To Reduce Future Flooding, We Need to Focus on BOTH Mitigation AND Root Causes

After writing about flooding daily for nearly four years, I have developed some beliefs about how to reduce future flooding. In the last 20+ years, Harris County has spent more than $2.6 billion on flood mitigation. And I know one engineer who claims it could take another $50-60 billion to fix all of the County’s flooding problems. That raises the question, “Why aren’t we focusing more on preventing them in the first place?”

Changing Landscape of Flood Mitigation

Flood-mitigation projects alone can’t prevent future flooding because the landscape constantly changes. As population density increases, so does housing density, impervious cover, and runoff. As areas build out and land prices escalate, people often build homes in places they shouldn’t (floodways and floodplains). That puts others at risk. But the allure of having a water view, dazzles potential buyers who may not understand the risk of future flooding.

When neighborhoods flood, community groups demand action. Someone commissions an engineering study. Years later, the engineers quote an often astronomical cost for flood-mitigation projects. Finding the money can take years longer. Or lead to a frustrating dead end and repeat flooding.

Unwitting Flood Victim: A Personal Story

I once bought a new house on Spring Creek in a Dallas suburb. The home was supposed to be two feet above the hundred-year floodplain. It looked out over the Richardson golf course. My wife and I were ecstatic…until pickup trucks started floating down the creek on minor rains.

I managed to get a three-city commission started to look into the causes. The City Engineers from Garland, Richardson and Plano petitioned the Army Corps to re-survey the creek. They found that…

Instead of being 2 feet above the hundred-year floodplain, we were now 10 feet below it.

They pointed to Plano upstream from us. It was the fastest growing city in America at the time. They also pointed to the development of an 80-acre shopping mall just upstream from us.

With two small babies at the time, we decided that the beauty of the location no longer justified the risk. We put the home on the market, disclosed the flood problems, took a $35,000 hit on the sale (about 20% of the purchase price in those days), and moved to (please don’t laugh) Houston!

Urban Sprawl Increases Future Flood Risk For People in Center

Houston has grown even faster than Dallas. We are now completing the third ring of highways around the City. Just as development of areas around Beltway 8 contributed to flooding woes inside Loop 610, now, the Grand Parkway will contribute to flooding woes farther out.

Grand Parkway extension in Liberty County, photographed May 26, 2019. A magnet for future development.

Look Outward, Not Just Inward, to Reduce Future Flooding

This continued expansion demands that we look outward, not just inward to reduce future flooding. The counties around Harris have an opportunity now encourage development practices that respect the property rights of others. Those include, but are not limited to:

  • Preservation of green space and wetlands, nature’s sponges.
  • Adequately sized detention and retention ponds
  • Lining channels with grass to reduce erosion and sediment deposition downstream
  • Control of housing density
  • Use of green technologies in home building

If every new home and development “retained its rain,” no one downstream would face increased flood risk.

The mantra of floodplain managers

But, alas, that costs money. And for every ten thousand dollars that you increase the price of a home, you also price X number of people out of the market. Not just the home buying market, but the Houston market.

Cost of Land Can Be 40% of New Home’s Cost

According to one homebuilder, land now accounts for 40% of the cost of a new home. So, we constantly see pushback from developers who hire engineers willing to find a way to make questionable projects happen. And that’s how we get places like Colony Ridge – a development that didn’t exist 10 years ago that is now larger than any city in Liberty County – built on wetlands.

A small part of the Colony Ridge expansion now underway. Photo taken at end of June, 2021.

Ironically, Colony Ridge is just upstream from Luce Bayou which has received the least flood-mitigation funding since 2000.

Pay Now or Pay Later

Harris County Flood Control Capital Improvement Spending since 2000.

The Colony Ridge expansion area above will drain into Luce which runs through Huffman downstream. One can only guess how long it take for flooding to strike there and how long it will take to find a solution now that a developer has permanently altered the landscape and destroying even more wetlands.

Sensible regulation and enforcement could reduce future flooding risk at no cost to the public. But upstream county commissioners are eager to experience the financial freedom that a larger tax base will bring. And their residents aren’t eager to pay for someone else’s flood mitigation.

And that is why fighting future flooding will always be a two-front war.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/8/2021

1409 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.