QueQue update: that damn dam

The QueQue spoke with Public Works Director Majed Al-Ghafry yesterday, who says residents living near SARA dam 15R, located by McAllister Park, can sleep soundly. He created a report earlier this year -- more of a "finding" really -- to close out that old OMI file, and says the dam is up to spec: it meets Natural Resources Conservation Service standards, and can handle the demands of both "existing and ultimate land use" -- that is, even if every parking lot and building current zoning allows is built in the dam's watershed (and the upstream dams' watersheds?), "the dam will not be overtopped."

Al-Ghafry said that the San Antonio River Authority confirmed that the dam met all necessary specs, but Public Works didn't take their word for it: his staff did its own hydraulics modeling, although he didn't recall when that was exactly.

Here's what I wrote in the QueQue this week:

Plugging the dam

In December 2009, the Current reported on the unhappy state of affairs at San Antonio's Office of Municipal Integrity, the small department with the Orwellian name whose mission was downsized in 2006 by incoming City Manager Sheryl Sculley. `“The story that didn't run,” December 2, 2009.` Henceforth, OMI â?? which was founded in response to a 1985 KENS-5 investigation that uncovered building-permits bribery â?? would handle only “fraud, waste, and abuse” of City resources as narrowly defined by a new committee under the guidance of Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni. Everything else â?? from complaints about physical abuse at the City-run jail to sweetheart real-estate deals for family members â?? would be shipped back to the departments where they originated, or sometimes sent to an Assistant City Manager to handle.

Those jail-abuse hot potatoes were tossed from one unwilling hand to another until a nosy Express-News reporter forced action in 2008 (his story, alas, was also buried in a shallow grave). And those weren't the only potential embarrassments festering in OMI limbo. The QueQue was also concerned that substantive-sounding allegations about the construction of a San Antonio River Authority dam and the new River Walk Museum Reach contained no followup reports, only a couple of memos noting that they'd been forwarded to then Deputy City Manager Jelynne LeBlanc-Burley (who is currently the Acting GM of CPS Energy). DiGiovanni told us at the time that there was no requirement that anyone report the results of their investigations to OMI.

“Once they're referred they are closed,” DiGiovanni said. “When we refer a case we're basically closing it out in our system.”

Our curiosity unrequited, the QueQue put in an open-records request to find out whether those damn dam complaints were ever investigated, and ... got squat. The only on-point document was an attorney's memo, we were told, and the Texas AG agreed that the City didn't have to hand it over. LeBlanc-Burley said she couldn't recall the exact details, but thought they stemmed from a “disgruntled employee.” It would've been in her report, she told us. When we told her an OR request didn't turn up a report, she said it had been awhile since this all went down, and maybe she never wrote one.

The stormwater engineer who filed the complaint was long gone, and so were his supervisors, all the way up to former Public Works Director Tom Wendorf. So, there we sat, empty-handed, until this week, when some kind of planetary alignment kicked in, and we found the engineer who lodged the original concerns about SARA Dam 15R â?? that's the one that sits up there by McAllister Park, anchoring the entire Salado Creek Watershed. Samuel Carreon, a six-year veteran of the City's Public Works department, was let go in 2007 after he pissed off one too many developers who were anxious to get their projects moving without a lot of FEMA and/or Army Corps of Engineers red tape. He has a wrongful-termination suit pending against the City, and is reluctant to say much, but he confirmed that one of his concerns about the dam is that the models used to design it didn't take into account the real impact of upstream impervious cover from development (read: parking lots, streets, cement foundations), and in a worst-case scenario, the dam could be topped by floodwaters. Carreon says the City never investigated the substance of his complaints.

Until now, anyways. A phone call to the City Manager's office was returned Monday with news of a brand-new report by Public Works Director Majed Al-Ghafry; it's at OMI, we're told. We can't wait to read it, because we're sure we'll sleep soundly once we have â?? we just can't understand why it's not in our hot little hands yet: Attach document; press send. (Al-Ghafry was unable to return calls for comment before press time.)

For reasons we don't quite understand, we still don't have a copy of Al-Ghafry's "finding" -- OR law doesn't require the City to take 10 days to fill a request.

We have a little news on the River Walk extension, too -- the short of it is that the City didn't do all of its FEMA due diligence ahead of time, but Al-Ghafry says the important thing is that they're doing it now: they're in the process of getting a Letter of Map Revision, which will indicate whether the river's new channel will change the flood-plain status of nearby properties. The OMI complaint related to the project argued that the City shouldn't have proceeded with construction without first getting a Conditional Letter of Map Revision, because a project study indicated "a definite increase in water-surface elevation by 0.5 feet" -- which could, e.g., require some property owners to purchase flood insurance.

"For us to do it 100 percent right, without any exception, we would require a CLOMR and a LOMR," said Al-Ghafry, who was not at Public Works at that time. But he downplayed any concern, saying that the LOMR is the key document, because it tells you how the project is in fact affecting surrounding properties. But the OMI complaint alleged that failure to get a CLOMR could, in fact, jeopardize the city's ability to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, and open the City to liability from affected property owners.

We're currently playing phone tag with FEMA, and the Texas Water Development Board, which is in charge of the NFIP in Texas, referred us to their PIO. We'll update you when we've got more info.

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