Damage Control

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A similar channelization of 11 miles of White Oak Bayou upstream from its confluence with Buffalo Bayou had been completed by the corps in 1972. Three years later, realizing the project was obsolete, the corps authorized an extension of the concrete lining all the way to Jersey Village. But the plan was stalled by opposition from the Bayou Preservation Association, an environmental group that had waged a lengthy, contentious and ultimately successful campaign to kill the proposed channelization of Buffalo Bayou.

Like the corps, the Harris County Flood Control District had operated on the assumption that continuous improvements to the county's drainage channels could handle any amount of storm-water runoff. For decades, the district's mission -- unrealistic, but enthusiastically endorsed by the development community -- was to develop this drainage "super system" to completely eliminate the floodplain from the county's 6,600 miles of bayous and tributaries.

Green was careful not to renounce the super system when he went before county commissioners in November 1980. But with Houston growing quickly in every direction -- some estimates put the rate of land consumption by new development at 32,000 acres a year -- he could propose a flood control measure that, in Harris County anyway, was a bit radical.

"Tom Langford [Green's predecessor] thought we were nuts," says Terry Hershey, a Houston environmentalist and founder of the Bayou Preservation Association. "He said there were maybe five people in town who didn't support what they were doing. Green would talk to us. He had a sense of humor. He just didn't have enough strength to counteract all the brainwashing that was going on."

Indeed, even as Jim Green was formalizing his on-site detention policy, a group of developers with land interests in the upper White Oak Bayou watershed were devising an "alternative" to it. The so-called Pate Plan, named after the engineering firm commissioned (and paid) by the developers, analyzed ways to drain more than 15,000 acres of future development into the bayou without increasing downstream water levels.

It had already been determined, during the district's 1983 flood hazard survey, that the White Oak's capacity between Fairbanks-North Houston Road and Cole Creek was inadequate to handle additional storm water. The survey found that nearly a dozen neighborhoods in that reach, including Woodland Oaks, Woodland Trails West and Creekside Estates, were at "very high" risk of flooding during a 100-year storm. In theory, such storms -- which measure about a foot and a half of rain in a 24-hour period -- have a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In Houston, the odds are quite a bit higher; two of the three heavy rains in 1979, including Tropical Storm Claudette, were 100-year events.

The Pate Plan proposed to "eliminate the existing floodplain in the upper portion of White Oak Bayou and provide for full development of the remainder of the watershed without a reoccurrence of downstream flooding potential." The plan envisioned a 160-acre detention basin just east of Fairbanks-North Houston Road and two smaller ponds, totaling 130 acres, between Vogel and Cole creeks, east of Antoine Road.

The plan also called for widening and deepening the main channel from Cole Creek to Jones Road and construction of a diversion channel around Jersey Village. Pate recommended that the district set up a tracking system to make sure the detention sites and channel improvements were constructed "to keep pace with development within the watershed."

The cost of this "joint effort," as the Pate Plan described it, was estimated at $66 million, with the county covering about $20 million of the tab and individual developers picking up the rest through "contributions," or impact fees, of $3,000 per acre of development. This was clearly a better deal for the developers: According to Pate, on-site detention could cost as much as $5,600 an acre. Pate also reasoned that a "regional detention system," rather than dozens of smaller on-site ponds, would be cheaper and easier for the flood control district to maintain.

In November 1984, almost four years to the day since he announced his epiphanic on-site detention policy, Jim Green presented the Pate Plan to Commissioners Court. Although the new plan for White Oak Bayou seemed to contradict his earlier edict, Green explained that the district had begun exploring the idea of regional storm-water management plans for other watersheds. To that end, the Pate Plan was "a reasonable, ambitious and innovative approach to storm-water control [that] the district…stands ready to implement."

To allow 2,500 acres of development to begin immediately, Pate proposed a $25 million interim plan to "eliminate" the existing floodplain upstream of Cole Creek. The interim plan recommended that the district purchase land for the detention ponds but hold off on excavating the sites until later. In the meantime, Pate advised the county to proceed with the channel improvements from Cole Creek to Jersey Village and preliminary excavation of the diversion channel around Jersey Village.

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Brian Wallstin