Wet South Faces Long Wring-Out

Record rains bring a flood of questions about the actions of water management officials

FLOODED farmers and residents in Texas and Arkansas are blaming water management officials for their losses, saying flooding would have been less severe if water levels in reservoirs had been lowered in anticipation of spring rains. But the Army Corps of Engineers and the Trinity River Authority (TRA), who are responsible for the dams along the flooded Red and Trinity Rivers, say they were caught in a delicate situation and their primary responsibility was to maintain adequate water supply to the communities surrounding the reservoirs.

In Texas, heavy rains in the Dallas-Fort Worth area sent a crest of 30 feet on the Trinity River downstream to Lake Livingston Dam, about 70 miles northeast of Houston.

A record-setting 100,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water passed through the dam for five days, from May 17 to May 21. Releases above 20,000 cfs are enough to cause low-level flooding below the dam.

Sixty-four billion gallons of water - enough to supply Houston for a year - passed through the dam in two days, says John Jadrosich, a spokesman for the TRA.

The crest, the highest point of the flood, passed into Galveston Bay last week, destroying the bay's oyster crop, leaving over 1,600 people homeless, and causing nearly $600 million in crop and livestock losses.

Some low-lying areas could remain flooded all summer, providing a breeding ground for mosquitos, prompting some counties to consider aerial spraying. Those returning by boat to check their homes have found them occupied by snakes and fire ants.

Campgrounds and motels along Lake Livingston, though virtually untouched by floods, are facing financial losses from cancellations by concerned tourists.

The two weeks it took for the flood to reach Lake Livingston gave most residents below the dam time to evacuate safely.

Texas Sen. Carl Parker (D), whose constituency includes frequently flooded Liberty County, 40 miles south the Lake, has asked Gov. Bill Clements (R) to appoint a panel to study decisions made by the TRA.

In the flatlands of Liberty County, parts of the river spread more than six miles beyond its normal banks. Senator Parker says most of the land in the Trinity River Basin is inexpensive and populated by lower-income residents who may not have known they were living on the flood plain. ``I'm not sure the developers gave them adequate warning about building on the flood plain,'' Parker says. ``Hundreds of them will be ... wiped out.''

Parker says development in north Texas and in the higher-priced property around the lake affects those in the flood plain. ``Every time a parking lot in Dallas or Fort Worth [is paved], it increases the runoff in the counties south on the river.''

Parker would like the panel to review the water release programs of the Army Corps of Engineers and the TRA.

Most reservoir lakes have a conservation pool used for municipal and recreational use, and a flood-storage capacity.

Timing of release of reservoir waters is critical - a release too soon after rain adds to an already-full river and can cause flooding downstream, while retaining water reduces the flood storage area.

Once the flood-storage capacity is full, pressure on the dam is reduced as water automatically escapes through the dam's controlled spillway. This too can cause downstream flooding.

But prereleasing can jeopardize the water supply to communities around the lakes, says Tom Johnston, a hydrologist with the corps, which controls several dams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. ``You can't prerelease conservation water because you think you're going to get a flood,'' Mr. Johnston says. If enough rain did not fall to replace prereleased water, ``you'd be [facing] a bad drought situation.''

Ross Adkins of the corps office in Tulsa, Okla., calls balancing the needs of the community with the unpredictable weather ``a management nightmare.'' The Tulsa office is responsible for Lake Texoma Dam on the Red River along the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Lake Texoma, filled to more than 125 percent of its flood-storage capacity by rains in March, received 300,000 cfs during the April and May rainstorms. The dam was able to reduce the outflow to under 145,000 cfs, Mr. Adkins says.

Flooding from the Red and Arkansas Rivers caused $25 million in agricultural losses in Arkansas, and the Red River flooded 112,000 acres in Louisiana, wiping out winter wheat crops just before harvest.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) has appointed a 15-member panel to review corps policies to see what can be done to minimize future flooding. ``The damage was so severe this time, that for the peace of mind of the people who live downstream, some of these questions need to be asked and answered.''

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