When I say “dig a little deeper” to improve flood mitigation, I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.
On September 17, 2023, Jim Blackburn, a lawyer and professor of environmental law in the Rice University engineering department, published an article in the Houston Chronicle. He titled it, “What Houston’s next mayor needs to do about flooding.”
Both Prof. Blackburn and the Chronicle labeled the article “opinion.” That’s fortunate because in some areas, Blackburn made assertions contradicted by facts. In most other areas, he made high-level recommendations without any specifics.
For example, among other things, Prof. Blackburn argues that Houston’s next mayor should:
- Build more mitigation projects for Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds, which he says haven’t received their fair share.
- Address climate change with better planning and engineering tools.
- Speed up buyouts.
Let’s examine each and why we all need to dig a little deeper if we want to improve flood mitigation.
Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds
Both Halls and Greens watersheds HAVE received mitigation projects. Many. And more than their fair share. You can see it in spending data and on the ground. However, Harris County Flood Control District has delivered the projects, not the City of Houston.
HCFCD and its partners have spent more than $390 million on Greens and Halls mitigation improvements since 2000. Greens has received more dollars than any other watershed except Brays (where Rice is). And tiny Halls ranks third in dollars per capita among all watersheds.
Professor Blackburn and his graduate students need to dig a little deeper. They should get out more and smell the construction dust. For example, here is a new Halls Bayou detention basin, one of many built in the watershed during the last 10 years.
Then, there’s this new detention basin along Greens Bayou at Cutten Road under construction in 2021. Again, it’s one of at least a half dozen built in the last ten years along Greens.
I compile flood-mitigation funding by watershed through quarterly FOIA requests. I also cross-check the data by photographing construction from the air.
Photos such as those above support the spending reported below. However, neither the photos nor the spending data fit the current, popular political narrative about “historical disinvestment” in low-income minority neighborhoods.
Of the top five watersheds above, four have a majority of low-to-moderate income residents; only Cypress Creek does not. Those five watersheds have received 60% of all funding going back to 2000, compared to 40% for the other 18 watersheds put together.
From high to low in the graph above, spending varies by 130X. Such data shows that many watersheds have been historically deprived – in the name of “equity.” But those deprived tend to be on the more affluent end of the spectrum.
Address Climate Change with Better Planning and Engineering Tools
Next, Professor Blackburn wants to address climate change with better planning and engineering tools. It’s hard to see what more the next Mayor of Houston could do in this regard.
Professor Blackburn asserts that we need to “understand our changed rainfall patterns and integrate that knowledge into every aspect of the City’s thinking.”
Since Harvey, the City has already adopted NOAA’s new Atlas-14 rainfall-probability statistics and incorporated them into its regulations. So, design professionals are already working on new, updated assumptions.
Plus, NOAA is currently working on Atlas 15 which predicts future impacts of climate change. But NOAA won’t release those stats until 2027 at the earliest – after the next mayoral election.
Professor Blackburn, a reputed expert, doesn’t define how climate is changing, but asserts that professionals should consider the changing patterns. He believes they should engineer “streets, sewage treatment plants, underground and above-ground stormwater systems, floodplains and general drainage flow patterns” with the unspecified climate patterns in mind.
It’s hard to argue against progress. But the real issue, in my opinion, is that leaders in many surrounding cities and counties have not yet uniformly adopted NOAA’s Atlas 14 standards. Perhaps the next Mayor could jawbone them into sending less water downstream.
The Mayor could also discourage large increases in impervious cover under proposed programs such as the Houston Planning Commission’s so-called Livable Places. Livable Places would disproportionately increase flood risk for low-income and minority neighborhoods because of the program’s linkage to mass transit.
Speed Up Buyouts
Blackburn believes that buyouts should happen faster after a flood – before people rebuild. Most people agree that the process needs streamlining. But how?
Experts have proposed multiple improvements. However, none has gained traction across the board with local, State, and Federal lawmakers.
For instance, after Harvey, Harris County Flood Control executives pitched plans in Austin for a QBF (Quick Buyout Force). Instead of waiting for:
- The President to declare a disaster
- Congress to vote funds
- FEMA to design rules for disaster relief
- The State to adopt them
- Local agencies to identify eligible recipients and solicit applications
- Local, State and Federal authorities to review and approve the applications, and
- Money to flow through the pipeline…
…HCFCD argued for pre-approval of guidelines and to have a pot of funds available before disaster strikes, kind of like a savings account for a rainy day. Money could then be used immediately. Local agencies would later reimburse the Federal government for money they didn’t use.
Houston’s next Mayor could throw his/her influence behind such a plan or a suitable alternative.
Unfortunately, Prof. Blackburn doesn’t recommend a plan. Nor does he dissect each issue and give us the benefit of his wisdom. With all the brainpower and resources at his disposal, he could make a genuine contribution to the community. Perhaps his future opinion pieces will elucidate how we should improve beyond simply preparing for the future.
Collectively, we all need to dig a little deeper to improve flood mitigation. We need to start with facts and get down to specifics.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/27/2023
2220 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.