In east Fort Worth’s John T. White neighborhood, flash floods have become a way of life for property owners like Dawn Dean and Mary Kelleher.
Like many of their neighbors, the pair blame residential developers for increasing the amount of stormwater that flows onto roads and nearby homes, even during mild rainstorms. Rainwater often carries sediment – loose sand, clay, silt and other soil particles – with it, filling storm drains meant to carry water away from roads and homes, according to an Environmental Protection Agency infosheet.
“We’ve lost big trees on our lot,” Dean said. “An arborist looked at them and said it’s from the silt that’s settled down within the root system of the trees. It cuts off oxygen and nutrients from the trees.”
Since 2018, Dean and Kelleher have raised concerns to city officials about Oak Ridge, a housing development less than two miles from Interstate 820 that sits on a hill directly above Dean’s property. Complaints to city officials about the construction site often feel fruitless, Kelleher said, because stormwater staff cite the limitations of their ability to enforce regulations on construction sites.
“It’s very frustrating. You call one department of the city of Fort Worth and they transfer you to another one, and then to another one, and ultimately nobody really does anything but talk about the problem and identify that there is a problem,” Kelleher, who serves on the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District, said. “No one makes any changes to correct or prevent that problem from happening again.”
Now, LGI Homes – the Texas-based developer behind Oak Ridge – is facing a series of violations that Kelleher and Dean believe the homebuilder won’t be able to ignore.
In early November, LGI Homes leaders received notice of four potential violations of the Clean Water Act, according to an EPA warning letter obtained by the Fort Worth Report.
The potential violations include failure to properly install and maintain best stormwater management practices; failure to prevent the off-site discharge of sediment; discharge of sediment into Fort Worth’s storm sewer system; and failure to take recommended corrective action given by city inspectors.
The goal of the EPA’s warning letter is to allow LGI Homes an opportunity to take corrective actions before the violations are escalated to enforcement, said Joe Robledo, a spokesman for the EPA Region 6 office, which includes Texas.
“EPA works with the city and states to follow-up on complaints as needed,” Robledo wrote in a statement. “If the city does not feel compliance is being addressed, the city can refer the complaint to (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) or EPA.”
The Nov. 1 EPA letter was based on a series of city inspections conducted between early June and late October. Heather Berryman, a senior environmental specialist for Fort Worth’s code compliance department, leads the team responsible for construction inspections and carried out the investigations at the Oak Ridge development.
“They had not maintained some of their erosion sediment controls properly and then it discharged into other areas off the site,” Berryman said.
Since the city and EPA notified LGI Homes of their potential violations, the developer has taken steps to plant more grass to prevent more erosion, Berryman said. LGI Homes is also planning to make updates to ponds that serve as sediment basins with the aim of keeping sediment out of the city’s sewer system or in other parts of the John T. White neighborhood, she said.
LGI Homes representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Inspections have been regularly carried out at the site since construction began in 2018, Berryman said. There have been periodic violations at the site, and when those issues are addressed, the city does not escalate enforcement. But if the problems aren’t addressed, Fort Worth may issue more warnings and eventually citations with financial penalties, Berryman said.
Depending on the number of violations and the nature of those violations, the fines could range from $500 per day per violation, said Cody Whittenburg, the city’s assistant code compliance director. The involvement of EPA or Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials on stormwater cases like these is not necessarily unusual, he said.
“This isn’t just for Fort Worth,” Whittenburg said. “If they perceive that any local jurisdiction might need some additional support, it is not unheard of for them to send a letter like they did in this case to encourage that developer or that builder or those individuals to make some positive change and to support the local government in that mission for compliance.”
Dean, who filed complaints with the EPA and the state environmental commission in late August and early September, believes the case would have been ignored without federal involvement. Kelleher, who has been involved in flooding advocacy on the east side for more than a decade, agrees.
“I have learned over the years since 2010, if I really wanted to get a response from the city of Fort Worth, I had to go federal,” Kelleher said.
She recalled an incident in 2020, where she contacted city staff at all different levels – from the mayor to code compliance staff – with pictures documenting what Kelleher saw as a lack of stormwater infrastructure at the site.
“The city staff came back and just clearly said: ‘There’s no violations,’” Kelleher said. “They blamed it on interim conditions of the construction site and minimal standards. Once the project is all built out, then we shouldn’t have any more problems.”
To ensure that complaints reach the right staff member, Whittenburg said, residents should use the myFortWorth app or the city’s call center, which can divert the concern to the correct department. The code compliance department will reach 10 investigators on Berryman’s team thanks to an expansion authorized in the 2023 city budget, Whittenburg said. That will ensure the city can respond to complaints within a day.
“We understand that the city of Fort Worth is a large organization, and that it’s not always clear from a resident point of view where someone needs to go to get some assistance with the issue,” Whittenburg said. “I think it’s important for residents to understand this. We work very hard to collaborate with other departments and to get things sorted appropriately.”
Until this January, when Berryman began working for the city, Dean’s complaints were solely heard by transportation and public works staff, she said. Now, Dean feels as if her concerns are taken more seriously, particularly after a June 3 storm hit John T. White hard, requiring high water rescue teams in parts of east Fort Worth.
“(Berryman) actually puts on boots and goes out there when it’s raining and tracks around in the mud,” Dean said. “She’s been the only one to do that. She’s listened, and she’s trying to come up with a solution.”
Still, Dean is not confident that the efforts at Oak Ridge to address erosion will actually result in less flooding on her property. In the past couple weeks, she saw that LGI crews built tall berms – shelves or raised barriers to separate water and sediment – in an effort to prevent water from running down to Randol Mill Road.
What comes next for flood policy updates in Fort Worth?
- November 2022: Stormwater department debuts policy updates, holds two public meetings
- December 2022: City staff plan to add more “city flood risk areas” to Fort Worth website
- January 2023: City Council expected to vote on new flood, stormwater updates
- Early 2023: Stormwater management department will convene new stakeholder group focused on impact of development on flooding
- Mid-2023: Stakeholder group expected to develop recommendations for zoning, engineering standards
But those berms have only diverted water into a different part of Dean’s property, she said. Kelleher described a recent scene where LGI workers were dispatched during a storm to scoop sediment off Randol Mill Road and toss it behind a fence meant to keep it off the street.
“They stayed there and did it until it started lightning, and then once it started lightning, the guys took off,” Kelleher said.
Grass also hasn’t had the chance to grow yet, so erosion down the steep slope above her home continues, Dean added.
“The water just washed right through – it didn’t catch anything,” she said. “They basically have not done anything. I don’t know that they’ve taken any of it seriously.”
Dean and Kelleher plan to continue pushing Fort Worth to take more action on flooding policies. Stormwater department staff recently debuted floodplain policy updates, and a new stakeholder group is expected to focus on the impact of development on flooding in early 2023.
Those actions aren’t enough to tackle the flooding problem in east Fort Worth, Kelleher said. She wants more strict regulations for builders whose developments will increase the amount of water runoff and flooding risks for residents already living in the city.
“I’ve been involved in flooding over on the east side since 2010, and neither Dawn nor I are into politics,” Kelleher said. “We just had blind faith that our elected officials and our government, our city staff, were there to protect us. And we learned very quickly that’s not the case.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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