After 4 Years, No Recommendations from River Basin Master Drainage Plan in Design Yet

After four years, not one of the recommendations from the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Plan is in design yet.

In the summer of 2020, Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, Montgomery County, and the San Jacinto River Authority released a massive study on how to address flooding in the upper San Jacinto River Basin. But four years later, not one of the 16 main recommendations has been constructed. In fact, none are even in design yet, according to one source I talked to for this post.

Cost, political willpower, eminent-domain issues, and jurisdictional boundaries seem to have torpedoed any progress.

Major Recommendations in Plan

The 3,600 page study contained 16 main recommendations.

Here’s where they are.

However, Matt Barrett, PE, the SJRA’s Flood Management Division Director, says, “No construction has started on any of the major project recommendations (detention and channelization projects).” 

Another source familiar with the plan complained that none are even in design yet. That source also cited unfavorable cost benefit ratios.

Expected Benefits of Plan

If built, these projects could make a real difference for people throughout Montgomery County and northern Harris County.

The following table shows how much the water surface elevation could be reduced in a 100-year storm at a number of locations if the recommendations were implemented.

From Page 27 of Executive Summary

Cost Issue

The 2020 study estimated that building all these projects could cost up to $3.3 billion. They would cost more today. We’ve had 20% inflation since then.

The total in today’s dollars could easily approach $4 billion. That’s a pretty major ask for taxpayers.

But the 2018 Harris County Flood Bond (approved before the study) included only $18.75 million dollars for “Funding for Future Partnership Projects Based on Results of Study – for Right-of-Way Acquisition, Design, and Construction of General Drainage Improvements in San Jacinto River Watershed Study.” See Project C-50.

Political Willpower

Funding for the gap will not come from any of the study sponsors.

Harris County Commissioners Court has prioritized “equity” projects in low-to-moderate income areas inside the Beltway. Some have even declared they will never vote for spending money outside of Harris County.

Most of the projects are outside the City of Houston and its extra-territorial jurisdiction.

The San Jacinto River Authority doesn’t have an income stream to fund the improvements.

And most Montgomery County Commissioners don’t see flooding as their most pressing problem.

Understandably, no one has seized the reins for these projects. Even if physically feasible, they don’t seem politically feasible at this point.

Eminent Domain and Jurisdictional Boundaries

Worse, 10 of the 16 projects are large stormwater detention areas that would likely require invoking eminent domain. That’s always politically dicey for politicians. Especially when the major benefits would accrue to downstream residents outside of their precincts – and even outside of their own county.

Better Lake Conroe Management Not Enough

As this multi-million study has been consigned to dusty bookshelves, flood-weary residents have increasingly pinned their hopes on better management of the Lake Conroe dam.

Seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe has morphed into “Active Storm Management,” a compromise between upstream and downstream interests on the San Jacinto West Fork. Instead of lowering the lake for set amounts for set periods of time each year, dam operators are now trying to lower it temporarily on the fly in advance of approaching storms. But that presents its own set of problems.

It also doesn’t affect water funneling in from other watersheds. The Lake Conroe watershed comprises only 13% of the Lake Houston watershed. That means rain falling over 87% of the area upstream from Lake Houston has nothing to slow it down.

Lake Houston Gates Not Enough Either

Farther downstream, the City of Houston has been designing new gates for the Lake Houston Dam. They will help lower floods in the Lake Houston Area somewhat. But they won’t help people upstream. And they have run into one problem after another.

For instance, the City could not find any contractors willing to bid on the recommended alternative – building crest gates on the 70-year old spillway. It was just too risky. So, the City is now redesigning the entire project.

Just three years ago, the project was scheduled for completion this summer. But the timetable has been delayed at least another four years.

Time to Reboot the Master Drainage Plan: But How?

So what can we do to refocus attention and gain momentum behind the projects in the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Plan?

In my opinion, we need to see the state take over execution of the plan. There are just too many conflicting interests at the local level.

We need to make one person/entity responsible for executing the plan.

Bob Rehak

The logical choice would be someone at the Texas Water Development Board. It’s assembling a state flood plan that includes the San Jacinto River Basin.

So how do we make that happen? We need to engage our state leaders.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/26/24

2493 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.