Tag Archive for: Costello

TWDB to Consider $50 Million Grant for Lake Houston Gates

Save the date. On December 7, 2023, the Texas Water Development Board will consider a $50 million grant to the City of Houston for structural improvements to the Lake Houston Dam. The improvements will extend the life of the dam and enable rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood.

The project, led by outgoing Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello, will benefit thousands of residential properties in the surrounding area.

Make sure the next mayor supports it. Get out and vote. Better yet, take your neighbors with you!


The $50 million grant will complement funds from other sources including FEMA. The addition of new tainter gates will enable Lake Houston to shed water faster before and during storms, reducing the risk of flooding.

Until now, pre-releasing water has been risky. The old gates on the Lake Houston dam can release only 10,000 cubic feet per second. As a result, to significantly lower the lake, releases must start far in advance of a storm. But storms can veer away during that extended time. That increases the chances that the City could waste water.

After several years of study, the City has found that the optimal option would be to add tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam. But the cost increased significantly compared to the crest gates initially favored.

Proposed location for new tainter gates
Proposed location for new tainter gates.

Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside more funds for the new tainter gates and specifically directed the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to provide those funds. The TWDB’s executive administrator has recommended authorizing the funds. The Board just needs to approve them.

TWDB Board Meeting In Houston

The TWDB board will consider the approval at a rare Houston meeting at the Harris County Flood Control District in early December.

Thursday, December 07, 2023; 9:30 AM
In person at 7522 Prairie Oak Drive
Michael Talbott Pavilion, Harris County Flood Control District Service Center
Houston, TX 77086

To view the webinar online, you must register for details.

Visitors who wish to address the Board should complete a visitor registration card and attend the meeting in person. The Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits visitor participation by telephone only. The visitor registration card is available and should be completed and submitted by e-mail to Customer Service no later than 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 2023, or in person at the registration desk.

Here is the full agenda. The $50 million grant for more gates is #14. Here is the backup information.

New, higher capacity gates were one of the three primary recommendations made by the Lake Houston Area Task Force after Harvey to mitigate flooding in the area. If all goes according to plan, construction could start in mid-2026, according to Costello.

Will Next Houston Mayor Support the Project?

Large infrastructure projects like this depend on unwavering political support. Completion of this project could take until the NEXT mayoral election. In the meantime, make sure we elect a mayor who will support the Gates Project until then. Keep it moving forward.

In that regard, John Whitmire has already demonstrated his support. If you haven’t yet voted, make sure you do. Take your neighbors, too. And then walk around your block and knock on some doors. Keeping this project will depend on turnout in the current runoff election.

So far, Acres Homes has had eight times more early voters than Huffman. And fewer than 4,000 people have voted in Kingwood.

As of 12/1/2023 according to Harris Votes.

The last day for early voting is December 5th. Polls are open from 7 am to 7 pm except for Sunday when they open at noon. Your last chance to vote is on Election Day, December 9th. For complete election information, visit Harris Votes.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/2023

2285 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Lake Houston Gates Project Moves Closer to Reality

The Lake Houston Gates Project is moving closer to reality with breakthroughs on the benefit/cost ratio, funding and endorsements.

City of Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello provided updates on 2/27/23 at City Hall on the Lake Houston Gates Project. The wide-ranging, hour-long discussion covered several related topics. They included:

  • A critical path for construction
  • Dredging of the lake
  • Funding for gates and dredging
  • Several related engineering studies
  • A favorable ruling from FEMA on the Benefit-Cost Ratio
  • An endorsement to the area’s legislators by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Need For Gates

For those new to the area, the City of Houston has been pushing to add gates to the Lake Houston Dam ever since Harvey in 2017. Upstream, Lake Conroe’s gates can release 150,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). But Lake Houston’s can only release 10,000 CFS.

The disparity in discharge capacity complicates joint-reservoir-management and pre-release strategies designed to avoid flooding by reducing the water level in Lake Houston.

Lake Houston releases cannot keep up with Lake Conroe’s. And pre-releasing water from Lake Houston takes so long that storms can veer away during the lowering process, often resulting in wasted water. That’s an important consideration for a water-supply lake.

According to Martin and Costello, the gate project will:

• Serve as the first phase of a long-term effort to extend the life of the Dam
• Enable the rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood
• Eliminate the need for a seasonal lowering of both Lake Houston and Lake Conroe
• Provide potential water-rights savings
• Protect an estimated 5,000 residential properties in the surrounding area
• Yield an estimated half billion dollars in economic benefits during the life of the project

Gates, Funding, BCR, Studies

Preliminary engineering studies evaluated about a dozen different alternatives for adding discharge capacity to Lake Houston. The City initially favored adding crest gates to the spillway portion of the dam.

However, the City discarded that idea as “too risky” after further study. The engineering company cautioned the City that it would have a difficult time finding contractors willing to risk modifying a 70-year old concrete dam. The potential liability was just too great. So the City then revisited adding various numbers of tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam.

Because tainter gates exceeded FEMA’s funding, the City had initially focused on crest gates. But after investigating the safety issues, the City decided to seek more funding for tainter gates instead.

The City now recommends adding 11 tainter gates.

Recommended location for new tainter gates is next to old ones, not farther east as I conjectured earlier.

The picture below is slightly wider and shows more of how both halves of the dam come together.

If funding comes through, new gates would go in the upper right along the earthen portion of the dam, next to the old gates.
Funding Needs

FEMA initially set aside $50 million for the gates. Plus Harris County committed $20 million in the 2018 Flood Bond to attract FEMA’s match. But the latest construction estimates show eleven tainter gates could cost between $200 and $250 million.

After engineering and environmental studies, only $68.3 million in funding remains. That includes an earmark secured by Congressman Dan Crenshaw. So the City is seeking another $150 million from the State of Texas. Martin and Costello have made weekly trips to Austin so far during this session to line up support from legislators, committee chairs, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Social Benefits Improve Benefit/Cost Ratio

All this is suddenly possible because of a favorable ruling from FEMA on the benefit-cost ratio (BCR).

For years, Houston had struggled to get the BCR for the gate project above 1.0 (the point at which benefits exceed costs). Usually, FEMA strictly interprets benefits as “avoided damages to structures.”

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Costello met with FEMA to argue that the problem was much bigger than damaged structures.

As a result, FEMA allowed the City to add the value of “social benefits” to the BCR. Social benefits can include such things as avoiding lost wages when businesses are destroyed; transportation disruptions that reduce the region’s productivity; reducing negative impacts on student achievement when schools are disrupted; and more.

The social-benefit ruling covers a number of City projects, not just the gates. It should also benefit other areas, especially rural ones.

Said Costello, “The minute the social benefits came in, everything was great.” Instead of struggling to reach 1.0, the City is now far above it.

Greater Houston Partnership Endorsement

With that out of the way, the Greater Houston Partnership wrote a powerful letter to state legislators seeking their support for the gate project. See below.

Greater Houston Partnership letter endorsing Lake Houston Gates. For a printable PDF, click here.

The Partnership includes business leaders from 900 member companies in the 12-county Houston Region.

Dredging Update

While pressing ahead with the gates project, the City is also working on a long-term dredging plan for the lake and working with the SJRA on sedimentation and sand-trap pilot projects.

The Texas Water Department Board (TWDB) has estimated sediment inflow to Lake Houston at about 380 acre-feet of material annually.

The lake has already lost more than 20,000 acre feet of capacity due to sedimentation. That worsens flooding. While the Federal Government supports efforts to improve Lake Houston now, the chances of getting more money in the future will be reduced – unless we can show that we’re at least keeping pace with annual sediment deposits.

Since Harvey, FEMA, the Army Corps, TWDB, and City of Houston have removed almost 4 million cubic yards of material from the lake at a cost of $226 million.

We have to prevent more sediment from coming downstream or dredge it after it gets here.

Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer

The City is currently lobbying for another $50 million for maintenance dredging to add to the money secured in the last legislative session by now-retired State Representative Dan Huberty. New Representative Charles Cunningham will reportedly now carry that banner forward along with State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Legislative News to Follow

March 10th is the last day to file bills in the Texas Legislature this year. Please visit the legislation page on ReduceFlooding.com for updates once bills are filed and start moving forward in Austin.

Thanks to all of our elected and appointed representatives who have pushed so hard on so many fronts for the last 2008 days to tie all the pieces of this complicated flood-mitigation puzzle together.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/27/2023

2008 Days since Hurricane Harvey

San Jacinto East Fork Dredging Begins

This morning, for the first time, I photographed dredging on the San Jacinto East Fork. It was a welcome site and one that hundreds of East Fork residents who flooded will appreciate.

Three Months After Plans Unveiled

It was back on July 9, 2021, that Stephen Costello, the City’s Chief Recovery Officer, unveiled the City’s plans to begin East Fork dredging. At the time, Costello said crews would have to dredge their way there through a shallow channel south of Royal Shores in Kingwood.

On July 11, I first photographed dredging in the channel.

On September 23rd, I photographed crews about three quarters of the way through the channel.

Finally, today, October 12, three months later, I photographed a barge moving straight through the channel and into the East Fork. I even had to move locations a couple time to keep the drone within range.

Drone Photos of East Fork Dredging from 10/12/2021

Two mechanical dredges on East Fork, just upstream from the entrance to Luce Bayou.
Today’s dredging location circled in red. Arrow points way back to where crews are depositing the spoils on the West Fork just south of River Grove Park.
Tug pushing empty pontoon through Royal Shores Channel toward East Fork (top). Looking SE. Note FM1960 Causeway in upper right.
Looking NE toward Luce Bayou on opposite shore to begin Dredging
Empty barge turns NNE. East Fork dredging location is around the finger that sticks out into the river from the upper left. After loading up with silt and sediment, the barge will return to the West Fork to deposit the spoils.

More Dredging $$$ Voted by Commissioners Today

This morning, in Harris County Commissioners Court, Agenda Item 102 passed unanimously without discussion. The motion will contribute $10 million from the Harris County 2018 flood bond funds to extend the dredging on the East Fork, West Fork, and Lake Houston, including the entrance to Rogers Gully.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/12/2021

1505 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 756 since Imelda

Next Phase of Mouth-Bar Dredging Starting

The next phase of San Jacinto West Fork mouth-bar dredging should start December 1, according to Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin. This will start Phase 2 of a Texas Water Development Board grant announced in January of this year (although the phases were numbered differently at that time).

Small Strip of Bar Will Remain for Now

Contractors have already removed all but a few square feet of the above-water portion of the mouth bar. Only a tiny strip remains that will be used for safety purposes during the next phase.

“The dredge operator is using this land mass temporarily for safety reasons. The next phase will be mechanical dredging working off of floating barges. In the event that during the dredging process, a barge is damaged, the equipment can be readily offloaded onto the Mouth Bar land mass, preventing water damage to this equipment. We anticipate moving into the new location beginning December 1st,” said Martin.

Next Phase Includes Another 260,000 CY

Martin says the next phase includes dredging north of the area just completed (the above-water portion of the mouth bar) to a depth of six feet. See the black cross-hatched area below.

For a higher resolution, printable PDF, click here. The next phase will dredge an approximate 60-acre area to a uniform depth of 6 feet from a current depth ranging from 2-4 feet.

The numbers in the map above represent current depth in feet plus tenths of a foot.

  • Purple numbers mean greater than six feet.
  • Dark blue means five feet.
  • Light blue means four.
  • Green means three.
  • And yellow means 2 or less.

More Mechanical Dredging For Next Phase

Martin says the next phase will consist of more mechanical dredging. That means more excavators working from pontoons. See pictures below.

Yesterday, two worked the edges of the area of interest.

A veteran dredger suggested they may be excavating test holes. Why? They could be looking to see how dense the silt is; that could affect the horsepower needed for hydraulic dredges in later phases.

They also could be looking for submerged trees. In a previous phase of dredging between West Lake Houston Parkway and the D1 marker below, dredgers ran into trees along the north side of the river, so they had to make up extra volume on the south side to meet objectives.

Photos Taken November 17, 2020

The Google Earth image below from last year shows where I photographed two dredges (D1, D2) yesterday in relation to where the mouth bar used to be.

Below: actual images of the dredging and dredge area.

Looking west (upstream) toward Kings Harbor and the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge past D1.
Looking north past first dredge (D1) toward the Deerwood Golf Course. Note the depth of water on the arm (approximately 10-15 feet).
Looking south toward FM1960 over what’s left of the above-water portion of the mouth bar. Note the second dredge in the distant background.
This image shows how shallow the water is in the area to be dredged. The birds are STANDING!
Looking northwest. D2 in foreground. Note D1 barely visible in front of long peninsula at top of picture. Also note remainder of mouth bar at right.

In the picture immediately above, dredging in the next phase will take place in an arc around and behind that sliver of sand on the upper right.

Another Million Cubic Yards

Earlier in the year, the City announced that FEMA had agreed to dredge another million cubic yards. We do not know at this time where FEMA’s million cubic yards will come from. That might be yet another phase that dredges a channel between the dredges you see in the photo above.

Stephen Costello, the City’s flood czar, said in October that he was hiring an engineering consultant to determine the optimal course of action.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/18/2020

1177 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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

Despite new Chief Resiliency Officer, Costello Still Heading Up Flood Recovery Efforts

Yesterday’s surprise announcement about Marissa Aho, the City of Houston’s new chief resilience officer, left me wondering about Stephen Costello. Costello formerly held that title. In November of last year, Costello also took on the responsibilities of Marvin Odum.

Odum previously served as the President of Shell Oil Company. He volunteered to work for the City as the Mayor’s “Flood Czar” for 15 months on a pro bono basis.

The press release announcing Aho’s appointment did not mention Costello. The Chronicle story mentioned Costello only in the past tense. That left me wondering about his fate. Was this a shake-up? Was he on the outs?

Stephen Costello, the City of Houston’s Chief Recovery Officer in charge of Harvey efforts and the Mayor’s Flood Czar.

So I emailed Costello and heard back this morning. He replied, “I am the Chief Recovery Officer focused on Harvey recovery. Still doing the flood czar stuff as well.”

Evidently, the title of one of Costello’s jobs changed and he’s still picking up where Odum left off. Hopefully, Aho’s appointment will allow Costello more time to focus on flood mitigation.

Posted by Bob Rehak on February 26, 2019

546 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Mayor Turner Appoints Aho as new Chief Resilience Officer for City of Houston

The Houston Chronicle reported at noon today that Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a new Chief Resilience Officer, a job formerly held by Stephen Costello. The story makes only a brief reference to Costello in the last paragraph. It says, “Stephen Costello, Houston’s former chief resilience officer, began overseeing the city’s Harvey recovery efforts in November 2018. He took over as “recovery czar” from Marvin Odum, the former president of Shell.”

Definition of Resilience Broadened to Include Economic Equity

The press release issued by City Hall mentions nothing of Costello and mentions flooding only once. It appears to broaden the scope of resilience and places major emphasis on “social and economic equity” in resilience planning.

Marissa Aho, City of Houston’s new Chief Resilience Officer. Photo Courtesy of Mayor’s office.

It says, “Mayor Sylvester Turner has appointed Marissa Aho, AICP, as chief resilience officer for the City of Houston… The position will play an essential role in leading city-wide resilience-building efforts to help Houston prepare for, withstand, and bounce back from the ‘’shocks’’ – catastrophic events like hurricanes, floods, and cyberattacks – and “stresses” – slow-moving disasters like aging infrastructure, homelessness, and economic inequality, which are increasingly part of 21st century life.”

As chief resilience officer, Aho will report directly to Mayor Turner. She will oversee the development and implementation of a comprehensive Resilience Strategy for the city. Aho comes to Houston from the City of Los Angeles. There she served as Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for the past four years. 

“The CRO,” says the press release, “…will address the resilience vulnerabilities of all city residents, with a particular focus on low-income and vulnerable populations.”

Bringing LA Experience to Houston

“While serving as CRO in Los Angeles, Aho paved the way for Los Angeles to embed resilience as a value that guides municipal planning, culminating in the appointment of more than 30 departmental chief resilience officers (DCROs) who form an in-city network in each branch of city government. 

“Other innovative initiatives in Resilient Los Angeles,” says the press release, “include developing an urban heat vulnerability index and mitigation plan, placing an equity lens over the city’s response to increasing extreme heat.” 

According to the City, Houston remains vulnerable to less-familiar shocks and stresses, such as environmental degradation and access to economic opportunity.

It’s not clear from either the news release or the Chronicle story what role Costello will play vis-a-vis Aho, if any.

About New Houston CRO Marissa Aho, AICP 

Prior to serving as the Los Angeles CRO, she held senior staff positions at two Los Angeles planning and land use consulting firms. Aho has 15 years of policy, planning, and project management experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors where she has worked with interdisciplinary teams to find creative solutions to complex problems. She has a BA in political science from American University and a master of planning from the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy. She is the Region VI commissioner for the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), section director of the Los Angeles Section of the American Planning Association (APA LA), and is a member of the USC Price Alumni Association board of directors. 

Posted by Bob Rehak on February 26, 2019

546 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Local Geologists Develop Way to Estimate Volume of Sediment in Mouth Bar Due to Harvey

Two top geologists, now retired from one of the world’s leading oil companies, have developed a reliable and repeatable way to estimate the volume of sediment deposited in the West Fork mouth bar by Hurricane Harvey. They calculate that Harvey deposited at least 268,000 cubic yards of sediment in that area alone.

Stream mouth bar where the West Fork of the San Jacinto meets Lake Houston creates a sediment dam. It backs water up throughout the entire Hunble/Kingwood area during floods. Water must flow uphill approximately 40 feet to get over this hump.

No Pre-Harvey Measurements Hampered Dredging Program Approval

According to the Army Corps of Engineers and Stephen Costello, the City of Houston’s Chief Resiliency Officer, the lack of a reliable way to estimate the volume due to Harvey was a major stumbling block in funding the dredging effort. The City, FEMA and the Corps have reportedly been arguing about this for at least nine months. The issue has to do with the Stafford Act, FEMA’s enabling legislation. The Stafford Act prohibits FEMA from spending disaster relief funds on cleanup not related to the disaster in question.

Because the City of Houston had no reliable sedimentation survey taken immediately before Harvey, calculating the volume due to Harvey became problematic.

How a Mouth Bar Forms

A mouth bar forms at the mouth of a river where it meets still water (in our case, Lake Houston). As moving water encounters the still water, coarser sediment like sand is deposited. It begins building up and up until sand bars emerge above the surface.

The Insight that Led to a Reliable Way to Estimate Volume

Mainly sand comprises the mouth bar; sand moves only during major floods. The sand above water can only be deposited when floodwater is much higher than the top of the bar. That insight became the key to unlocking the mystery of how much sand Harvey deposited.

Everyone could see from satellite images how much the above-water portion of the bar had grown. But there was no way to tell how much the bar grew below water. Then in October of 2018, Costello presented a “difference map” that showed the sediment buildup between 2011 and 2018.

RD Kissling and Tim Garfield reasoned that if they could calculate the percentage of above-water growth during Harvey from satellite images, they could then apply that same percentage to the total volume of sand deposited below water between 2011 and 2018.

Calculation for visible “above water” growth of the mouth bar during Harvey.

But to determine the total volume added between 2011 and 2018, they first had to:

  • Digitize the difference map
  • Create polygons around the different colors
  • Calculate the area of the polygons
  • Multiply area times thickness for each
  • Add up the results.
Digitized difference map shows boundaries between areas of different thickness.
Multiplying the area of the polygons times the thickness from the difference map yielded volumes for each area.

Tetra Tech Delays May Push Project Past Deadline

According to Costello, the City hired a company called Tetra Tech in early January to calculate the Harvey volume. He said they would do that by harvesting and analyzing core samples. The City expected the results of their study by the end of January. But when I talked to Costello in mid-February, he said Tetra Tech still had not finished harvesting core samples and that he wasn’t expecting results of their analysis until the end of February or early March.

Pro Bono Effort Might Save Taxpayers $18 Million

Kissling and Garfield developed their methodology and donated their time to help save money and to get the mouth bar removed before the start of the next hurricane season. If the current dredging program can be extended before the end of April, taxpayers could save the cost of recommissioning all the equipment. That could total $18 million.

The two geologists reasoned that their methodology would give all parties a basis for allowing the dredging to continue. Then, if Tetra Tech came back later with a different figure, the contract could be adjusted up or down.

Kissling and Garfield emphasize that their methods are conservative, reliable and repeatable. For peer review and public comment, this presentation shows how they arrived at their estimates in a step by step fashion.

I am presenting it here to start a dialog that leads to additional dredging without incurring the cost of remobilizing the massive amount of equipment now on the river.

Estimate is Only a Fraction of What Needs to Be Removed

Kissling and Garfield emphasize that this is just a start. Even if all 268,000 cubic yards were removed, the river would still be up to 20 feet shallower than at the time of impoundment. They hope this leads to a broader discussion of additional dredging which could be financed through other sources, such as the county flood bond and Proposition A. Finally, they point out the need for maintenance dredging after major floods to keep the sediment buildup at sub-critical levels.

Said Garfield, “We are confident this estimate of Harvey-specific sedimentation on the mouth bar is reasonable and should be used to support FEMA funded continuation of dredging. However, removing that volume alone still won’t solve the problem, because the mouth bar is much bigger than that and it remains the largest restriction of flow conveyance to the lake.”

Garfield continued:

“At a minimum, to restore flow and reduce flood risk, a 300-400’ wide channel 20’-25’ deep needs to be dredged to connect the river from the upstream dredging now nearing completion, through the mouth bar, to the FM1960 bridge. That is at least 5 or 6 times as much sediment as our estimate of what FEMA can fund, but without that the recent dredging alone has not solved the flood risk problem in our area.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on February 24, 2019 with help from R.D. Kissling and Tim Garfield

544 Days after Hurricane Harvey

City Analyzing Samples from Mouth Bar In Hopes of Determining Volume Due to Harvey

According to Stephen Costello, Chief Resiliency Officer for The City of Houston, the City contracted with a company called Tetra Tech to take core samples earlier this week from and around the mouth bar on the West Fork of the San Jacinto.

Why Core Samples?

The mouth bar is a giant sand bar at the mouth of the river where it meets the lake. The size of it has concerned residents throughout the Lake Houston Area since Harvey. It has the potential to back water up on both sides of the river and worsen flooding.

Some background. The Army Corps initially excluded the mouth bar from its current dredging program on the west fork. Their reason: a small part of the bar existed before Harvey. FEMA, which is funding the dredging, by law cannot spend money on remediation for things that existed before the disaster in question.

It took months for the City, FEMA and the Army Corps to agree on a way to estimate the volume of sand deposited by Harvey. The answer says Costello: something called the Stockton protocol that he says was developed after Superstorm Sandy at Stockton University in New Jersey.

Analysis Due by End of February

The core samples will be key to estimating pre- and post-Harvey volumes. Costello says engineers will look at density and color of sand grains to help estimate where sediment from one storm stops and another starts.

Costello hopes engineers will complete their analysis by the end of February. In the meantime two other efforts are proceeding simultaneously.

Search for Suitable Disposal Site Continues

The Corps will evaluate one property for suitability as above-ground storage. Separately, others are also out looking at sub-surface storage sites (i.e., old sand pits). Several have been located. The cost and safety of above ground and below ground storage will be weighed against the possibility of hauling material off by truck. Distance between the dredge and disposal sites also affects pumping costs.

All this will take time, especially if a full-blown environmental study is necessary for the above-ground option. Costello says the Corps has told him that could take four months to two years.

Evaluating Plan B

Because of delays, Costello is starting to worry that delays may cost taxpayers the opportunity to save $18 million. That’s the cost to remobilize a second dredging project if the current dredging project cannot be extended.

Accordingly, Costello is pursuing two options. The first involves praying (that’s a joke). The second involves working back through the Texas Division of Emergency Management to get FEMA to declare the mouth bar part of the original emergency mission. The Corps seems to move much faster when orders come from FEMA, several sources tell me. Maybe we should start praying too. (That’s not a joke.)

Money, according to Costello, should not be a problem. FEMA has approved the use of debris cleanup money from Harvey for dredging. He believes enough money remains in that fund to cover the City’s cost share.

Where Current Dredging Project Stands

The Corps estimates that the current dredging project is 45% complete. They hope to complete dredging by the end of April.

City contractors are still removing downed trees from Lake Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.
The Callan Dredge is currently working the area near Kings Harbor at the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge.
The immensity of the equipment underscores the need to keep crews working at the end of the current project on the mouth bar. Remobilizing all this equipment could cost $18 million or more if delays create a need to remobilize.

Posted by Bob Rehak on February 7, 2018

527 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The Mouth Bar: A Dam Behind the Dam

As tonight’s town hall meeting with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Council Member Dave Martin, Chief Resiliency Officer Steve Costello and Chief Recovery Officer Marvin Odum approaches, it’s important to understand that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is NOT currently scheduled to dredge the mouth bar at the confluence of the West Fork and Lake Houston.

The scope of the current West Fork Emergency Dredging Project includes 2.1 miles between River Grove Park and Chimichurri’s. The Corp will remove 1.8 million cubic yards of sand clogging the river in that area. However, they will leave two to three times that much sediment at the mouth of the West Fork – between King’s Point and Atascocita Point…unless something changes soon.

The “Mouth Bar,” a giant sand bar that blocks the West Fork of the San Jacinto, backing the river up into Kingwood and Humble. Water depth is generally 1-3 feet around this bar. Max channel depth in places is just 5-8 feet.

The “mouth bar” which we have talked about extensively in previous posts forms a dam of sorts behind the Lake Houston dam. It backs water up into the heavily populated Humble/Kingwood/Atascocita corridor.

Tim Garfield and RD Kissling, two local retired geologists, first sounded the alarm about this blockage. Since then, many people have been working to bring the mouth bar within the scope of the current project. Garfield and Kissling have also continued to review Corps survey data and developed additional insights.

Tonight Garfield and Kissling shared these thoughts.

  1. You could walk along the red line from Scenic Shores to Kings River Estates, and except for crossing the paleo channel at five to eight feet, you would not even get your shirt wet. It should be approximately 25 feet deep in this area.

    Shallowest path follows red line.

    The Corps survey data is in the background. The red line represents the shallowest points of the lake/river.

  2. Without removing the mouth bar, water will have to flow uphill approximately 40 feet between the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge and Lake Houston.

    Water will have to rise approximately 40 feet between West Lake Houston Parkway and the Mouth Bar to reach Lake Houston. Subtract five or six feet for the deepest parts of the channel on either side of the bar.

  3. If the city dropped the lake level 12 feet overnight – but the mouth bar remained – you would see an earthen dam 6 feet higher than the lake, behind which West Fork floodwater would still back up and flood our neighborhoods.
  4. Adding flood gates without removing the mouth bar will not protect us from flooding.

With those happy thoughts, let’s hope that the City has some good news to share tonight re: removal of the mouth bar. Council Member Martin and others have been working diligently with the County, State, and Federal Governments to include the mouth bar in the current dredging project or fund it as a second project that follows the first closely.

Doing so could save taxpayers $17 million in mobilization costs.

The meeting will be held Tuesday, October 9 at 6:30 p.m., at the Kingwood Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods, Kingwood, TX 77345.

Posted by Bob Rehak on October 9, 2018

406 Days since Hurricane Harvey