Tag Archive for: Chronicle

Builders Battle Basic Rule Changes After Harvey

A Houston Chronicle article by Chris Tomlinson talks about things builders could do to make their properties more flood safe.

Innovative Products that Could Reduce Runoff

They include things like Porous Pave, made from recycled plastic, tires, and pavement. “Porous Pave is mixed and applied like asphalt, but once set, it is absorbent and permeable. Rather than water running into storm drains, the material soaks up the rain directs it into the sand underlying it,” says Tomlinson. Many people use the product for gardens, patios, and paths.

Porous Pave installation. Image courtesy of Porous Pave.

Porous Pave will pass 5,800 gallons of water per hour per square foot. The manufacturer also claims it offers:

  • More void space than permeable pavers, pervious asphalt, pervious concrete – more porosity, more permeability for more rainwater infiltration
  • Smaller installations deliver the same stormwater mitigation as more extensive, and more expensive, installations of other permeable paving materials
  • Reduces the need for other on-site measures (retention ponds, swales) – more construction site area remains useable
  • ADA compliant
  • Safe and slip-resistant – even when wet
  • Endless applications – even installs on steep grades up to 30 degrees
  • As a topcoat, covers and bonds with old concrete, asphalt, brick, tile, and wood surfaces – eliminates the cost, disruption and waste of tear-outs
  • Decreases the volume, slows the velocity of runoff
  • Reduces erosion
  • Made with rubber recycled from scrap tires – every 1,000 square feet of two-inch Porous Pave removes 300 old tires from the waste stream

I think we should test this in East End Park, perhaps on some hills where we continually encounter erosion problems.

Concrete Substitutes

Another product, Grid Pavers uses “plastic frames that keep soil and gravel from washing away while allowing grass to grow from underneath. They also prevent rainwater run-off by directing it to the ground.” Unfortunately, it’s more expensive than concrete, so rarely used in Houston.

Many countries around the world, mandate the use of such products, says Tomlinson. For a fascinating look into a better future, check out his story.

Rule Changes Resisted

However, the Chronicle article also discusses things the building industry in the Houston area is resisting – like adding more detention, as we saw in Montgomery County last August. Or updating flood maps.

Says Tomlinson, “The men and women who build our city are outraged that elected officials want to update our flood maps and force them to acknowledge their land is flood-prone.”

That’s because builders in flood zones must follow tighter rules for things, such as permeable cover, detention and elevation.

Collective Action Required To Make Meaningful Change

Tomlinson concludes the article with an admonishment. “Increasing the ground’s absorbency on a large scale can make the difference between a flooded lawn and a flooded home. But it depends on collective action, and unfortunately, the developers and builders of Houston are more interested in private profit than a more resilient community.”

Certainly, not all builders fall into that category. But enough do to create a competitive disadvantage for those who would like to do the right thing.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/30/2019

853 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 101 since Imelda

After Town Hall Meeting, Confusion Still Swirls Around Status of Mouth Bar

To hear the City tell it, we’re days away from agreement to dredge 1.5 million cubic yards of the mouth bar. To hear Congressman Dan Crenshaw tell it, the permit application hasn’t even been filed yet.

So where do things really stand. A reader asked last weekend, whether the Houston Chronicle story about the meeting was accurate.

The Chronicle headline said, “Crenshaw frustrated with delayed application for federal funds to remove notorious Kingwood mouth bar.”

Specifically, the reader asked, “Based on your knowledge, is this factual (City of Houston dragging its feet) or just politicians pointing the finger at each other?”

Before I step into the cross-fire, let me say this. Officials have conducted most meetings on this subject behind closed doors. But I shall attempt to answer the reader’s question based on public statements and documents supplied by Houston City Council member Dave Martin and the Army Corps.

Mouth Bar Chronology

To answer the “Is it foot-dragging or finger-pointing” question, I need to go back to the period after Harvey and put this subject in a historical context. Foot dragging depends on where you want to start the clock ticking. So bear with me.

2017: Post Harvey Discovery and Early Efforts to Raise Awareness

September, 14, 2017 – Two weeks after Harvey, I photographed the mouth bar from a helicopter. In the next few months, I began calling attention to it and other sediment problems every way I could. They included this web site, newspaper articles, and testimony before Texas Senate and House committees. At the House Natural Resources Committee hearing at the GRB, Dave Martin was present.

Mouth Bar of the West Fork of the San Jacinto. Like an iceberg, most of it is below water. To get past this blockage, water must flow uphill more than 30 feet.

Early 2018: Early Efforts to Forge Political Consensus

  • February of 2018 – Houston City Council Member Dave Martin began calling Governor Greg Abbott for help on an almost daily basis.
  • March 6, 2018 – Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a Kingwood Town Hall meeting that he had on that same day spoken to Governor Greg Abbott about the urgent need to remove sediment from the San Jacinto River.
  • March, 15, 2018 – Governor Abbott visited Kingwood, took an aerial tour of the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto and met with local officials. After the meeting, he announced that, using Hazard Mitigation Funds, he was authorizing the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) to spend $3 million to jumpstart the engineering and permitting process to determine where dredging should take place on the San Jacinto River.
  • April. 6, 2018 – An Army Corps sonar-equipped boat began surveying a five-mile area between Hwy 69/59 and West Lake Houston Parkway.
  • April 10, 2018 – The Army Corps announced that it had completed the first leg of its survey of West Fork sedimentation.
  • May 9, 2018 – The Corps announced that it had completed the value engineering phase of its Emergency West Fork Dredging Program.
  • May 28, 2018 – DRC (under a contract with the City of Houston) began removing debris from Lake Houston to clear the way for dredging.

Mid-2018: Mouth Bar Excluded from Scope, Scramble to Identify Solutions

Second Half 2018: Effort to Save $18 million

  • July 19, 2018 – Mobilization for the project officially started. About this time, it became clear that mobilization represented 25% of the total cost of the $70,000,000 job, or about $18 million. If the dredging scope could be extended BEFORE the end of “Phase 1,” taxpayers could save the cost of a massive REmobilization for a second, separate project.
  • July 26, 2018 – Members of the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention initiative meet with County Judge Ed Emmett to discuss priorities for the upcoming flood bond including additional dredging for the mouth bar.
  • July 27, 2018 – Tim Garfield and R.D. Kissling, two retired top geologists for a major oil company publish a paper describing why the mouth bar should be included in the scope of dredging.
  • August 9, 2018 – Houston City Council Member Dave Martin holds a meeting to line up the support of Senators Cruz and Cornyn for extending dredging to the mouth bar.
  • August 21, 2018 – Lake Houston Area Grass Roots Flood Prevention Group meets with Ted Poe to urge extension of dredging.
  • August 25, 2018 – Harris County voters approved a flood bond package that included money to extend dredging.

Late 2018: Countdown Clock Keeps Ticking

Storage Permit Controversy and Delays

Costello’s notes on the December 14th meeting also indicate that he had applied to the Corps for a permit to dispose of the dredged material. “A nationwide permit was submitted and subsequently denied by the USACE. We are meeting with all parties involved to discuss the next course of action required to obtain the necessary permits,” says the letter.

It would be another FOUR months before this meeting happened…by conference call.

A confidential source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicates a difference of opinion about the permit application. The source says the permit application, filed sometime in November of 2018, was NOT DENIED and that the Corps simply requested more information.

The City still has NOT supplied the additional information, nor has it reapplied for the permit.

Specifically, the Corps wanted to know how much material would be excavated, where it would be stored on the landowner’s property, whether there were any mitigation requirements, and whether there were alternative disposal sites in case the primary site proved unacceptable for some reason. There was also some confusion over the type of nationwide permit (NWP) requested. According to one source, the permit requested was for drying/dewatering the spoils and then hauling them off-site. However, the landowner wanted to keep the fill and use it to raise the level of his property.

“Tomorrow Afternoon”

On January 14, 2019, Costello told a group of Lake Houston Area leaders that he hoped to be taking core samples “tomorrow afternoon” and have results by the end of January. That did not happen.

It since has become clear that Costello met with TDEM Chief Nim Kidd on February 6th to discuss his data acquisition plan. He summarized it in a memo dated February 8th titled Lake Houston Dredging Analysis Workplan. The plan included three stages:

  1. Using a high frequency “Chirp-type” acoustic sub-bottom profiler data-acquisition tool
  2. Core sampling
  3. Sediment analysis

Note that on five other occasions between mid-January or mid-March, Costello told people that the City would be taking core samples “tomorrow afternoon.” Martin says they finally took the core samples the week before the March 21st town hall meeting.

No explanation was given for these delays. With $18 million dollars in remobilization fees at stake, no one ever even acknowledged the delays.

Core Sample Results

The results that Costello reported at the town hall meeting – $1.5 billion cubic yards – were preliminary estimates. At the meeting, Costello said he expected the final number “tomorrow afternoon” (there’s that phrase again) and that he would send the final report to FEMA no later than Monday, March 25. He vowed to refile an amended permit with the Corps by Friday, March 29. As of 5PM Monday, Costello still has not replied to inquires about whether he transmitted the results to FEMA.

Estimated depth of Harvey Deposits at core sample locations. Shown by Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer and Kingwood Town Hall Meeting on 3/21/2019. For a high resolution pdf of this image suitable for printing, click here.

Remember, there are two issues: FEMA controls funding; the Corps controls permitting for the storage.

Note that FEMA wants to limit funding to Harvey-related damage only; but the Corps is looking for a disposal site that could hold far more sediment, i.e., for pre-Harvey material. Other sources (City, County, State) could fund removal of pre-Harvey sediment to restore the full conveyance of the river. Having one site that could handle everything could save considerable permitting work.

Also lost in the Town Hall political pep rally was the fact that the Corps volunteered to prescreen the application to make sure it was complete and that the the city filed the right type of nationwide permit this time.

When the City says “We are moving as fast as humanly possible,” that sounds like a bit of exaggeration. It took the City four months to acquire the core samples needed to determine the Pre-Harvey volume of the mouth bar. Ultimately, they did it in an afternoon when facing the deadline of last week’s town hall meeting.

Next Steps vs. Deadline to Save $18 Million

So will the City be able to save the $18 million. The current dredging program is due to demobilize in a little more than a month, at the end of April. Before then:

  • FEMA must rule on findings of the core sampling before it can fund the mouth bar project (or at least the initial phase of it).
  • Several parties must audit any grant.
  • City must refile the correct type of permit with additional information.
  • Corps must review and comment.
  • Corps must hold a 30-day public comment period by Federal law.
  • Corps must issue final ruling on permit application.

That looks like at least several months worth of work.. So no, it doesn’t look like the City will be able to save taxpayers $18 million unless they can pull off a miracle.

Is the City moving “as fast as humanly possible?” as one city official said at the Town Hall meeting last week.

You be the judge. How long this has taken depends on where you want to start the clock ticking. It’s not as clear as either side would have you believe. Still there are huge gaps in the timetable that need to be explained to the public…especially if we lose $18 million.

Late-Breaking News: Huberty Amendment to CSSB 500 on Mouth Bar

Meanwhile, State Representative Dan Huberty filed this amendment to CSSB 500 on March 22. It would provide $30 million for dredging the mouth bar. (CSSB stands for Committee Substitute Senate Bill. SB 500 is an omnibus spending bill approved by the Senate, now being considered in the Texas House as CSSB 500.) That money, if approved, could go a long way toward dredging the portion of the mouth bar that FEMA doesn’t fund and the rest of the West Fork.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 25, 2019

573 Days since Hurricane Harvey