Longform

If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail

The psychic's office at South Highway 6's Briarhills Parkways strip mall would be one of the first ones to go. Later, jungle gyms and mailboxes painted in Texas state flag colors might join the bobbing televisions and tombstones from Memorial Oaks Cemetery in the crude river that's been formed by a breached Barker Dam.

North of Interstate 10, Barker's younger sibling, Addicks Dam, has also been wiped out by an unstoppable current that starts to overwhelm Buffalo Bayou.

Behind the swell, suitcases — left behind by evacuated guests of the Omni Hotel — thud against upper-floor windows of an Energy Corridor office tower. Further east on Katy Freeway, Bibles from area churches, unsliced foot-long bread rolls from a Subway and family pets float toward downtown like New Braunfels tubers.

Years afterward, as Houston continues to clear debris from the multibillion-dollar disaster, survivors might demand to know how this happened. Outdoor freaks who never could get over the loss of the soccer fields, bike trails, dog park and shooting range at George Bush Park, which had been built around Barker Dam, might relocate to the Hill Country to get their parks and rec fixes.

Others, while combing through the mangled ruins of the Texas Medical Center and River Oaks, could wonder if the psychic had seen it coming.

For more than 60 years, the Addicks and Barker dams have prevented an estimated $4.6 billion in flooding damages by limiting large amounts of water from reaching flood-prone Buffalo Bayou. But the dams, once located in the rural nothingness of Harris and Fort Bend counties, have been pushed to their limits, largely due to all of the people and buildings that currently coexist upstream and downstream of the dams.

In April 2009, during an unnamed weather event that leveled the west side with more than nine inches of rain in 24 hours, the dams exhibited signs of irreversible failure. Five months after the 2009 storms, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the dams, which are located near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Beltway 8, slapped Addicks and Barker with an "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" label. The dams are currently two of the country's six most dangerous, according to the Corps.

Despite the Corps' "urgent and compelling" Dam Safety Action Classification I ranking, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, concerned residents and a professional engineer say the Corps has downplayed the risk — a member of the Houston Sierra Club says that she accidentally discovered the Level I distinction while researching other matters.

Additionally, in Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — filed on August 22, 2011, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division — the environmental group alleges that the Corps tested fate when, in June 2011, they gave a thumbs-up to the construction of Segment E of the Grand Parkway (Highway 99). While some say the toll road is needed to keep up with fast-growing Houston, environmentalists say that the 15.2-mile segment between I-10 and Highway 290 will coax more concrete from housing and retail projects, which could send more water to the aging dams.

Local environmental attorney James Blackburn, who is representing the plaintiffs in the civil suit — currently in the appeals process after a district court sided with the Corps — says that if the dams broke, folks would have to deal with a lot more than soiled couches and temporary power outages.

"It could dwarf New Orleans and Katrina," says Blackburn, who adds that the Memorial Drive area, the Energy Corridor, River Oaks, the Texas Medical Center and maybe even downtown could be wading in nasty, disgusting floodwaters.

Not that everyone agrees. According to Michael Sterling of the Corps' Galveston District, Addicks and Barker dams aren't about to crumble. The Corps, which has put in a couple of quick fixes that may or may not work, says the soonest that Addicks and Barker can be fully repaired is by September 2017.

"All dams present risk potential; however, it is important to know that Addicks and Barker dams are not in imminent danger of failing," says Sterling, who adds, "The fact that the Houston metropolitan area is the nation's fourth largest population center is a primary concern. Any dam safety issues at Addicks and Barker could have a far greater impact due to the magnitude of people and property downstream as opposed to other dams around the country located in rural or low-population density areas."

Meanwhile, in order to prevent the reservoirs from getting too full, the Corps doubled the amount of water that can be released downstream. Properties and homes from Wilcrest Drive down to Chimney Rock Road could be flooded during a big storm, an issue that homeowners in the immediate flood plain aren't even aware of.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen