UPDATE (4:40 pm) I’ve put Councilman Philip Kingston’s response at the bottom of this post. Original item:
As Zac mentioned in Leading Off, Sunday’s Morning News brought us an important story about the Lewisville Dam, which the Army Corps of Engineers lists as the eighth-most-hazardous in the country. You really should read the story, especially if you live downstream of Lewisville Lake. I’ve got a couple of wonky observations about the authorship and presentation of the story, and then I’d like to get Councilman Philip Kingston involved, because he and I had a back-and-forth on Twitter.
First, the author. George Getschow wrote the story. He wrote an essay for the News in July, but, from what I can tell, this is his first investigative story for the paper. George is the principal lecturer at UNT’s Mayborn School of Journalism. You’re familiar with the work of some of his former students, including our own Mike Mooney, sometime contributor Brantley Hargrove, and our Keeping Tabs columnist, Tara Nieuwesteeg. It’s nice to see George’s byline in the paper. I hope this becomes a regular occurrence.
Now to the presentation. Online, the News gave the dam story its full-on “Snow Fall” treatment (so called because of this groundbreaking NYT presentation). The only thing missing: animation of that 65-foot wave of water rolling downstream if the dam were to fail. I’m only half-kidding about that. Anyway, what I don’t get is how the story was played in the paper. Here’s Sunday’s front page. Not to diminish the fine “Deadly Dentistry” series by Brooks Egerton, but if the dam fails, 431,000 people will be in harm’s way. It could cause $21 billion in property damage. Like I said, wonky observation. But for my money, the dam story deserved more space on the front page.
Finally, the Philip Kingston exchange. I’d like to remind you what we’re talking about here. It was built in 1955 and has outlived its design life, according to the story. The Corps says that if it fails, downtown Dallas would be inundated with 50 feet of water. And, again according to the story, the public has been kept in the dark about this danger. Here’s the money section:
The public hasn’t been told the full story about the Lewisville Dam. Internal documents make clear that the Corps has known about its “high risk of failure under an extreme event” for many years.
In 2008, a group of Corps engineers and analysts from outside the Fort Worth district performed an in-depth assessment of the dam and discovered some hair-raising defects: seepage under the foundation was creating pressure and uplift conditions at one end of the dam.
There were signs of embankment instability during “extreme loading conditions” — Corps-speak for a rapidly rising reservoir. The emergency spillway suffered from erosion and structural distress.
The team of Corps analysts concluded that “the likelihood of failure from one of these occurrences … is too high to assure public safety” and that the dam posed a “very high risk” to the population centers downstream from the dam. That is, Lewisville, Coppell, Carrollton, Farmers Branch, Irving, Las Colinas, Dallas and points south. …
But what the Corps tells itself about the Lewisville Dam is different from what it tells the public. “We want to get the message out that there’s a potential for something bad to happen, but we don’t want to unduly panic the public,” says an official involved in the communications. “So we sugarcoat the message a bit.”
Apologies for the lengthy excerpt. But it’s important to read all that in context. The Corps has been less than forthcoming with the public about the danger posed by the dam. I think that’s a big deal. And we are going to have to pay for it. From the story: “Dallas and Denton, Lewisville Lake’s principal water users, are obliged under existing water supply contracts to share some of the costs of operations, maintenance and repair of the dam. Denton’s share is considerably less than Dallas’.” The cost will run from $50 million to $500 million.
That led me to post the following on Twitter: “The fire/cop pension ($5B), crumbling streets ($900M), and now Lewisville Dam (??). Where is Dallas going to find the money?”
Kingston replied: “[Dallas Water Utilities] capital fund. Not saying it doesn’t all eventually come out of the same pocket, but it is separate pools of credit.” Then he wrote: “OK, you owe me 15 minutes of my life back for making me read that sensationalist drivel.” Which he followed with: “It’s also a journalistic crime to write that much about an upstream lake without even a mention of the impermeable cover problem.”
Twitter is a horrible medium in which to talk about something this complex. I’ve asked Kingston to explain why he thinks the story is sensationalist. I’d also like to know how the “impermeable cover problem” (too much pavement, I assume) relates to this story. I asked Kingston to chime in here. He said he’d do it as soon as he could and asked for patience because he’s working two jobs.
My main gripe is that it has packed a 1,000-word story into 3,000 words. To summarize: the dam’s old and in bad shape. It’s a point of almost being dangerous, but it’s not quite dangerous yet. We have some near and intermediate term fixes that either already have worked or will work; the long term plan isn’t finished yet. And it would be really bad if the dam failed, which we don’t expect. What about that required 3,000 words?
The piece is filled with questions that read as sensationalism. WOULD IT HOLD? (next graf: yes) HOW MANY PEOPLE WOULD BE FLOODED OUT? HOW MANY KILLED?!!!ones!!!elevens!!! Well, none, because we’re fixing it. And in two different places it points out that the Corps is considering moving the dam into the most critical repair need category, which in addition to lengthening the piece, doesn’t exactly jive with the tone.
Look, I work with staff that doesn’t always want to share the bad news with me, and I’m keenly aware that the Corps was partly responsible for the Katrina disaster. But in the time since then, the Corps seems to me to have a hair trigger on reporting danger. I don’t get the sense that they’re ringing the alarm bell here as much as raising a maintenance issue that needs to be handled soonish.
Last, I just think it’s irresponsible to report this story without mentioning two issues that Schutze has been covering extremely well: impermeable cover and the Corps’ outdated approach to flood control. The long-long term fix here is more responsible development and a more environmentally sensitive approach to flood control. Rain isn’t causing the flooding and dam failure; sprawl is.
Oh, and the part where the fisherman analyzes the dam’s condition was pretty terrible.