How soon we forget. Hurricane Harvey was just 4.5 years ago. Since then I have documented dozens, if not hundreds of questionable practices that erode margins of flood safety.
It Didn’t Have to Be That Bad
Harvey was the largest rainfall event in the history of North America. However, with better regulations and construction practices, it didn’t have to be as destructive as it was.
- Lax regulations;
- Willful blindness;
- Development and construction practices that pushed the safety envelope;
- Relentless destruction of forests and wetlands near rivers and streams;
- And homebuyers who didn’t realize their true flood risk…
…made Harvey’s destruction worse than it otherwise would have been.
No one factor by itself would explain Harvey’s destruction. But put them all together, and it’s like “death of a thousand cuts.”
The sheer volume of material – more than 1,000,000 words on this site – makes it difficult for people to see the big picture sometimes. To put 1,000,000 words into perspective, the average novel contains only about 100,000. So I’m condensing the website into a book that includes the themes below.
No One Wins Arguments with Mother Nature
During an interview with Milan Saunders and his daughter Lori, Milan said, “No one wins arguments with Mother Nature.” How profound! It doesn’t matter how many surveys, studies and engineer stamps you have on your home’s title. If you don’t:
- Respect the rivers.
- Give them room to roam.
- Protect wetlands.
- Allow plenty of margin for safety…
…you will flood.
Understanding the Causes of Flooding
Excess sedimentation is one of them. Sediment pollution is the single most common source of pollution in U.S. waters. Approximately 30% is caused by natural erosion, and the remaining 70% is caused by human activity.
Large islands built up during Harvey blocked both drainage ditches and rivers. Below, you can see a large sand island (top) built up at the confluence of the Kingwood Diversion Ditch where it reaches the San Jacinto West Fork at River Grove Park. This sand bar reached 10-12 feet in height above the waterline and helped back water up into Trailwood, the Barrington and Kingwood Lakes and Kings Forest. Before the Army Corps dredged this island, River Grove flooded five times in six months. It hasn’t flooded since.
The second photo above was taken a few hundred yards downstream on the West Fork from the first. It shows “Sand Island” – so nicknamed by the Army Corps. It took the Corps months to dredge this island which they say had blocked the West Fork by 90%.
A certain amount of this sedimentation can be explained by natural erosion. But mankind also contributed to the sheer volume by other practices which I will discuss below.
Respect the Rivers
The red polygons in the satellite image below surround 20-square miles of sand mines on the West Fork of the San Jacinto in a 20 mile reach of river between I-45 and I-69. That exposes a mile-wide swath of sediment to erosion during floods and increases the potential for erosion by 33x compared the river’s normal width.
Even without floods, mines sometimes flush their waste into the rivers. The shot below on the top right shows the day the West Fork turned white. The TCEQ found the source of the pollution upstream: a sand mine that had flushed 56 million gallons of sludge into the West Fork (bottom right).
End the War on Wetlands
Wetlands are nature’s detention ponds. During storms, they hold water back so it won’t flood people downstream. But we seem to want to eradicate wetlands. The images below show the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. Wetlands (right) are being cleared (left) to make way for the world’s largest trailer park. The acceleration of runoff wiped out FM1010 during Harvey. The road still has not been repaired.
Conservation Costs Much Less than Mitigation
All across Harris County, especially in older areas inside Beltway 8, apartment complexes, homes and businesses are built right next to bayous and channels. This makes it difficult to enlarge streams or build detention ponds when necessary. One study showed that preservation of floodplains is 5X more cost effective than mitigation after homes flood. Yet private developers keep crowding bayous and residents keep demanding public solutions.
Respecting Individuals’ Property Rights While Protecting Others’
In Texas, it sometimes feels that an individual’s right to do what he/she wants with property trumps others’ rights NOT to flood. You may think you’re protected by all those public servants reviewing and approving plans. But what happens when developers and contractors decide to ignore the approved plans? Here’s a prime example: the Laurel Springs RV Resort near Lakewood Cove.
The approved plans said that “Stormwater runoff shall not cross property lines.” So what did the contractors do? They pumped their stormwater over the development’s detention pond wall. When that took too long, they dug a trench through the wall. Then they laid pipes through the wall to permanently empty the sludge into the wetlands of Harris County’s new Edgewater Park.
This apparently violated the developer’s City of Houston permit, the Texas Water Code, TCEQ’s construction permit and the developer’s stormwater pollution prevention plan. Four investigations are currently swirling around this development. The contractor also cut down approximately 50 feet of trees in Edgewater Park along the entire boundary line and received a cease-and-desist letter from the Harris County Attorney. But the damage is done.
Balance Upstream and Downstream Interests
About 10% of all the water coming down the West Fork at the peak of Harvey came from Crystal Creek in Montgomery County. But the wetlands near the headwaters of Crystal Creek are currently under development. And the developer is avoiding building detention ponds with a “beat-the-peak” survey. This loophole allowed by Montgomery County says that if you get your stormwater to the river faster than the peak of a flood arrives, then you’re not adding to the peak of a flood and you don’t have to build detention ponds. So developers conduct timing surveys to reduce costs and maximize salable land.
Of course, speeding up the flow of water in a flood is the opposite of what you want to do. To reduce flooding, you should hold back as much water as possible.
The slide above shows part of a new development called Madera at SH242 and FM1314 being built on wetlands near Crystal Creek.
The graph on the right shows what happened on Brays Bayou without suitable detention upstream. Floodwaters peak higher, sooner. Harris County has spent more than $700 million in the last 20 years to remediate flooding problems along Brays.
How much will we need to spend when more areas like Madera get built upstream on the West Fork?
How Quickly We Forget!
FEMA’s Base-Flood-Elevation Viewer shows that in that same area, developers have already built homes that could go under 1-5 feet of water in a 100-year flood. These homes are actually in a ten-year flood zone. And yet more homes are being built nearby. On even more marginal land!
In recent years, the price of land as a percent of a new home’s cost has risen from a historical average of 25% to approximately 40% today. This puts pressure on developers to seek out cheaper land in floodplains, reduce costs by avoiding detention pond requirements, pave over wetlands, and reduce lot sizes resulting in more impervious cover. All contribute to flooding.
Of course, smart homebuyers would not make such risky investments. But few lack the expertise to gauge flood risk. Educating such homebuyers will be one of the major objectives of the book I hope to write.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/23/2022
1639 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.