Fourteen months ago today, people started waking up to water in their homes. What has happened since then to mitigate risk from the next flood? Below, a status report on almost two dozen mitigation projects that affect the future of the Lake Houston Area.
- By executive order of Governor Abbott in March, the SJRA adopted flood management as part of its mission. They later hired Chuck Gilman to head the new department.
- The SJRA added two new members from the Lake Houston area to its board to ensure the views of downstream residents are considered. The members are Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti.
- Responding to Lake Houston area requests, the SJRA adopted a resolution to temporarily lower the level of Lake Conroe by 2 feet during the peak of hurricane season and the rainiest months in spring. This should help reduce risk to dredging equipment. Lake Conroe was in fact lowered between mid-August and October 1. The Lake has now to its normal for winter months. However, the Lake Conroe Association has announced it plans to fight the lowering again next spring.
- Funding for the SJRA watershed study is still pending after seven months. Mitigation efforts that could come out of the study include identification of upstream detention sites and a long-term maintenance dredging plan.
Lowering Lake Houston
Last spring, the City of Houston has adopted a policy of lowering the lake every time a forecast calls for three or more inches of rain from a storm. The City has already lowered the lake in anticipation of four storms and likely prevented home flooding each time.
- Phase 1: After the Governor’s visit in March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a survey of the West Fork that was supposed to have gone from US59 to Lake Houston – a distance of 8 miles. The Corps decided to focus the survey on the area between River Grove Park and Lake Houston. Then, for reasons that were never clearly enunciated, they decided to restrict the scope to the area between River Grove Park and Kings Harbor. They bid the job in June and awarded the job to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock on July 6. The first dredge launched on September 20. The second dredge started dredging last week. The project will continue through mid-April next year, at which time, the contractor will begin demobilizing unless an extension of the project is approved before then.
- Phase 2: During the summer, residents began protesting the limited scope of the dredging. The fact that the Corps was leaving the biggest blockage in the West Fork alarmed them, especially since it was at a strategic choke point where it could continue to flood the entire Humble/Kingwood area. In mid-October, the City, State, Corps and FEMA met to consider the request to expand the scope. They reached agreement in principle to do so. However, two hurdles remained: an environmental survey and location of a suitable placement area. At this point, no one is releasing any information about plans to overcome the hurdles. If officials can agree on a plan before the current project is complete, it may be possible to save the cost of a second mobilization/demobilization – approximately $18 million. That could go a long way toward funding additional dredging. If officials can agree on a closer disposal site, they could also reportedly save tens of millions of additional dollars. Let’s hope for an announcement this week from the City.
- Phase 3: At the Kingwood Town Hall Meeting on October 9, Stephen Costello, the City’s Chief Resiliency Officer, identified the area between River Grove Park and US59 as a potential Phase 3 of the dredging process. No plans or funding sources have been announced yet.
- East Fork: A difference map released by Costello, also on October 9th, showed a serious loss of conveyance in the East Fork due to sedimentation. No one has yet addressed this issue.
- Maintenance Dredging: The Corps, Harris County, the City of Houston, Dan Huberty, and the SJRA have all identified a need for maintenance dredging to keep sedimentation from building up again to a critical level. It’s not clear how that would happen at this point. A source of funding has not been identified. Some people favor allowing sand miners to dredge the river commercially and are exploring ways to make that happen. That could reduce costs to government, but others fear the prospect of commercial mining in rivers, which is outlawed in many countries because of the damage it frequently causes.
Stopping Sediment at Its Source
Sediment comes from several sources: some natural, some man-made. We can’t do much about the natural. We could about the man-made if the political will existed.
The TCEQ, State Rep. Dan Huberty and State Senator Brandon Creighton will meet with community representatives and sand mine representatives – AFTER the election. It remains to be seen whether Texas will follow best practices commonly adopted in other states and countries. Hey, if you can dump sediment into the river, leave dikes broken for years, walk away from a mine when you’re done without cleaning up, and get away with an $800 fine, why would you take regulations seriously? It’s taken an entire year to try to set up a meeting that no one except community leaders has yet confirmed. Meanwhile, the industry has quadrupled its lobbying budget and openly brags about the legislators they are pursuing to block what should be common-sense regulations.
Putting Teeth into Environmental Regulations
This is a job for the next legislature. TCEQ fines currently average about three times what you would pay for failure to fully stop at a stop sign. The cost of dredging 2.1 miles of the West Fork is now up to $73 million. The cost of dredging the mouth bar could be another $100 million. Doesn’t feel very fiscally conservative to me.
Many drainage ditches that empty into Lake Houston have become clogged with sediment and fallen trees. The City and County agree on the need to clear them, but spent months and more than half a million dollars in legal fees quibbling over who could clean which portions of which ditches. Finally they arrived at a cost-saving compromise. The City would handle all underground drainage and the County would handle everything above ground. But before the County could start, they needed the City to hand over deeds and/or easements that would allow them onto the property. Documents for some of the ditches have been turned over to the County. But the City has been unable to locate the documents from several ditches including Ben’s Branch, the largest in Kingwood. They have not made any demonstrable progress in months despite supposedly having “five lawyers working on it full time.” Every time I ask, the response I get is, “We are still working on it.” The City has a major opportunity for improvement here. If this were the private sector, someone would have been fired by now. In anticipation of receiving the missing documents, the County has already surveyed the ditches and is ready to begin working on them. Let’s hope the City locates easements before another hurricane or the spring rains.
Additional Flood Gates for the Lake Houston Dam
The County allocated $20 million for the gates in the flood bond package. That means the City has to come up with another $50 million somewhere. Costello reported that the application for funding has been filed with FEMA. The Army Corps of Engineers would have to check off on the plans. I’ve heard rumors of pushback from downstream interests worried about the flooding that additional gates might create for them. This must be studied because of all the chemical plants and hazardous waste downstream. Net: this could easily take another five to ten years … if it happens at all.
Additional Upstream Detention
This is largely a Harris County issue. Money for it was approved in the $2.5 billion flood bond passed on August 25th. But the watershed study is still pending. Even after funding approval, the study could take a year to complete. Once the County identifies a location (which may be in another county), it has to purchase property, design the dam and construct it. That could easily be another five years also.
Funding for City-led mitigation projects may depend on the success of Propositions A and B in the current election. If B succeeds and A doesn’t, money will be even harder to find for mitigation. A purports to validate a lockbox around drainage fees so that the money can only be spent on drainage projects. B grants a huge pay increase to firefighters which would create pressure to divert money from the drainage fund.
New Flood Gages
Harris County and the SJRA have installed new flood gages that should fill in gaps in their upstream network and give us more warning time and greater accuracy in river forecasting. Some of these gages, like the ADVM at US59, can also measure sedimentation in real time.
Real-Time Inundation Mapping System
Harris County has developed a near-real-time inundation mapping system that will help give people better information about flooding. The County is reportedly sharing the system with the SJRA to allow them to model the impact of future releases during floods.
Subsidence has emerged as a factor that could potentially worsen flooding in north Harris and Montgomery Counties. The problem is caused by excessive groundwater pumping. And yet some in Montgomery County are pushing to pump even more groundwater. Voters there are voting on a measure to elect directors to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District for the first time. Let’s hope they elect people who believe in science and real data or we could all be sunk. It’s shaping up as the classic battle between saving a few bucks today versus ensuring the future. We will know how far sighted voters are in November.
Harris County Flood Bond
In August, voters passed a $2.5 billion flood bond that should make many projects possible. Commissioners have already started approving projects.
Harris County Edgewater Park
County has purchased the land and is finalizing plans. Construction should start next year. The value of the project from a flood mitigation point of view? It keeps the area green.
The County has received the first batch of funding for 985 buyouts and is in the process of closing on several properties on Marina Drive in Forest Cove. Each is voluntary and each must be treated like an individual purchase. In other words, every single one requires a survey, appraisal, deed research, etc. Part of the difficulty is that several townhomes were swept off their foundations by floodwaters and no longer exist. When buyouts are complete, the County will convert this area to parkland or allow it to go natural.
Meanwhile, I wish we could get the City to pick up the trash.
If you have additions or corrections to this list, please send them to me via the contact page on this web site. My apologies in advance for anything I may have missed. There are a lot of moving parts here.
Posted by Bob Rehak on October 28, 2018
425 Days (14 months) since Hurricane Harvey