The current draft of the Region H Statewide Water Plan contains a recommendation that many of those who flooded during Harvey may take issue with.
On page 18 of the executive summary, there’s an overview of the recommendation. It requests that “… the State consider legislation clarifying the liability exposure of reservoir operators for passing storm flows through water supply reservoirs.”
Sounds innocent enough. However, the explanation for the recommendation on page 1,411 of the appendices is a little more ominous. I reprinted it verbatim below, but italicized some phrases for the discussion that follows.
Explanation for Recommendation
The explanation says, “Flood control reservoirs are generally drawn down at the beginning of the annual wet season so that when large rain events occur, the runoff may be captured and later released more slowly into the receiving stream. These reservoirs therefore reduce downstream flood levels and prevent inundation in low areas. In contrast, water supply reservoirs are operated to capture and retain as much stream flow as allowable under their permits in order to have supply available during periods of high demand.”
“This practice results in less available storage volume to capture runoff during major storms. When a major storm event occurs upstream or above a water supply reservoir, the reservoir operator must sometimes release flood flows during and after the event to prevent flooding upstream of the reservoir or to prevent damage to the dam and other facilities associated with the reservoir.
“Although this flood flow can contribute to downstream flooding, most reservoirs actually reduce the amount of flooding which could have occurred had the reservoir not been constructed.
“In recent years, plaintiffs with property in the downstream floodplains have brought multiple lawsuits against major water supply reservoir operators. Some recent court decisions have held the operators liable for damages to the downstream properties.
“If this trend is allowed to continue, it will increase insurance rates for these entities and will force operational changes to occur that may result in less available water supply for periods of need. The net effect to water users will be an increase in the cost of surface water throughout the state.”
Sounds Like SJRA
The SJRA has hammered these themes since Harvey.
The text of the explanation sounds as though it is paving the way for a declaration of legislative immunity for Water Authority actions during floods.
Concerns About Recommendation and Explanation
On the surface and in the abstract, the individual claims in the explanation sound reasonable. However, on deeper inspection, they contain logical fallacies, generalizations, false choices, contradictions and questionable assumptions.
- The explanation draws a distinction between flood control and water supply reservoirs – as if we have a choice. This area is too flat to allow the construction of classical flood-control reservoirs, such as those described in the text. So our reservoirs must do double duty.
- Their rationale only allows the possibility of releasing water during and after the event. It makes no mention of before.
- “…most reservoirs actually reduce the amount of flooding…” Hmmm. Is this admitting that they do have a dual purpose? Flood prevention was one of the objectives in the SJRA’s enabling legislation.
- “Some recent court decisions have held the operators liable for damages to the downstream properties.” Aren’t courts the proper venues for such decisions? How can the legislature possibly foresee the actions of every operator in response to every storm?
- “If this trend continues…” What trend? Aren’t we talking about one event? Sounds like a plea for “legislative immunity” even if the recommendation itself doesn’t use those words.
- “…force operational changes to occur that may result in less available water supply for periods of need.” True, but with proper controls in place, might they not also strike a balance between water supply and flood reduction?
- “…increase the cost of surface water throughout the state.” If a court finds the actions of one operator deficient, how does that affect the insurance of every other operator in the state?
No doubt, low lying properties were doomed to flooding during Harvey by the nature of the storm itself.
But did the SJRA have to open Lake Conroe’s gates when they did, as wide as they did, for as long as they did? Could an earlier, smaller, shorter release have avoided some of the flood damage?
I, for one, would feel much more comfortable having a judge answer questions like that after the fact rather than the having the legislature limit liability beforehand in a blanket fashion. Limiting liability also limits accountability.
Such recommendations buried in a statewide water plan on page 1,411 of an appendix show why the public REALLY DOES need to review this plan and give input.
Once approved in October, all recommendations will carry the weight of a state agency. The legislature rarely acts against such recommendations, especially when heavily lobbied behind the scenes. If you have the same concerns I do, the time to speak up is now.
How to Register Concerns about Water Plan
Here’s how to make your voice heard on this or any other issue in the Water Plan. You need to go through the SJRA.
The Region H Water Planning Group (RHWPG) will accept written comments until 5:00 p.m. June 28, 2020. Written comments should be provided to: Hon. Mark Evans, Chair, RHWPG c/o San Jacinto River Authority P.O. Box 329, Conroe, Texas 77305-0329
Written comments about the water plan without attachments also may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments will be documented in the summary of public comments in the 2021 Region H Water Plan.
Questions or requests for additional information may be submitted to: Jace Houston, General Manager, San Jacinto River Authority, P.O. Box 329, Conroe, TX 77305-0329, telephone 936-588-3111. The San Jacinto River Authority is the Administrator for the RHWPG.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/10/2020
1016 Days after Hurricane Harvey