Commissioners Will Vote Tuesday On Measure That Could Improve Drain/Ditch Maintenance

On Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners will vote on an asset-swap proposal that could improve drain and ditch maintenance county wide. It’s item 2A1 on the Commissioners Court Agenda. But it may take a while to implement. Here’s the background.

Untangling Overlapping Responsibilities

During recent storms, many blamed local flooding on lack of drain and ditch maintenance. The 80,000 cubic yards of silt clogging the lower portion of Ben’s Branch is just one example. Hundreds of others exist throughout the City of Houston and Harris County.

As the City and County Flood Control District tried to determine who was responsible for what, they became mired in legal tangles. Often, they discovered, both entities had responsibility for different portions of the same ditch.

But determining where one’s responsibilities stopped and the other’s started delayed mitigation and ran up legal fees. And even where responsibilities were clear cut, they wound up mobilizing two different crews, when one would have sufficed. This duplication of efforts ran up mitigation costs needlessly. It also often resulted in a patchwork quilt of repairs where one part of a ditch was maintained and another was not. And that reduced effectiveness.

Dividing Responsibilities by Core Competency

Luckily, common sense prevailed. The City and County reached an agreement in principle after Harvey to exchange responsibilities. Now each will focus on its core competency to maximize efficiency.

The goal: to get to a point where the City takes over responsibility for underground drainage and the County takes responsibility for above ground inside City limits.

One of the Flood Control District’s core competencies resides in ditch maintenance and improvements. Likewise, the City Public Works Department specializes in storm drains and sewers.

Any business school grad can tell you that companies maximize efficiency when focusing on their core competencies. The key: outsourcing parts of businesses where others offer greater efficiency.

Gradual Changeover In Series of Asset Swaps

However, the changeover won’t be like flipping a universal switch. It will happen gradually over several years with a series of asset swaps. Why? To ensure that neither side becomes saddled with deferred maintenance costs of the other.

Accordingly, each asset must be brought up to standards before swapping responsibilities.

See the explanation for Agenda Item 2A1 – The Houston City Council approved the interlocal agreement on February 27, 2020. Harris County Commissioners will vote on it on Tuesday, 4/28/2020.

Along with the agreement, the parties have identified the first batch of properties for exchange. However, they have not yet publicized those.

Only One Potential Problem

I only see one problem with this program. Some ditches that desperately need maintenance may not qualify for exchange before people flood.

Kings Forest, for example, has a ditch that parallels Valley Manor, west of Kingwood High School. Like Ben’s Branch, the City never maintained it. Now, water backs up dangerously close to homes on Kingsway Court and Twin Grove during heavy rains.

Rick Beaubien, a resident who lives near the ditch, took the pictures below.

Downed trees in ditch between Valley Manor and Twin Grove.
Clogged drain in same ditch.
North side of Kingwood Drive looking south. Trees and silt block channel and culverts. You can tell by the size of the trees that no one has maintained this ditch in a long time.
Same culverts, but in center of Kingwood Drive.
Exit of same culvert south of Kingwood Drive

Dustin Hodges, District E North Sector Manager for Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin indicates that Public Works is working on a plan to maintain this and other ditches. However, he also admits that “Currently, there are no available funds to address this ditch and there is no timeline on when any funds would be available for this ditch.”

Theory Good, Time Will Tell

I wholeheartedly support the asset-exchange program outlined in agenda item 2A1. Voting against it will not immediately accelerate the maintenance of ditches such as the one above. However, in principle and in the long run, it should help if the City and County treat neighborhoods equitably and partisan politics don’t intervene.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/26/2020 with thanks to Rick Beaubien

971 Days since Hurricane Harvey