Just prior to the San Jacinto River Authority public meeting on January 21, I submitted an opinion article on the seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe. Now, after hearing the hours of public testimony and being involved in many subsequent discussions on this issue, it seems there are three things the SJRA should do at the upcoming meeting on February 20. First, it should not make a decision on whether to continue to lower Lake Conroe because it simply does not have the technical evaluation required to make that decision. Second, it should commission the technical evaluation so that it has the needed information. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it should encourage, support, and participate in collaborative efforts that are already underway that could result in a better resolution for all.
Listening to the public comments of those that flooded during Hurricane Harvey was difficult. While Harvey happened two and a half years ago, the painful stories were still raw and many have not recovered, financially and otherwise. The gentleman who spoke immediately prior to my own comments late in the evening were pretty intense. For me, and no doubt most people in the Lake Conroe Area, there should be no confusing strongly held positions on the lake lowering strategy with heartfelt empathy for those that flooded in the Lake Houston area and the Lake Conroe area (for brevity, in this article “LHA” will be used for the Lake Houston area and “LCA” for the Lake Conroe area.)
During the SJRA meeting there were some unfortunate disrespectful comments. In my profession I’ve attended many public meetings, and emotional outbreaks are inevitable when dealing with strongly held convictions. But the mocking outbreaks often spring from the inexperience of not walking in someone else’s shoes. And this raised an interesting question: what if the tables were turned? What if the current LCA residents instead lived in the LHA? They’d probably think seasonal lowering sounded like a good idea. And if the current LHA residents lived instead on Lake Conroe they would probably be upset about being misled that the lake would only be lowered for two years, and that now for a third year they were being asked to incur the costs and burdens of a lowered Lake Conroe without technical basis, with no benefit to them, and with their impacts being marginalized as just “inconveniences.”
Whether or not lowering Lake Conroe will prevent downstream flooding is a technical question. Every day engineers across the world address problems that are much more complicated than the effects of lowering Lake Conroe. The technical evaluation determines whether, e.g., a plane will fly, a dam will hold, or a building will stand. Until this type of evaluation is complete, everything else is irrelevant. But once it is complete, then the Boards and other decision makers can properly consider things like costs, politics, public opinion, etc.
And there is the rub and the reason for the red/white shirts, slogans, etc.: currently there is no technical evaluation upon which to base the Lake Conroe lowering decision. As such, any decision that SJRA makes will not be scientific, and can only be based on politics or public opinion or something else.
We are mostly reasonable people and if an engineering study conclusively showed lowering Lake Conroe would prevent the flooding of thousands of homes and businesses in the LHA, then most of us in the LCA would refocus our efforts on finding a way to fix the LHA flooding so that we could get our lake back. On the flip side, if the study conclusively showed little or no benefit to the LHA, then those in the LHA would refocus their efforts on things that would protect them from flooding. But since there is no such engineering study, we’re spending an inordinate amount of wasted time trying to convince SJRA to “do it our way.”
Some would no doubt say that SJRA should just take the conservative approach and lower the lake in an abundance of caution. However, this ignores the fact that lowering Lake Conroe is not cost-free. There are costs and benefits to every decision, and a price is currently being paid by the LCA residents, businesses, and the environment. There was testimony during the hearing about the adverse impacts on wildlife, businesses, and economic costs, in addition to the impacts being felt by individual property owners. Some businesses in the LCA are paying a high price, even facing the loss of their business, and the lake lowering decision cannot be based on a naïve belief that lowing the lake is the “safe” approach. Lowering the lake comes at a cost and that cost is being borne entirely by those in the LCA.
But there is a hopeful development. A most encouraging thing has occurred in only the past two weeks as cooperative discussions have started between reasonable-minded LHA and LCA people. The two sides are trying to better understand each other’s interests and actively working to see whether there is some mutually agreeable solution that could be proposed to SJRA. Apparently, there are several such efforts underway. Currently all the focus is on whether or how Lake Conroe should be lowered. As a mediator for over twenty years, the solutions I’ve seen worked out by parties working together are often far more creative than simply slicing the pie.
On February 20, a non-technical decision by seven Board Members will surely upset thousands of people on one side or the other, or maybe both. Human history tells countless stories of dedicated people working together to solve complicated problems and accomplish great things. Why can’t we do that here? Therefore, perhaps the best action SJRA can take on February 20 is to take no action: table the issue and encourage and support these cooperative efforts. Part of that support should include an engineering study. Allow time for the affected stakeholders to perhaps come up with an agreed, rational, and reasonable proposal to SJRA that we can all support.