Friday Flood Digest

Here’s a digest of recent flood-related happenings. Follow the links for more detailed information.

Texas’ First-Ever Regional Flood Planning Process Gets Underway

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is helping recently formed regional-flood planning groups deliver 15 regional flood plans by January of 2023. These regional flood plans will form Texas’ first-ever state flood plan, due to the legislature by September of 2024.

The Board designated flood-planning group members on October 1st. The regional flood planning group meetings are publicly posted under the Texas Open Meetings Act. The first meetings were posted on the TWDB website and the Secretary of State website. Groups have two objectives:

  • Reduce current flood risk
  • Prevent creation of new flood risk 

Flood Projects Move Closer to Funding

Flood projects eligible for funding through the State’s Flood Infrastructure Fund (FIF) moved one step closer to becoming a reality this week. Select applicants are currently submitting complete (as opposed to abridged) project applications to the TWDB. These applications will help Texas communities finance drainage and flood mitigation and control projects.

Eligible entities submitted 280 abridged applications for more than $2.3 billion in financial assistance.

TWDB culled that list to fit the available $770 million in funding for structural and nonstructural flood projects. Of that $770 million, TWDB will allocate $231 million (30 percent) to grants and $539 million (70 percent) to loans with no interest.

TWDB Chairman Peter Lake characterized this program as one of the biggest steps the State has ever taken toward flood mitigation.

As of November 5, 2020, the TWDB had received 125 applications from cities, counties, water districts, and other political subdivisions. The deadline for full applications is November 23.

Four of five SJRA abridged applications made the cut:

  • Upper San Jacinto Sedimentation Study
  • Spring Creek Flood Control Dams Conceptual Engineering Study
  • Lake Conroe/Lake Houston Joint Operations Study
  • Flood Early Warning System for San Jacinto County

Chuck Gilman, SJRA’s Director of Water Resources and Flood Management, said, “We hope to receive final notice on our four full applications in late December or early January.”

“The causes and effects of flooding vary from region to region, so there is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution to mitigate floods,” said Lake. “It is critical that we support Texas communities as they plan for and mitigate future risks based on their unique needs and circumstances.”

The Board will consider approving financial assistance commitments at public meetings in the coming months.“Financial assistance will help communities with both flood planning and project implementation. While we can’t avoid natural disasters, we can mitigate the damage they do,” said Lake.

Fire and Flooding

Fire and flooding may seem like a strange combination. But yes, fire can contribute to flooding. I first noticed this phenomenon on an island called Guanaja in the Bay of Honduras where I used to scuba dive. One year, poachers set fires at the bottom of a hill to drive exotic tropical birds toward nets at the top of the hill. The next year, half the hill slid into the Caribbean during heavy rains.

So what does that have to do with Houston? As drought approaches, developers continue to set fires to clear land. That kills all the grasses that retain soil. When rain does return, that soil will wash downstream and likely contribute to the mouth bar growing on the San Jacinto East Fork. Reduction of the river’s “conveyance” can back water up and contribute to flooding.

Drought Vs. Flooding

Jeff Lindner, Harris County Meteorologist says, “The focus for the last several years has been on flooding and heavy rainfall. We’ve had floods in some portion of Texas for each of the last 5 years. However, the onset of moderate to strong La Niña conditions in the Pacific appear to be swinging the state back toward a dry period.”

“What was predicted to be an active period next week is slowly decreasing both “cold” and “moisture” wise in recent model runs, as is typical in La Nina winters,” says Lindner.

Climate Prediction Center outlooks for the next two weeks indicate below average rainfall and above average temperatures. Similar outlooks continue for three months. Vegetation health will continue to decline, but likely at a slower rate than during the hot summer months when heat is maximized.  

Three month outlook from NOAA predicts below average rainfall across southern US.

So be careful of outdoor burning (see story above). Many counties have already imposed outdoor burn bans.

Note outdoor burn ban in Liberty County.

The only positive side of drought is that it can make ideal construction weather for flood-mitigation projects (see two stories above).

Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force Has First Meeting

The Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force held its first meeting earlier this month. The first order of business: expand the group’s membership from five to 17. The group is creating a web site which will accept online applications; it should be up shortly.

The application deadline: December 11. Stay alert for more information if you are interested in representing your area. Preference will be given to those:

  • Who have flooded
  • Represent flood-prone communities
  • Have knowledge in certain areas, such as housing, public health, engineering/construction, urban design/planning, flood-risk mitigation, environment, etc.

Water Baron of Montgomery County Takes On World; Lawyers Drool

Simon Sequeira, CEO of Quadvest and the Water Baron of Montgomery County, continues his War with the World. At the last GMA14 meeting, lawyers are reportedly lining up to get a piece of the action and licking their lips.

Sequeira also supplies water to Colony Ridge in Liberty County. Several years ago, he led a fight to get the board of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District elected rather than appointed. Then he backed candidates who favored unlimited groundwater pumping and promised to Restore Affordable Water.

Broken Promises

While groundwater is cheaper than surface water, water bills reportedly failed to come down. However, he has stopped paying the SJRA. Sequeira says he is setting aside that money in a special fund in case he loses his legal battle with the SJRA. But his legal battles go far beyond the SJRA. He’s also taking on the rest of GMA14.

GMA14 includes the 15 colored counties above, each represented by a different conservation district. Montgomery County (dark blue) has the Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District.
Purpose of Groundwater Management Areas

GMA stands for groundwater management area. GMAs were set up years ago, in part, to make sure that one county doesn’t hog groundwater, depriving surrounding areas and creating subsidence. So the other counties in GMA14 get to approve (or not) the groundwater withdrawal rates in Montgomery County.

They do that by defining “desired future conditions.” How much drawdown in an aquifer is acceptable? How much subsidence can people and infrastructure tolerate?

GMA14 wants Sequeira to leave 70% of the water in aquifers intact and to produce no more than 1 foot of subsidence.

Hired-Gun Experts Defy Scientific Consensus

Ever since, Sequeira took on this fight, his hired-gun experts have been trying to prove subsidence doesn’t pose a threat in Montgomery County. Unfortunately, data and models don’t agree with him. His pumping has already created subsidence in MoCo and now threatens northern Harris County, too.

Strangely enough, while science has shown – and the rest of the world believes – that unlimited groundwater pumping causes subsidence, Sequeira does not. His profit margin depends on cheap groundwater, unfettered by fees designed to encourage people to convert to surface water.

Five Alternative Plans Considered

Sequeira and company originally proposed three alternative plans to GMA14 that involved pumping:

  • 900 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer
  • 700 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer
  • 250 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer (Similar to Run D scenario, modeled below.)

Of those three, GMA14 only considered the last (even though Lone Star and GMA14 use different criteria to describe the volume pumped).

GMA14 countered by adding two more alternatives that involved even less pumping:

  • 115,000 acre-feet per year (Similar to Lone Star’s Run D scenario. See below).
  • 97,000 acre-feet per year
  • 61,000 acre-feet per year

The two sides are still arguing about how much can be pumped safely. And that’s why the lawyers are drooling.

Models Show Unacceptable Subsidence from Sequeira’s Least Damaging Plan

Subsidence can alter the landscape in ways that cause water to collect in areas that otherwise might not flood. The maps below model projected subsidence in south Montgomery and northern Harris Counties. And we know that this model under-predicts subsidence. That’s because it doesn’t model ANY subsidence from the Jasper aquifer.

Sequeira’s least damaging plan would cause up to 3.25 feet of subsidence in southern Montgomery County and up to 3 feet in northern Harris County, according to GMA14. See below.

Pumping 115,000 feet per year would cause up to 3.25 feet of subsidence in southern MoCo.
The same amount of pumping would cause up 3 feet of subsidence in parts of Kingwood and Huffman, and a foot or more in much of the rest of Harris County.
Effect on Humble, Kingwood, Atascocita, Huffman Areas

If you live in the Lake Houston Area and you stare at that last subsidence map long enough, eventually you will come to a jaw-dropping realization. The Lake Houston spillway is only subsiding by a foot. But the headwaters of the lake are subsiding up to 3 feet. Imagine filling your bathtub with water and then tilting it two feet.

Homes and businesses in the headwaters of Lake Houston will be lowered 2 feet relative to the spillway.

That’s a huge amount. Those who built homes a foot above the hundred year flood-plain would find themselves a foot below it. Those who had a couple inches of water in their homes would have more than two feet after subsidence.

Battle Lines Drawn

So the battle lines are drawn. Sequeira wants to allow up to 900 feet of decline in the Jasper aquifer. And GMA14 wants no more than 1 foot of subsidence with 70% of the aquifer intact. That would mean pumping less than 100,000 acre feet per year.

The presence of so many lawyers in the last GMA14 meeting reportedly has the smaller groundwater management districts nervous. One observer used the word “intimidated.” Some don’t have financial resources to fight Sequeira.

Lawyers I talk to believe Sequeira has little chance of winning a lawsuit. But who needs a favorable judgment when you have an army of lawyers that can intimidate the other side into backing down.

However, if Sequeira is successful, he could open up himself and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to billions of dollars in “takings” claims. The lawyers make out coming and going.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/20/2020

1179 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.