Willow Water Hole

How Stormwater Detention Basins Work

Stormwater detention basins work by storing excess stormwater temporarily until channels can safely carry it away. Water enters the basin quickly during heavy downpours. But the basin releases it slowly at a steady rate that channels are designed to carry. This helps reduce the risk of flooding.

Harris County is so flat that dams are not often options. Therefore, virtually all of our stormwater storage has to be excavated.

Harris County Flood Control District

Willow Water Hole Example

The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) detention basins typically cover several hundred acres and service regions. Willow Water Hole just outside the southwest corner of Loop 610 on a tributary of Brays Bayou is an excellent example.

The 279-acre Willow Waterhole has six compartments. Willow is part of the Brays Bayou Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project (Project Brays), a multi-year, $550 million project that substantially reduces flooding risk in the Brays Bayou watershed. The project is a cooperative effort between the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Willow Waterhole Detention Basin Complex in SW Houston has six compartments.

Why the Need?

As areas develop, buildings and concrete cover up soil, so stormwater can’t sink into the ground. Water runs off concrete faster than it does from native grasslands. When that water all hits channels, streams and bayous simultaneously from different directions, it exceeds the carrying capacity of the channel. And homes flood.

Many, but not all, new developments use stormwater detention basins to offset that negative effect.

When full, detention basins often resemble lakes. When dry, detention basins look like large excavated open space areas. The Willow Water Hole is normally dry. Yesterday, however, it contained water from recent rains and the low (seasonal rate of evaporation).

Two of the compartments bracket South Willow Drive. See location above.
Note the weir (discussed below) leading to the channel.

Some systems have water in them permanently, so they resemble small lakes. These provide flood storage between the normal surface of the lake and the top of the bank. See the difference in the photograph below.

Willow Water Hole southwestern pond. Note extra capacity between the top of the water and the top of the banks.

Detention? Retention? Which is It?

A detention basin normally has a dry bottom. It holds excess stormwater temporarily.

A retention basin always has a wet bottom. It stores water indefinitely. Retention basis normally have no outlet. Evaporation and infiltration usually keep the lake levels manageable.

The Harris County Flood Control District always builds and uses detention basins. Developers more likely will use retention ponds and market the resulting “lakes” as residential amenities.

HCFCD owns approximately 70 large regional detention basin sites throughout Harris County. They supplement hundreds of smaller developer-built basins. Countywide, these basins hold billions of gallons of stormwater during heavy rainstorms. 

Two northeastern retention ponds within Willow Water Hole complex on either side of South Post Oak Road.

How Water Gets In

Sometimes HCFCD designs stormwater detention basins with a weir (visible in the first and second drone photos above). The weir, or low dam, lets stormwater rising in the channel spill into the detention basin when it reaches a certain height. Other detention basins have no weirs. They are simply open to a channel. In this case, stormwater fills the basin as it rises in the channel.

But there’s also a third alternative for stormwater detention basins, i.e., those not near a channel. Storm sewers and/or sheet flow fill these detention basins. “Big pipes in – little pipes out” is the rule in this instance. The basin gets the water away from streets and homes quickly. Then lets it drain off slowly.

How Water Gets Out

HCFCD typically designs detention basins to drain by gravity, as opposed to using pumps. This lets basins function when power goes out, a frequent occurrence during floods.

In ponds that drain by gravity, depth of the drain (outfall) is dictated by the depth of the receiving channel. The rate at which stormwater drains depends on the stormwater level in the receiving channel. Typically, stormwater drains out of the detention basin after channel levels recede.

Complex engineering calculations determine the volume of stormwater that a detention basin must hold to protect surrounding homes and businesses. That volume, usually measured in acre-feet, determines the width, length and depth of a basin. The amount of time stormwater stays in a basin depends on levels in the receiving channel and how full the basin got. In Harris County, detention time is usually measured in hours, not days.

How the Process Works

Normal Flow

When there is normal flow in a bayou or channel, the detention basin is generally empty.

Initial Storm Effects

Basins begin to fill as bayous or channels rise, or as surrounding developments drain into them through storm sewers.

Capturing the Flow of a Heavy Storm

As water continues to fill the detention basin, it spreads out into the excavated area. Often culverts connect multiple “compartments” within a larger basin, as above.

Detaining the Flow

By holding water in the detention basin, it does not flood homes and businesses downstream.

Draining Detained Water

As the level of the channel recedes, the channel water level drops and lets the basin drain, but only as fast as the channel can handle it.

Back to Normal Flow

With the water level in the channel normal, the basin is once again empty and ready for the next rainstorm.

End Result

Often, HCFCD partners with local groups, such as the Houston Parks Board, to build trails around these ponds that provide a retreat from busy city life. Areas such as Willow Water Hole also provide habitat for birds. People out for a stroll or a jog may think they are in a beautiful park and not even realize the role it plays in reducing flood risk.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/2/2021 based on information provided by HCFCD

1556 Days since Hurricane Harvey