The Trinity River, with downtown Dallas peeking through the trees. (Credit: Justin Terveen)

Local News

Cataloguing the Problems Courted by Trinity Watershed Management

The latest snafu with the second Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge is just the most recent problem for the city agency in charge of the Trinity River.

Back in 2015, this magazine called Trinity Watershed Management “the city’s most inept department.” City Hall’s overseer of all things Trinity River is supposed to protect Dallas from flooding, yes, but also extends its reach into the Trinity River Corridor Project. Which means that it’s the agency over the Great Trinity Forest, just as it’s the agency in charge of the Calatrava bridges spanning the river, as it would’ve been over the failed Trinity Toll Road, and so on and so forth.

As any adept reader of Dallas news is now surely aware, the second Calatrava bridge, the yet-to-open pedestrian bridge known as the Margaret McDermott, isn’t open because of problems with the suspension cables. First reported by Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer, heavy winds vibrated those cables with such vigor that it resulted in the failure of three anchor rods. Those rods got swapped out, but the supervising engineer still won’t sign off on opening the bridge to the public—because the rods failed so quickly, concerns arose above the how vulnerable the rest of the cable system was to wear.

Your feet should’ve been on that bridge last summer. The City Council wouldn’t have known about this had Councilman Scott Griggs not started asking questions and finding documents. The emails that Griggs got his hands on showed that the construction included “value engineering” measures—someone bought cheaper parts. Despite the knowledge that the bridge would be exposed to high winds, recommended fatigue tests weren’t even performed until last year, about a year after the rod first failed.

Which brings us back to Trinity Watershed Management.

The department is overseen by Sarah Standifer, who, Schutze reported, has been in back-and-forths with the state and architect Santiago Calatrava for two years concerning who is at fault for the problems with the bridge. The state has pinned them firmly on the city. Standifer was promoted from interim director to the permanent gig in August 2015, after the city of Dallas ditched the job requirement that called for TWM’s chief to have an engineering degree. Standifer does not have an engineering degree.

In that 2015 story, Michael J. Mooney ran down a series of unfortunate incidents overseen by the agency—the hiring of a man who had been convicted of animal cruelty to run the operations of the Texas Horse Park; the accidental draining of a wetland pond in the Trinity that was home to federally protected wood storks; the death of about 400 large carp in the Pavaho wetlands in West Dallas, the result of pumping the water out without preserving the fish.

Since then, TWM has courted its fair share of controversy. Let’s take a look at some of the big ones.

The Problems with Bidding Out the Very Pricy Mills Creek/Peaks Branch Drainage Relief Tunnel

In 2016, City Auditor Craig Kinton announced that he discovered TWM didn’t follow proper bidding procedures in finding a contractor to build a 5-mile tunnel under the city to mitigate flooding. The $209 million job was the largest at City Hall; the winning contractor would be charged with building a giant storm drain that stretched from Baylor to Uptown. TWM recommended a company, Southland Mole, that Kinton found had 18 OSHA violations. The company also planned to hire a subcontractor who served two years in jail for attempting to defraud the city alongside the late former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill. Another contractor, Odebrecht Construction, had bid more than $20 million less than Southland, but the city wasn’t sold on whether it had the experience to pull off the job. (Southland Mole disputes Kinton’s findings, and Trinity Watershed Management argues that it properly vetted the contract.)

Concrete and the Trinity Don’t Mix

In August of last year, the concrete walkway beneath the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge, known as the Trinity Skyline Trail, was closed because erosion was threatening to send it sailing into the river. Then, earlier this year, environmentalist and Trinity defender Ben Sandifer found that the concrete Buckeye Trail near Bonton was also slipping into the river, the result of erosion. The city put the concrete trail there under the premise that it was doing what the Americans for Disabilities Act required it to. Now, the river is taking it.

The Giant Pit in the Trinity Forest

The city whacked down hundreds of mesquite, pecan, oak, and bois d’arc trees in the name of digging an 855,000 square foot borrow pit that was used to mine dirt for the Trinity Forest Golf Club, now the home of the Byron Nelson. The course sits on top of the city’s former dumping ground. So when the city dug out that borrow pit and the rains came, it turned into a giant lake. A potentially hazardous lake, as a matter of fact, one with a depth that nobody seemed to know. So the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality assigned an investigator to see whether the project is in line with state environmental regulations.

The Fiasco of the Standing Wave

This is yet another issue where Jim Schutze’s stubborn drum-beat turned out to be the right rhythm. In 2011, the city spent $4 million installing a concrete funnel that sped up the river near the Santa Fe Trestle and sent the water over a drop-off, creating a fake simulation of whitewater rapids. To allow boaters to continue to use the river, the city’s design included bypass channels—but the velocity and turbulence of the water got the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ attention. Federal law mandates the Trinity be navigable, and the Corps said those bypass channels weren’t safe. Which means the city has to get rid of them. So, six years later, the city has approved spending $2 million to tear out a portion of the rapids. The full removal will be around $4 million—the same ballpark cost of putting the thing in. Trinity Watershed Management oversaw its construction before handing it off to the parks department. (It’s also worth noting that editor Tim Rogers did survive his time in the rapids.)


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