Posts

Living With Flooding

“Living with Flooding” by Jim Blackburn, J.D., answers many of the questions ordinary people have about flooding in Harris County. For instance:

  • What are the different causes of flooding?
  • What should I look for when buying a home?
  • How much of the county is really in a flood zone?
  • Do I need flood insurance?
  • How high should my home be above street level?
  • Am I in a floodplain?
  • Are floodplain maps accurate?
  • How far inland can storm surge from a hurricane spread?
  • How high should I elevate a house if I am in a coastal zone?
  • Why did I flood if I’m nowhere near a stream?
  • Who is responsible for fixing flood problems?
  • Whom should I call if I need help?
  • And more. Much more.

School districts throughout Harris County should make this required reading before graduation from high-school.

“This document should be considered as a beginning—an attempt to put in one place the type of information that will help Houston and Houstonians come out of the next flood in reasonably good shape,” says Blackburn.

About Jim Blackburn

Blackburn is Professor in the Practice of Environmental Law, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University. He is also Co-director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center and a Faculty Scholar at the Baker Institute.

Minor parts of the document are dated now; Blackburn wrote it just months after Hurricane Harvey. For instance, it lists several officials who lost elections in 2018. But, by and large, he offers durable advice.

Learning to Live with Flooding

The premise behind Blackburn’s primer: we can never fully control flooding, so we need to learn to live with it. In that spirit, he offers 32 pages of practical advice.

A Vision for the Future

In addition to addressing the questions above, Blackburn lists several high-level, necessities for living with flooding.

Flood Smart Citizens Who Participate

“…we need to have an informed, flood-literate, and engaged populace. We get the government that we demand.” And “If we don’t demand and fight for a high-quality flood management, we will not get it.”

Make Room For Bayous and Creeks

“We have built too close to most of the area’s bayous and creeks.” “If water is given more space, we will discover, much like the Dutch, that we can co-exist with the water. But we should always respect it.”

Flood-literate Politicians

“We need politicians that are flood-literate, who can think for themselves about these issues.” Flooding is one of the greatest threats to “public health, life, and economic prosperity in this area.”

Focus on Those Who Are Here Now

“Our leaders must focus on those who live here now rather than those who are coming.” “Our attention should be on fixing the problems of existing, developed areas.” Not building the Grand Parkway to assist new development.

Transparency

“Nothing is more important going forward than transparency in our flood control efforts and thinking.”

It’s hard to argue with any of these recommendations. Just a week before the third anniversary of Harvey, the greater Houston area still grapples with many of these issues.

  • Developers encroaching on floodways and floodplains.
  • Politicians who see lax regulation and enforcement of flood regulations as a tool to compete for new development.
  • The Grand Parkway expansion, arcing like an arrow across flood-prone farmland – with no vision for how to handle the runoff it could bring from hundreds of thousands of acres of new development.
  • Politicians diverting money from where voters intended it to go.

If we had another Harvey next week, scholars like Blackburn would write post-mortems that look very much like Living with Flooding. Except the intro would start with “We told you so.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 08/18/2020 with thanks to Jim Blackburn and the Baker Institute

1085 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Living with Flooding Copyright © 2017 by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University.

Houston A Year After Harvey: Where We Are And Where We Need To Be

Jim Blackburn, JD, professor of environmental law at Rice and Phil Bedient, PhD., a professor of engineering also at Rice, have just released an important new study called Houston a Year After Harvey: Where We Are and Where We Need to Be . Because of the length, detail, intricate maps and charts, and file size, this is best viewed on something larger than a smartphone.

Written for the Average Adult

Three things immediately become apparent when reviewing this 55-page report. It’s wide ranging in scope. It’s an excellent work of scholarship. And it’s well written; the average adult should be able to understand all the key concepts without difficulty.

Houston A Year After Harvey: Three Major Sections

It’s an excellent summary of what happened during Harvey, how the community is responding, and what still needs to be done – major watershed by major watershed.

The Problems of Obsolete Flood Plain Maps

This paper is organized into three main sections. First, the issues of obsolete 100-year floodplain maps and increasing rainfall are discussed because they are key to fully understanding the current dilemma and shaping alternative concepts for long-term protection. Whether or not you believe in climate change, the case for revising flood maps is pretty compelling based on the math alone. We’ve had five so-called 500-year storms in the last 25 years. Are we just spectacularly unlucky? Or do we need to revisit the assumptions and underlying math?

USGS did this recently and designated Harvey a 42-year flood at the West Fork and Grand Parkway.

Any time you try to predict the frequency of rarely observed or unobserved events, such as 500-year storms, you venture way out on a limb. The data on which you base assumptions is thin. Worse, one of the fundamental precepts of extreme value analysis (EVA) is that nothing changes during the 500 years under analysis.

Good luck with that. Five hundred years ago, the U.S., Texas, Houston, developers, gasoline, F150s and sand mining didn’t even exist. As we get more data and update assumptions, flood maps are being redrawn. So are the guidelines which form the basis for different types of development. Instead of raising new homes two feet above the 100 year flood plain, officials are now talking about two feet above the 500-year flood plain.

Issues that Need to Be Addressed Watershed by Watershed

The second part of Houston A Year After Harvey is a geographic overview of the flood issues and potential responses to various watersheds across Harris County.

The discussion of the West Fork of the San Jacinto goes from pages 28-30. It starts with a discussion of sedimentation, where the sediment is coming from and why we need stronger regulation of sand mining.

In regard to sedimentation, the reports also discusses  the need for dredging to restore the river’s carrying capacity.

Finally, in regard to the San Jacinto, the report discusses the need to change the operating philosophy for the dams on Lake Conroe and Lake Houston to enable pre-release as a strategy for flood mitigation. This has already happened, they note, with the approval of the TCEQ to temporarily lower the level of Lake Conroe during the peak of hurricane season.

Different Solution Sets for Different Flooding Issues

The third major portion of Houston A Year After Harvey discusses different flood management concepts for three zones of the Houston area that have different flooding issues.

The authors break the county up into three major zones, A, B and C. A stretches from Addicks/Barker to the Katy Prairie. B covers the central part of the county. And C covers coastal areas.

The discussion of Zone B (which includes the Lake Houston and San Jacinto River) includes explanations for many of the projects listed on the Harris County Flood Control District Flood Bond that we are now voting on. See pages 42 through 45.

But don’t stop there. There’s also a great description for how the Ike Dike could work in Zone C.

How All the Pieces of the Flood Bond Fit Together

All in all, Houston A Year After Harvey makes a great case for the flood bond, without ever really setting out to do that. It will help give you a better understanding for how our drainage problems affect the people around us and vice versa.

The entire report is posted on this web site with permission of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and SSPEED Center. ©2018 James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University. It will be permanently stored in the Reports Section under the Hurricane Harvey tab for easy future access.

Posted on August 13, 2018 by Bob Rehak

349 Days Since Hurricane Harvey

 

Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability for the 21st Century

Oil Tanks and Tanker on Houston Ship Channel

Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability in the 21st Century examines population growth, economic vitality of the Houston region, the increasing frequency of severe rainfall events, and the ability of agriculture to sequester carbon dioxide in the ground. The basic premise? Houston’s current financial position in the world is at risk if we don’t change.

Blackburn’s white paper begins by tracing the Houston region’s meteoric growth, from about 110,000 in 1900 to 6.4 million people today. This growth, says Blackburn, was enabled by the intersection of several factors and trends. They included the transition to a carbon-based economy in the early 1900s, the presence of plentiful hydrocarbons in the region, and the development of the Port of Houston at about the time the Panama Canal was completed. Conditions were ideal for Houston to rapidly blossom into the world capital of the oil industry.

Changing Trends Put Houston at a New Crossroads

After the year 2000, however, Blackburn says, the complexion of growth began to change, just as it did in the previous century during the transition from horses to automobiles. We are now at another crossroads.

Concerns about the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Harvey and other recent 500-year storms have been widely  linked to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Concerns about CO2 have encouraged the development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar. These alternative sources compete with oil and gas, the traditional drivers of Houston’s economic growth.

These trends also work together, according to Blackburn, in a way that makes the region less desirable for corporate re-location. Blackburn cites the recent decision by Amazon, which was looking for a second “headquarters” city. Houston did not even make the top 25 list of cities under consideration despite it’s mid-continent location; huge port; and excellent air, rail and highway transportation networks.

At the Crossroads of the Future and the Past: Decision Time

He makes a good point. We must make sure Houston is positioned for the future, not the past, if we want it to remain vital. The rust belt is littered with examples of cities that failed to see change coming. Blackburn also cites examples of cities that have successfully weathered change through history and discusses how they did it.

Blackburn crammed this 23-page white paper full of charts, graphs, maps, and tables that show the nature of the changes around us. He then poses the central question.

How can we capitalize on our assets to ameliorate our liabilities?

His prescriptions for change make this paper well worth reading. They include the way we manage flood plains and green spaces; how we grow and distribute food; and how we can capture the value of ecosystems by allowing land owners to be compensated for storing carbon through agriculture and forestry. Using nature, he says, is the oil industry’s only viable option for closing the carbon loop.

Practical Prescriptions

Blackburn proposes something called a Soil Value Exchange program. It reminds me somewhat of the emissions trading programs that helped reduce air pollution in Southern California. His descriptions of how farmers and ranchers can verify and capitalize on carbon capture represent hope for the future of a city whose economy is based largely on oil.

When you’re scraping muck out of a flooded home, it’s hard to focus on the big picture. It’s also important. Blackburn’s prescriptions are both visionary and practical at the same time. They are keys to economic resilience and sustainability.

Posted by Bob Rehak

April 29, 2018, 243 days since Hurricane Harvey

Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability in the 21st Century is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Jim Blackburn, and Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.