Tag Archive for: Blackburn

For Better Flood Mitigation, Let’s Dig a Little Deeper

When I say “dig a little deeper” to improve flood mitigation, I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.

On September 17, 2023, Jim Blackburn, a lawyer and professor of environmental law in the Rice University engineering department, published an article in the Houston Chronicle. He titled it, “What Houston’s next mayor needs to do about flooding.”

Both Prof. Blackburn and the Chronicle labeled the article “opinion.” That’s fortunate because in some areas, Blackburn made assertions contradicted by facts. In most other areas, he made high-level recommendations without any specifics.

For example, among other things, Prof. Blackburn argues that Houston’s next mayor should:

  1. Build more mitigation projects for Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds, which he says haven’t received their fair share.
  2. Address climate change with better planning and engineering tools.
  3. Speed up buyouts.

Let’s examine each and why we all need to dig a little deeper if we want to improve flood mitigation.

Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds

Both Halls and Greens watersheds HAVE received mitigation projects. Many. And more than their fair share. You can see it in spending data and on the ground. However, Harris County Flood Control District has delivered the projects, not the City of Houston. 

HCFCD and its partners have spent more than $390 million on Greens and Halls mitigation improvements since 2000. Greens has received more dollars than any other watershed except Brays (where Rice is). And tiny Halls ranks third in dollars per capita among all watersheds.

Professor Blackburn and his graduate students need to dig a little deeper. They should get out more and smell the construction dust. For example, here is a new Halls Bayou detention basin, one of many built in the watershed during the last 10 years

New Halls bayou detention pond
New Halls Bayou Detention Basin west of Keith Weiss Park, photographed in March 2022.

Then, there’s this new detention basin along Greens Bayou at Cutten Road under construction in 2021. Again, it’s one of at least a half dozen built in the last ten years along Greens.

Cutten basin
One portion of the massive Cutten Road stormwater detention basin on Greens Bayou

I compile flood-mitigation funding by watershed through quarterly FOIA requests. I also cross-check the data by photographing construction from the air.

Photos such as those above support the spending reported below. However, neither the photos nor the spending data fit the current, popular political narrative about “historical disinvestment” in low-income minority neighborhoods.

Includes both Harris County and partner dollars

Of the top five watersheds above, four have a majority of low-to-moderate income residents; only Cypress Creek does not. Those five watersheds have received 60% of all funding going back to 2000, compared to 40% for the other 18 watersheds put together.

From high to low in the graph above, spending varies by 130X. Such data shows that many watersheds have been historically deprived – in the name of “equity.” But those deprived tend to be on the more affluent end of the spectrum.

Address Climate Change with Better Planning and Engineering Tools

Next, Professor Blackburn wants to address climate change with better planning and engineering tools. It’s hard to see what more the next Mayor of Houston could do in this regard. 

Professor Blackburn asserts that we need to “understand our changed rainfall patterns and integrate that knowledge into every aspect of the City’s thinking.” 

Since Harvey, the City has already adopted NOAA’s new Atlas-14 rainfall-probability statistics and incorporated them into its regulations. So, design professionals are already working on new, updated assumptions.

Plus, NOAA is currently working on Atlas 15 which predicts future impacts of climate change. But NOAA won’t release those stats until 2027 at the earliest – after the next mayoral election.

Professor Blackburn, a reputed expert, doesn’t define how climate is changing, but asserts that professionals should consider the changing patterns. He believes they should engineer “streets, sewage treatment plants, underground and above-ground stormwater systems, floodplains and general drainage flow patterns” with the unspecified climate patterns in mind.

It’s hard to argue against progress. But the real issue, in my opinion, is that leaders in many surrounding cities and counties have not yet uniformly adopted NOAA’s Atlas 14 standards. Perhaps the next Mayor could jawbone them into sending less water downstream

The Mayor could also discourage large increases in impervious cover under proposed programs such as the Houston Planning Commission’s so-called Livable Places. Livable Places would disproportionately increase flood risk for low-income and minority neighborhoods because of the program’s linkage to mass transit.

Speed Up Buyouts

Blackburn believes that buyouts should happen faster after a flood – before people rebuild. Most people agree that the process needs streamlining. But how?  

Experts have proposed multiple improvements. However, none has gained traction across the board with local, State, and Federal lawmakers. 

For instance, after Harvey, Harris County Flood Control executives pitched plans in Austin for a QBF (Quick Buyout Force). Instead of waiting for:

  • The President to declare a disaster
  • Congress to vote funds
  • FEMA to design rules for disaster relief
  • The State to adopt them
  • Local agencies to identify eligible recipients and solicit applications
  • Local, State and Federal authorities to review and approve the applications, and 
  • Money to flow through the pipeline…

…HCFCD argued for pre-approval of guidelines and to have a pot of funds available before disaster strikes, kind of like a savings account for a rainy day. Money could then be used immediately. Local agencies would later reimburse the Federal government for money they didn’t use.

Houston’s next Mayor could throw his/her influence behind such a plan or a suitable alternative.

Unfortunately, Prof. Blackburn doesn’t recommend a plan. Nor does he dissect each issue and give us the benefit of his wisdom. With all the brainpower and resources at his disposal, he could make a genuine contribution to the community. Perhaps his future opinion pieces will elucidate how we should improve beyond simply preparing for the future. 

Collectively, we all need to dig a little deeper to improve flood mitigation. We need to start with facts and get down to specifics.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/27/2023

2220 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.

Bayou City Initiative Presents “Houston Flooding: A Vision for 2020 and Beyond

Mark your calendar. On February 19, 2020, the Bayou City Initiative will hold its first meeting of 2020. The program is titled “Houston Flooding: A Vision for 2020 and Beyond.”

Bayou City Initiative Logo
Bayou City Initiative Logo

Featured Speaker Charles Irvine

The featured speaker will be Charles Irvine, Court-appointed Co-Lead Counsel of the Addicks/Barker “Upstream” flood case. He will discuss the historic win of the lawsuit led by homeowners who unknowingly bought homes in the flood pool of Addicks and Barkers reservoirs, and then flooded during Harvey.

Attendees will also hear from Bayou City Initiative’s Founder, Jim Blackburn, as he presents his State of the City address, “Two and a Half Years After Harvey.” Blackburn will present an overview  of what has been accomplished since Harvey in 2017 and what actions remain to reduce the threat of flooding in Houston and Harris County.

PLEASE NOTE: If you have attended previous meetings, there is a new location: The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. 


Houston Flooding: A Vision for 2020 and Beyond 

DATE: February 19, 2020,12:00 – 2:00pm – LUNCH PROVIDED

LOCATION – NEW: Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, 5601 Braeswood Blvd, 77096


Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/29/2020

883 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Storm Surge and the Houston Ship Channel: A National Security Issue?

Jim Blackburn, a professor at Rice University noted for his work in predicting and modeling the effects of severe storms, has released an except from a larger paper that he is preparing with Amy Jaffe of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The report, titled “Storm Surge and the Future of the Houston Ship Channel,” models a series of storms with increasing intensity to examine their impact on Galveston, Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Houston ship channel, chemical plant and tank farm.

Refining Capacity Vs. Surge Height

The report begins by outlining the importance of these areas for national security. For instance, this Bay and Ship Channel are home to eight major refiners and more than 200 chemical plants that provide 12% of U.S. refining capacity, 27% of the nation’s jet fuel, 13% of the nation’s gasoline, and 25% of the nation’s ethylene and propylene.

Blackburn and Jaffe note that the largest surges recorded up the Houston Ship Channel to date were from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Carla in 1961. Neither of those storms generated more than about 13 to 14 feet of surge, a level that can generally be accommodated by industry. 

Modeling Surge Damage from Future Storms

The authors then play “what if.” What if the winds were 15 mph stronger and extended out a few miles farther? The “what if” scenarios are based on recent storms such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Category 4 and 5 storms) with hurricane force winds extending 80 miles out from the center. Such storms could generate surges in the range of 22 to 25 feet in the ship channel. Those are NOT levels that industry could handle with existing dikes.

An associate of Blackburn’s, Dr. Jamie Padgett of Rice’s SSPEED Center, predicts that some percentage of storage tanks would fail. They would either be lifted off their foundations, crushed by water or penetrated by debris. Dr. Padgett’s team estimated that a 24-foot surge event could lead to the release of at least 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances. It could threaten the US economy and raise concerns about the availability of transportation fuel.

Confined in Galveston Bay and its surrounding wetlands, such spills could also turn into an environmental debacle that lasts for decades. Far fetched? Consider what happened this week when a fire erupted in a few storage tanks at one facility in Deer Park. It shut down the entire city for close to a week.

Significantly, the modeled surge event does not include the effects of sea-level rise or climate change.

Inability to Deal with Mitigation

Blackburn and Jaffe then shift their focus to mitigation strategies such as the Ike Dike and the Galveston Bay Park Plan. I will not review those here; they have received much coverage in other venues. And the report contains far more detail than any summary could.

The authors conclude by saying, “A major threat exists to the refining and chemical industrial complex that is based around Galveston Bay. This issue has not received the attention that it should from a national security perspective, from a national economic stability perspective and from an environmental risk perspective. The SSPEED Center’s experience in modeling and planning to protect the channel highlights the disconnect between past observations and future likely events being encountered everyday throughout the world with our changing climate. We are facing situations that differ from the past, but we seemingly lack the institutional ability or fortitude to address these future risks and avoid the national security consequences that are foreseen and forewarned.”

“What If” We Actually Came to Grips with Flood Mitigation?

Whether you believe in climate change or not, it worries me to think about what would happen if a storm like Maria came up the throat of Galveston Bay like Ike did. We had two storms in the last decade (Ike and Harvey) that wiped out major portions of the region. The possibilities are not remote that another could strike before we prepare for it. I wish someone had done this kind of analysis with a rainfall event like Harvey before Harvey hit. Think how different life might be right now.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/22/2019

570 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.