Hard Choices in Flood Management: The Flooding of Buffalo Bayou

Bloomberg has another great feature story up today with relevance for ‘water’ people. It discusses the U.S. government making the difficult choice to flood a Houston neighbourhood during Hurricane Harvey to prevent a potentially much more deadly reservoir failure event.

That evening [of August 27, 2017], the Harris County Flood Control District held a press conference at which it announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would begin controlled releases at the Addicks and Barker dams surrounding West Houston. The two massive reservoirs retain water that gathers in the prairie west of the city, forming Buffalo Bayou, which runs down the Energy Corridor, through downtown, out the Houston Ship Channel and, finally, into the Gulf of Mexico. The water behind the dams was rising more than 6 inches an hour, and the flood control district said residents should be prepared to leave the next morning.
But the water level rose even faster than expected that night—Harvey brought 51 inches of rain, all told. The Army Corps won’t confirm exactly when the releases began, but legal complaints and residents say the floodgates opened at about 1 a.m., sending a rush of water toward Buffalo Bayou while many people were sleeping. Just after 1:30 a.m. the Corps posted a press notice on social media stating that the dam releases would amount to 8,000 cubic feet of water per second. “If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher,” Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, was quoted as saying. “It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou.” The danger was that the water would flow uncontrolled into homes located upstream from the reservoir, crest the reservoir walls downstream, or crack a section of the Barker dam that was under repair. Had either dam failed, the Houston Chronicle later wrote, West Houston would have been left with “a week of corpses by the mile.”

[…]By Friday, Sept. 1, with water still gushing through the floodgates, conditions in the Energy Corridor had worsened to the point that Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a voluntary evacuation order there. “I know people are staying because they want to protect their property,” he said. “But if you are living in a home today with water in your home, that situation is not going to change for 10 to 15 days.”

[…]On Saturday, as floodwaters elsewhere in Houston were receding, Turner had no choice but to make the evacuation mandatory for the 4,600 Energy Corridor dwellings “already flooded by water.” Three hundred people, his office said, had remained in their flooded homes. Turner also cut off electricity to the area and established a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew to help police isolate anyone looting evacuated homes. “Put your own personal safety above your property,” he said in the order, explaining that “the floodwaters there are caused by the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ controlled releases of water.”

As the article makes clear, the resulting lawsuits are beginning to get underway.