Our firm has long reported that the SJRA behaved irresponsibly in the days during and following Hurricane Harvey. By releasing 2.1 billion gallons per hour, the SJRA allowed thousands of homes to flood downriver from Lake Conroe that would have otherwise been safe. Multiple legislators have called for an investigation into the SJRA, and a bill was signed to force the flood management organization to submit a report regarding the level of the lake when they chose to release a Biblical flood from the dam.
Now, a high-ranking city engineer named Ron Saikowski has accused the SJRA of specific acts of negligence that led directly to the destruction of homes both upstream and downstream from the dam. Saikowski has been Acting Chief City Engineer for Conroe twice in the last decade and has been the Chief Building Official for the City of Tomball. He’s also a Republican activist, and served as the Chairman of the GOP Candidates Committee for 20 years. He’s also a renowned engineer in his field.
Saikowski released a public statement against the local authority on Monday listing their various failures. We’ve outlined his accusations below along with a brief explanation.
Accusation #1: The SJRA Allowed Developers to Build Upstream Irresponsibly
The SJRA has the authority to allow the lake to rise up to 207 feet above sea level, but they normally maintain the lake’s height at 201 feet. However, housing developers around the edge of Lake Conroe don’t realize that the lake could rise up to 6 feet higher than normal levels during a storm, so they often build within the flooding zone (or “flowage easement”). At the dam itself, the floodplain is marked as ending at 203 feet, despite a 207-foot easement—so many homes are being built within the floodplain. By leaving people uninformed, the SRJA doesn’t allow homeowners to protect themselves from flooding.
The other issue with allowing development so close to the lake’s shore is the displacement of the soil. Soil is pervious, allowing it to absorb water. When developers replace the shore’s soil with impervious concrete, they also have to increase runoff from the lake onto residential streets.
Accusation #2: The SJRA Knowingly Accepted Inaccurate FEMA Flooding Studies
Related to the above accusation, Saikowski believes that the SJRA knowingly accepted inaccurate FEMA flooding studies, without comment or revision, despite the FEMA study making a critical error. Like we mentioned above, the floodplains at the dam are marked up to 203 feet above sea level, so the FEMA studies assume the same level for every area around the lake. The SJRA knows that the floodplain isn’t the same level around the lake during 100-year storms, but they failed to comment on it during the formal review process. The truth is that only a few miles upstream, flooding occurs at levels much higher than the 203-foot mark.
As a result, homes that were in the lake’s floodplain believed they were safe because FEMA’s floodplain maps were left inaccurate by the SJRA. What motive could the SJRA have had to leave the maps inaccurate? By marking the actual floodplain above 203 feet, it would have driven down the appraised values of the homes around the lake—meaning Montgomery County would have collected far lower property taxes for “valuable” lakefront property.
It also meant that many of the homeowners around Lake Conroe never bought flood insurance. They were left vulnerable because the SJRA essentially lied by omission.
Accusation #3: The SJRA Failed to Pre-Release Before Harvey
Saikowski also accuses the SJRA of a serious failure of leadership. The week prior to Hurricane Harvey, the Board should have instructed the staff to pre-release water downstream—this would have increased the Lake’s storage capacity and spared homes from flooding both upstream and downstream. Instead, the Board offered no instruction to the staff; without policy or direction, the SJRA was “blindsided” by an event they knew was coming. The lack of pre-releasing led to the circumstances that the SJRA claims “forced” them to release water in massive quantities.
Accusation #4: The SJRA Failed to Use Lake Conroe’s Full Capacity
The SJRA is legally obligated to release water to maintain the lake’s water level and protect the dam. They’re sanctioned to fill the lake up to 207 feet—but the lake never climbed above 205.75 feet during Hurricane Harvey. That means the SJRA released unprecedented levels of runoff before they were at capacity. The SJRA’s release schedule (80,000 cubic feet of water per second, enough to knock entire homes off their foundations) was rushed and treated like an emergency release, even though there was no threat to the dam.
Saikowski uses a specific word to describe the SJRA during Hurricane Harvey: negligent. Negligent means without care, without regard to safety or reason, reckless. If these accusations are true, then it would be a well-chosen word.