Tag Archive for: flood mitigation

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.

GLO Suggests Plan to Streamline Flood Mitigation in Harris County

Citing the urgent need to spend half of a billion flood-mitigation dollars quickly, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) has made a common-sense suggestion to streamline flood mitigation in Harris County. It recommended making Harris County Flood Control District a “direct recipient” (rather than a “sub-recipient”) of the half billion dollars carved out of $750 million awarded to the County in 2021.

Harris County Commissioners put Community Services, not Flood Control, in charge of managing the $750 million award. But Flood Control is spending two thirds of the money.

The GLO suggestion would streamline working relationships, speed up mitigation, and give Harris County a fighting chance to spend the money before the deadline.

Following the Money

In May 2021, the GLO recommended allocating $750 million of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money to Harris County for Harvey mitigation and recovery. In March 2022, HUD approved the recommendation.

Later that year, Harris County Commissioners Court decided to have its Community Services Department (CSD) administer the funds rather than Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).

Since then, CSD recommended giving two-thirds of the money to HCFCD and distributing the rest to various entities within the county. But so far, CSD has only received one application from a potential partner. And six years after Harvey, none of the money has yet been spent moving dirt to reduce flood risk for Harris County residents.

Meanwhile, the county is under HUD deadlines to use the money quickly or lose it.

So, on June 20, 2023, Mark Havens, Deputy Commissioner of the GLO, asked County Judge Lina Hidalgo to make HCFCD a direct recipient. Hidalgo reportedly did not reply to the letter.

The change would shorten lines of communication and reduce layers of administration while speeding up mitigation, protecting residents, and hopefully beating the imminent HUD “use it or lose it” deadlines.

Going into the third year since the announcement of the $750 million flood-mitigation award, none of the money has yet been spent.

Commissioners Court Will Discuss Issue on Tuesday

After more than six months of deliberation, CSD eventually allocated $502.5 million to HCFCD from the $750 million. CSD was then going to allocate most of the rest to unspecified sub-recipients within the county after soliciting applications from potential partners.

However, on next Tuesday’s Commissioner Court agenda, Item 401 reveals…

CSD has found only one entity interested in applying for any of the remaining money in more than six months.

Backup to Harris County Commissioners Court Agenda Item 401

The July 18 Commissioners Court agenda also contains a motion by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia to approve the GLO proposal. See Item 331.

The County is under two “use it or lose it” deadlines for the funds. And GLO is under pressure from HUD.

How NOT to Advertise for Applications

As of this morning, 7/16/23, CSD’s web page that solicits applications has not been updated for two months. It still talks about a May 4th meeting in the future tense.

Screen Capture from solicitation announcement page on 7/16/23.

It also contains some hysterical typos in the first line above. “Applicant’s Conference” singular? “Question” singular? They expected to have only one attendee and one question!?

Worse, it takes a lot of work to find the application web page. CSD’s home page has no direct link. The architecture of CSD’s site revolves around consumer issues such as rent relief and bus ridership, not applicants for mitigation projects.

To get to the $250 million pot of gold at the end of this rainbow from the CSD Home Page, one must click on:

  • Links
  • Harris Recovery (a separate web site)

Not very intuitive! CSD blames the lack of response on a $20 million funding limit. That may be so. But the first rule of sales is, “Make it easy for the customer.” And that certainly didn’t happen here.

Projects Put on Hold While $250 Million Sits on Table

Management turnover has also plagued CSD. Under Lina Hidalgo, the department has had six different directors in 4.5 years.

To make matters worse, under Hidalgo, HCFCD has had four leaders in the last TWO years.

Meanwhile HCFCD is still looking for money to complete projects in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. Moreover, Harris County Engineering is putting subdivision drainage projects on hold for lack of funding. And all this is happening while a quarter of a billion dollars is still sitting on the table.

I hope Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Garcia and Commissioner Ellis can connect those dots and streamline flood mitigation quickly.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/16/23

2147 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.

Can Cream City Teach Bayou City about Flood Mitigation?

The smell of ripe grass. The blinding purples, yellows, and whites of fall wildflowers. The buzz of pollinators deciding which stop to make next on the buffet. These are all elements of a strategic approach to flood mitigation across the Milwaukee, Wisconsin metropolitan area. 

Photo Courtesy of Matt Berg. Restored wet prairie in MMSD’s Greenseams program.

US Water Alliance’s One Water Summit Explores Greenseams Program

I was asked to join the Texas delegation at the US Water Alliance’s annual conference earlier this fall. The One Water Summit brings together a wide swath of the water sector in the name of planning and managing all water resources (drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater) as part of an integrated process. Since every single drop has value, it’s only logical to treat it that way.

The week included plenty of time thinking and planning with municipal water departments from Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston, but day one of the conference featured a number of field trips to different examples of the Milwaukee area’s water infrastructure. I chose to spend my afternoon learning about the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s (MMSD) Greenseams program

Conservation of Parcels with Low and High Infiltration Rates Help Manage Flood Peaks

There are two broad approaches at the heart of the program: 1) conserve land parcels that are wet under normal conditions or that hold water after a rain event and 2) conserve land parcels with high infiltration rates to get water in the ground quickly. In certain areas, wetlands and prairies also undergo restoration efforts to improve performance even further.

Working together, these approaches mean strategic locations slow and hold water upstream to reduce flood peaks downstream and release it gradually over time at a more manageable rate. This results in reduced flood risk for private property and public infrastructure. A natural approach to flood mitigation!

Financing Programs in Surrounding Counties

Milwaukee County’s location means it lies at the end of multiple rivers flowing together just before they enter Lake Michigan. That also means Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee are at the receiving end of every interaction between rainfall and land use upstream, including areas far outside their respective jurisdictions. 

As a result, MMSD uses a mix of grants, bond funds, and service fees to strategically implement its program and preserve land not just within its own service area but on upstream portions of watersheds in a handful of surrounding counties. This makes for greater impact in Milwaukee County and also introduces flood mitigation benefits for many more communities throughout a much broader swath of watersheds in the region.

Link Between Restoration and Reduction

For the field trip, our group visited a handful of adjacent former farm fields within the City of Franklin. Over the last couple decades, these have been restored to reintroduce prairie vegetation, reconnect historical hydrological features, and reduce erosion.

Photo Courtesy of Matt Berg. Restored prairie in MMSD’s Greenseams program.

As it so happened, our site visit took place just a day after one of the heaviest rainfalls in the region’s recorded history. Despite the downpour, the site was damp but entirely walkable, assuming you’re wearing something like hiking boots and not dress shoes! This site has moderately high infiltration rates, so water drains downward in a hurry. We saw photos from other sites that took the other approach and held substantial water on the surface before slowly releasing it downstream. We very much saw the action in real time. 

Beyond Flood Mitigation to Water Quality Improvements, Too

It doesn’t end with flood mitigation, either. Depending on the characteristics of each site in the program and its conservation agreement, there are additional big benefits via ensuring clean drinking water, preserving wildlife habitat, and providing recreation opportunities for residents and visitors. 

At the City of Franklin site we visited, it was obvious the rapidly developing surrounding area was already planning for additional trails to connect new neighborhoods to the site’s open space. 

How Ideas Could Translate to Houston

You may be thinking that sounds all well and good for Milwaukee, but how about the Southeast Texas?

Houston locals spend a lot of time talking about the impermeable soils of our region. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the soil infiltration rates (how fast water moves down through the soil) of Harris County and Milwaukee County are actually quite comparable.

Granted, data from the National Weather Service’s Atlas 14 makes it clear that the intensity of rain events in Houston is much greater than in Milwaukee. 

However, two more things that Houston and Milwaukee do have in common are increasing trends in precipitation intensity and a rapidly growing urban footprint. These two compound each other, with heavier rainfall on ever greater hard surfaces causing more and faster runoff. 

Photo Courtesy of Matt Berg. Pickerelweed in Panther Branch watershed in Montgomery County, TX.

MMSD works with local land trusts in its region to make Greenseams a success. In the Houston region, groups like Bayou Land ConservancyCoastal Prairie ConservancyGalveston Bay Foundation, and Houston Audubon all play big roles in delivering benefits for flood mitigation and clean water supplies through land conservation from the very top of to the bottom of our region’s watersheds.  

Photo Courtesy of Matt Berg. Riparian wetland along Spring Creek on the border between Harris County and Montgomery County.

The need is definitely present, and the pieces are there to make it happen. I guess you could say it sure “seams” like heartily pursuing such a regional strategy would be a great idea for Southeast Texas too. 

By Dr. Matthew Berg, CEO & Principal Scientist, Simfero Consultants. Posted on 12/9/22

1928 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Note: Milwaukee is known as Cream City for the distinctive light color of the bricks produced there and widely used in its architecture.

County Approves Another $15 Million for Flood Mitigation in Precincts 1, 2

On October 25, 2022, the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court approved the expenditure of another $15 million from the Flood Resilience Trust. All the money will be spent to avoid delays on flood mitigation projects in Precincts 1 and 2.

This follows an approval on June 28 to spend $85 million on 16 projects. Two thirds of the benefit for those also went to Precincts 1 and 2.

Not one of the 20 projects approved to date is in the San Jacinto Watershed.

Where the Money Went

Of the four flood-mitigation projects approved for trust funding in October, three were in the Halls Bayou Watershed and one was in Sims.

In June, commissioners approved 16 other projects:

  • One in the Armand Bayou watershed
  • One in Brays
  • Two in White Oak
  • Three in Halls
  • Four in Greens
  • Four in Cypress and Little Cypress Creeks
  • One in Buffalo Bayou

Of the 16 projects, 14 benefited Precincts 1 and 2, but only 7 benefited Precincts 3 or 4. The totals for “projects” and “areas benefited” do not equal because sometimes benefits cross precinct boundaries.

Looking at both groups of expenditures, 20 benefited Precincts 1 and 2, while only 7 benefited Precincts 3 or 4. So about one quarter of the flood mitigation benefit has gone to the Republican-leaning half of the county.

Purpose of the Trust

The Flood Resilience Trust Fund was originally conceived to facilitate:

  • Acceptance of a grant that requires a local match exceeding secured local funds
  • Awarding construction projects that exceed the amount of secured funds
  • A change in contract for a construction project underway that exceeds the amount of secured funds

In all of the most recent cases, the expenditures avoided delays for projects already underway. In each, partnership funds did not materialize as expected. See below.

See high-res PDF of full report here.

The $100 million dollars in Trust Fund expenditures approved to date leaves a balance of only $28 million in the fund. So…

78% of the money is gone in just four months. And the Lake Houston Area hasn’t seen a penny of it. Meanwhile, multiple projects in the San Jacinto Watershed struggle to get in gear.

To see the full report on June projects, click here.

For the full October report, click here.

Fix This Discrimination

Polls are open from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. Monday through Friday this week for early voting. Election Day is on November 8. It’s a long ballot. Make sure you vote all the way to the end, because several key races/proposals are hidden in the middle of all the judicial races. For instance, the race between Lina Hidalgo and Alexandra Mealer for County Judge comes after family court judges on the ballot.

All registered voters in Harris County may vote for County Judge. A heavy turnout in this area could swing the election. It’s close. As of this morning, however, fewer than 10,000 people in Kingwood have voted.

Also, Precincts 2 and 4 will elect Commissioners this year. (The Lake Houston Area is now in Precinct 3 and won’t vote for commissioner until 2024.)

There are also three county bond proposals on the ballot totaling $1.2 billion being pushed by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. Despite promises made by the County Administrator months ago, none has a defined project yet, so if you approve the Garcia Bonds, you’re writing a blank check.

Also, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court have announced their intention to distribute the $1.2 billion unequally. The two Republican Precincts would get only $220 million each or a total of $440 million. So Republican Precincts would get 36% while Democrat Precincts would get 63%.

That echoes lopsided Flood Resilience Trust and 2018 Flood Bond spending to date. Don’t miss your chance to bring fiscal control and balance back to Commissioners Court. And some flood-mitigation benefits to the Lake Houston Area.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/31/22

1889 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Response to Concerns About Flood Mitigation Benefits Index (Part II)

The letter below expresses disagreement with two recent ReduceFlooding.com posts about a proposed Flood Mitigation Benefits Index. It is from Michael Bloom, P.E. While I disagree with almost all of his claims, I am reprinting his letter verbatim because I encourage healthy debate. Compare the posts and draw your own conclusions. – Bob Rehak, Host, ReduceFlooding.com.

This is Part II of my two-part article providing responses to concerns raised by my colleague on the Community Flood Resilience Task Force (CFRTF)Mr. Bob Rehak about the FMBI. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

Why are we Using the Index When it Produces Inconsistent Results that are Not Intuitive? Mr. Rehak provides an example that holds the current population and current risk the same, but changes the total prior investment amounts, as illustrated in the table below:

(% Annual Chance)
Area A100,0005,000102
Area B1,000,0005,0001020

Mr. Rehak looks at these results and writes: “So, spending more money to get the same results increases benefits? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? That’s both depressing and confusing. You spend 10X the money; flood risk remains the same; and the “benefit” increases!!!??? You would think spending less money to achieve identical results would be more beneficial. It certainly is for taxpayers.”

Everyone should be depressed and confused by this result if the FMBI was illustrating the results for the same location. Mr. Rehak appears to make that inference when he writes: “spending more money to get the same results increases benefits.”

But Area A and Area B are two different locations. The FMBI is just telling us what the current conditions are at two different locations in the county. One location had 10 times the prior investment than the other – but both locations still have the same current risk.

Worse, in this case, BOTH locations have risks that are ten times the current standard of care for new developments – which require structures to have less than a 1% annual chance of inundation. Clearly, both locations need more flood risk investment. The FMBIs of 2 and 20 both are extremely low, meaning they need help, regardless of the prior investments. A high FMBI indicates that no additional help is needed in that location. A low FMBI indicates that additional help is needed in that location.

The table included in the middle of my February 17, 2022, post entitled “How Should We Decide Where to Invest in Flood Risk Reduction?” presents additional examples showing how the FMBI changes from location to location with only one changed variable. It also provides narrative explanations of each sequence. Notice how the index values are greater than 3,000 (sometimes greater than 20,000 or 100,000) in locations where the current annual chance of inundation is less than 1%? Again, a high FMBI means we don’t need to make more investments in that location. A low FMBI means that location needs more help.

Isn’t the FMBI Trying to Prove Inequitable Investments in Flood Risk Reduction? To some extent, partially, yes, it is. This was always an important aspect of the FMBI, when it was originally proposed as the “Flood Benefits Index (FBI)” by Dr. Erthea Nance and Iris Gonzalez in May 2021. I have continued to advocate for its use as one of four input variables we should use to create our county-wide “heat map.” This is explained in more detail in my other article. Mr. Rehak is concerned about the taxpayer. I am also. I don’t think the taxpayers of Harris County should pay for flood risk reduction projects in areas that already have a high FMBI. Said another way, it is a waste of taxpayer money to invest in additional flood risk reduction projects in areas currently with less than a 1% annual chance of inundation.

Isn’t the FMBI Measuring per capita Investment Associated with a Certain Level of Flood Risk and Mistakenly Calling that a “Benefit?” Mr. Rehak writes: “The more people you help with any given sum, the more the benefit goes down. Voila! That makes it look as though the highly populated watersheds (that have received the overwhelming majority of prior investments) have received little benefit. And that may be the point of this formula. It will send even more money to those same areas.”

This interpretation again seems to stem, I think, from Mr. Rehak’s belief that the index will be used to compare the same location at different times – before and after various investments. This is not the proposed use of the index. The proposal is to use the index to describe the current conditions at all locations in the county at the same time.

I’m not sure I understand Mr. Rehak’s concern about the index being a per capita value. The more people in an area who benefit from prior investments the better. Wouldn’t we want to invest in areas that help the most people?

The blue-shaded area of the table in my earlier post illustrates how population differences between locations will change the index value among those locations. For convenience I’ve repeated the table below:

Hypothetical examples.

Mr. Rehak accurately notes that the index goes up in locations with fewer people and down in locations with more people; this will incentivize planners to direct future investments in those higher population areas. He writes: “The more people you help with any given sum, the more the benefit goes down.” This is true, but Mr. Rehak’s statement doesn’t connect it to the past and it omits how the index will be normalized by area size. Index values will be calculated for similarly sized areas. This will allow an apples-to-apples comparison of per capita investments. The index is intended to incentivize future investments in areas with more people in cases where risk and prior investments are equal because we want to help as many people as possible.

By Michael Bloom, P.E.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/10/2022

1776 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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First Quarter 2022 Flood-Mitigation Spending Update, New Equity Formula

In the first quarter of 2022, Harris County Flood Control District spent a total of $84 million. That brought the total of flood mitigation spending since 2000 up to almost $3.8 billion.

For the first time since ReduceFlooding.com started tracking these numbers via Freedom of Information Act requests, spending in the Hunting Bayou watershed led all other watersheds. Brays Bayou, the previous front runner, dropped into second place. Cypress Creek, White Oak Bayou, Clear Creek, and Halls and Greens Bayous virtually tied for third place in spending. The San Jacinto Watershed came in 17th despite the fact that it is the largest in the county.

Watershed spending by Harris County Flood Control District last quarter and since 2000. Includes partner funds and all phases of all projects.

The Galveston Bay and Vince Bayou Watersheds had no invoices reported during the quarter. Totals for Jackson and Addicks were restated to account for a change in accounting, resulting in negative numbers. Previously HCFCD reported dollars spent by project management status. The District now reports totals by invoice date. The new method is more precise.

First Quarter 2022 Watershed Rankings

Negative numbers reflect adjustment for change in accounting described above.

Cumulative Spending Since 2000

Ratio between highest and lowest is almost 100 to 1.

Totals Since Harvey

Between Harvey and the end of 2021, HCFCD spent $1.45 billion on all watersheds. The $85 million spent in the first quarter of 2022 brings the total since Harvey up to $1.535 billion.

San Jacinto Watershed

Of the almost half million dollars spent in the San Jacinto Watershed during the first quarter of 2022, virtually all of it was spent on preliminary engineering and design. The Harris County Flood Control District shows only one active capital improvement construction project in the San Jacinto Watershed valued at $1,000. That’s the Excavation and Removal Contract on the Woodridge Village Property to develop additional floodwater detention capacity. Compare that to the $15.6 million spent on construction in Hunting Bayou.

Equity Formula Being Changed Again

The disparity in totals between watersheds largely has to do with Federal partner funding and the equity funding formula passed by three Democrats at Harris County Commissioners Court. The original formula has been revised again and again to send more and more funding to watersheds with high percentages of low-to-moderate income residents. Commissioners started debating another set of changes to the formula today that would apply to money in the Flood Resilience Trust, but did not vote on it.

The changes recommended include:

  • Prioritizing people over structures
  • Eliminating partnership funding from consideration
  • Recommending proxies for FEMA data since 1977
People Over Structures

This change would favor spending in densely populated neighborhoods inside Beltway 8 as opposed to neighborhoods with more single-family homes outside Beltway 8. For example, 100 people could live in an apartment building on a single acre. So could 3 people in a single family home. The only problem: Flood control has no way of determining how many people live in an apartment building. So the District will have to use an average for the watershed, according to Dr. Tina Petersen, the new head of flood control.

Partner Funding

Democrats don’t want to wait for partner funding. They want to start projects right away, using bond money and other funds diverted from the toll road. Using out of pocket money could speed up flood-mitigation projects in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, but it could also reduce the size of the total pot, jeopardizing badly needed projects somewhere.

Dated Data

Using 1977 data would disadvantage areas outside the Beltway, which was under construction at that time. Places like Kingwood were just beginning to be built. So using the older data from the Seventies would stack the deck in favor of inner-city neighborhoods. However, there was no universal agreement on a suitable substitute for the FEMA damage claims.

“Who Goes First?” No Longer the Issue

These constant changes to an equity formula which was originally conceived as a “Who goes first?” tool, seem to make less and less sense now that all flood bond projects have started. So commissioners are considering these changes in regard to the Flood Resilience Trust. That money will theoretically allow development of more projects when the flood bond expires. But no one has yet determined the list of projects for that money. So Commissioners still have many details to work out.

One huge related detail is developing a plan for how to spend $750 million in HUD partner funds. The county administrator seems to have turfed the assignment to the Community Services Department. Said another way, they took it out of Flood Control and put it in a department that has had four leadership changes in four years.

Out of 154,000 homes in the county damaged by Harvey, Community Services managed to distribute only $21.4 million in repair funds.

No offense. I’m sure this is a difficult job. And I’m sure the county has talented people. But justifying flood-mitigation grants seems to be more of a job for engineers than people who handle claims. The adventure continues. More details in coming weeks.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/26/2022

1701 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Widening of Hunting Bayou Kicks into High Gear

Widening of Hunting Bayou, one of the poorest and most flood-damaged watersheds in the county, is kicking into high gear.

Annual Rate of Spending Almost Quadruples since Harvey

According to data obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Harris County Flood Control District and its partners (mainly the Army Corps and City of Houston), spent $44 million on flood mitigation in the Hunting Bayou watershed between 1/1/2000 and Hurricane Harvey.

That averaged $2.4 million per year for those 18 years. However, in the 4 years since Harvey, HCFCD has spent $37 million – more than $9 million per year.

That rate of spending averages 3.75X higher after Harvey than before.

HCFCD Spending Data Obtained via FOIA Request

Here’s a breakdown.

From FOIA Request. Hunting Bayou flood-mitigation expenditures by time period and category since 1/1/2000 through end of third quarter 2021.

Focus of Current Construction Activities

The upstream portion of Hunting Bayou parallels the south side of Loop 610 for most of its length. Where North Loop 610 turns south, Hunting cuts under it between McCarty and Wallisville Roads. From there it continues east. It then turns southeast at San Pedro Street and eventually joins Buffalo Bayou and the Ship Channel.

Note width of floodplains in red box. HCFCD is now widening Hunting between the left and right boundaries of the box. From Harris County Flood Education Mapping Tool. Blue = 100-year. Green = 500-year floodplain.

Poor, Industrial, Flat, Flood Prone

The Hunting Bayou watershed has the second highest percentage of low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents in the county (69%) after Halls Bayou (71%) immediately to the north.

Hunting also is heavily industrialized with rail yards, tank farms, manufacturing, and shipping companies. The highest points of land are the railroad tracks. Within the red box above, you can see how they affect the flood plain.

After driving around the neighborhoods along Hunting Bayou for an entire day, it appears that the worst storm damage is in the red box above. Many homes are boarded up and abandoned in this area. Others have been elevated. Some have been renovated and are waiting for the next flood.

Current Construction Photos of Bayou Widening Efforts

HCFCD bayou-widening efforts focus on this area right now. They extend from US59 on the west to approximately Wayside Drive on the east. Bayou widening may be an understatement. HCFCD appears to be creating a long series of connected detention basins, some more than 450 feet wide and several city blocks long that narrow at bridges.

This should help drain water from nearby neighborhoods during heavy storms. See pictures below all taken on Sunday, 12/19/2021. They generally trend from west to east, starting at US59 and heading downstream.

Looking east at first of numerous ponds along channel of Hunting Bayou. Photographed from over US59. Loop 610 is in upper left.
Looking east over Hunting Street. Loop 610 on left. Note new hike and bike trails in this and other pictures below.
Looking east from Kashmere Street at a previously excavated area now covered with grass and newly excavated areas beyond it.
Looking east from over Wipprecht Street at work in progress.
Looking east toward Lockwood from Pickfair Street and one of the constrictions mentioned above.
Closer shot of constriction at Lockwood.
Looking east from Hutcheson Park
Opposite angle. Looking west over expanse of Hutcheson Park. Loop 610 on right.
Looking NE from the eastern end of Hutcheson Park, where Hunting cuts under 610.
Looking NE from over Loop 610 toward Homestead Detention Pond in background. Kelly Street cuts left to right through top of frame.s
Looking east from over Homestead at limit of current downstream work.

Funding Flows to Damage

Altogether, the current excavation work stretches 3.33 miles.

In the last five major storms (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey, Imelda), 15,763 structures have flooded along Hunting Bayou. That ranks 7th among all Harris County Watersheds. But one must remember, that Hunting, comprises only 31 square miles. That ranks it 19th in size out of 23 watersheds. The damage per square mile ranked #2 (508.5 structures).

Another reason spending has accelerated here is political policy – namely the Equity Prioritization Framework implemented a year after the flood bond passed.

As with other watersheds, such as Halls, Greens, Brays and White Oak, it’s virtually impossible to grasp the scope of construction from the ground. That’s one reason why people in these watersheds complain they get no help from HCFCD when they are.

To learn more about this and other flood-mitigation projects in the Hunting Bayou watershed, visit this HCFCD page and click on the projects in the left hand column.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/19, 2021

1573 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Update on Harris County Flood Mitigation Efforts

Today, at a meeting of the Harris County Flood Resilience Task Force, Vanessa Toro of the County Judge’s Office and Leah Chambers, Principal of consulting firm Outside Voices presented several slides about flooding and flood-mitigation efforts in Harris County that you might find interesting. Their presentation started with a series of slides that illuminated the history of flooding in Harris County; types of flooding; mitigation challenges, and mitigation efforts currently underway.

Historical Flooding and Mitigation

The first four slides address historical flooding and build on each other.

Selected historical milestones show dates and damage from several major storms in the last 20 years.
The next slide shows the major challenges in each epoch.
The third shows major mitigation efforts over time.
The dotted line shows spending by Harris County to help control flooding.

Different Types of Flooding Throughout County

The presentation then went into examples of the different types of flooding we experience. While river and bayou flooding are important to the Lake Houston Area, in other parts of the county, street flooding is a bigger issue. During high intensity rainfalls, water can’t get to the bayous.

Down in the southern part of the county, coastal flooding from storm surge is the main concern.

Each type of flooding requires different mitigation strategies.

For instance:

  • Flood professionals often address river- and bayou-flooding with detention ponds and channel widening.
  • Street flooding may require better maintenance of ditches, bigger storm drains and wider storm sewers.
  • Coastal flooding may require dikes and better building codes that elevate homes higher.

Key Challenges with Flood Mitigation

The presentation then segued into key challenges we face and how the county is trying to address them.

The first slide in this section discussed incomplete knowledge.

For instance, FEMA’s flood maps measure river, bayou, major channel and coastal flooding, but not street flooding, which is a major problem in the inner city. Hopefully, the next generation of flood maps (See MAAPNext) will help address that.

There’s a feeling that large scale infrastructure projects by themselves will not solve our flooding problems. Various groups within the county are looking at ways to supplement them. The engineer’s office is looking at subdivision drainage. Several other groups are collaborating to explore nature based solutions, flood proofing, and more.

The title of the slide above refers to difficulty of coordinating flood-control efforts across complex jurisdictional boundaries.

Different areas have different priorities, needs and timetables. No one understands that better than those who live near county lines. For instance, upstream counties often use lax regulation and enforcement as a way to entice developers – much to the detriment of those who live downstream.

Flood Resilience Efforts Now Underway

While the 2018 flood bond gets all the publicity, it’s certainly not the only Harris County effort underway to mitigate flooding. The slide below shows the variety of efforts.

They include:

  • The Community Flood Resilience Task Force, a group designed to give voice to communities in developing the next generation of flood mitigation efforts.
  • MAAPNext to update flood maps, incorporate the more data sources, and make flood-risk easier to understand.
  • Resilience Actions Inventory, an ongoing effort to catalog resilience initiatives, projects and programs throughout the county.
  • Infrastructure Resilience Team – an interdepartmental team planning resilience projects. It includes: Flood Control, Engineering, Community Services, Public Health, Emergency Management, and the Toll Road Authority.
  • New departments, such as the Office of Sustainability and the Deputy County Administrator for Resilience and Infrastructure.
  • Structural efforts that fall under the:

All these efforts may not mesh like the gears in a Swiss watch. At least not today. But it’s good to know that efforts are underway on more than one front.

For a high-resolution PDF of the PowerPoint, click here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/25/2021 based on information from the Harris County Judge’s Office

1788 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The Future that Houston Envisioned for 1990 … in 1968

1968 … the year that humans first traveled around the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. It was a triumphant time for America and Houston, home of the NASA “Manned Spacecraft Center,” its name at the time. We could do anything, it seemed. And we did.

1968 Plan for 1990

A reader recently sent me a preliminary plan developed in 1968 called Houston 1990. The Honorable Louis Welch was Mayor and Intercontinental Airport was still a year away from opening. And the Houston Planning Commission (which developed the plan) clearly had its eye on supporting future growth. The plan discussed new water sources, transportation corridors, green space, cultural amenities, employment centers, retail centers, housing choices and more.

Not all of ideas became reality. But most did.

Hits and Misses

For instance, the plan talks about an “emerging” office, retail and high-rise residential area near Westheimer and West Loop 610. (The Galleria?) It also mentions an emerging business area near Holcomb and Main (The Medical Center?) It predicted the continued dominance of single-family housing and the need outlying employment centers as Houston expanded so people could continue to live near where they worked.

For older Houstonians, this will be a nostalgic trip on Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “wayback machine.”

For younger Houstonians, it will be a lesson in the value of planning. For instance, future transportation options can be taken off the table if land isn’t set aside early enough and people build homes on it. That’s why it’s interesting to see something that looks like a network of greenbelts where the Grand Parkway is now.

But people also ignored parts of the plan. For instance, the need for flood control. The plan designated wide green spaces around bayous and creeks which were largely undeveloped at the time. They could have been used for detention ponds and channel expansion as development pushed outward.

Reservoirs that Never Happened

The plan also showed large reservoirs.

  • One was immediately west of what is now Kingwood where Spring and Cypress Creeks come together with the San Jacinto West Fork near I-69.
  • Another was west of a tiny town in the hinterlands called Tomball on Spring Creek.
  • A third was on the Brazos River near Richmond and Rosenberg.
  • And the fourth was a sprawling affair north of Lake Houston that took in portions of Peach and Caney Creeks, the San Jacinto East Fork and Luce Bayou.

Not one of these reservoirs was developed. And with few exceptions, none of the land along the bayous was set aside. The land along the rivers and streams became settled. And now those areas flood significantly during heavy rains.

Olive-colored areas represent open spaces recommended as set-asides for recreation, water resources, and flood control. However, little of the land was actually set aside for those purposes. The large green ring around the City is now the Grand Parkway.

Difficulty of Flood Mitigation After Development

The planned lake west of Kingwood is now sand mines and subdivisions. Lake Conroe would be built in 1973, five years later farther upstream. And Kingwood started building out in the early 1970s.

Building flood mitigation projects along these waterways now would be difficult. It often requires buyouts that can take a decade or more. This problem was foreseen. People were already building up to the edge of bayous, as you can see in the enlarged portion of the map below that shows Halls Bayou.

Halls Bayou in 1968. Note the green areas suggested as set-asides for “open space” along the bayou where development was already crowding the stream banks, leaving few options for flood control.

Many outlying areas that were sparsely populated in 1968 would follow the Halls Bayou pattern.

People would demand flood mitigation after, not before development.

However, that can become expensive and controversial as we saw this week in Huffman. Some areas there along Luce Bayou flooded badly during Harvey and Imelda. Harris County Flood Control District commissioned a flood-mitigation study that recommended a construction of bypass channel (see sections 4.1.3 and 4.1.4).

But local opposition developed from homeowners whose property would be affected. They fought the project. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia killed it in the 8/24/21 Commissioner’s Court meeting, citing local opposition. That left Huffman with no immediate flood-mitigation hopes after three years of study and planning.

For Complete 1968 Study

For a high resolution PDF of the entire 1968 plan and accompanying text, click here. (Caution: 33″x30″, 14 megabyte file. Best viewed on large screen. )

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/27/2021

1459 Days after Hurricane Harvey

How to Speed Up Flood Mitigation Funding: Part II

Today marks the 1349th day since Hurricane Harvey. That’s also how long it took the United States to win World War II. To date, we’ve studied problems, made bold plans and, in a few cases, actually started constructing flood mitigation projects. But none of the $2.1 billion allocated for Texas flood mitigation by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has yet to work its way down to the local level.

The Townsen Overpass at US59 south of the San Jacinto West Fork during Harvey on 8/30/2017. Photo courtesy of Harris County Flood Control.

In the time it took us to win World War II, we’re still trying to line up flood mitigation financing.

Imagine What That HUD Money Could Have Done By Now

If Harris County Flood Control (HCFCD) had just half of that $2.1 billion, no one would be worrying about a funding shortfall for flood bond projects.

If HCFCD had just a quarter of that, it could more than triple the volume of flood mitigation projects currently under construction.

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) administers HUD flood mitigation funds for Texas. However, it has yet to announce the results of a statewide grant application competition for the first half of that $2.1 billion. Hopefully, those announcements will come this month. The GLO intends to hold a second competition for the second half of the money at a later date.

In fairness, the GLO is simply following HUD’s lead. Yesterday, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush suggested many ways to speed up existing flood-mitigation processes.

Below are thoughts contributed by others. To encourage their candor, I promised them anonymity.

I. Consolidation Under One Agency

One federal official suggested that all flood mitigation funds should flow from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), not HUD.

Rationale: Disaster relief is FEMA’s core competency. FEMA’s good at it. FEMA responds quickly. They are on location after disasters. They collect immense amounts of data, manage the National Flood Insurance Program, and have resources to get the job done quickly.

Right now, HUD, the slowest agency with the most rules and regulations, is responsible for helping the poorest neighborhoods, i.e., those that often need it most. Many think that’s unfair.

Dividing responsibilities among agencies creates needless bureaucracy, complexity, overlap and “stove piping.”

Stove-piping is where people in one bureaucracy are blind to activities in another. Eliminating the stove-piping requires cross checking data between agencies and programs, for instance to eliminate duplication of benefits. But that can also slow projects down.

II. Bring Back Earmarks in Some Cases

Another flood-mitigation expert suggested bringing back “earmarks” at the federal level. Earmarks were eliminated years ago to avoid spending on meritless projects in influential congressional districts.

Rationale: Not all earmarks are meritless. In cases of exceptional need, they can send money directly to cities or counties trying to build important flood mitigation projects. With proper safeguards against bogus earmarks, this idea could shave years off construction projects designed to protect people.

III. Partner with Army Corps More

Another expert suggested directing more money to the Army Corps for “project partnership agreements.” The Corps work directly with a local entity such as a city or county to help construct projects faster.

Rationale: The Corps was originally set up more than 200 years ago as a quick-reaction force for wartime. It now has the responsibility for managing the nation’s water infrastructure. The Corps has the turnkey expertise to gauge the merit of projects and the muscle to make things happen quickly.

HCFCD is currently working with HCFCD on projects in the Hunting, Brays, and White Oak Bayou Watersheds.

Previously, the Corps built the Antoine Stormwater Detention Basin in the Greens Bayou Watershed. HCFCD bought out the properties that comprised that basin and currently maintains the property.

IV. Establish a “Quick Reaction Fund”

A financial expert suggested establishing a “Quick Reaction Fund.” It would be activated by a Presidential Disaster Declaration and provide loans to get projects started quickly. The money could be used to jumpstart upfront activities, such as buyouts, environmental surveys and preliminary engineering reports. It could also be used to build entire projects that are needed quickly.

Rationale: Local entities often don’t have the money or staff to conduct these upfront activities. Buyouts can be especially problematic. They must often be completed before other flood mitigation activities, such as ditch improvements or detention ponds, can start.

“But we often have to wait 18 months or more for approval of buyouts,” said one engineer. “The vast majority of people can’t wait that long.”

So they fix up their homes and become more committed to them. Or they may just leave the area. Either way, this slows flood mitigation down even more.

A Forest Cove townhome just beyond the new Houston Parks Board San Jacinto Greenway. Harvey made the entire 80-townhome complex uninhabitable. Many residents left the area because they got tired of waiting for buyouts that are still not complete. That makes buyouts even more time consuming. Photo taken May 3, 2021.

The Quick Reaction Fund could help complete buyouts in months – instead of years – after a flood.

Loans could be paid back later by grant awards from the Feds.

V. Pass a Hazard Tax

To bypass the delays and uncertainties of competitive grant funding through state and federal levels, one local entity suggested passing a “hazard tax.”

Rationale: This would put local entities in charge of their own destinies rather than making them dependent on Washington and Austin for handouts. It would let cities and counties build up a war chest from their own tax revenues. Think of it as a savings account with a dedicated purpose – disaster mitigation. The money could be used to fund projects directly and quickly, or as the basis for matching funds when projects are less time critical.

Need Public Dialog

The rationale FOR the current system of competitive grant funding is to ensure the fairest possible distribution of available funds. But that requires defining and agreeing to eligibility rules upfront. It also requires upfront research, engineering, cost estimating and evaluation to prevent waste and fraud. All of that can take years. Hell, we’re still debating solutions to another Hurricane Ike (2008).

In my opinion, we desperately need a way to resolve such issues faster. I hope this series of articles will start a public dialogue among political leaders at all levels.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/9/2021

1349 Days after Hurricane Harvey, the number of days in WWII