How One Houston Suburb Ended Up in a Reservoir

KATY, Tex. — Three days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August, rising storm water inside Barker Reservoir inundated a vast majority of the 721 homes in Canyon Gate.

Because Barker is normally a dry, green space, most homeowners in the neighborhood had no clue that their properties were inside an area susceptible to flooding during extreme storms.

Edge of reservoir

BARKER

RESERVOIR

BUFFALO

BAYOU

Canyon Gate

at Cinco Ranch

Edge of reservoir

BARKER

RESERVOIR

BUFFALO

BAYOU

Canyon Gate

at Cinco Ranch

BARKER

RESERVOIR

Edge of reservoir

BUFFALO

BAYOU

Canyon Gate

at Cinco Ranch

BARKER

RESERVOIR

Edge of reservoir

Canyon Gate

at Cinco Ranch

BUFFALO

BAYOU

Tim Wallace and Derek Watkins/The New York Times

In response to major floods that devastated Houston, the United States Army Corps of Engineers built Barker in the 1940s to protect the downtown area.

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Built to Flood

Stories in this series examine the fallout from Hurricane Harvey in a Houston neighborhood that’s destined to flood again.

Barker was designed to hold 19,330 acres of flooded land — almost half the size of Washington, D.C. But the government acquired about 12,000 acres of that footprint and left the rest as private property.

For years, this swath of prairie land remained untouched. But as the Houston area began to grow rapidly in the 1980s, developers started transforming the private land into residential neighborhoods like Canyon Gate, which is a gated community.

How the Reservoir Was Developed

Source: Google Earth Engine

“No one wanted to tell the developers that you can’t develop because it’s in a reservoir,” said Charles Irvine, a lead lawyer in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. “Everyone knew, but nobody wanted to do anything.”

When the corps built Barker, it constructed a basin with a 13.6-mile-long stretch of earthen dam on the eastern side of its perimeter. Waterways flow from west to east into Barker, where water is held behind the dam. The dam controls the release of water down streams and rivers that flow through Houston.

On a normal day, Barker is mostly a park with horse-riding trails, and soccer and baseball fields.

There are three main ways for water to flow out of the reservoir: a floodgate and two emergency spillways.

When it rains, water is stored inside Barker, and then released into a meandering river called Buffalo Bayou.

The government bought land in the reservoir that would be covered by water in a 100-year flood.

During Hurricane Harvey, water levels rose past the government property line, flooding neighborhoods like Canyon Gate.

The government’s property in Barker is about 25 feet above the lowest point of the reservoir. The areas flooded by Hurricane Harvey are more than six feet above that, just about 6.5 feet short of the dam’s full capacity.

Areas flooded by Harvey:

Up to 31.5 feet above the

lowest point of the reservoir.

Maximum flood pool: 38 feet above.

Government property line: 25 feet above.

Areas flooded by Harvey:

Up to 31.5 ft. above the

lowest point of the reservoir.

Maximum flood

pool: 38 ft. above.

Government property line:

25 ft. above.

Areas flooded by Harvey:

Up to 31.5 ft. above the

lowest point of the reservoir.

Maximum flood

pool: 38 ft. above.

Government

property line:

25 ft. above.

Sources: Irvine & Conner PLLC/Burns Charest LLP; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers | Note: Distances are not to scale. Numbers are approximate.

As Barker’s flood pool rose in late August, the corps unleashed water downstream through the floodgate to prevent the dam from overtopping, which could have been catastrophic for downtown Houston. But the amount discharged was not enough to keep homes behind the dams from flooding.

The corps was fully aware that neighborhoods like Canyon Gate would flood. It issued a report in 1986 — one of several — acknowledging that Barker’s maximum flood pool extended beyond government property.

“As the surrounding areas are developed, this may mean that homes in adjacent subdivisions may be flooded,” the report said. “This could result in lawsuits against the Corps of Engineers for flooding private lands.”

As predicted three decades earlier, a number of lawsuits have been filed against the federal government. Christina Micu, a Canyon Gate homeowner, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against the government.

boatview.jpg

“The county permitted the houses to be built here and the Army Corps’s design included our private property,” said Ms. Micu, who has lived in Canyon Gate since 2012. “Our house was messed up because of their decisions, so we should be made whole.”

A Fort Bend County planning map from 1997 warned that Canyon Gate was “adjacent to the Barker Reservoir” and “subject to extended controlled inundation.”

But few homeowners knew about it, and most, like Ms. Micu, had not acquired flood insurance before Hurricane Harvey because Canyon Gate lies outside the 100-year floodplain — an area that has a one in 100 chance of flooding in a single year.

It may be a while before the lawsuit is resolved. In the meantime, scientists are predicting that severe rainstorms are likely to become more frequent in the region.

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How a Community Was Sacrificed to Save Houston

Cinco Ranch was designed to be flooded. So after Hurricane Harvey hit, the Texas suburb was sacrificed to save the city of Houston. We followed homeowners as they decided whether to cut their losses or rebuild, knowing it could happen again.

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On Location: Coming Full Circle

“He thought it was hilarious,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.

“I always loved trains,” he said. “I played with my first set, a Marx, so much, I burned out the transformer.” And its replacement, an O-gauge Lionel set that his parents gave him on his sixth birthday, he said, “I played with until I was 14.”

Construction began in 2012, and after Mr. Stern died the following year, his partners at Stern and Bucek finished up the project, which cost $935,000 and took two years. Fifty years after Mr. Rosenbaum moved into the house for the first time, he was back home.

In its new incarnation, the house is much bigger: 4,500 square feet rather than 3,200. It also has an open floor plan. As David Bucek, one of the architects, explained, “Glen wanted a house that a lot of people could fit into, especially when he had parties.” (So far he has had at least two, for the casts of the Houston Grand Opera’s premieres of “A Coffin in Egypt” and a new version of “A Christmas Carol,” with music by Iain Bell and libretto by Simon Callow.)

The curving walls that originally separated the entry hall from the kitchen and living room are still there, but the old teak-paneled walls that enclosed a smaller living room and family room are long gone, as is the hallway to the bedroom wing, demolished to make room for a new master suite.

Much of the furniture and art, however, remains exactly where it was when Mr. Rosenbaum was growing up. That includes the dining table that his parents had custom-made in the 1950s and the Adrian Pearsall sofa (although it has been reupholstered). Even the color-field painting his father made still hangs in the entry hall.

Upstairs, it’s a different matter. A visitor ascending the new staircase is in for a shock: In the nearly 40-foot-long train room is 630 linear feet of track on a landscaped platform, with four smoke-blasting, whistle-blowing trains running simultaneously.

Dominating the landscape are scale versions of the Pecos River High Bridge and the El Capitan mountain peak. On a plateau sit models of the Rosenbaum homes, both this house and an earlier one. There is also a replica of the Southern Pacific Passenger Depot in Wharton, Tex., a 1914 building that was restored by Stern and Bucek, and the control towers from the Southern Pacific Englewood Yard near downtown Houston.

It’s not unusual for Mr. Rosenbaum to spend a half-hour or so with his trains when he gets home from work at night, he said. And even longer on the weekends.

On a recent Saturday, he spent several hours running the trains for five local children, as their grandparents looked on in amazement.

“It was really fun,” he said. That was explanation enough.

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