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In Dallas, a Fight Over the Land Between the Levees

Julia Barton

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On November 6th, voters in Dallas have a ballot question before them: Should the city build a toll-road along its river? Opponents of the toll-road say it puts the city more at risk of a catastrophic flood, and it will ruin a planned park. Supporters say that without the road, Dallas will strangle itself on traffic jams. Weekend America's Julia Barton navigates Dallas' wild river, portaging over log jams, clambering the muddy banks, whacking through head-high grass to find whether Big D is ready to embrace its soggy center.


By Julia Barton

In all my life, I've never seen people so excited about the Trinity. First, there's this homemade Macintosh ad spoof on You Tube. You see two guys standing in front of political signs. The "Vote NO!" guy has on a suit and tie, and he's smoking a cigar. The "Vote YES!" guy is in a black Polartec pull-over. "Hello, I'm a park," he says.

"And I'm a [bleep]in' toll way," Mr. Vote NO responds.

"Wow, toll way, do you think you could tone down the language and try to stop smoking?"

Vote NO! guy blows smoke at him. "Dude, I'm a frickin' highway! I produce carbon emissions and have a chronic case of Tourette's syndrome from road rage. Get used to it if you want to be next to me."

And so on.

Then there's a new rap song on the radio, produced by local hip-hop star Dooney "Da' Priest."
Vote No!
Let's ease up the traffic!
Ease up on the taxes!
November da 6th
Come out by the masses!
Vote No!
If you wanna see the Trinity changed ...

Most people don't think of Dallas as a river town, and that includes most people in Dallas. But west of downtown, past the freeway and the county prison, sits the Trinity flood way. It's a half-mile wide, ten-mile-long, weedy strip through the heart of the city, walled off by 29-foot levees. The Trinity River runs down the middle of it. Most Dallas residents have only glimpsed the river from one of the high bridges over the flood way. If you want to get much closer than that, you'll want to find Charles Allen.

"Well, what we're gonna do here is we're go down the river bank ... and I'll take the downhill end of it, and the main thing is not to go to fast," he says, as we drag our canoe down to the river.

Allen is wiry, with long blond hair, round glasses, and an Australian outback hat. He communes with nature by stopping his canoe to suck down a Marlboro. He's the Trinity's only guide in Dallas. In the past three decades coming down here, he's seen maybe a dozen other boats on the river.

"I like wilderness, solitude," he says as we paddle downstream. "You know, we're surrounded by people, we live in a human made, human-oriented environment all the time in a city like Dallas. Out here it's different--you're really on your own. You really have to be dependent on yourself."

The muddy current pushes our canoe along. A huge blue heron follows ahead, drifting from tree to tree.

The original Trinity River was meandering and low. It looked like a great waterway for a town, until 1908, when the river rose and washed half of Dallas away. So bulldozers built this channel starting in the late 1920s. The city walled off the river from its original course, and in some ways forgot about it.

"We don't think about the river coming up and flooding. It doesn't flood every year--it'll go a number of years, and then there'll be a big flood," Allen says.

Today the river's flow is completely managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. One day it's high, the next low, as they release water from upstream reservoirs to keep the region dry. The Trinity also acts as the city's storm sewer. Fallen trees are festooned with plastic bags; piles of driftwood include all kinds of trash. I get the feeling people point that out to Charles all the time.

"You know, people are not as familiar with things like trees and rivers and birds and things like that, and sometimes we'll key in on things that are more familiar," he tells me. "We see a plastic oil jug floating by and it's like, 'oh, man, there's trash.' And we won't see the great egret overhead that's croaking."

And indeed, there is an egret soaring overhead. The nature is really great until we get stuck in it downstream. A blockade of fallen trees forces us to stop and clamber up the steep, muddy banks to look around. We're in the middle of Dallas, but all I can see is an endless stretch of head-high Johnson grass and ragweed. We could call someone on our cell phones, but they couldn't get to us without a machete.

It's even hairier trying to whack through all the rhetoric about the river these days. The faction supporting Tuesday's referendum envisions a sun-drenched park between the levees—a place with soccer fields, biking trails and even a couple of lakes. The other side says there's room for all that and a four-to-six lane, high-speed toll road inside the length of the eastern levee. But in debates around the city, Councilwoman Angela Hunt says the two cannot co-exist.

"There are lots of places to put this road, but there's only one place to put this park. So what is your alternative for the park?" she asked in a Sept. 25 debate with the mayor. The audience broke into wild applause.

Hunt says back in 1998, Dallas voters were hoodwinked when they approved a bond initiative to revamp the flood way. She says they approved a meandering access road, not the billion-dollar-plus toll way now in the planning stages.

"How is this the same thing?" she asks. "I realized this project has gotten off course."

Hunt and her allies say you wouldn't put a highway through Central Park—and that's what they say the Trinity could be, Dallas's Central Park. But long-time park advocate Gail Thomas, who heads a group called The Trinity Trust, says the city may have no choice.

"I think the toll parkway is definitely a compromise. You know, Dallas is very popular destination place. We're one of the fastest growing areas in the United States. We have over 300 cars a day added to our freeways," she says.

And Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert says the road is crucial to disentangling a horrible intersection of three interstates in Dallas. "Both U.S. Senators ask you to vote no. The entire congressional delegation—the entire congressional delegation—urges you to vote no," he told the crowd at the debate. "If we lose this opportunity, we lose it for generations into the future. It is just too important." That line also got applause.

Back on the Trinity River, Charles Allen and I manage to get our canoe back in the water, and now we're near the end of our hot journey. My right leg got dunked in the river upstream, and a mélange of parasitic bacteria are feasting, I imagine, on the open scab on my knee.

We go under one final bridge, a low one for Sylvan Avenue. I notice there's debris lodged in its trusses underneath. "Oh yeah, high water will go over this bridge, it will go totally underwater, which it was earlier this year," Charles says.

Underwater: that's where both the Trinity park and toll road could end up. And worse, if you believe some doomsayers who warn that Dallas is just one bad storm season from becoming the next New Orleans. Which kind of begs the whole question of what this city is doing so close to a dangerous river. The answer is that this was supposed to be an inland port. The river would be a way out for all the region's crops and wealth. Only that never happened. The Trinity is too ornery. Charles Allen's canoe is the only boat left.

"I think I've actually achieved commercial navigation on the Trinity," he laughs.

When you grow up in a city with its river behind walls, you always feel like something's missing. There's no stopping place, nowhere to look out over the water and see a way out. And really, that's what both sides are talking about now. One side wants a quiet place to go and look at the river, and feel a little peace. The other side wants a canal for cars and trucks to escape gridlock downtown, and feel a little peace.

We finally reach the take-out. Though he loves being out on the river, even Charles sounds a little relieved. "Civilization, oh wow!" he calls to his buddy who's come to pick us up.

"The water's up," the friend calls down to us.

"There's some water out there," Charles says as he maneuvers the canoe into place. "And some logs."

And we get out on dry land, back to our cars and the city that surrounds us.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Michaela Melian
    CD: Los Angeles (Monika)
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