Last-Ditch Grand Parkway Defense Spotlights Dangerous Conditions at Addicks and Barker Dams

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort to block construction of Segment E, the straight-throught-the-Katy-Prairie section of the Grand Parkway scheduled to begin construction this month, the Sierra Club has filed a new suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, the DOT, the FHA, the Texas Transportation Commission, and several public officials. But the lawsuit also focuses attention on the health of the Addicks and Barker Dams on Buffalo Bayou, which control waterflow through west and Downtown Houston. According to a July 2010 document unearthed by the environmental group this past March through an information request, the Army Corps has rated the status of both dams as “urgent and compelling” since September 2009; that rating indicates the Corps considers them to be 2 of the 6 most dangerous dams in North America.


The Sierra Club claims the Corps hasn’t informed the public about the dams’ potential for catastrophic failure or its current plan for dealing with the problem. That plan mandates maintaining lower maximum water levels, significantly reducing the reservoirs’ capacity to handle flood conditions. According to the lawsuit, the dams therefore now only protect downstream neighborhoods — which includes much of Houston’s priciest real estate — from 25-year flood events, rather than the 1,000-year events they were designed for. And water releases mandated by the new lower levels may cause occasional flooding conditions downstream even without a major event, the lawsuit says.

Now add in the plans for the Grand Parkway’s 15.2-mile Segment E, about to begin construction in the watershed that drains into both reservoirs. The lawsuit claims the Corps didn’t sufficiently take into account the additional runoff that would be sent to the reservoirs by the prairie paving project and associated development when it provided a permit for highway construction — despite several pieces of internal Corps correspondence expressing that concern.

Photo of Addicks Dam: Robert W. Boyd

19 Comment

  • Ask anyone in New Orleans about listening to the Corps when they talk about flood prevention.

  • Is Grand Pkwy really necessary? Enough sprawl, already.

  • If they really are the second and sixth most dangerous dams in America, that’s a very reasonable case.

  • In a city clogged with traffic and in a world where the price of gasoline will only go up to levels that will not allow people to drive 60+ miles a day to get to work and in a city with major smog issues, it is just idiotic to spend all the millions and billions on the Grand Parkway to support unsustainable development. We shouldn’t need an environmental group to seek to kill this project because it will destroy vital prairies. This project should be killed by citizens who do not want their tax dollars spent in pursuit of stupidity. Take the money and use it to incentivize development and redevelopment closer to the urban core. Build some affordable housing near downtown instead of forcing peole to spend all their money on gas commuting from sprawl in Katy (east Austin).

  • What this means in practical terms:

    If you live south and or east of these reservoirs at about 100′ ASL or below and there is a hardcore deluge, you are boned. Big time. The Memorial corridor will be under water.
    Everybody panic!

  • Old school, there is plenty of cheap real estate in the Third Ward. Nobody is forced to commute from Katy.

  • Absolutely Old School, because after all we all work in downtown don’t we? Given that many of Houston’s industries cannot function in a downtown high-rise maybe a more sensible model is to allow those companies to build campuses out of the City Center in satellite commercial developments. This is what is happening in the Energy Corridor, Sugar Land and The Woodlands to name a few. These satellite core’s then of course require infrastructure including roads.

    I would agree that it is stupid to allow continuing outward development with everyone commuting into a single City Center. However it is equally ridiculous to assume that that is what we all do. This is not the ’50s any more.

  • That may well be true, and the need for this roads location may be a hot issue for good reasons, but the needed support and efforts to stop it didnt show up and the project is well under way. If this was such a huge concern then it should have been dealt with before our money had already been put into the ongoing construction. Move forward, with the road and fixing the damn damns.

  • Wait, the same Old School who routinely demonizes ANY attempt at higher density anywhere near the Heights (also known as the “urban core”) is now chastising the building of the Grand Parkway in favor of higher density in the “urban core”? Does Old School sit at home having arguments with herself?

    Pick a side, School. Either you believe higher density is warranted, or you don’t. Either the 6 story condo on Studewood is good infill, or people commuting in the suburbs need improved mobility. You cannot have your cupcake and eat it, too.

  • How about we just fix the dam?

  • Enough already. I usually side with the Sierra Club on most things, but they are grasping at last straws on this dam thing. The Addicks dams are for flood control, not reservoirish water storage. I bet that there is no water behind them now. If the city gets enough rain to fill those reservoirs folks will be hosed from the rain anyhow. As far as the Katy Prairie goes – it is too late. The Katy-Brookshire sprawl has already ruined it. It is time for the Sierra Club to move on and save some more worthwhile things. Such as … well this is Houston, there is not really much left to save.

  • I moved inside the loop 20 years ago,from Katy, I probably saved a couple of years of my life by not having to commute. Plus, I now have a 12-year-old car with only 38,000 miles on it.It’s not for everyone, but it worked for me.

  • Jimbo: What industry is going to move to the farm land and prairie between Waller and Brookshire? No rail access, no interstate highway acces, no airport access. Don’t be so naive. Everyone knows why this road is gettng built. The sprawl planned community builders want it because the land is cheap and plentiful out there. This is a direct subsidy of an unsustainable model of development. And while not everyone works downtown, most of Houston’s employment centers are within the beltway. If gas stays above $4 a gallon and goes beyond, people living that far out will spend a substantial portion of their income on gas.

    Dave: I am all for smart densification. There is plenty of land inside the loop that is ripe and ready for buildings like Studewood. In fact, there is a great parcel on Yale St. that could be a huge mixed use development, but is going to be a Walmart and strip mall instead. I am sure you have railed against that development, or are you also allowed to have it both ways?

  • Segment E is only for the Aggies in Katy to get to College Station faster.

  • Old school,

    Funny you should mention that, because that is what I am studying. If you define employment centers as locally significant concentrations of employment(McMillen 2001, awp forthcoming), and the Houston area as the old nine county MSA;

    Houston employment centers

    inside beltway:
    Medical Center

    On or outside of the beltway:
    La Porte
    Sugar Land
    Lake Jackson

    Not that this is necessarily very relevant anyway because only about 25% of the MSA employment is within these employment centers. Although, for your point,slightly more than half of the employment located within employment centers, is in the four that are inside the beltway.

  • Westchase straddles the Beltway, so I don’t think it is fair to count it as outside the beltway. (I had summer jobs at Western Geophysical–now WesternGeco–at 10001 Richmond, one of the first offices in the Westchase area. And it’s still there, inside the Beltway, along with many other businesses.)

  • I would assume that the proportion of employment within the beltway, whilst slightly more than half at the moment, is heading downwards rather than upwards. Large scale new office development is just not happening inside the belt unlike outside where developments such as Exxon’s Woodlands campus seem to be proliferating. Like it or not Old School the old model of commuting into a very dense employment center at the center of the city is just not very valid any more in Houston. Therefore neither is the traffic model that shows us all streaming inwards.

  • According to groundbreaking for Segment E is set for September 13. Sounds like its going to be built so the only ones making money off the lawsuit is the Lawyers.

  • If you build it, they will come! Then be sure and use that as justification for further subsidized sprawl. Yep if you try not to think too hard, this latest expenditure makes perfect sense.