Requiem for a Creek

I’d like to tell a story about the destruction of a small stretch of Pecan Creek. In case you don’t have the patience for stories, though, here is the moral up front: City engineering projects need greater citizen oversight and participation.

My story is half-baked and likely has inaccuracies. Why? Frankly, I don’t have the time to tell it properly. An overwhelming busy-ness (and distraction) in our private lives precludes attentiveness to the public sphere. Things change, like creeks disappearing. We didn’t realize things were going to change. We grumble a while. Then we get overwhelmed with other things and move on.

Maybe that’s how it should be. After all, we are mere residents. We’re not qualified to make drainage, infrastructure, or utilities decisions. We need experts to run our techno-society. We gotta trust them, sure, but what’s the alternative: a bunch of amateurs randomly pushing buttons and pulling levers in the name of ‘democracy’?

Still, we might wonder late at night lying in bed, exhausted from another day…did things have to change in precisely that way? Could it have turned out some other way?

In 2011, about a half dozen property owners along the south bank of  Pecan Creek near Denton High School phoned the city. They noted that the creek was eroding their property, threatening to sweep away their homes.

It’s the oldest engineering problem in the books. Humans try to establish permanent settlements on a changing natural landscape. We don’t even have to think of New Orleans. Hell, even beavers have this problem. And ants and bees, etc. The modern human solution to this problem takes not just technology but what Alfred Chandler called “the visible hand” of engineers, managers, and bureaucrats to administer the systems we come to rely on.

In 2012, the Drainage Department formulated the Fulton Channel Drainage Improvements Project. Further, the Master Drainage Plan (dating back to 1975) shows this stretch of the creek (about 500 feet long) being lined with concrete so that it can handle a 100 year storm (currently it can only handle a 25 year storm).

The time had come to fix the plumbing. In 2013 and 2014, a plan was hatched to channelize the creek – scrape it clean and pave it with concrete. At that time the city paid the Army Corps of Engineers their environmental indulgences for the destruction of habitat. The cost was $111,000 – about $2,000 for every one-foot slice of the creek. The transition will look something like this.


In June of 2015, the city started clearing trees around the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church (DUUF – my church). DUUF sits on the northern bank of the creek. As far as I can tell even from the city’s own timeline, DUUF was never notified about this project. What we quickly learned was that the project will add 26,000 square feet of concrete to our property, destroy a half acre of riparian habitat, and remove 40 large trees. If a developer were to remove those trees, they would have to replace them on site or pay a mitigation fee of $21,000. I don’t think either is happening. Also, the rest of Pecan Creek is not up to the 100 year flood standard and may never be (they’d have to buy out and destroy several homes downstream). I don’t think the purported flood protection benefits of this project would come about unless and until the whole creek is complete, which may be never.

When trees started disappearing we asked for a stay of execution.The city granted us a meeting in July. We were told this was a fait accompli. There were sunk costs. The other property owners favor the channelization solution. And, we were told this was the one best option to the maxi-min problem of maximizing flood protection while minimizing costs. Indeed, to look at that power point presentation is to be overwhelmed by the logic of their solution. It costs one-half to one-third of the alternatives and it has the smallest footprint.

Even if we could imagine greater citizen participation in the project, those citizens would have been compelled by the logic of the situation to see that this was, really, the only choice. So, why waste city time and resources – and citizen time and resources – dragging a bunch of amateurs through a process when they could not possibly improve the outcome? Why risk the chance they’d muck things up?

It’s a good question. I may not have a good answer. I think any answer would have to challenge the notion that this is, strictly speaking, an engineering problem and not (also) a political problem. We are talking about weighing competing values here. There are safety concerns and property loss concerns. There are ecological and water quality concerns. There are quality of life concerns and religious and educational values. And there are concerns about representation and inclusivity.

To classify all of this as an engineering problem is not to land on a value-neutral tech-fix. It is to smuggle the values debate behind a veil of neutrality in a closed process controlled by unelected professionals. I am not trying to demean any individual here – just call attention to a social dynamic: A political problem arises and is transmuted into an engineering problem by dropping it into a black box that spits an unimpeachable technical solution out the back end.

So, my question is: Should we just live with the outcomes of black boxes or should we open their lids and get others involved in the tinkering? (This, by the way, is how I often think about the Denton fracking saga.)

One defense of the “we should just live with the outcomes of black boxes” option is what Langdon Winner calls “the moral claims of practical necessity.” Sure, citizen participation is a wonderful ideal, but it’s not way to run a drainage department. Certain reasons of practical necessity, such as keeping complex drainage systems working safely and smoothly, eclipse other kinds of moral and political claims.

I think there are two defenses on the other side – that is, arguments for ‘amateur’ involvement. One comes from the feeling of disenfranchisement and helplessness that the members of DUUF experienced when the chainsaws showed up. I guess it’s nice to be told after the fact why this simply has to happen, but it doesn’t quite seem in keeping with basic democratic procedures. At least give us a seat at the table so we can watch the inner workings of the black box. They may be inscrutable to us, but we might learn something along the way and we will feel as though we had a ‘seat at the table.’

The other claim is stronger – pushing the passivity of this position into activity. Maybe, just maybe, if amateurs start poking around in things like the iSWM standards used by the drainage department they might start asking intelligent questions. Maybe they’ll hit about some assumptions that could be otherwise. Some cost calculations that are biased or short-sighted. Some alternative standards. Maybe they’ll ask why we are putting in concrete channels at a time with Los Angeles is ripping them out, because they blight communities and sap urban vitality.

Now, the engineers might have good answers to these questions. But there is something to be said for subjecting them to such “trials of strength” (in the words of Bruno Latour). Indeed, you might claim this is not the corruption of science and engineering by amateurs but an enhancement of its very essence – to question tradition and authority, to perpetually seek improvement.

After all, it is called the Fulton Channel Drainage IMPROVEMENT Project. What, exactly, counts as an improvement? If Pecan Creek is more than a drain pipe, then it seems to me like ‘the people’ should have a chance to answer that question.

As for this project. Well, the trees at DUUF are slated for removal starting on Wednesday.


2 thoughts on “Requiem for a Creek

  1. I imagine that this is how our state legislature feels also. They prefer “amateurs” to stay out of their law-making as well. Then there are other layers of black boxes to contend with on a more local level. Good times. The good people don’t know enough to know what’s good for them so maybe we should all just be quiet, stand in line and let the professionals handle the real work that requires thinking and all.

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