Officials gambled that releasing water from Addicks and Barker reservoirs in the middle of Harvey's catastrophic flooding would ease the pressure on the aging dams northwest of the city. At this point it's unclear if the bet is paying off.
On Sunday night the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started releasing water from Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the first time the Corps has ordered such a release of the dams in the middle of a major storm.
Of course, it was the only choice the Corps really had, considering both reservoirs had already taken in more than 25 inches of rain and the National Weather Service is predicting another 25 inches may fall on the area before Harvey finally wraps up.
The dams were constructed in the 1940s as a method of protecting downtown Houston from the worst of the waters in the event of another devastating flood like the one that left Houston so broken in 1935. While the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District could once count on the dams to hold whatever amount of floodwaters came down, in recent years the 70-year-old structures have been deemed two of the most dangerous dams in the country, as we've previously reported.
When the floodwater from Hurricane Harvey rose up past 95 feet in the Barker reservoir and 97 feet in Addicks, the Corps put in a request to start letting water out of the reservoirs. (The Corps can release a small amount of water without any authorization, but for this amount, the local arm had to get approval.)
Since then the Corps has been letting water leave the dams, with plans to gradually work up to allowing 8,000 cubic square feet per second to flow into Buffalo Bayou.
While it has been acknowledged that this approach will flood houses near both Barker and Addicks and has the potential to raise Buffalo Bayou's water levels as well, officials have been clear that this option is better than what will happen if the integrity of the structures does not hold, according to Harris County Flood Control.
However, so far, the plan hasn't entirely worked.
Sure, the release has kept the dams from having a collapse, a disaster that is not out of the realm of possibility, as we've reported before. But at the same time, even with the water coming out of the reservoirs in this controlled fashion, the reservoirs were rising at roughly four inches per hour, Edmond Russo, of the Corps of Engineers, stated during a press conference on Monday afternoon.
Water from Waller County, Fort Bend County and west Harris County has continued to flow into the reservoirs faster than any of the water can flow out of it and down Buffalo Bayou.
Meanwhile, people living near the dams are already feeling the effects of the extra water being let out of the dams.
People in Bear Creek Village, a neighborhood nestled up against Addicks Reservoir, started seeing a gradual rise in floodwaters starting around 4 a.m. Monday, and more than three dozen neighborhoods near Addicks and Barker are expected to be affected by the increase in water from the dams, Harris County Flood Control's Jeff Lindner said in a press conference Monday afternoon. (Harris County Flood Control has a list of neighborhoods it expects to be affected based on the watershed maps for the two reservoirs.)
Since the decision was announced, both mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for various neighborhoods near Addicks and Barker.
But a controlled release was still the best option in a less-than-ideal situation, Russo contends. “We would prefer not to let the water build up in the dams and go over the spillways because in that case, we do not have control of the water,” Russo said, the tension in his face underscoring how crucial controlling the water really is.
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Lindner acknowledged the decision means people in the area will be dealing with more water.
“If you are upstream of the reservoir, the worst is not over. The pool is continuing to rise and so the water is going to be inundating areas that have currently not been inundated,” Lindner said. “Those downstream on Buffalo, the water is going to hold steady; it won’t be going down. If the water goes around the spillway, we would see changes on the impact of Buffalo Bayou.”
The flow will not be stopping for a while either. Russo stated the Corps will be letting water out of Addicks and Barker for the next one month to three months, whatever it takes to drain both reservoirs.