White Oak Bayou Channel Widening

White Oak Bayou Gets A Makeover…Again

Since 2000, White Oak Bayou has received $386.8 million in Harris County Flood Control (HCFCD), federal, and local partner funding. That ranks it #2 in dollars received among all 23 Harris County Watersheds, second only to Brays Bayou at $544.5 million. Data received via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, showed that these two watersheds alone have received close to a billion dollars out of $3 billion spent between 1/1/2000 and the end of the third quarter this year. Said another way…

Two watersheds out of 23 received about a third of all HCFCD flood-mitigation spending in the last 22 years.

Analysis of Data from FOIA Request

I flew over Brays Bayou earlier this year and documented all the construction there. Friday, I droned White Oak Bayou from FM1960 to south of West Little York, a distance of more than 11 miles.

White Oak is difficult to photograph. As with Brays, homes and apartments back up to White Oak almost the entire way. They largely conceal most of it from public view except near bridges. Those homes and apartments also conceal the magnitude of construction from public view.

A Low-to-Moderate Income Watershed

Within the watershed, White Oak has slightly more low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents (51%) than those who earn above the average for the region. Other interesting stats:

  • It comprises 111.1 square miles. That ranks #6 among all watersheds.
  • White Oak has 468,214 people. That ranks #3 among all watersheds.
  • White Oak ranks #3 in total damage and #5 in damage per square mile.

Continuous Improvement for Decades

Money has poured into the White Oak watershed – as it has for Brays – because of the large number of flooded structures and associated damage. White Oak has had almost 26,000 structures flooded in the last five major storms – Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey and Imelda. That ranks it #3 in total damage among all 23 Harris County Watersheds.

And as we have seen repeatedly, funding flows to damage.

The 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act helped fund the latest round of construction shown below on White Oak as well as Hunting and Brays Bayous. All three started more than 20 years ago and advance sporadically as more money becomes available.

Fighting Constrictions of Development to Make Room for More Floodwater

The photos below show HCFCD’s and the Army Corps’ commitment to completing a number of major projects along White Oak. Residential and commercial developments pressing against the bayou along its length make that difficult. They leave little room for widening to accommodate more floodwater. As a consequence, HCFCD is forced to buy out whole subdivisions to make room for detention basins.

Regardless, I photographed an impressive amount of construction along the length of White Oak between FM1960 and West Little York. Below are 10 out of more than 120 photographs. I took them all on 12/17/2021.

White Oak Bayou widening and deepening. Photographed from Kari Court.

Note how close houses are to the channel. Making more “room for the river,” as the Dutch say, would require buying out many of the homes you see below. 

White Oak Bayou photographed from over Lewis Street.
Looking upstream at White Oak from Gessner
Looking downstream from Gessner. Another example of not leaving “room for the river.” t
Looking SW across large detention basin. White Oak cuts through top of frame from left to right. Fairbanks North Houston cuts through top of frame on right.
Looking NE from over Fairbanks North Houston. White Oak cuts through center of frame. Note Greenspoint on horizon, right of center.
White Oak near Antoine, looking S toward downtown and Galleria on horizon.
White Oak from Tall Pines Drive looking SE.
White Oak from Deep Forest Drive looking downstream.

Many Project Along Bayou Still Pending Buyouts

HCFCD currently has $45 million in ACTIVE construction projects underway in White Oak Bayou. But many more construction projects along the bayou are still pending buyouts to make way for more detention basins.

Of the $386 million spent on White Oak in the last 23 years, $235 million has gone to buyouts and right-of-way acquisition compared to $90 million so far for construction. White Oak buyouts have cost 2.6X more than construction. Normally, buyout and construction costs differ by only a few percentage points.

That tells you how how many homes and businesses are overcrowding the flood plain!

And that brings to mind my grandmother’s favorite saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The 2018 Flood Bond allocated more than $490 million for 16 projects in the White Oak Watershed. However, only $88 million has been spent since Harvey. So, White Oak will receive another $402 million before bond projects are completed. Eventually, White Oak conveyance improvements between 2000 and the end of the bond fund will total $788 million!

But at this point, we’re less than halfway there.

To learn more about HCFCD’s active projects in the White Oak Watershed, visit this page.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/18/2021

1672 Days since Hurricane Harvey