Since Harvey, the Lake Houston Area has seen some huge changes for the better in the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA). When the Governor visited Kingwood and took a helicopter tour of the San Jacinto River basin after Harvey, he directed the SJRA to establish a flood mitigation division. He also appointed two directors from the Lake Houston area to ensure downstream representation on the SJRA board.
Many Improvements Since March 2018
Since then, Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti, the two new directors from the Lake Houston area, have led the charge to lower Lake Conroe seasonally. This ensures a greater buffer against floods.
The effort paid off this year when heavy back-to-back-to-back rains in early May would have forced a large release from Lake Conroe had it not already been lowered. That release, added to already swollen tributaries, would almost certainly have threatened low lying homes and businesses.
The SJRA will again lower Lake Conroe during the peak of Hurricane season. Starting August 1, it will take Lake Conroe down one foot. Beginning August 15, they will take it down another foot until October 1.
The SJRA is also working with Harris County Flood Control to install more upstream gages and turn the Harris County Flood Warning System into a Regional Flood Warning System with customizable alerts. The goals: create more awareness of upstream dangers to give people more time to evacuate and save valuables in the event of a flood. Said another way, avoid middle-of-the-night surprises like we had during Harvey.
Finally, the SJRA is leading a joint river basin study that hopefully will lay the groundwork for additional upstream detention, more flood gates for Lake Houston, and an ongoing maintenance dredging program. So, many good things are happening.
Cambio’s Term Expiring
However, Cambio’s term on the board expires this year. She wants to stay in the position and I hope she does. Cambio has worked tirelessly to mitigate flooding on so many levels. Her position as a key staffer for Congressman Dan Crenshaw also makes her uniquely qualified to help coordinate efforts from Federal, State and local agencies. She deserves reappointment.
A reader asked whether there’s an opportunity to increase downstream representation on the SJRA board with more representatives like Cambio and Micheletti.
The answer is, “In the short term, no.” Cambio’s seat on the board is the only one up for renewal this year.
SJRA Sunset Review Coming Up
However, in two years, the entire SJRA will come under close scrutiny as part of a sunset review. A sunset review is an evaluation of the need for the continued existence of a program or an agency. It assesses their effectiveness and performance, and recommends either retaining, modifying, or terminating them.
The SJRA comes up for sunset review in the 2020-2021 cycle. Section 325.025 of the Texas Sunset Act mandates a review by September 1, 2021, and every twelfth year thereafter. See page 34 of the this PDF.
No one expects the SJRA to be terminated. But many other river authorities that have gone through the sunset review process, have had a complete overhaul, said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Sunset Commission has been brutal at times. For instance, between 2016 and 2017, the Commission reviewed four river authorities and noted:
- “Sulpher River Basin Authority Board has not built the trust needed to effectively carry out its mission.”
- “Central Colorado River Authority no longer serves a necessary public purpose.”
- “Upper Colorado River Authority has not set priorities to ensure its operations meet changing local watershed needs.”
- “Palo Duro River Authority of Texas lacks flexibility to adapt to changed local circumstances.”
Their report makes fascinating reading. One thing that became clear in scanning it is that, like most good performance reviews, the Commission judges performance against objectives. In the case of these Authorities, enabling legislation spells out the objectives.
Enabling Legislation Established SJRA Goals
That prompted me to review the enabling legislation for the SJRA. The sections discussing goals begin on page 2 of this PDF. I have summarized them below.
The state created the SJRA (originally called the San Jacinto River Conservation and Reclamation District) to “conserve, control, and utilize to beneficial service the storm and flood waters of the rivers and streams of the State.” Section 2 of the enabling legislation mentions floodwaters three times.
Section 3 starting on page 3 of the same PDF lays out additional goals. For instance, to:
- Prevent the devastation of land from recurrent overflows.
- Protect life and property.
- Regulate the waters of the San Jacinto River and its tributaries.
- Build dams and distribution networks that provide waters for cities, towns, irrigation, agriculture, commercial, industrial, mining and other beneficial uses.
- Develop drainage systems that enable profitable agricultural production.
- Conserve “soils against destructive erosion and thereby preventing the increased flood menace incident thereto.”
- Forest and reforest the watershed to aid in the prevention of soil erosion and floods.
- Encourage, aid, and protect navigation and harbor improvements.
- Acquire land for parks and recreation, and to build park and recreational facilities thereon.
- Dispose of sewage and industrial waste.
- Construct, improve, maintain, operate and repair water and sewage plants and distribution networks.
How Would You Rate Performance against These Goals?
It seems to me that the SJRA does a great job at its basic mission. And they’re improving at flood mitigation. However, for decades, the SJRA ignored other crucial parts of its job description, including flood and erosion prevention; reforestation; parks and recreation; and navigation protection. In fairness, the Legislature never funded those mandates. The SJRA’s only income comes from the sale of water which it impounds.
Still, you would think somebody could pick up a phone and call the TCEQ for help with some of these things. For instance, sand mines along the banks of the river dump effluent and sediment directly into the drinking water supply for millions of people. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes the Texas Sunset Commission recommends when the SJRA comes up for review.
For an interesting history of the SJRA, see Chapter 4 of this doctoral dissertation by Andrew C. Baker at Rice University. It paints a fascinating picture of the problems the SJRA had in originally fulfilling its basic mission and how the SJRA overcame them with help from the City of Houston.
Note: For future reference, the SJRA enabling legislation has been added to the Reports page under the SJRA tab.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/23/2019
663 Days after Hurricane Harvey