As Hurricane Harvey stalled over Harris County in late August, residents living near the Lake Conroe Dam and Lake Conroe Reservoir saw water rising in Lake Conroe and realized that their homes were going to flood yet again.
This wasn't the first time, by any means, that people living near the lake had experienced flooding. In fact, water has sloshed out of the Lake Conroe reservoir and into a regulatory easement held by the San Jacinto River Authority and the Texas Water Board for more than 20 years now, inundating homes and other structures in the easements located in Kingwood, Atascocita and Humble.
But now, more than 50 residents living in areas that have recorded high water — in October 1994, May 2000, June 2001, May 2004, March 2016, April 2016 and, most recently, during Hurricane Harvey — have filed a lawsuit against the river authority and the Texas Water Board. They are seeking "millions of dollars" for their respective properties.
The lawsuit, filed in Harris County District Court on Monday, contends that "intentional floods" were orchestrated by the two state agencies to protect Lake Conroe Dam, Lake Conroe Reservoir, the water rights for Lake Conroe Reservoir, and to maintain and protect municipal areas owned and operated by the San Jacinto River Authority.
This is a remarkable claim, since the lawsuit is going an extra mile and arguing that the floods that have been occurring in the area for years have been deliberate.
The reasoning comes in via the backstory of Lake Conroe. The river authority and the Texas Water Board partnered with the City of Houston in 1968 to "jointly construct a water supply reservoir, Lake Conroe, on the west fork of the San Jacinto River" by building the Lake Conroe Dam.
The dam contains a spillway with several gates, which are capable of releasing water at a rate of 150,000 cubic feet per second. The river authority and the Texas Water Development Board control rights to "maintain and use" the reservoir, and regulations in place give the two entities a direct say in how the dam is operated and how much water gets released over the spillway.
In 1970, the two entities secured an easement that allows them to collect and store water in Lake Conroe up to 207 feet above sea level, about six feet above the current average height of the 21,000-acre lake. The two organizations also came up with an engineering plan that dictates how the water collected in the reservoir can be released.
It's because of the engineering plan — which the lawsuit states the plaintiffs have requested a copy of and have yet to receive — that the lawsuit contends the flooding resulting from the releases of the Lake Conroe Reservoir has been intentional.
It remains to be seen what actually qualifies as "intentional" from a legal standpoint, but the results of the repeated flooding have been inarguably unpleasant. During the flooding from Harvey, residents were inundated with sewage that ran through many houses, soiling their possessions and their homes. Many are still unable to return to their homes, according to the lawsuit.
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And once they get back home, the plaintiffs know from experience that it will be a long while before their lives return to normal. For starters, there are the basic issues like mold and mildew growing inside the properties, but there are also larger problems, like the fact that the releases during Harvey flooded entire neighborhoods and forced Kingwood High School to close its doors until it can be repaired.
On top of that, the doctors' offices, banks, gyms and restaurants that make up some of the basics of day-to-day life have shut down in the wake of the hurricane. The lawsuit claims this has hit area property values to the point that they have not just been "diminished," they have been "destroyed."
Kimberly Leggett, spokeswoman for the Texas Water Board, stated that the board cannot comment on pending litigation.
We've reached out to the San Jacinto River Authority to get its takes on these claims. We'll update with that as soon as we hear back from the agency.