linda Shead, the executive director of the Galveston Bay Foundation, in a recent letter to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

And almost everyone agrees that the district proposal is an improvement on what the Corps had in mind. "The current plan is light years ahead of what they started with," says Clear Lake Shores Mayor Gary Groover.

But while Storey gets a virtual standing ovation for his political tightrope walk, the compromise plan has failed to ease the anxieties of those who opposed the Corps project in the first place. "My position has not changed," says Taylor Lake Village Councilwoman Natalie O'Neill. "The council's position has not changed."

That position, shared by most of the Clear Lake communities, centers on a concern that channelizing the creek will create a virtual chute that will speed floodwaters directly to the lake. Combined with additional runoff from ongoing development upstream, the project could raise lake levels several inches during a heavy rain. Several inches is more than enough to push the water into kitchens and living rooms.

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.

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."

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."

So the flooding problems in Friendswood and Pearland will continue to spread. Residents can only hope that the next deluge is a long way off, and they're frustrated that there's no resolution on the horizon. "I believe that the majority of the people who live in this region demand a solution to our flooding problems now, and it should be achieved in the most economical and practical way possible," wrote Pearland resident Thomas Alexander in a letter to Art Storey supporting the Corps plan. "There will always be special interest groups opposed to some or possibly all proposed improvements to the watershed, but in a democracy, the majority's interest should come first."

Alexander's remarks raise an interesting question -- to what extent should public opinion matter? Judging from the tally of phone calls, letters and other reaction the flood-control district received during its review, Alexander might not like the outcome if channelization were put up for a vote. Less than a third of the comments supported the Corps project, and most folks seemed to favor an environmentally stronger solution than the flood-control district alternative.

And even if it were possible to let the majority rule, who should be allowed to cast a vote? Though some would argue it should be up to the communities adjacent to the creek, others suggest that the stakeholders should be defined more broadly.

"The river does not belong to the people who live next to it," says Terry Hershey. "It belongs to everybody.


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