After the Deluge

Thurman Sargent, a member of a City/County advisory committee for a regional flood control, drainage, and storm water management program, wants stricter guidelines for new development or redevelopment, in San Antonio and Bexar County. (Photo by Michael Cary)
After the Deluge

By Michael Cary

Development could contribute to East Side flooding

To read the first of this two-part series on East Side flooding, see "Flooded Out."

Darlene and Thurman Sargent had company while they waited for Salado Creek flood waters to recede from their home in 1998. The company was seven dogs and a half-dozen cats - some of their own and more from the neighbors. It was the first time Thurman Sargent, who had purchased the Otto Eisenhauer homestead and moved it to the Sargent family farm in the 1950s, had ever seen four feet of water in the living room.

"We went out on the balcony and watched the water roll by," Darlene Sargent recalls. "I felt like we were the Beverly Hillbillies."

During the 1998 flood, a dam on Beitel Creek collapsed, and water washed away a 7-Eleven convenience store on Perrin-Beitel Road. Other houses along Beitel Creek were damaged, and water overran the banks of Salado Creek, flooding three Sargent family homes.

Thurman Sargent, 74, was born and raised on his family's 65-acre farm that lies adjacent to Holbrook Road, formerly a part of W.W. White Road that connected the East Side to the Austin Highway. Salado Creek is across the street from his home. Sargent says he has seen the flood water rise in proportion to the development of countryside surrounding his property.

"For years, Salado Creek would come up about three times a year, but it would never cross the road," Sargent says. "When subdivisions came in around the 1960s, the water would go across Holbrook."

Today, the Sargent homestead is officially listed on a flood insurance rate map as being approximately 500 feet within the Salado Creek flood plain. And Sargent, a member of a City/County advisory committee for a regional flood control, drainage, and storm water management program, wants stricter guidelines for new development or redevelopment, in San Antonio and Bexar County.

"Developers are not taking into account drainage problems," Sargent says. "All of the creeks are flooding. There is concern all along the creeks."

"Developers are not taking into account drainage problems. All of the creeks are flooding."
Thurman Sargent

Sargent recently sent a letter to City Hall, criticizing the practice of allowing developers to pay a fee in lieu of building retention ponds as part of projects such as the Lowe's, Wal-Mart, and new H-E-B on Austin Highway. He says the Wilshire Terrace subdivision behind the new stores have experienced increases in runoff from seven acres of new parking lot.

Sargent says he is not bitter about slow progress in the city and county in fixing flooding, drainage, and storm water management problems. He just wants City and County government to hurry up.

Thomas Wendorf, director of the City's Public Works department, explains that several factors contributed to 1998 flooding in Salado Creek, which led the City to buy numerous homes downstream near I-35. Citywide, about 430 homes - one-third of homes that were flooded - were bought and demolished with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

One problem contributing to the area's flooding was that the owner of a property adjacent to Salado Creek, between Belgium Lane and Gembler Road, obtained a permit to fill in a stock tank in the 1980s. Eventually, more than 300,000 cubic yards of earth covered an illegal landfill. "There were 30 acres that had a tremendous amount of fill in the flood plain," says Wendorf. The City spent $1.6 million to remove fill, but had to leave the landfill material in place.

Another problem on the Salado was the collapsed dam, but more illegal fill exists in Beitel Creek.

Darlene and Thurman Sargent have seen the land surrounding their home along Salado Creek transformed into urban development without adequate plans for storm water drainage. (Photo by Michael Cary)
Wendorf says the City is issuing storm water revenue bonds to finance work on all creeks and watersheds on a three-year cycle. A new dam is under construction near McAllister Park. Revenue from the in-lieu fees have paid for removal of the illegal fill along Gembler, and will pay for restoration of Beitel Creek, construction of the dam, and studies of Salado and Rosillo creeks.

Many of the creek beds in the city were cleaned up after the 1998 flood, but many residents were not happy with the results.

The City removed 100,000 tons of debris after the 1998 deluge. City workers found refrigerators, cars, a 10,000-gallon underground fuel tank, and tons of tires. Then areas along the creeks were restored with mulch and woody debris.

"Nobody was satisfied," Wendorf says. "The folks who were used to seeing a traditional approach to drainage expected to see bulldozers, big wads of wood." On the other hand, environmentalists "expected no impact on vegetation," he adds. "We had to do the best we could to balance public safety, cleanup, and the concerns of environmentalists."

Removing too much vegetation from creeksides can result in bank erosion, and contribute to more fill and thus, more flooding.

In past floods, Wendorf says, a standard response would be to remove dirt, trees, brush, and make a channel as smooth as possible to get water out of there.

"We can't just do that today. We're evolving with preservation of trees and our storm water management style."

The Sargents spent $60,000 to repair their home and to purchase new furniture. They purchased FEMA flood insurance, but they know that someday, as the city continues to grow, the family farm could be marked for a buyout.

"I hope we don't have to face it," Darlene Sargent says. "Our kids will have to. But this wasn't creek bottom when it was the family farm." •

By Michael Cary