Over 1,500 concerned residents and business leaders from the Lake Conroe area and the downriver Kingwood, Atascocita and Humble area turned out at the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) public meeting Jan. 22 to express support for their respective positions on the issue of lowering Lake Conroe in the face of floods.
The post Hurricane Harvey policy to lower the lake a foot or two during peak rain event periods in the spring and hurricane season is a temporary one to be renewed periodically. It is a policy put in place while the San Jacinto River flood-mitigation projects are put in place for a more effective and permanent solution.
- Conroe crowd shouts, boos at Lake Houston residents -
The Lone Star Convention Expo Center in Conroe was chosen for the meeting because of the anticipated large turnout of concerned people. Even in the expo center, the meeting was filled to standing room only with a crowd that was both vocal and loud. The large majority wore red shirts that said “Stop the Drop” while many of the 200 or more downriver people wore white shirts that said “Lives Over Levels.”
The words on the shirts summed up the issue at hand about as clearly as any long discussion. People located on and around Lake Conroe want the lake levels to be stable and not drop for any number of reasons, including boat dock accessibility, recreation, aesthetics and fear that the practice of lake lowering is a threat to property values. The downriver people are in fear for their homes and lives until the long-term, flood-mitigation projects currently underway are largely completed in about two years.
The issue is deeply emotional on both sides and as a result, the meeting became not only loud but boisterous and at times, contentious. However, overall, it never got out of control and everyone intermingled in the crowded space on a generally courteous and amicable basis. After a 30-minute, fact-filled analytical presentation of the history and positive effectiveness of the current policy by SJRA Director of Flood Management Chuck Gilman, public comments began with local elected leaders followed by general members of the public who had signed up to speak.
Texas State Rep. Dan Huberty, himself a Lake Houston-area resident who has been deeply involved in the entire flood recovery effort, provided his viewpoint to the SJRA directors about why he wanted the lake-lowering policy to continue.
“In the first place, Lake Conroe was not meant to be utilized only for recreational or residential purposes. It is crucial to point out that Lake Conroe and Lake Houston were not developed for recreational water [use] although many places are in both lakes. But in the eyes of the law, the reservoirs were meant to serve as long-term water planning for the City of Houston and surrounding areas, not for recreation here,” Huberty said.
His words were immediately met with a loud round of applause from those wearing the white shirts. There was at the same time an even louder round of boos and catcalls from many of those wearing the red shirts. After about 40 seconds of growing noise, followed by an admonition from the directors to be respectful to the speakers and to each other, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin addressed the directors.
“Let’s look at the facts. The City of Houston has land and water rights in Lake Houston, Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe. Theoretically, that means the City of Houston owns the water and the land that the boat docks are built on. The City of Houston owns two-thirds of the water rights in Lake Conroe, 75% of the water rights in Lake Livingston and 100% of the water rights in Lake Houston,” Martin said.
He read excerpts of a letter that had recently been sent by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to the board of directors requesting an extension of the current lake-lowering policy for purposes of flood mitigation and the protection of lives and property in the City of Houston from widespread and catastrophic floods.
Martin reminded the directors of Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott’s extended aerial tour in March of 2018 and the post press conference meeting that followed.
“The governor was appalled at the things that he saw. So much so that after the press conference, if you recall, he spoke to the officials present, including you, and basically said this will never happen again and ended with two words: ‘Fix It.’” Martin noted that since that time, all the agencies and groups have worked well together, including the SJRA, and it has resulted in great gains being made for safety and security of the communities of Kingwood and Huffman, along with much of Harris County, including Humble and Atascocita.
“The governor’s words still stand today. What I ask of you is to fully support the continued lowering of Lake Conroe,” he said. The white shirts applauded and the red shirts disagreed, but both sides were far more courteous than they had been with Huberty.
Texas Rep. Will Metcalf, speaking on behalf of his Lake Conroe residents, argued about what the term “temporary” meant. He explained that he did not think a policy that lasts until 2023 is a “temporary” solution. He noted that Lake Conroe-area residents fear it won’t really end in the final year; that it is becoming permanent policy.
“I am hopeful that the board will look at all of these thoughts and talk through and consider voting to discontinue the seasonal lowering of the lake,” Metcalf said. He was supported by loud cheering from most of the room.
And so it went; once the officials were finished, the general public speakers began. All echoed or added personal perspective to what had already been said. One official announced that there were so many requests it could take hours into the night to get through all who wanted to speak. At that point many began to leave. Many, especially those with long drives home, were not able to speak but the board did keep the meeting open until the last person wanting to speak had spoken. It ended at 10:45 p.m.
In spite of the emotion and loudness, the directors received what they had requested and were obligated to seek before voting: public comment. Although far outnumbered in terms of supporters present, the case for continuing the lake-lowering policy was strongly made, thanks to the outstanding support of the many “downriver” people who attended. For additional perspective about the meeting, Bob Rehak has updated the Reduce Flooding Now website: reduceflooding.com.
Huberty said later he has asked the board to have the next meeting in a more neutral location, closer to the Lake Houston area.
“We were outnumbered 10 to one,” Huberty said, adding, “It was disappointing that the Conroe crowd signed up to speak before our side even arrived, so our first speaker did not even begin until 9:45 p.m. The meeting was being live streamed from the 5 p.m. start, but that ended at 9:45.”
The SJRA vote to continue the lake-lowering policy will be held Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. at the next general SJRA board meeting. For now, the meeting will be held at the Lone Star Convention Expo Center in Conroe in anticipation of another large turnout.