Looking back at 2023

Year in Review: Looking Back at 2023

Looking back at 2023, we got lucky. A lack of extreme rainfall masked a slowdown of flood-mitigation spending and massive clearcutting of wetlands and floodplains. Had we been hit by a hurricane instead of a drought, who knows what would have happened.

Have we lost our sense of urgency about flood mitigation? Did the drought lull us into complacency? If so, will that contribute to future flooding? Let’s look more closely at what did and didn’t happen in 2023.

No Widespread Flooding or Flood Damage

To my knowledge, no floods caused widespread damage in the Houston area this year. That’s a tribute to three things: past flood-mitigation efforts, drought, and the absence of tropical activity.

At the end of the third quarter, HCFCD and its partners had spent almost $3.8 billion on flood mitigation since 2000 and $1.8 billion since Harvey. That has helped reduce the risk of flooding – especially in lower-income watersheds that frequently flooded. That’s where most of flood-mitigation money has been concentrated.

But flood-mitigation spending alone didn’t account for the absence of wide scale flooding in the Houston area in 2023. Mother Nature “helped,” if you can call a drought helpful.

Much of the Houston region suffered through moderate to severe drought for most of 2023. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Harris County is still rated “abnormally dry.” And most surrounding counties are still in moderate drought.

Source: U.S. Drought Monitor at end of 2023

How much rain did we get? Through December 29, we received 41.75 inches – 10 inches below our normal 51.73 inches. So, despite recent rains, we received 20% less than normal for the year.

Source: National Weather Service

Finally, no tropical storms or hurricanes made landfall in the Houston Area this year. Despite an above-normal tropical season, the return of El Niño, and warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf, Mother Nature steered tropical activity away from Houston.

Slowdown in Flood-Mitigation Spending

Drier-than-normal weather for most of the year created ideal conditions for construction of flood-mitigation projects. However, flood-mitigation spending fell to about half its peak during 2020.

HCFCD and Partner spending by watershed
Source: HCFCD Data from FOIA Request through 3Q2023 with fourth quarter estimated.

Harris County Flood Control District provided no official explanation for the slowdown. However, various people familiar with HCFCD operations have cited:

The urgency that fueled flood mitigation after Harvey seems to have waned over time.

Availability of cash is not the problem. HCFCD received:

  • $2.5 billion from the 2018 flood bond.
  • $850 million from the Texas General Land Office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That brought the total contributions by partners up to another $2.5 billion. Yet HCFCD has spent only about a third of that money – $1.8 billion out of $5 billion total.

Projects at Risk

In the meantime, 15-20% inflation in construction costs could force HCFCD to eliminate $1 billion worth of projects from the original bond list. And projects at the end of the equity priority list in affluent areas are the most likely to get the axe. HCFCD is re-evaluating them all.

Every day no work is being done is a day wasted. And a day that people have to live with higher flood risk.

Relentless Development in Floodplains and Wetlands

Meanwhile, the clearing of land in the upper San Jacinto River Basin has not slowed. Developers cleared thousands of acres in 2023.

We saw how dangerous that could be after Perry Homes cleared 268 acres in Woodridge Village without building sufficient stormwater detention capabilities. Areas downstream in Kingwood’s Elm Grove Village that didn’t flood after 50 inches of rain from Harvey in 2017 flooded after a 5-inch rain on May 7, 2019.

The giant Colony Ridge development in Liberty County virtually doubled in size during the last two years. By the end of 2023, it was at least 50% bigger than Manhattan. The developers:

I took the following six shots over Colony Ridge in 2023. They show small portions of the developer’s clearing activity, but represent hundreds of other shots too numerous to include here.

Some call this progress. But Colony Ridge is now the subject of a Federal lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Other Developments Leave Land Exposed to Erosion

Colony Ridge isn’t the only development in the Lake Houston Area that leaves land exposed to erosion. Here are several others.

Los Pinos
Los Pinos photographed in March 2023. First part of a planned 4,000 acre development.
Royal Pines in Porter on White Oak Creek flooded neighbors four times in two months.
Northpark South at McClellan Sorters Road (bottom L to R) at Northpark Drive (Center) was under 8 feet of water during Harvey. It contained wetlands and will drain through sand mines to the San Jacinto West Fork in the background.

Saint Tropez in Huffman at FM2100 and Meyer Road.

Madera will eliminate wetlands but claims it will have no adverse impact.
Madera at FM1314 and SH242 will eliminate wetlands but claims it will have no adverse impact. Photographed Jan. 2022.
Evergreen near SH242 and FM1314.

I could cite dozens of additional examples like these. When rains wash through these sites, they pick up sediment and carry it downstream.

Sediment Deposition

Eroded sediment from these clearing operations washes downstream. It drops out of suspension where the water slows as it reaches Lake Houston.

Where Spring Creek (left) joins San Jacinto West Fork (right) at the Harris Montgomery County line. Photographed from over I-69 looking west.

The result: sand bars that reduce the conveyance of the river, forcing water out of the banks and into people’s homes.

Sand bar on West Fork of the San Jacinto at Lake Houston after Harvey reduced river’s conveyance. Army Corps dredged the blockage after thousands of homes and businesses flooded upstream during Harvey.

Good News, Bad News

The good news: many blockages like the one above have been removed through dredging by the Army Corps and City.

The bad news: Many boaters have written in the last few months, complaining about how shallow the rivers are once again becoming due to unchecked sedimentation.

While I am ecstatic about another year without a flood, I hope we do not become complacent about preventing activities that contribute to flooding.

We need to establish and enforce best management practices that reduce sedimentation that clogs our rivers.

Flood Gate Project Goes Into 2024 with Momentum

So as not to finish the year on a down note, I would like to mention the project to add more flood gates to the Lake Houston dam.

In 2023, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recover Officer Stephen Costello accomplished an extraordinary “lift.” They convinced FEMA to include social benefits in their Benefit/Cost Ratio calculation. This helped them achieve a benefit/cost ratio greater than one, meaning benefits exceeded costs for the gates.

Then, they rallied local, state, and federal officials to fund the project so it could move forward. While $20 million of the $170+ million for the project comes from the 2018 flood bond, it will be hard for certain Harris County Commissioners to block it now that everyone else has done their parts.

As a result, the project goes into 2024 with some momentum and a new mayor who is sensitive to flooding concerns in the Lake Houston Area.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/31/23

2315 Days since Hurricane Harvey