This is an editorial about engineering laws and regulations that seem to be routinely ignored in Montgomery County. It is based on previous reporting about flooding in the Lake Houston Area.
I don’t wish to demonize engineering, one of the most honorable professions around. If you’re one of the vast majority of honest, ethical professional engineers who strive daily to serve clients and protect the public, thank you. You can stop reading here. This editorial is not about you. It IS for the few who ignore their professional code of ethics, Texas laws and regulations.
Job #1 of Professional Engineers: To Protect the Public
The law in Texas says that the highest obligation of Professional Engineers is to protect the public. Yet consider these stories I reported on in the last year. Together, they illustrate a pattern that speaks of other priorities.
- A new development flooded hundreds of neighboring properties – despite a drainage analysis “proving” it would not.
- A professional engineer who should have “monitored” construction didn’t. The contractor then clearcut approximately 193 acres instead of 30 – before anyone noticed or ANY detention ponds could be built.
- The same supervising engineer failed to ensure contractors were meeting conditions of the client’s stormwater pollution prevention permit. A large volume of sediment then washed into Taylor Gully, contributing to the need for Harris County Flood Control to clean out the channnel – at public expense.
- Engineers designed drainage using 40-year old data that they know does not reflect current conditions.
- They raced to get permits before more stringent regulations went into effect that would have mandated higher (but more realistic) detention and drainage capacity.
- Many argued to ignore the cumulative effects of previous developments on downstream flooding and pretended their developments would not add to downstream residents’ woes.
- One engineering firm accepted assignments (and fees) from Montgomery County to investigate its own shortcomings.
- Several argued against closing loopholes in regulations designed to protect lives and property.
- Many routinely give the go-ahead to destroy wetlands that may be within the Army Corps’ jurisdiction, without consulting the Corps.
- One even built a thriving business by certifying that wetlands don’t exist, or that if they do, they aren’t important.
- Engineers now design more and more high-density developments in environmentally sensitive and flood-prone areas that will certainly become tomorrow’s buyout candidates.
- One submitted a report that defied logic and science to twist public policy so that it would help a private company profit while the region suffered long-term harm from subsidence.
- Another pretended – in its drainage analysis for a Montgomery County development – that a floodplain on Harris County maps stopped abruptly at the Montgomery County line. That “professional” engineer claimed no floodplain needed to be considered. Even though any freshman at A&M could tell you that floodplains do not stop at political boundaries. That bogus claim may have cost $100 million in property damage.
A Culture of Collusion and Willful Blindness
Examples like these abound. They erode public safety. And in fact, in many cases, homes have flooded. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands. These represent only the stories I have documented.
If these were isolated incidents, you could blame them on occasional human error or bad judgment.
But they happen over and over again – in Montgomery County. In my search to answer the question “Why,” I have concluded that a culture of collusion based on willful blindness exists.
Lack of Checks and Balances
The collusion is between three groups that should provide checks and balances on each other, but do not.
- County commissioners eager to attract growth.
- Developers eager to cash in on that growth.
- Engineering firms willing to turn a blind eye to grow their businesses.
As one engineer told me, “You don’t grow by telling clients they can’t do something. Word spreads quickly. Clients go elsewhere.”
Pretty soon a numbness sets in. Ethical excursions stretch a little further with each project. Engineers become accustomed to a permissive environment of lax regulation and even laxer enforcement. Standards fall. “This won’t make THAT big of a difference.” “Everybody’s doing it.” “If we get caught, we’ll just pay the fine.” Then along comes Tax Day. Memorial Day. Harvey. May 7th. Or Imelda.
Willful blindness may work well in the short term. All three parties above celebrate record growth. But soon, the corner-cutting catches up. People flood. In Montgomery County AND in downstream communities. Over and over again.
Stealing the Future
When the repeat flooding can no longer credibly be blamed on Acts of God, constituents look for answers elsewhere. But no good answers exist. Because we’ve built infrastructure that won’t support the future and it’s too expensive to change. When everyone wakes up to that, Montgomery County will be another one of those places to avoid. Those who stole its future will move elsewhere and repeat the process. Those left behind and those downstream will pay the price.
Montgomery County Not Alone
Certainly, these same problems exist in other counties. Here in Harris County and the City of Houston, we actually had one project this year for which engineers recommended building underground parking in a floodplain … and erecting multiple high-rise towers on the edge of a floodway … where the San Jacinto river migrated 900 feet toward the tower sites in one storm … and no safe evacuation route existed. And that project got permitted! Only massive public protests managed to stall that one.
But counting on protests for every project to ensure everyone follows the rules is neither realistic nor desirable.
We need a rededication to common good that balances growth and safety.
My apologies, if I have offended anyone with generalizations that don’t apply. To the few who may need reminders, may I suggest rereading the laws and regulations governing professional engineers in the State of Texas.
Start with §137.55 ENGINEERS SHALL PROTECT THE PUBLIC. And don’t forget: §137.57 ENGINEERS SHALL BE OBJECTIVE AND TRUTHFUL.
Each new year represents a time for self-appraisal. It’s time we all looked at ourselves in the mirror and start asking why we permit lapses like these to continue.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/30/2019
853 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 101 since Imelda
As always, I welcome opposing points of view. If you disagree with something in this editorial, submit a letter to the editor via the contact page of this site.
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.