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Surprise! Surprise! Halls, Greens Watersheds Get $422 Million of Flood-Mitigation Funding, Not “ZERO.”

First in an Eight-Part series on Flood-Mitigation Funding in Harris County

Recently, many local leaders, citizens and media have claimed that two largely minority and low-to-moderate-income (LMI) Harris County watersheds – Halls and Greens Bayous – have gotten no flood-mitigation funding. The actual data shows the exact opposite of what many people have been told, i.e., that racial bias affects the distribution of flood mitigation funds. 

Halls and Greens have received $422 million since 2000. And they received $200 million of that since Harvey. Meanwhile, Kingwood has never had one Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) capital improvement project.

FOIA Request Shows Where Money Has Actually Gone

Information, newly available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request, reveals that Greens and Halls Bayous, have received 16% of all Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) funding since 2000 and 18% since Hurricane Harvey. That’s almost one fifth of all flood-mitigation funding for 23 watersheds in the whole county!

Data based on information provided by Harris County Flood Control in response to FOIA request

But the popular perception is that flood mitigation money is all going to affluent neighborhoods like those in Kingwood at the expense of low-to-moderate income areas, such as Greens and Halls.  Local media have helped spread this misinformation:

From the twitter feed of a Houston Chronicle writer who covers flooding.

FOIA Request Reveals Flaws in Narrative

One Harris County commissioner frequently claims Greens and Halls are being discriminated against in the allocation of flood-mitigation funding. He says residents in those watersheds are at the “back of the bus” and if commissioners don’t fix that, “We’ll have blood on our hands.” 

That sounded extreme. So, to see how bad the problem was, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in early March. Out of 23 watersheds: 

  • Since 2000, Halls and Greens rank #8 and #3 respectively in flood mitigation “dollars received.” 
  • Since Harvey, Halls and Greens rank #11 and #2 respectively

While #11 and #8 may sound “middle of the pack” for Halls, keep in mind that Halls ranks #16 in size. The entire watershed is only 42 out of 1,776 square miles that make up Harris County. 

Halls actually ranks #3 among all watersheds in “dollars/square mile” 
since 2000 (eclipsed only by Brays and White Oak).

Since 2000, Halls has received more than $3 million per square mile. Compare that to $0.5 million for the San Jacinto watershed, a frequent target of Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and his followers. 

Here’s what all watersheds have received and where they rank, along with other measures, such as:

  • Watershed area
  • Population
  • Density
  • LMI population 
  • Spending per capita
  • Spending per square mile
  • Structures damaged in floods
Current as of end of March 2021. Note: data excludes maintenance spending. Spending shows only capital-improvement flood-mitigation projects. To see the original HCFCD data, click here. For a high resolution, printable PDF of my summary sheet above, click here.

You can look at this data in dozens of ways. And I will. However, any way you cut it, it does not support discrimination against the poor or a racial bias in funding. If you didn’t look any further, you could use this data to support the opposite point of view, i.e., that funding discriminates against more affluent neighborhoods. However…

Spending Actually Closely Tracks Damage

Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds contain large percentages of low-to-moderate income (LMI) households. Versus other watersheds, Halls ranks #1 in LMI households (71%) and Greens ranks #6 (57%).

Of all the rankings on all the measures, the measure that seems to track most closely with funding is “properties damaged.” One would hope for that! It’s a perfectly rational, non-biased basis for allocating funds. 

Data shows that the Flood Control District is spending the most money where flooding has damaged the most structures. 

Dollars Flow to Damage

See below.

Flood-mitigation funding by watershed arranged from highest to lowest with spending and damage rankings.

To underscore that point, consider that:

  • Greens ranks #3 in funding since 2000 and #2 since Harvey. It also had the 2nd most damage in four major floods (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, and Harvey).
  • Halls ranks 3rd in spending per square mile since 2000 and 4th since Harvey. It also had the 4th most damage in all four storms. 

Together, Halls and Greens have received $422 million since 2000. That’s hardly “nothing.” Hardly “back of the bus.” And their high rankings hardly make an argument for racial or income bias.

Crucial Role of Tropical Storm Allison

Flood-mitigation studies, funding, and construction can take years and even decades. Tropical Storm Allison, 20 years ago this month, played a role in the rankings above. Compare the watershed and rainfall maps below. The heaviest rainfall in Allison fell directly over Halls and Greens Bayous. Thus, both of these watersheds experienced major damage two decades ago.

Map of Harris County Watersheds. Note the location of Halls and Greens in the upper left quadrant of Beltway 8. 
Allison rainfall map. Source: HCFCD via NOAA. Rain was heaviest within the northeast quadrant of Beltway 8. It contains Halls and Greens Bayous. The 15” band also tracked WNW across the upstream portions of Halls and Greens.

Projects Identified Earlier Are Farther Along 

That actually helps explain why they rank so high in funding today. During Allison, Greens ranked #1 in damage (15,590 structures) and Halls ranked #2 (12,820). 

Many projects identified decades ago, such as those in Halls and Greens, received sporadic funding before the 2018 flood bond. Surveys and engineering reports may have been completed or “rights of way” acquired. But many costly construction projects had to be postponed until money became available.

Before 2018, the Flood Control District only had $60M per year to spend across all of Harris County. Then, when voters approved the flood bond in 2018, Halls and Greens projects were “shovel ready” and could start immediately.  In essence, they had a head start and it shows in funding!  

Also, in 2019, commissioners adopted an “equity” prioritization plan that accelerated spending in LMI watersheds. So, Halls and Greens got an extra boost. 

That’s not to say these watersheds have gotten everything residents wanted or needed. But then, who has? 

Numbers Contradict Narrative

Those who watch Commissioners Court are treated month after month to tales about how flood-mitigation spending has discriminated against people in low-income watersheds with high percentages of LMI households. Halls and Greens are repeatedly held up as examples. 

The FOIA data does not support that theory. It shows that low-income watersheds are not being ignored. And higher income watersheds are not getting all the money. Anyone who says they are is not looking at the numbers.  

In fact, data from the FOIA request revealed that the Kingwood area has had exactly ZERO Flood Control District capital improvement projects in the last 20 years. The often-cited Buffalo Bayou watershed has had exactly TWO capital Flood Control District capital improvement projects in the last 20 years.  

Those who make allegations of racial bias ignore projects on the ground. 

To learn more about recently completed projects or projects currently under construction in Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds, see these previous posts:

Tomorrow, I will examine flood-mitigation funding in six watersheds with the lowest income rankings versus six with the highest. 

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/21/2021 based on HCFCD data supplied in response to a FOIA request.

1392 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.