Brown County residents may have to produce their own study to refute earlier reports whose data, according to FEMA engineers, indicate the flood plain around Lake Brownwood should be raised by eight feet.
“We’re nearly going to have to have a new study done,” Dennis Spinks, general manager of the Brown County Water Improvement District No. 1, said during a hour-long public meeting Tuesday at the water district’s offices. Developers, property owners, governmental officials and the engineer for the firm that holds the contract from FEMA to collect the data for Brown County took turns speaking.
That study could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $1.5 million, Spinks estimated.
“But $1.5 million is nothing compared to what Brown County is going to lose if this goes through,” Spinks said.
Such a change would mean owners of buildings built around the lake in many areas not currently considered to be at flood risk would be required to buy flood insurance or to design them to prevent flooding. Existing structures would be grand-fathered on rates, though — at least until substantial damage is sustained.
Wes Birdwell, engineer for Halff and Associates, the firm under contract with FEMA, said a new study might not be needed, because a careful review of the data available could result in findings that would prompt FEMA to reach a different conclusion on the flood plain level.
Brownwood City Engineer Donald Hatcher agreed.
“The good news is that even though there are numbers out there we don’t like, the Corps (of Engineers) is rerunning those numbers,” Hatcher said after the meeting. “We have a dialogue started. Where that will go, we don’t know. But in the meantime, we have to get the word out. People need to consider buying food insurance.”
The current flood plain of 1,435 feet above sea level, which is 10 feet above the Lake Brownwood spillway, could be raised to 1,443, based on preliminary indications. The 1,435 mark is the level to which the water district holds easements for flood water storage.
Spinks said data kept by the water district since the dam was built in the late 1920s indicates that the highest point flood waters have ever reached at the lake is 1432.7, or 7.7 feet above spillway.
Birdwell said county, water district and municipal officials were told about a year ago that the project was beginning. In a “scoping meeting” two weeks ago, local officials were informed that available data indicates that the flood plain around Lake Brownwood should be raised eight feet.
“What they have here, rather than doing a new study… they are going to use the best possible data,” Spinks told the audience Tuesday.
Those documents include a Freese and Nichols study from 1979 that was used to design structural improvements to the Lake Brownwood Dam, and Corps of Engineers studies made during flooding in the early 1990s.
Birdwell said he has never seen a situation where the flood plain mapping process affected property values, but Brown County Judge Ray West wasn’t convinced.
“Brown County has benefited tremendously from the insurance program,” West said. “But if we raise the level significantly, it will surely affect property values because it will be difficult to find people willing to develop property.”
Birdwell said governmental entities have successfully appealed FEMA maps by pointing out during a review or an appeals process where errors were made.
“The program draws a line on the map to help us understand flood waters, and to reduce the amount of money paid out for flood damage,” Birdwell said. “The intent of the program is not to penalize people, but to inform them of flood risk … Maybe you need new data, but I believe in the program. I’ve seen it work.”
Birdwell also said he is glad to see the community holding such a meeting to discuss the process.
“FEMA is the federal government, and they’ve got a study that says the flood plain level should be 1,443,” Birdwell said. The way to counter it, he said, is to provide information — such as another study — that offers different data.
Birdwell said Congress instructed FEMA to digitally remap the nation’s flood plains, but the appropriated funds were quickly used up. The government decided that rather than commission new maps, it would use existing data, where suitable, to revise existing maps. Halff and Associates has contracts to gather such data in Brown and other Texas counties.
Birdwell said the Brown County mapping process is about one year into what is usually a two-year process, even though other areas in Texas have taken several years to reach final determinations.
In about three months, the Brown County data will be submitted to FEMA, Birdwell said. That will start a six-month process for maps to be developed. A three-month appeals period follows before a final FEMA determination is made.
Spinks said Congressman Mike Conaway and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison have been contacted about the matter, and that local governmental officials have been working on the situation since they learned of it.
“All the entities are working on this,” Spinks said. “We have a string of correspondence pointing out the errors. If you know anyone politically, we need all the help we can get on this.”