Harvey: A 5-Year Flood-Mitigation Report Card

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. Many in the Lake Houston Area have asked, “Are we safer now?” The answer is yes, but we have a long way to go to achieve all our goals. Here’s a five-year flood-mitigation report card. It describes what we have and haven’t accomplished in 29 areas. So get ready for a roller coaster ride. I’ll leave the letter grades to you.

Lake Houston Area Mitigation

1) Dredging

The most visible accomplishment in the Lake Houston Area since Harvey is dredging. The City and Army Corps removed approximately 4 million cubic yards of sediment blocking the West and East Forks. Before dredging, River Grove Park flooded six times in two months. Since dredging, it hasn’t flooded once to my knowledge.

west fork mouth bar before dredging
West Fork mouth bar after Harvey and before dredging. Now gone, but not forgotten.

State Representative Dan Huberty secured additional funding during the last legislature to continue maintenance dredging. That includes clearing drainage canal outfalls into the lake, such as the entrance to Rogers Gully. The dredging operation is now moving around the lake, according to the City’s District E office.

2) Adding Floodgates

Engineers keep looking for a cost-effective alternative. They first identified 11 options in a preliminary review. They then studied the most promising – spillway crest gates – in more detail. Now they’re looking at tainter gates in the earthen portion of the dam. In case the Benefit/Cost Ratio still doesn’t meet FEMA requirements for moving forward with construction, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin is also exploring additional funding sources. But so far, no construction has started on additional gates. Martin hopes to reveal a recommendation in September.

Lake Houston Dam, area for new gates
Potential location for new tainter gates east of the spillway portion of the dam (out of frame to the right.
3) Upstream Detention

To reduce the amount of water coming inbound during storms, the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study identified 16 potential areas for building large stormwater detention basins. Unfortunately, they had a combined cost of $3.3 billion and would only reduce damages by about a quarter of that.

So, the SJRA recommended additional study on the two with the highest Benefit/Cost Ratio. Their hope: to reduce costs further. The two are on Birch and Walnut Creeks, two tributaries of Spring Creek near Waller County. Expect a draft report in February next year.

Funding these would likely require State assistance. But the Texas Water Development Board’s San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group has just recently submitted its first draft report. The draft also recommended looking at detention basin projects on West Fork/Lake Creek, East Fork/Winters Bayou, and East Fork/Peach Creek.

Building them all could hold back a foot of stormwater falling across 337 square miles. But funds would still need to be approved over several years. We’re still a long way off. Results – on the ground – could take years if not decades.

4) “Benching”

The Regional Flood Planning Group also recommended something called “benching” in two places along 5 miles of the West Fork. In flood mitigation, benching entails shaving down a floodplain to create extra floodwater storage capacity. Like the detention basins, benching is still a long way off…if it happens at all.

5) West Fork Channel Widening

Finally, the Regional Flood Planning Group recommended widening 5.7 miles of the West Fork to create more conveyance. But again, at this point it’s just a recommendation in a draft plan.

San Jacinto River Authority

6) SJRA Board Composition

After Harvey, many downstream residents accused SJRA of flooding downstream areas to save homes around Lake Conroe. At the time, SJRA’s board had no residents from the Humble/Kingwood Area. So Governor Abbott appointed two: Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti. Cambio later resigned due to a potential conflict of interest when she took a job with Congressman Dan Crenshaw. That leaves Micheletti as the lone Humble/Kingwood Area resident on a seven-person board. However, the SJRA points out that the Board’s current president, Ronnie Anderson, represents Chambers County, which is also downstream.

State Representative Will Metcalf, who represents the Lake Conroe area, introduced a bill to limit SJRA board membership to upstream residents. Luckily for downstream residents, it failed.

7) Lake Conroe Lowering

SJRA identified temporary, seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe as a strategy to reduce downstream flood risk until completion of dredging and gates projects in the Lake Houston Area. The lowering creates extra storage in the lake during peak rainy seasons. After SJRA implemented the plan, Lake Conroe residents objected to the inconvenience. They sued SJRA and the City, but lost. After discussion with all stakeholders, the SJRA quietly modified its plan. It still lowers the lake, but not as much.

8) Lowering Lake Houston

Houston also started lowering Lake Houston, not seasonally, but in advance of major storms. The City has lowered the lake more than 20 times since beginning the program. That has helped to avoid much potential flooding to date.

9) Lake Conroe Dam Management

SJRA applied for and received several TWDB grants to enhance flood mitigation and communications in the San Jacinto River Basin. One involves developing a Lake Conroe Reservoir Forecasting Tool. SJRA has also worked with San Jacinto County to develop a Flood Early Warning System.

Finally, SJRA’s Lake Conroe/Lake Houston Joint Reservoir Operations Plan is on hold pending completion of the City’s plan to add more gates to the Lake Houston dam. Such projects may help reduce the risk of releasing unnecessarily large volumes of water in the future.

Coordination between Lake Conroe and Lake Houston has already improved. You can see it in the SJRA’s new dashboard. It shows releases requested by the City of Houston to lower Lake Conroe.

10) Sediment Reduction

Huge sediment buildups in the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto clearly contributed to flooding. The Army Corps stated that the West Fork was 90% blocked near River Grove Park. To reduce future dredging costs, SJRA also studied the use of sediment traps. SJRA may implement a pilot study soon on the West Fork near the Hallett mine.

However, the location is controversial. Geologists say it wouldn’t reduce sediment in the area of greatest damage. Environmentalists worry that it could increase sedimentation through a “hungry-water” effect and open the door to river mining. And I worry that, even if successful, the pilot study would not be extendable. That’s because it relies on partnerships with sand miners. And other tributaries to Lake Houston do not have sand mines or as many sand mines.

Sand bar blocking West Fork after Harvey. The Corps has since removed it.

Federal Funding

It’s hard to get good grades on your flood mitigation report card without funding.

11-18) Appropriations

In March this year, Congressman Dan Crenshaw secured appropriations that should help advance projects in the San Jacinto Basin. They included:

  • $1.6 million for HCFCD for Taylor Gully  stormwater channel improvement. 
  • $1.6 million for HCFCD for Kingwood  Diversion Channel improvement. 
  • $1.67 million for Harris County for the Forest Manor drainage  improvement project in Huffman.
  • $8.2 million from FEMA the Westador Basin stormwater detention project on Cypress Creek.  
  • $9.9 million from FEMA for the TC Jester storm water detention basin on Cypress Creek.

Crenshaw also has backed community requests for more funding in Fiscal 23. They include:

  • $8 million for the Lake Houston Dam Spillway (Gates).
  • $10 million for the Woodridge Stormwater Detention Basin (see below).
  • $10 million for a Cedar Bayou Stormwater Detention Basin.

Harris County Flood Control

19) Channel Maintenance and Repair

Harris County Flood Control has already completed several maintenance projects in the Lake Houston Area. In Kingwood, those projects include Taylor Gully, Ben’s Branch, parts of the Diversion Ditch and other unnamed ditches. In Atascocita, HCFCD also completed a project on Rogers Gully. Upstream, HCFCD is working on the third round of repairs to Cypress Creek. Batch 3 includes work at 12 sites on 11 channel sections. I’m sure the District has maintenance projects in other areas, too. I just can’t name them all.

Bens Branch
Bens Branch near Kingwood High School after sediment removal.
20) Woodridge Stormwater Detention Basin Expansion

In 2019, uncontrolled stormwater from the Woodridge Village development twice flooded approximately 600 homes in Elm Grove Village and North Kingwood Forest. HCFCD and the City purchased Woodridge from Perry Homes last year. HCFCD soon thereafter started removing sediment from the site to create a sixth stormwater detention basin that would more than double capacity on the site. At the end of last month, contractors had removed approximately 50,000 cubic yards out of 500,000 in the contract. This gives HCFCD a head start on excavation while engineers complete the basin’s final design.

21) Local Drainage Study Implementation

HCFCD authorized four studies of the drainage needs in the Lake Houston Area. They completed the Huffman and Kingwood studies. Atascocita and East Lake Houston/Crosby started earlier this year and are still underway.

The Kingwood study measured levels of service in all channels and outlined strategies to improve them to the 100-year level. The first two projects recommended: Taylor Gully and the Kingwood Diversion Ditch. Neither has started construction yet. But see the notes under funding above.

The Huffman Study recommended improvements to FM2100, which TxDOT will handle. It also recommended dredging in the East Fork near Luce Bayou which the City has completed. Finally, it recommended a bypass channel for Luce. However, pushback from residents forced cancellation of that project.

22) Buyouts

HCFCD completed buyouts of 80+ townhomes on Timberline and Marina Drives in Forest Cove last month. Contractors demolished the final run-down complex in August. That should improve property values in Forest Cove.

forest cove townhome demolition
Completion of demolition of one of the last Forest Cove Townhome Complexes in July 2022.
23) Regulation Harmonization

Harris County Flood Control and Engineering have been working to get municipalities and other counties throughout the region to adopt certain minimum drainage regulations. I discussed the importance of uniformly high standards in last night’s post. So far, about a third of the governments have upgraded their regs. A third are still deciding whether to act. And the remainder have taken no action. There has been little movement in the last six months.

City of Houston

As mentioned above, the City has taken a lead role in dredging, adding gates to Lake Houston, and proactive lake lowering. In addition, the City has helped with:

24) Bridge Underpass Clean-Out

The City of Houston successfully cleaned out ditches under Kingwood Drive and North Park Drive in at least six places. Bridges represent a major choke point during floods. So eliminating sediment buildups helps reduce flood risk in areas that previously flooded.

City excavation crews working to remove sediment on Bens Branch under Kingwood Drive
Excavation of Bens Branch under Kingwood Drive by City crews.
25) Storm Sewer Inspections, Clean-Out, Repairs

The City has inspected storm sewers throughout Kingwood and cleaned those that had become clogged. It also repaired sinkholes and outfalls that had become damaged.

Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District

The lowest score on the flood-mitigation report card probably goes to LSGCD.

26) Subsidence

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has started pumping groundwater again at an alarming rate. Projected subsidence near the Montgomery County Border equals 3.25 feet, but only 1 foot at the Lake Houston dam. That could eventually tilt the lake back toward the Humble/Kingwood/Huffman area and reduce the margin of safety in flooding. That’s bad news.

Sand Mining Regulations

Twenty square miles of West Fork sand mines immediately upstream from I-69 have exposed a swath of floodplain once covered by trees to heavy erosion during floods. Mathematically, the potential for erosion increased 33X compared to the normal width of the river. Sand mines were also frequently observed releasing sediment into the river. And the dikes around the mines often wash out.

So in 2019, the Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative (LHAGFPI) began meeting with legislators, regulators and the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association (TACA). The goal: to establish comprehensive Best Management Practices (BMPs) for the sand mining industry in the San Jacinto River Basin. 

27) Mine Plan/Stabilization Reports Now Required

TCEQ adopted new regulations, effective January 6, 2022.  They required miners to file a ‘Mine Plan’ by July 6, 2022 and also a ‘Final Stabilization Report’ when a mine is played out.

28) Vegetated Buffer Zones (Setbacks)

The new regs also stipulate undisturbed vegetative buffer zones around new mines. Buffer zones aid in sediment filtration and removal by slowing surface water. They also strengthen dikes.

The new regs require a minimum 100-foot vegetated buffer zone adjacent to perennial streams greater than 20 feet in width. However, for streams less than 20 feet wide, the buffer zone is only 50 feet for perennial streams, and 35 feet for intermittent streams.

29) Reclamation Bonds

Unfortunately, the Flood Prevention Initiative could not convince TCEQ to require ‘reclamation bonds.’ Other states use such bonds to prevent miners from abandoning mines without taking steps to reduce future erosion, such as planting vegetation.  

My apologies to any projects or parties I omitted. Now it’s your turn. Give grades to those you think have done the best job on YOUR Harvey flood-mitigation report card.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/26/22

1823 Days since Hurricane Harvey and one day from Harvey’s Fifth Anniversary

Case Finally Closed on Lake Conroe Association Lawsuit against City, SJRA

In April, 2021, a Montgomery County District Court dismissed the Lake Conroe Association’s lawsuit against the City of Houston for its Lake Lowering Policy. In August 2021, the court dismissed the same case against the SJRA with prejudice. The Lake Conroe Association (LCA) and several Lake Conroe residents appealed the decisions.

Then on April 20, 2022, LCA and the other appellants asked that the Court dismiss their appeal. Neither the City, nor SJRA, opposed the motion. Three judges of the Ninth District Court of Appeals in Beaumont then unanimously dismissed the appeal. Case closed.

“Takings” Claim Disputed

Lake Conroe Association contended that the SJRA’s lake lowering policy amounted to a “taking” of residents’ property.

The City of Houston and SJRA contended that the water at issue did not belong to lakefront homeowners. It belonged to the State of Texas and the City. Therefore, the Lake Conroe Association had no basis for a “takings” claim.

Sources close to the process said that before the matter was heard on appeal, the LCA realized it would never win. So its leaders decided to drop the case and avoid more legal fees.

Clearing the Way for Lake-Lowering Policy to Remain in Effect

This clears the way for the SJRA’s seasonal lake lowering policy to remain in effect during construction of additional floodgates on the Lake Houston Dam. The policy helps ensure that extra “storage capacity” (parking space for water) remains in Lake Conroe during the rainiest months in spring and the peak of hurricane season.

This reduces chances of another devastating release that floods downstream residents during a major storm, such as Hurricane Harvey. The SJRA released 79,000 cubic feet per second during Harvey, one third of all the water coming down the West Fork between Humble and Kingwood.

However, as time went by, Lake Conroe residents became upset with the policy. That led to a contentious confrontation between upstream and downstream residents, as well as the lawsuit.

2022 Version of Lake-Lowering Policy is a Compromise

Over time, the SJRA has reduced the amount of lowering in its policy. Currently, the spring lowering is one-half foot below 201 during April and May, the level of the conservation pool in the lake. Originally, it was one full foot below 201. Most people call that the “normal” level. However, the mean level of Lake Conroe is below that about two-thirds of the time. (See last table below.)

Current Lake Conroe Level

Evaporation and low rainfall currently have Lake Conroe at 200.8, or about 3 inches above the new seasonal target level and 3 inches below the conservation pool.

Currently Lake Conroe’s level is at 200.8 feet and the City of Houston (COH) has not called to lower the lake further.

A close reading of the policy reveals that for the lake lowering to begin, the City of Houston must call for the water.

Below-Average Rainfall Has Delayed Need for Spring Release

However, below-average rainfall for the last two months has delayed the need for a spring release from Lake Conroe this year. Much of the state is now in drought.

Montgomery and northern Harris Counties are currently rated as “abnormally dry.” Southern Harris, Fort Bend and Waller Counties all have “moderate drought.”

Jace Houston, general manager of the SJRA, said, “We haven’t had a big rain in a long time and there’s no significant rain in the foreseeable future. The feeling is that evaporation will soon take the lake down to the target level. The City of Houston must initiate the lowering. If we get a lot of rain, we’ll start releasing again.”

Time for Healing

In addition to reducing the spring lake lowering, the 2022 policy lowers Lake Conroe to 200.5 in August and 200 in September – both a half foot higher than the original policy.

Hopefully, this compromise will help upstream and downstream residents live together now that the lawsuit has been dismissed. It’s time for some healing.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/22/2022

1697 Days since Hurricane Harvey

MoCo Judge Dismisses Lake Conroe Association Lawsuit Against SJRA With Prejudice

Judge Michael Mayes of the 284th Judicial District Court in Montgomery County filed an order today dismissing the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) lawsuit against the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA). But the most significant part of the dismissal was the way he did it.

Judge Mays dismissed the case WITH PREJUDICE FOR WANT OF JURISDICTION.

Meaning of “With Prejudice” and “Want of Jurisdiction”

“With prejudice” means that the plaintiff cannot refile charges in another court. Basically, the court is saying that it found the case meritless. One lawyer told me, “It’s like saying, ‘Don’t waste the court’s time anymore.'”

The massive floodgates on Lake Conroe (above) have 15X the release capacity of Lake Houston’s. The seasonal lake lowering program was conceived in part as a way to give Lake Houston more time to shed water in advance of major storms.

Re: Plea to the Jurisdiction, according to the website Houston Courts and Cases, “In Texas…A plea to the jurisdiction can challenge either the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s pleadings or the existence of jurisdictional facts.”

In April 2021, the Judge dismissed the case against the City of Houston for want of jurisdiction, but the case against the SJRA remained active until today.

The ruling means that the SJRA’s Seasonal Lake Lowering Plan may remain in effect.

Purpose of Lake Lowering Plan

The Seasonal Lake-Lowering Plan was conceived shortly after Harvey as a way to provide an extra measure of flood protection for the Lake Houston Area while it implemented other flood-mitigation measures such as dredging and additional gates for the Lake Houston spillway. By creating extra storage capacity within Lake Conroe during the wettest months of the year, the SJRA hoped to reduce the risk associated with another massive release like the 79,000 cubic feet per second during Harvey. By itself, that was the ninth largest flood in West Fork history.

2800 Pages of Legal Briefs Come to a 102-Word End

The Lake Conroe Association pulled out the stops for this lawsuit. It filed approximately 2800 pages of legal briefs in four months, ran out of money, and started begging with residents to donate more so it could continue the fight. Today’s ruling will put an end to that.

Reality repeatedly contradicted the LCA’s factual claims. LCA claimed:

  • Home values around Lake Conroe would plummet because of the plan. They increased.
  • The school district would run out of money. It didn’t.
  • Nature would not be able to recharge the lake after a lowering. It did. Repeatedly.
  • Lake Conroe was not conceived as a flood-control lake. Flood control is a key element of SJRA’s charter.
  • The lowering would not help protect people in the Lake Houston Area. It did.
  • The City of Houston committed fraud … by calling for the release of its own water.

In contrast to (or maybe because of) the 2800 pages of legal briefs, today’s court order was mercifully brief – 102 words.

“On this 30th day of August, 2021, came on before the Court San Jacinto River Authority’s Plea to the Jurisdiction, and after considering same, all Answers, Responses, Replies, pleadings, stipulations, evidence, affidavits and attachments filed by the parties, all statutory and caselaw authorities, and all arguments relating thereto, the Court was of the opinion that the following Order should be entered; it is therefore ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that San Jacinto River Authority’s Plea to the Jurisdiction be, and it is hereby, GRANTED AND SUSTAINED, and that the above Cause be, and it is hereby, DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE FOR WANT OF JURISDICTION.”

Now a Meaningful Dialog Can Begin

I’m sure this must come as a bitter blow for some residents of Lake Conroe who supported the long court battle. But perhaps some good will come from the clarity that now exists.

Hopefully, this will open the door to reasonable people who wish to craft a long-term joint management plan for both Lake Conroe and Lake Houston. The people of this region are inextricably bound together by the need to balance water and flood control. Perhaps now we can start a meaningful dialog that addresses both.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/30/2021

1162 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Lake Lowering to Start as Peak of Hurricane Season Nears

According to its lake lowering policy adopted last year, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) should start to drop the level of Lake Conroe this weekend.

Text of Lake-Lowering Policy

The lake-lowering policy states:

“Beginning August 1, release only an amount of water from Lake Conroe to create a one foot capacity to catch rainfall and storm runoff (from 201’ msl to 200’ msl). After September 1, increase capacity an additional six inches (from 200’ msl to 199.5’ msl). If a named storm is predicted to impact our region, the COH may initiate an additional release of six inches (to 199’ msl) by notifying SJRA in writing of their call for release. Recapture beginning October 1.”

As of 5PM Friday, 7/30/21, Lake Conroe stood at 200.87 feet. The only release from the lake was the water feeding the SJRA water treatment plant to supply drinking water to area customers (GRP Diversion).

Before the SJRA can lower the lake, however, the City of Houston (COH) must call for the lowering to start. And according to a spokesman in Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin’s office, the City has called for the release to start.

The City owns two thirds of the water in the Lake and the release will come out of the City’s portion. When the numbers in the box labeled “COH diversion” on the SJRA’s dashboard increase, you’ll know the seasonal release has started.

Lake Conroe Association Still Fighting

In the past, releases have been hotly debated. The Lake Conroe Association has sued the City and SJRA in Montgomery County District Court. The litigants have filed 80 documents totaling more than 2800 pages in the last 121 days. That’s more than 23 pages per day! Some of the plaintiff’s arguments border on ridiculous in my opinion.

  • LCA claimed the tax base and property values in Montgomery County would collapse because of the lake lowering. But they’ve gone up.
  • LCA also claimed that Lake Conroe could not refill itself in the summer months. But it has.
  • Finally, LCA alleges fraud when the City calls for the release of its own property.

Isn’t that kind of like a neighbor of a bank alleging fraud when a depositor makes a withdrawal?

To read all the documents yourself, go to the Montgomery County District Clerk’s website.

Judge Mike Mays set a hearing date for Tuesday, August 24, 2021 at 2PM.

Approaching Peak of Hurricane Season

So how is this hurricane season going so far?

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) predicts no tropical activity anywhere in the Atlantic basin for the next five days. That includes the Gulf of Mexico.

However, we’ve already had five named storms this year. And NHC observes…

“In terms of Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), which measures the strength and duration of tropical storms and hurricanes, activity in the basin so far in 2021 is well above average at more than twice the climatological value.”

National Hurricane Center

If history is a guide, the four charts below from the NHC Climatology Page hint at what we can likely expect in the coming months.

We’re about to enter the month where the number of named storms starts to climb most rapidly. Remember, Harvey was an August storm. Source: NHC.

The fact that we only had one named storm in July (Elsa) is not unusual; it’s average. But keep in mind that Elsa was the earliest named “E” storm on record.

This chart shows the distribution of storms throughout the season. The peak happens from mid-August to late October.
Galveston, Harris, Brazoria, and Chambers Counties get the most hurricane strikes in Texas.
Hurricane Strikes in Continental US by State and By Year since 1950

All in all, the Atlantic this time of year is like a casino. You have to play the odds. And that’s what the temporary seasonal lake lowering policy is designed to do – reduce the risk of huge property losses by creating extra capacity in Lake Conroe to help offset heavy rainfall and the need for large releases.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/30/21

1431 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.

Engineers Testifying for LCA are Electrical and Chemical, Not Civil

Yesterday’s post cited the testimony of two “licensed professional engineers” in the State of Texas who claimed that Lake Conroe could not refill from rainfall in the Spring or Fall after being lowered one foot to provide an extra margin of safety, which helps prevent flooding homes on both sides of the dam. However, the lake did refill…and then somewithin two days after the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) filed their affidavits in its lawsuit to prevent the seasonal lowering.

Deeper investigation reveals that neither engineer is a civil engineer. One is an electrical engineer and the other a chemical engineer.

From https://pels.texas.gov/roster/pesearch.html

“The Engineer Shall Not…”

Here’s why it is important. Note Paragraphs A and C below.

From Page 84 of PDF at https://pels.texas.gov/downloads/lawrules.pdf

Paragraph A states that engineers shall practice only in their areas of competence.

Paragraph C states, “The engineer shall not express an engineering opinion in deposition before a court … which is contrary to generally accepted scientific and engineering principles without fully disclosing the basis and rationale for such an opinion.”

There was no such disclosure in their affidavits.

In fairness, the engineers also testified as residents and they had more concerns than flooding.

However, both:

  • Cited their professional credentials at the start of their affidavits – without disclosing their areas of expertise.
  • Drew the same conclusion about the inability of the lake to refill through rainfall – without stating the basis of their conclusions.

Mr. Elliott has retired and his license is inactive. Mr. Waitts’ license is still active.

Background

Only two days after LCA filed the engineers’ affidavits, rainfall raised the lake level two feet above normal, and threatened homes and businesses. SJRA had to release water at almost 10,000 CFS to avoid flooding them.

Seasonal Release from Lake Conroe, 529 cfs from one tainter gate open six inches.
SJRA Seasonal Release on 4/15/2020. One tainter gate open six inches released a slow, steady stream of 529 cfs.

Without the seasonal lake lowering policy, someone on either side of the dam would likely have flooded. Dam operators would have been forced to flip a coin to see who. But the seasonal lowering – about which the chemical and electrical engineers complained – helped protect everyone. No one, to my knowledge, flooded on either side of the dam due to river flooding.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/23/2021

1363 Days after 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.

LCA Claims “Seasonal Lake Lowering Policy Does Not Allow Lake Conroe to Refill Through Rainfall in Spring, Fall”

Never says never. Especially in a lawsuit. It didn’t take long to disprove that claim! Two days after LCA filed the claim on April 28th, the SJRA had to open its gates to keep Lake Conroe homes and businesses from flooding. And they are still releasing water…three weeks later.

SJRA Dashboard as of 6pm Friday night, 5/21/2021. Normal level is 201. Despite near constant releases this month, the lake’s level has remained above average.

This afternoon, I read the third supplement to the petition by the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) in its lawsuit against the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and nearly busted a gut laughing. After a week where we received more than half the rain for the year so far, I needed the comic relief. And got it.

Two licensed professional engineers – with more than 80 years of experience between them – filed affidavits. They claim that the SJRA’s seasonal lake lowering policy “does not allow Lake Conroe to refill through rainfall in the Spring and Fall.” Their claim is repeated over and over again in affidavits by others.

Lake Conroe Association’s Third Supplement to its Original Petition

SJRA Forced to Go Beyond Seasonal Lowering to Avoid Flooding

Twice this month, the SJRA has had to release water from Lake Conroe above and beyond the seasonal lowering policy to prevent flooding. After the May Day event, they released almost 10,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) for several days to keep the homes and businesses around Lake Conroe from flooding.

The boats are in slips, but the docks are underwater. Near Monty’s Lighthouse and Fajita Jacks on Lake Conroe on 5/1/2021, when the water level exceeded 203 feet halfway through the Spring seasonal lowering.

The rains this week have been more spread out, but the SJRA still had to release almost 3,000 CFS most days to reduce flood risk around Lake Conroe.

Engineers rarely deal in absolutes. They deal in extremes and qualify almost everything they say. But these intrepid professionals stepped over the edge on the far side of reality. Mother Nature always gets the last word.

One of Many Exaggerated Claims

The LCA lawsuit seeks to stop the SJRA’s seasonal lake lowering policy. The “refill” claim is just one of many exaggerated claims that LCA has made.

This lawsuit overflows with self-destructive claims and internal contradictions.

Say That Again!

The latest filing claims that the Lake Conroe Association has the authority to speak for all of its members because LCA feels it proved actual or imminent damages to at least one of its members. In logic, they call that “the fallacy of generalization.” I know at least one influential member of LCA who disagrees vehemently with the lawsuit. So which of those two individuals should we listen to?

LCA also asserts that the Association’s rights are “in every practical sense identical” with “its members.” Its interests, however, may not be.

Some may not find flooding enjoyable.

In its original petition, LCA claimed that its purpose was “over-seeing, directing, initiating, and promulgating programs that directly affect the control, use, and enjoyment of Lake Conroe…” Had it not been for the seasonal lake lowering policy, many homes and businesses upstream or down would likely have flooded after the May Day rains.

In the same sentence about enjoyment, LCA also claims that Lake Conroe is operated exclusively for the benefit of the citizens of Montgomery County, Texas.

Did they really mean to say that Lake Conroe is operated exclusively for MoCo residents when the City of Houston owns two thirds of the water in it?

At one point, the lawsuit claims the sole purpose of Lake Conroe is to supply drinking water. But most of LCA’s complaints refer to lost recreational opportunities.

The second supporting document LCA filed sought relief for irreparable damages but did not specify what those were. Previously LCA members have complained about:

Could Dredging Costs Be The Real Issue?

But LCA’s latest filing reveals what could be the real issue here: dredging. Reportedly, the former president of the LCA had shallow water next to some lakefront property he was trying to sell. But with the water lowered, shallowness made the property less marketable.

Shallow water especially impacts residents at the north end (headwaters) of the lake.

Some LCA affidavits claim that access channels to the lake have been cut off by siltation. This latest filing references dredging in numerous places.

Wildwood Shores claims the estimated cost to dredge area canals exceeds one million dollars. They have hired an engineering company to set up a multi-year dredging plan that would spread out the costs. But they worry that the costs may still not be affordable. Dredging companies have explained the costs of dewatering the dredged materials; hauling them out of the floodplain; and the Army Corps’ permitting process.

Residents from Wildwood Shores, an area without fire hydrants, also claim that the Sam Houston National Forest could burn down if a house fire gets out of control and the local fire department can’t find a way to draw water from the lake.

I wonder if they’ve compared the cost of dredging to putting in a water well and tank from which tanker trucks can refill. I googled “cost of water tanks” and quickly found one that holds 90,000 gallons for $35,000. That’s a lot less than a million dollars for dredging. And the capacity would be enough to fill up at least 30 of the tanker trucks they reference in the lawsuit. The engineer who filed that affidavit didn’t explore that option. Perhaps because he had something else in mind…like boating, for instance.

Let’s Focus on the Real Issues and Work Together

I’m not trying to minimize the:

  • Loss of recreational opportunities
  • Inconvenience of silt
  • Expense of dredging.

We in the Lake Houston Area have been grappling with those same issues…on top of the flooding that silt dams contribute to. They are all real.

But making claims that are false at face value; inventing one doomsday scenario after another; and ignoring reasonable, cost-effective alternatives only undermine your own credibility.

Keeping water high is a temporary solution at best. Eventually, silt will pop up all around Lake Conroe. Especially after heavy rains.

Until you start enforcing regulations that reduce the effects of egregious development (including sedimentation) and form a Flood Control District to help dredge, this problem will dog you.

Realize that we’re all in this together – upstream and down. Let’s focus on ways to mitigate our mutual problems, not fight each other for a temporary advantage.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/22/2021

1362 Days after 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.

A Breather: Rain Mainly South of I-10 For Most of Day

Today, the Lake Houston Area may finally get a breather from non-stop storms that blanketed the area for the previous three days. That doesn’t mean that we won’t get more rain. And it doesn’t mean flooding is not possible. It just means streams and bayous may get a chance to drain.

According to Jeff Lindner, Harris County Meteorologist, “Light rainfall continues mainly south of I-10 across the area.”

RadarScope Pro as of 10:54AM Houston time shows a large complex of storms to Houston’s south and west. They are moving north but have been dissipating as they move past the I-10 corridor for most of the morning.

Says Lindner, “A complex of thunderstorms is moving well into the NW Gulf. Another moving offshore of south Texas will likely keep southeast Texas stable today with only passing light or moderate rain showers and those will mainly focus south of I-10. Additional showers and thunderstorms will be possible on Thursday and Friday with continued high moisture levels over the area. However, the activity looks more scattered in nature and not as organized or intense as the last 48 hours.”

Additional rainfall amounts of 1-3 inches can be expected over the next 48 hours with the higher totals likely focused south of I-10.

Jeff Lindner, Harris County Meteorologist

Rainfall In This Event Almost Half of Year’s Total So Far

My digital rain gage indicates that we’ve received almost as much rain in the last three and a half days as we have year to date. That’s 138 days.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Year to date: 23.64 inches
  • March: 1.95 inches
  • April: 4.01 inches
  • May to date: 11.38 inches
  • May 16: 1.22
  • May 17: 5.57
  • May 18: 1.64
  • May 19 so far: 1.22

According to the National Weather Service, the normal cumulative precipitation for May (up to the 19th) is 3.12 inches. And the normal yearly precipitation through today is 16.42 inches. Before this is all over, we could skew those averages a bit. We’ve exceeded the monthly average to date by a factor of two in the last two days!

Two-day rainfall totals for most Harris County gages as of 5/19/2021 at 10AM.

Run-off

Run-off continues from the rainfall over the last 48 hours with widespread totals of 3-5 inches over much of the area and an isolated amount of 8.56 inches in the Huffman area. Here’s how that is affecting local rivers and streams.

Rivers and Stream

Creeks in the northwestern portion of Harris County remain elevated and in some cases near bankfull. So do the middle and upper portions of Cedar Bayou and the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto River. Creeks in the northwestern portion of Harris County will crest and slowly fall this afternoon while rises will continue along the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto River. Peach Creek at 2090 is flooding.

East Fork at New Caney should experience minor to moderate flooding in next five days.
West Fork at 59 should experience minor flooding in low lying areas by Saturday.
Peach Creek at FM290 is already out of its banks according to the Harris County Flood Warning System. As of 11 am, elevation was 99.1. A ten-year flood at this gage is 99.3.

Lake Report

Lake Conroe is at 201.64 feet (normal is 201) at this writing and and releasing 2,665 cubic feet per second. Notice that they no longer have a box for seasonal lowering. They now call that COH (City of Houston) Diversion. It’s not that they have discontinued the seasonal lowering; they’ve just changed the way they account for it, according to Jace Houston, SJRA’s general manager. When the Lake is above 201 and water is inbound as it is now, SJRA is allowed to release water without it coming from the City of Houston’s portion.

When the flood threat has passed, if and when the City calls to resume seasonal lowering, the rate will show up in the COH diversion box. SJRA seems to be trying to lay responsibility for any inconvenience to Lake Conroe boaters at the feet of the City of Houston, which has already been dismissed from the Lake Conroe Association lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Lake Houston is up about a quarter foot so far this morning, despite the flood gates being wide open.

As of noon on 5/19/21
How Lake Houston Levels have varied during the last 7 days. Graph shows up to noon on 5/19.

If rain during the rest of today remains light, SJRA may be able to avoid flooding people upstream and downstream, just as they did on May 1st, when the areas upstream from Lake Conroe received 8-10 inches of rain.

Flash Flood Watch Remains in Effect Through Thursday Morning

In the meantime, a flash flood watch remains in effect for the Houston region through tomorrow morning. Chance of precipitation is 60% this afternoon, going up to 90% this evening. NWS predicts up to 1.25 inches of rain today and up to .75 tomorrow for the Kingwood area.

As of this morning, here’s how White Oak Creek looks from the back yard of Woodstream Forest resident.

Photo from a video courtesy of Donald and Kristi Brown. Taken on 5/19/2021.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/19/2021 at Noon based on information from the NWS, HCFCD, Coastal Water Authority and SJRA

1359 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Floodwaters Converging Downstream on Lake Houston

As of Monday morning, the threat to Lake Conroe had passed, but now floodwaters from the rain soaked northwestern portion of the region are converging on Lake Houston. Here’s a roundup of what’s happening where.

Lake Conroe Going Down

The San Jacinto River Authority reduced its discharge rate to from 9275 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 8120 CFS as the level of Lake Conroe continued to recede, but the West Fork came out of its banks at US 59. The West Fork also began flooding Kingwood’s River Grove Park and the abandoned Noxxe Oil Fields between the river and the Forest Cove Little League Fields.

As of 5:09 pm on 5/3/2021

Lake Conroe Re-Opening With Caution

The SJRA issued a press release at 10:15 am. stating that Lake Conroe will reopen to normal lake traffic at noon Monday, May 3. However, boaters are still urged to use extreme caution due to floating debris and submerged objects that may not be fully visible. With submerged bulkheads, lake area residents should also be cautious of electrical outlets and equipment coming into contact with water.

SJRA is currently releasing water from the Lake Conroe dam to gradually lower the water level back to conservation pool of 201’, but SJRA must strike a balance between upstream recovery and downstream danger. For real-time information on Lake Conroe levels, releases, rainfall totals, or stream flows visit www.sjra.net

SJRA clarified that it intends to return Lake Conroe to 200 until June 1 per its seasonal lake lowering policy as soon as emergency operations restore it to 201. Normally, SJRA would begin recapture on June 1, not May 1. The seasonal release rate is much lower than the current rate.

Floodwaters Converging Toward South and East

Meanwhile, the glut of rainfall that inundated the northwest portions of Houston last week is starting to converging on areas downstream.

As of 10:30 am, the San Jacinto East Fork is also way out of its banks at FM1485 and FM1485 is reportedly closed until Friday. That leaves one way in and out of Colony Ridge – FM2090.

The San Jacinto East Fork at FM2090 peaked overnight and is starting to recede, but is still out of its banks. The East Fork is not influenced by the Lake Conroe Dam, which is on the West Fork.

FM2090 at East Fork near Plum Grove on May 3, 2021 at noon.

FM2090 is still open, but Plum Grove resident Michael Shrader reported a steady line of traffic trying to get out of Colony Ridge up to 11:30 PM Sunday night. This underscores the need to develop alternate evacuation routes for the fast growing subdivision.

Meanwhile, the flood threat is receding at Peach Creek and FM2090.

Caney Creek at FM2090 is getting back within its banks.

And the West Fork, however, is still rising. By 9 a.m. (six hours after the hydrograph below) it was out of its banks at US59.

Flood Warning Remains in Effect for West Fork Until Further Notice

At 2:45 PM CDT Monday, the National Weather Service indicated the West Fork was 49.6 feet.

  • Flood stage is 49.3 feet.
  • Minor flooding is occurring and minor flooding is forecast.
  • Forecast…The river is expected to rise to a crest of 49.7 feet late this afternoon. It will then fall below flood stage late Wednesday morning.
  • Impact…At 49.3 feet, Minor lowland flooding begins in the vicinity of the gage. North side turnaround at US 59 begins to flood. Low points on Thelma Road, Aqua Vista Drive, and Riverview Drive begin to flood.
  • Flood History…This crest compares to a previous crest of 49.7 feet on 11/13/2008.

Here are photos taken along the West Fork this morning.

A young couple surveys rising floodwaters at the turnaround under the US59 bridge. The river bank is about a hundred yards in front of them at the sign in the background. This is the northwestern extent of Lake Houston.
A log jam forms from flood debris under the pedestrian bridge over the West Fork.
Floodwater had crept past the edge of Harris County’s Edgewater Park.
However traffic was still flowing on US59 in both directions.
About a third of the abandoned Noxxe Oil Field by the Forest Cove Little League fields was under water.
The soccer fields at River Grove were partially submerged. Yesterday they were mostly dry.
The boardwalk at River Grove was underwater except for the entrance.
There was no immediate threat to Kings Harbor though the dock was only inches above water.
As floodwaters work their way downstream, Lake Houston continues to rise. As of 5:30PM on 5/3, the lake is now up more than 1.6 feet and many docks are starting to go under.

No widespread flooding is expected in the Lake Houston Area. But people who live in low-lying areas or near the lake should take precautions.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/3/2021 based on information from NWS, HCFCD, Jeff Lindner, SJRA, Michael Shrader and personal observation

1343 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 592 since Imelda

SJRA Began Spring Seasonal Release on April 1

The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) began slowly releasing water yesterday afternoon to lower the level of Lake Conroe to 200 feet per the temporary seasonal release policy adopted more than a year ago. When the seasonal release began, the lake stood at 201.01 feet – its normal target level. By noon today, the level stood at 200.94 feet.

Screen capture of SJRA dashboard as of 4:50PM yesterday.

Community Impact claims the release started at 4:20PM on 4/1/2020.

These pictures show the release.

Start of SJRA spring release. What 450 cubic feet per second looks like.
The slow release is designed to help protect downstream interests.
Looking back toward Lake Conroe.

Lake Lowering Policy by the Numbers

In the spring, SJRA lowers the lake one foot, starting April 1 and begins recapturing water on June 1.

In the summer and fall, it’s a little more complicated. On August 1, SJRA releases water again to reduce the lake level back to 200. Beginning Sept. 1, they take the water down another six inches. But the City of Houston may call for it to be lowered another six inches (to 199) if a named storm is predicted in the Gulf.

Statistically, the peak of hurricane season is September 10. The lake-lowering policy builds additional capacity to absorb heavy rains that could threaten the dam, and help prevent massive releases that cause downstream flooding.

Upstream/Downstream Differences of Opinion

Downstream residents love the policy. They saw their communities destroyed during Harvey when the SJRA started releasing 80,000 cubic feet per second. Many Lake Conroe residents who flooded during Harvey also love the policy.

But some Lake Conroe residents feel inconvenienced and persuaded the Lake Conroe Association to file a lawsuit requesting a temporary restraining order to stop the lake lowering. A Montgomery County judge scheduled arguments in the lawsuit for April 16th, two weeks from now.

One resident who joined the suit claims the lower lake levels forced her to repair her bulkhead at a cost of $2000. And a bait shop owner claims he was driven out of business in 2018 when people couldn’t get their boats in the water.

But pictures taken during last year’s lowering show plenty of boaters having plenty of fun despite the lower level. Evaporation often takes the lake down partway to the target level anyway. So, the SJRA may only need to release inches rather than feet to reach its target level – especially in late summer.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/2/2021

1312 days after 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.

Lake Conroe Association Applies for Temporary Restraining Order To Prohibit Seasonal Lowering of Lake Conroe

They’re baaaa-aaaack. Yesterday, less than a day before the SJRA spring seasonal lowering program was set to kick in, the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) applied for a temporary restraining order to prohibit it. The LCA also seeks a permanent ban on the entire program. For the complete text of their 30-page lawsuit, click here. For a summary, see below.

Seasonal Release from Lake Conroe, 529 cfs from one tainter gate open six inches.
SJRA Seasonal Release on 4/15/2020. One tainter gate open six inches releases a slow, steady stream of 529 cfs.

History of Lake Lowering Policy

After disastrous flooding during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Governor Abbott instructed the SJRA to get into the flood mitigation business and identify strategies to reduce the risk of downstream flooding. The simplest, fastest, most effective strategy that required no grants, funding, design or construction was to lower Lake Conroe during the peaks of spring and fall flood seasons. This created an extra buffer against downstream flooding by creating extra capacity in the upstream lake.

The seasonal-lowering policy started in 2018 and continued in 2019. By late 2019 when the SJRA was getting ready to review the policy for another year, the Lake Conroe Association mobilized opposition in a major-league way. People came to SJRA Board meetings in busloads. There were so many that they couldn’t all get in the SJRA boardroom to be heard. So the next meeting was held in the Conroe Convention Center. Close to a thousand “Stop the Drop” protesters showed up. They argued that lowering the lake a foot was destroying businesses around the lake, undermining property values, destroying the local school system, and threatening the entire tax base of Montgomery County.

They also argued that Lake Conroe was never intended to be a flood control reservoir, and that the policy wasted water, produced no benefit, and had minimal effect. The current lawsuit makes many of these same hyperbolic arguments.

Allegations in Lawsuit

Below, see the major allegations in the seasonal-lowering lawsuit (italics) and my responses (normal text).

The SJRA and City of Houston are unlawfully discharging billions of gallons of water from Lake Conroe which causes it to remain below full capacity. However, a quick check tonight showed that the lake was actually above its normal capacity.

The Lake Conroe Dam is being operated contrary to state law. The operation was initiated at the request of the governor and approved by the TCEQ as an emergency measure while permanent downstream flood mitigation efforts could be put in place.

Lake Conroe Dam operation is contrary to the interests of the parties “for whom the lake is maintained, regulated and conserved.” The City of Houston paid for the construction of the dam and owns two thirds of the water in the lake. The operation benefits Houston residents and was requested by the Mayor of Houston. So I ask, “For whom is the lake maintained, regulated and conserved?”

The State is entitled to regulate water to protect its citizens’ health and safety. Isn’t that what the lake-lowering policy ensures?

Lake Conroe is not a flood control reservoir. Right! We’re trying to do the best with what we have.

The policy doesn’t conserve water. Right again! But it does conserve downstream property and lives. Somehow those got lost in the LCA arguments. For a list of Lake Houston Area damages during Harvey, click here.

Flood control is not permitted for Lake Conroe. But the TCEQ did permit it. And the TCEQ rejected an LCA appeal last year.

There’s no evidence that the policy works. Tell that to the people who didn’t flood in this storm.

The policy is not really temporary. Why was the policy enacted for three years then? It’s intended to allow safe completion of additional gates on the Lake Houston Dam.

The seasonal releases happen far in advance of a storm. Lake Conroe’s gates can release water 15 times faster. If a major storm approaches and a large release becomes necessary, it could overwhelm the gates on Lake Houston. The slow seasonal release safely reduces that risk.

Harris County Flood Control’s Harvey Report found the benefits of lowering Lake Conroe to be “negligible.” That’s a lie. The word negligible never appears in the report. And the lawsuit distorts the figures. It claims the Lake Conroe release accounted for at most 16% of the water going over the Lake Houston Dam. But it was one third of all the water coming down the West Fork where the vast majority of the damage occurred. The lawsuit allegation includes East Fork water to exaggerate its claim. The Lake Conroe Dam has no effect on East Fork flow. Also consider this. All by itself the Lake Conroe release during Harvey would have ranked as the ninth largest flood in West Fork history. Hardly negligible!

Petitioners continue to be affected in their rights to their use and enjoyment of Lake Conroe. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. But these photos show little impact on recreation even when the lake was lowered two feet.

Water released as part of a seasonal lowering will never be available for use. Rain replenishes the lake at no cost.

As of 8pm on 3/31/2021, Lake Conroe was at its normal “target level.” The SJRA lake lowering policy calls for lowering it one foot during April and May.

Without the TRO, Lake Conroe residents will have no adequate remedy to protect the “public’s interest.” Which public? The owners of the water? Or residents of Lake Conroe?

Lake Conroe Residents Don’t All Agree with LCA

Not all Lake Conroe residents agree with this petition. Though the petition gives no hint of that. Many who flooded during Harvey have previously testified that they want the lake lowered – permanently!

Exaggeration Upon Exaggeration

This lawsuit exaggerates. And that’s its biggest flaw. It sounds like the kid who tells the teacher “My dog ate my homework, right before a bus ran him over, and a 747 crashed into the bus. I tried to retrieve my homework, but the fire department washed it down the sewer. And now it’s floating in Lake Conroe where water skiers are tripping on it. That’s going to destroy home values on Lake Conroe and undermine the tax base of the school district. So you see, Teach, we have much bigger things to worry about. Like your salary and job security.”

For more about the seasonal lake lowering policy, click on this page.

Hearing Scheduled

It’s not clear yet how this lawsuit will affect the spring lowering of Lake Conroe scheduled to start Thursday. The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing on 4/19/2021 in Montgomery County.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/1/2021

1311 Days after 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.