In northeast Houston, where residents and activists frequently chant “historic disinvestment,” I accidentally stumbled onto a much more likely cause of the frequent flooding than systemic racism. It happened while browsing a GIS database with hundreds of layers containing a broad range of information. The instant I saw it, it unlocked a mystery. Tumblers suddenly aligned that unlocked the mystery. But let’s start this story with accusations that made no sense to me.
Accusations of Systemic Racism Not Supported by Spending Data
Three years ago, I joined the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force. Ever since, I have heard a constant drumbeat of “historic disinvestment” by many members who believe they are victims of systemic racism by Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).
They claim that they aren’t getting their fair share of flood-mitigation funds when, in fact, financial analysis reveals the opposite. They get the lion’s share.
Eight watersheds with a majority of low-to-moderate income residents have received almost two thirds of the funding going back to 2000. That’s out of a total of 23 watersheds. The money has flowed to damage – as it should.
Many people, however, don’t believe that. The loudest complaints have come from the Northeast Action Collective. They waged a battle to remove flood-control executives from office who were working tirelessly on their behalf.
Regardless, falsehoods repeated often enough eventually rose to the level of “accepted truth.” Even experts can be fooled. Jim Blackburn, the renowned professor of engineering at Rice, repeated the “historic disinvestment” claim without presenting any proof in a Houston Chronicle story last week.
He claimed residents of Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds weren’t getting their “fair share” of flood mitigation money. In fact, Greens Bayou ranks #2 in terms of money received. Only Brays Bayou has received more.
And tiny Halls Bayou ranks #2 in spending per capita. Together, the two bayous have received more than $390 million to date.
And they could soon receive another $466 million out of the $750 million that the GLO and HUD recently granted Harris County for flood mitigation. If HUD approves the recommended projects totaling $466 million, Halls and Greens will have received $856 million – far more than any other watershed. (Technically Halls is a sub-watershed of Greens, but HCFCD tracks spending as if it were separate.) This is hardly historic disinvestment.
More Likely Cause of Flooding Overlooked by Critics Crying Racism
Today, while learning a new (to me) geographic information system, I randomly clicked on a “wetland” layer. Boom! Guess where the largest concentration of wetlands in Harris County is. The northeast!
As a reminder of what these wetlands once looked like, see the photos of Emily Murphy who kayaks along the shores of Lake Houston.
Regulations discourage building in wetlands for good reasons. Water collects there. The soil is less permeable. They are low, poorly drained, and unstable.
In addition, USGS points out the many positive benefits of wetlands. “Wetlands provide habitat for thousands of species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals. Wetlands are valuable for flood protection, water quality improvement, shoreline erosion control, natural products, recreation, and aesthetics.”
But because they’re cheap land and available, some less-than-scrupulous developers often try to build in them. I’m told by engineers I trust that that has always been the case and always will be.
Back in the 1950s, farms and ranches occupied most of the northeast Houston area. Here’s what it looked like then.
And here’s what the same area looks like today.
There are still big undeveloped areas in the image above. But many developments have also filled in large parts of the northeast that were once wetlands in the 1950s image.
Dangers of Building Over Wetlands
According to USGS, “Wetlands are transitional areas, sandwiched between permanently flooded deepwater environments and well-drained uplands, where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land… The single feature that most wetlands share is soil or substrate that is at least periodically saturated with or covered by water.”
Four years ago, I posted about the disadvantages of building over wetlands. Pictures of the Woodridge Village property, then under development by Perry Homes, dramatized how unstable the soils were. Dangers of building over wetlands include shifting slabs, cracked driveways, mold, erosion, clogged storm drains, flooding and more.
Unsuspecting buyers of former wetlands can literally get sucked in by low prices. Seventy years later, the original builders and buyers are long gone. And pre-digital soil samples and drainage analyses (if they were ever done) have long since disappeared into the fog of history or a dusty warehouse.
Wetland-mitigation banks near a development should raise red flags to buyers today. There’s one on the northeast corner of Beltway 8 along, you guessed it, Greens Bayou. There are also two in Colony Ridge: the Houston-Conroe and Tarkington Bayou Mitigation Banks.
I’m not saying early owners didn’t exercise due diligence. We just didn’t know then what we know now.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/22/23
2215 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.