Lake Houston Dam

Last-Minute Funding Breathes New Life into Lake Houston Gates Project

The project to install more flood gates on the Lake Houston Dam has resulted in more nail-biting than a Steven Spielberg movie. Perhaps no project inspired more hope among flood-weary home- and business owners in the San Jacinto watershed. Importance is high, but the costs turned out far higher than expected and dollars proved hard to come by.

This morning, however, Dr. Greg Bonnen, chair of the House Appropriations Committee filed a rider to this year’s appropriations bill that will likely get the job done. The rider contains two provisions that affect funding for the gates.

  • Sec. 17.38 (a)(1) on page IX-22 contains $50 million for improvements to the Lake Houston Dam.
  • Sec. 17.38 (b)(1)(2)(3) on page IX-23 contains a provision that lets unexpended balances from previous grants be redeployed, so they can be spent on EITHER gates, a sediment capture pilot project, or sediment removal.
Lake Houston has four small floodgates only capable of releasing 1/15 the rate of Lake Conroe’s gates. New gates would go in the earthen embankment to the right of the old gates and spillway.

Funding Now Close to Expected Costs

According to Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, Black & Veatch Engineering estimates the cost of an 11-gate structure to be between $125 and $225 million.

Balancing that on the income side of the ledger are:

  • The remaining Federal funds of the $50 million provided by FEMA early on for engineering, environmental surveys, permits and construction. So far the City has reportedly spent about $5 million on upfront work.
  • An $8 million earmark by US Congressman Dan Crenshaw.
  • $20 million in County funds allocated in the 2018 Flood Bond (Project CI-61).
  • $11 million from the City of Houston in capital-improvement-project (CIP) funds.
  • The possibility of additional CIP funds from this year’s budget.
  • $50 million from 17.38 (a)(1) above
  • Up to another $50 million in State funds left over from a TWDB 2021 allocation in 17.38 (b)(1)(2)(3)
  • Redeployment of some FEMA dredging funds left over from the Mouth Bar Project.

That puts available funding somewhere north of $170 million. Martin says that should be enough to lock in the original FEMA funding and get the project started.

Redeployment of Funds Important

Congressman Crenshaw’s office emphasized that even though some FEMA money will be redeployed from dredging the mouth bar, additional FEMA funds from another FEMA grant will let dredging around the lake continue.

Re: 17.38 (b) above (that second bucket of $50 million in funding from the state) Martin points out that it includes two other important projects: dredging and the sediment trap pilot study. However:

  • The pilot study should not be very expensive and has no firm deadline.
  • Congressman Dan Crenshaw has helped secure additional funding for dredging from a second FEMA grant.

Finally, Martin points out that Black & Veatch is examining options to scale back the number of gates in case construction costs exceed funding if something falls through.

Enough Funding Committed to Move Forward with Confidence

While some uncertainty remains, Martin says the key point is that enough money has now been committed to move forward with confidence. This is a huge improvement over where the project stood just 8 days ago when concerned residents launched a call-in campaign to influential senators and representatives.

Lake Houston Area residents placed thousands of calls to save the project. Two days later, funding was placed in Bonnen’s rider. Martin thanks “ALL who placed phone calls, sent text messages and emailed state officials in support of our gates project.”

Thank you’s also go to all those who played key roles in this up-against-the-center-field wall catch:

  • State Senator Brandon Creighton
  • State Representative Charles Cunningham
  • Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
  • State Representative Armando Walle
  • State Senator Joan Huffman
  • House Speaker Dade Phelan
  • House Appropriations Chairman Greg Bonnen
  • Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
  • US Representative Dan Crenshaw and Kaaren Cambio, his District Director

Several others deserve special thanks:

  • Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin worked the phones relentlessly and made countless trips to Austin to raise awareness of the project and coordinate the area’s efforts.
  • City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello convinced FEMA to include social benefits in the cost/benefit ratio (CBR). That raised the CBR to 3.5, making it the highest-rated project in the State of Texas.
  • City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who called in some favors among Austin influentials to make the project happen.
  • Former State Representative Dan Huberty and Ben Melson, a CoH lobbyist, lobbied extensively over the last few months, working with Martin, Costello and Bill Kelly, the City’s Director of Government Affairs.

Reason More Gates Needed

Additional gates will let the City lower lake water faster as large storms approach, thus reducing flood peaks both upstream and down. That will, in turn, reduce flood risk for thousands of homeowners and businesses, not to mention all the schools that flooded.

But lowering the lake level carries some risk. If it takes too long to lower the lake, storms can veer away before they arrive, wasting water. Narrowing the window between release and the storm’s arrival, raises certainty that the storm will refill the lake.

More gates will also help balance releases from Lake Conroe with those from Lake Houston.

Next Steps

It ain’t over till it’s over. But even though only days are left in this session, Chairman Bonnen’s office said, “The legislature has never failed to pass an appropriations bill.”

More news as the project evolves.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/25/2023

2095 Days since Hurricane Harvey