The last three posts on the equity flap have focused on how minority neighborhoods in Precinct 1 already receive more flood mitigation funding than affluent areas like Kingwood. Tonight, I focus on why that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But first, a recap for context.
Biggest Beneficiary of Funding Claims Discrimination
Last Tuesday, the equity flap erupted again in Harris County Commissioners Court. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis complained that because of historical discrimination (i.e., slavery, which was abolished more than 150 years ago), he needs to fight for “equity” in the distribution and implementation flood bond projects. Precinct 1 already receives the lion’s share of many types of funding.
What Mr. Ellis does not point out to the Commissioners Court is that Precinct One:
- Already receives 2X to 4X more capital improvement funds from Harris County Flood Control than other precincts, including those with high percentages of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
- Benefits from more federal spending on capital improvements than any other Precinct.
- Receives more than its fair share of buyout money from FEMA and HCFCD.
- Has one of the few bayous in the county (Sims) that did not experience widespread flooding during Harvey – because of the many flood mitigation improvements already made on it.
- Benefits from five of the six ongoing joint Corps/HCFCD projects in the county.
Exploiting Past Wrongs to Perpetuate Inequity
When talking about “historic discrimination,” Commissioner Ellis needs to shift his focus forward in time and look at other areas of the county that receive NO such joint projects and far fewer flood mitigation dollars. Take the San Jacinto Watershed, for instance. It contains Kingwood. Because of Kingwood’s affluence, it’s one of the favorite whipping boys for Commissioner Ellis and his surrogates who argue for equity. They keep bringing equity up every time a Kingwood-related item is on the Flood Control agenda at commissioners court. But the Kingwood/Lake Houston Area has NO such joint projects. Why?
Causes of Inequity
There are two reasons for this inequitable distribution: one obvious, one not so.
First, the obvious: The Houston region has grown from the downtown area outward. Precinct 1, which includes downtown, is older. Flood problems became apparent sooner. Precinct 1 documented problems, identified solutions, and rallied Federal support decades ago.
Commissioner Ellis’ predecessors also started this process decades ago and Precinct 1 enjoys the rewards today. As a consequence…
Buffalo Bayou and all of its tributaries are eligible for Corps support on non-emergency projects; the San Jacinto is not.
Even though the problems in the Lake Houston Area have been building for decades, the danger didn’t become apparent until Harvey.
At this point, rallying the kind of Federal support that Precinct 1 has historically enjoyed will involve an act of Congress and Presidential approval. Literally. That’s an uphill battle compared to the battle that Mr. Ellis’ projects face.
Political Challenges for San Jacinto Watershed
A local sponsor, such as the City, would have to file an application for a project. Congressional representatives would have to get the President to build it into the annual budget, then include it in the Water Resources Development Act. Both houses of Congress would have to pass the act. The President would have to sign it. And then the government would have to distribute the money. The distribution usually happens in phases, after approval of each phase of a project, such as:
- Feasibility study
- Engineering and design
- Construction, operation and maintenance
- Changes after construction authorization
- Changes after construction
It could easily take three to five years just to get the engineering and design phase on a project, such as additional flood gates for Lake Houston.
A second challenge: Mr. Ellis and his surrogates using unfounded “equity” arguments to further handicap and delay flood mitigation in the Lake Houston Area.
Damages in Lake Houston Area
Unfortunately, the sedimentation and conveyance problems on the San Jacinto only became apparent after decades of additional upstream development. That exacerbates flooding by funneling water to the river faster. In recent years, Conroe was the fastest growing city in America.
Then along came the Tax Day, Memorial Day and Hurricane Harvey floods. They deposited an estimated 5 to 10 million cubic yards of sediment in the East and West Forks. Much of that came from sand mines upstream of Lake Houston, which Lake Conroe inundated when it released 80,000 cubic feet per second at the peak of the storm. This further exacerbated flooding by backing water up in the river and drainage ditches.
As a result, the Lake Houston area suffered billions of dollars worth of damage to schools, bridges, roads, homes, churches and businesses during Hurricane Harvey. At least 13 people in the Kingwood Area died as a result of the flood, 12 in ONE senior living complex.
Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right
Citing historical discrimination that goes back to pre-Civil-War days, Mr. Ellis argues for equity to increase his precinct’s share of flood mitigation dollars and to accelerate projects in his precinct.
As the data shows, his precinct already has far more than its fair share of mitigation dollars. Now, he threatens other areas, property and lives by delaying and usurping their aid.
If any area is underfunded and fighting discrimination now, it’s the Lake Houston Area. Ironically, the discrimination is coming from the Rodney Ellis’ of the world.
I don’t begrudge Precinct 1 a penny of the flood mitigation funds it has received to date. And I admire Mr. Ellis for fighting so hard for his constituents. However, I despise the way he does it.
Mr. Ellis represents one fourth of the people in the county. Yet he cries “equity” and ignores facts to usurp more than half of flood mitigation funding and put his Bond projects at the front of the construction line. I wish he would acknowledge:
- The inequality that exists in current funding and that is likely to continue for years.
- That a Kingwood, Humble, Atascocita or Huffman life is as valuable as a life in Precinct 1.
Ironically, the Lake Houston Area argued for equity in the bond language to prevent the very kind of reverse discrimination that we are now seeing. We need to work together to mitigate flooding everywhere as quickly as we can. This equity flap is fanning racial flames that divide us, perpetuate distrust, delay mitigation, and threaten lives. It’s time to get on with the hard work at hand. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/28/2019
668 Days since Hurricane Harvey