Opportunities to Speed Recovery

The things government does now to protect us from future flooding – and the speed with which it does them – will make the difference between long-term recovery and decay.

In many ways, we’ve made incredible progress since Harvey – the initial frenzy of volunteerism, the massive trash pickup, repairing homes, re-establishing businesses, rebuilding infrastructure, re-opening schools, organizing an emergency (albeit partial) dredging project, passing a $2.5 billion flood bond, and more. The amount of activity  speaks volumes about the character of the community. But recovery is far from complete.

The old HEB store still has not been leased to a new tenant.

Confidence determines whether people will rebuild. Without confidence, people are reluctant to invest. You can see lack of confidence in empty shops up and down West Lake Houston Parkway and in “for sale” signs in front of homes. People are saying, “I’m not going to risk this again.”

So what will give people confidence and speed recovery?

Expand Dredging

The Army Corps has started dredging a small portion of the West Fork – about 1.2 miles between Kings Lake Estates and River Grove Park. This will take until April or May of next year to complete. However, the biggest blockage in the river is NOT part of this project. The “mouth bar” where the river meets the lake will remain. Unless a second project to address that can be funded, bid and mobilized before the first is done, taxpayers will be forced to pay another $18 million in mobilization/demobilization fees – all over again.

First dredge on the San Jacinto is now working an area west of the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge. Photo courtesy of Keith Jordan.

Even if the mouth bar is addressed, the rest of the West Fork, the East Fork and parts of Lake Houston will need to be dredged in order to clear channels through the upper Lake Houston area.

To prevent the current blockages from recurring and flooding us again, we should also develop a maintenance dredging program in perpetuity.

Reduce Sedimentation

Sedimentation comes from several sources: a) natural stream erosion, B) urbanization, and C) sand mining. With the exception of creating more upstream detention, we can’t do much to control A or B. We can, however, do something about the 20 square miles of sand mines in the floodways upstream from us.

FEMA defines floodways as the main channel of the river during a flood – where the water moves the fastest. With the exception of one sand mine between Lake Houston and I-45, part of every single sand mine lies in the floodway.

West Fork sand mines on 8/30/17, one day after the peak from from Harvey

Moving mines out of the floodway will require legislation that puts more distance between mines and rivers. As far as I can tell, Texas is the only state that does not require a minimum setback. We need greater setbacks because rivers migrate over time and capture pits during floods. This process is well understood and predictable.

We’ve seen several instances of ruptured mine dikes on the West Fork – some that have gone unprepared for years and increased the rate of sedimentation. This contributes to the sand and sediment clogging our rivers, the destruction of downstream properties, and dredging costs which are substantial.

Improve Ditch Maintenance

Harris County has agreed to take over ditch maintenance for the City of Houston. However, the City of Houston is still looking for deeds and easements that should have been transferred and recorded during annexation 22 years ago. This does NOT inspire confidence. Once the County receives permission to clean and clear the ditches, it can proceed. County flood control crews have been surveying in anticipation of receiving the documents. Money has also been freed up in the Flood Control budget with the passage of the flood bond.

Create More Upstream Detention

Holding water upstream during a flood lowers water levels downstream. The County has identified potential land to build another reservoir on far western Cypress Creek. That should help. But it’s a long term project and one of hundreds in the flood bond package.

We should also remember that more water came down the East Fork during the peak of Harvey than the West Fork. Additional upstream detention on both forks will help reduce the input during floods and raise confidence.

Add More Flood Gates to Lake Houston

In March, the Mayor promised 10 additional flood gates for Lake Houston so that we could shed water faster during a flood. This pr0ject has progressed somewhat since then, but slowly. The City has filed an application with FEMA which has received a high score from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). TDEM ranks applications for FEMA funding coming from Texas.

Nonetheless, some officials have said that additional gates could take 10 years to actually build. Given the fact that we’ve had five so-called “500-year storms” in the last 25 years (1994, 2001, 2015, 2016, 2017), 10 years is too long. Many older residents won’t live long enough to see those gates. We can and must do better. We won World War II in less than half that time.

Plead for Speed

Delays in these mitigation projects will undermine confidence and recovery. Conversely, fast-tracking these projects will restore confidence and speed recovery.

We also need to streamline government disaster recovery. Let’s face it. It has taken more than a year since Hurricane Harvey to get one dredge on the San Jacinto River. We can do better. We need to do better.

As always, these are my opinions on matters of public policy protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.

Posted by Bob Rehak on September 22, 2018

389 Days Since Hurricane Harvey