Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) flood-mitigation spending finished down for the third year in a row last year. Spending for all four quarters totaled $243.1 million, a little more than half of its peak in 2020.
Spending for 2023 was 56% of its 20-year peak in 2020 at $433 million. Here are the exact amounts spent by HCFCD year by year since 2000.
Possible Reasons for Slowdown
HCFCD flood-mitigation spending increased each quarter last year, but the total wasn’t enough to prevent another annual decline.
HCFCD watchers have conjectured about possible reasons for the slowdown. They include:
- The departures of key executives who sold the 2018 flood bond
- Other personnel turnover
- Departmental reorganization
- A new layer of management in the form of a county administrator’s office and turnover in it.
- A focus on planning how to spend $850 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds administered by the Texas General Land Office (GLO)
- Loss of experience in related county departments, such as IT, that provide support to HCFCD.
Bond Fully Funded, But Inflation Taking Toll
Despite the slowdown, there was some very good news last year. During 2023, thanks to those HUD funds, the 2018 flood bond became fully funded.
The original bond contained approximately $5 billion in projects. But voters approved only $2.5 billion. The ambitious project list associated with the bond contained a bet that HCFCD could raise as much money from partners as it did from voters. And last year, the District did just that. Partner commitments now exceed another $2.5 billion.
Now, HCFCD must spend the money before inflation steals it away. Inflation has already reduced the purchasing power of bond funds by 15-20% in the last four years. Twenty percent of a $5 billion, is another billion that the grant writers must raise just to stay even.
Where is Money Going? Will There Be Enough to Finish All Projects?
That raises two questions, “Where is the money going?” It certainly isn’t going proportionally to all watersheds or precincts.
The four graphs and tables below show where the flood-bond money and partner money has gone since Harvey and during the last quarter.
County-wide projects include such things as planning, MAAPnext, subdivision drainage projects and preliminary planning for flood tunnels (see Z-level projects at end of list).
Note that “Since Harvey” includes a year’s worth of spending not in the flood bond. Voters passed the bond on the first anniversary of Harvey. The District spent $172 million during that year. So the actual amount of bond/partner funds spent to date should total a bit over $1.8 billion.
Q4 2023 Spending Shows Shifts in Some Spending Priorities
Compare those figures with the last quarter of 2023 to see how priorities have or haven’t changed.
By comparing this bar chart with the one immediately above, we can see that relative spending in the San Jacinto watershed has remained consistent if dismal. The county’s largest watershed ranked 14th since Harvey and 13th last quarter.
Other noteworthy observations:
Brays Bayou spending dropped to fourth place from its perennial spot atop the pyramid. Most projects in Project Brays are now completed.
Willow Creek dropped from eighth place to last.
Sims Bayou jumped from 12th place to 6th.
Spending in the Little Cypress Creek watershed jumped to first place from fifth…even outpacing county-wide spending. That may be related to engineering for several large land purchases made earlier in the bond for the Harris County Frontier Program. The Frontier Program buys land in optimal locations in developing watersheds for flood-mitigation projects, such as detention basins. Then it leases capacity back to developers.
And four watersheds of Harris County’s 23 watersheds received less than $100,000 last quarter.
The difference in spending between the high and low watersheds last quarter was more than 500 to 1!
I need more time to dig into these numbers. Look for additional analysis in the days to come.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/22/2024
2337 Days since Hurricane Harvey
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