Tag Archive for: Harris County

Looking Through the Wrong End of the Drainpipe: The Politics of Misdirection

Seventh in a series of eight articles on flood-mitigation funding in Harris County.

For the last two years, I’ve heard the same tirades in Commissioners’ Court – that rich neighborhood’s get all the flood-mitigation money while the poor neighborhoods get none. According to Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, that’s because higher home values in rich neighborhoods generate higher Benefit/Cost Ratios and therefore get more FEMA grants. Problem is, FEMA looks at many other factors. And HUD grants favor low-income neighborhoods. But you never hear Ellis or Garcia talk about those.

In reality, most flood mitigation-money in Harris County goes to watersheds with high percentages of low-income residents. (See links to previous posts below.)

By focusing on a narrow part of the flood-mitigation funding process as opposed to outcomes, Ellis and Garcia have been looking though the wrong end of the telescope. Why? To focus attention on the wrong end of the drainpipe! 

In the most flooded parts of Halls and Greens watersheds, street after street has clogged ditch drains. Responsibility for cleaning those drains falls onto, you guessed it, Ellis and Garcia, along with their counterpart at the City of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Simple FOIA Request Disproves Narrative

The Ellis/Garcia narrative just didn’t sound right to me. So I submitted a Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) request to the Harris County Flood Control District in March for historical funding data. I wanted to see if the allegations were true. They’re not.

Analysis shows that the Ellis/Garcia narrative is 180-degrees from the truth. By almost any statistical measure, flood-mitigation spending favors the poorer watersheds in Harris County. That’s where most of the damage is. 

Surely Commissioners Ellis and Garcia can’t be oblivious to more than a billion dollars of construction benefitting their own precincts. 

And had they bothered to look, they would have found Kingwood, their favorite whipping boy, has never received one Harris County Flood Control District Capital Improvement Project.

Verbal Sleight of Hand Deflects Attention from Who’s Responsible

So, what’s going on here? Why the constant barrage of racial accusations and divisive rhetoric? 

In my opinion, the deception, omissions and distortions of fact are about misdirection.

They seem designed to deflect attention from those responsible for a crucial part of the problem: street drainage.

And if you don’t fix that, you will never solve flooding no matter how much money you throw at channel widening, detention ponds and green solutions.

A process engineer in the oil and gas industry once told me, “There’s always a bottleneck in every system somewhere.” And one of the biggest issues in neighborhoods that flood repetitively is street drainage. Water can’t get out of the neighborhoods to the bayous.  

Poor Ditch Maintenance Contributes to Street Flooding

By alleging racism in the HCFCD funding, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are deflecting attention from a serious issue; many of the neighborhoods in their jurisdictions have awful internal drainage (streets and storm sewers) that contribute to frequent street flooding. Street flooding happens when high rainfall rates exceed the capacity of storm drains and ditches to carry the water away. The reduced capacity of the ditches below makes the streets flood on smaller rains.

Swale filled with sediment, almost totally blocking drain on Kashmere Street between Octavia and Engleford in Kashmere Gardens. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.
Ignacio Vasquez has lived in Kashmere Gardens for 45 years. He says he has called 311 about blocked drains like this one on Engleford St. “thousands of times”, but they never get fixed. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.

Vasquez says that after a heavy rain, this drain backs water up throughout his neighborhood and contributes to flooding. He says it can take up to 3-4 days for water to drain away. Completely unprompted, he then said that Kingwood was getting all the help from the City. I told him that I lived in Kingwood and that our drains were just as bad as his. See below.

Drainage swale on Valley Manor Drive in Kingwood is completely filled in. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.

But I digress. Here are some more street drainage photos taken on 6/26/21 in Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds as well as Kashmere Gardens on the southeast corner of US59 and Loop 610.

Wherever I drove for five hours, residents repeatedly told me that because of poor maintenance, water has a hard time getting out of neighborhoods. It must either sink in or evaporate. See below.

Amboy and Octavia Streets. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.
On Octavia just east of Amboy St. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.
Etheline St. near Korenek St. Harris County Precinct 1’s maintenance responsibility.
Octavia St. near Kashmere Street. City of Houston’s maintenance responsibility.

To be fair, not all the ditches were this bad. But I saw thousands like these on hundreds of streets while driving around for five hours. Sometimes sediment almost completely covered drains. I often had hard times spotting the pipes.

On north side of Laura Koppe just east of Arkansas Street. Harris County Precinct 2’s maintenance responsibility.
On Kowis Street a few hundred feet east of the Hardy Tollroad. Harris County Precinct 2’s maintenance responsibility.

The saddest sight I saw all day was this home on Etheline Street between Homestead and US59.

Note the mold and rotting exterior. Also note how close to street level this home is. Harris County Precinct 1’s maintenance responsibility.
Red circle shows location of drain completely blocked by sediment. Harris County Precinct 1’s maintenance responsibility.
Sixteen more representative shots in Harris County Precinct 1, Precinct 2 and City.

With drainage this bad, water may evaporate or infiltrate faster than it flows out of neighborhoods!

Who is Responsible for Streets and Storm Sewers?

Who is responsible for clearing blockages like these? Not the Harris County Flood Control District.

Inside the City of Houston, it is the Houston Public Works Department and a mayor who has been sued for diverting drainage fees.

Who is responsible for the unincorporated areas of Harris County? The Precincts. And the worst drainage happens in Precincts One and Two with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia.

  • Why does Kashmere Gardens (in the City) have open ditch drainage that hasn’t been maintained in years?  
  • How do areas in East Aldine still have barely functional roadside ditches and residents who do not have municipal water and sewer service?  

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have the power and the money to address these issues. Yet they have chosen not to. Why have they not helped the very people they claim are left behind?  

Show Us the Data

It is important to note the questions NOT being asked in this so-called “equity” debate. 

  • How much has the City of Houston invested in these flood-damaged areas to remediate drainage?  
  • How much have Precincts 1 and 2 invested?  
  • What drainage projects have they completed since 2000?
  • What is the capital improvement plan for each precinct, and how much of that includes drainage improvements?
  • What is the equity prioritization framework for precinct spending?
  • How much unspent money does each precinct have for infrastructure?

The answers may point right back at the people making racial accusations.

The City and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia need to provide answers. Let’s see the data. How much have the City and the Precincts spent in these areas? If these areas are underserved, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and Mayor Turner are responsible.

They have claimed transparency is important to them. The time to prove that is now. 

Blaming the problems on racial discrimination is an easy sell in minority neighborhoods. But it’s misdirection and it keeps the spotlight off Commissioners.

Hounding talented executives like Russ Poppe, the soon to be ex-head of the flood control district, out of their jobs won’t fix the issue either. That’s also misdirection.

And it diverts focus from finding solutions to the real problems that contribute to flooding. For that, many people need look no further than the end of their driveways.

We all need to step back and look at flooding from end to end. Then maybe we’ll make life easier for the most vulnerable people among us.

For More Information

For more information, see: 

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/27/2021

1398 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 Letters to HUD, Green, Garcia Tell Another Side of Mitigation Funding Story

Two letters from Texas General Land Office (GLO) – one to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the other to US Representatives Al Green and Sylvia Garcia – explain the GLO’s awards in a recent competition for $1.1 billion in Harvey mitigation funding.

GLO Commissioner George P. Bush sent the first letter to HUD on May 27, shortly after the GLO “snubbed” (according to Mayor Sylvester Turner) Houston and Harris County. Outraged politicians at City Hall and the County Courthouse organized a protest campaign targeted at the HUD and the GLO. These two letters lay out a slightly different mitigation funding story than the one peddled to Houston media outlets by the City and County. Most media coverage trumpeted how Houston and Harris County got “zero” out of competition because of political warfare between Republicans in Austin and Democrats here.

The facts in these two letters got very little play in Houston media.

Bush Letter to HUD Requests $750 Million Direct Allocation for Harris County

Bush’s letter explains to HUD how the GLO organized and scored grant applications in the competition. The letter also explains how:

  • GLO received more than $6.5 billion in grant requests for $1.1 billion during floods in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
  • Money was awarded based on a numeric scoring system approved by HUD
  • Harris County was one of dozens of counties affected by the three storms
  • Harris County and Harris County communities were awarded $90.4 million and $26.7 million for a total of $117,213,863.96 in the first round of mitigation competition.
  • He (Bush) is submitting a “new action plan amendment” to that will direct $750 million to Harris County.
  • GLO recognizes the great need for mitigation funding in Harris County.
  • GLO supports a direct allocation to Harris County (non-competitive)
  • He (Bush) requests speedy approval of the action plan amendment/direct allocation.

Hmmmmm. $117 million is a little more than zero. However, the point to remember here is that Harris County Flood Control got zero. The $117 went to cities within Harris County to improve resilience.

Havens’ Letter Cites HUD Restrictions, Slow Rate of Drawdown for Previous Programs

Deputy GLO Land Commissioner Mark Havens penned the second letter to Green and Garcia on June 10, 2021. It begins by making some of the same points about $6.5 billion in applications, HUD-approved rules, etc. But then, in regard to the rules he adds something new in the debate.

HUD did not allow damage from Hurricane Harvey to be used as a metric for allocating CDBG-MIT (Community Development Block Grant Mitigation) funding!

Mark Havens, Deputy land commissioner

Deputy Commissioner Havens also points out that:

  • The previous HUD secretary was adamant that a direct allocation didn’t go to Houston and Harris County, and that all counties should be eligible for funds.
  • If you add the $117 million mentioned above to the $750 million direct allocation requested by Bush, Harris County would actually get $867 million which the County could then share with the City of Houston as it saw fit.
  • Harris County also set aside $120 million in infrastructure funding out of the original $2.5 billion allocated to the County and City in the first round of Hurricane Harvey funding.
  • The City also received a direct allocation of $61,884,000 in mitigation funding out of the original $2.5 billion.
  • Out of the $2.5 billion, only $91,225,206 – or 3.6% of the total has been drawn down to date.
  • If the City and County don’t dramatically speed up the distribution of these funds, the funds will be returned to HUD.
  • HUD not yet responded to the request for the $750 million direct allocation.

For More Information

For the full text of:

To see the full text of other documents relating to this issue, see the links this post.

Flood mitigation should be non-partisan. This is about helping people whose lives were destroyed by flooding, not finger pointing. I’m not taking sides. I’m just trying to help give you the information you need about mitigation funding to intelligently question the officials you elected to serve you.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/15/2021

1386 Days since Hurricane Harvey

GLO’s Bush Requests Direct Funding from HUD for Harris County Flood Mitigation

Tonight, Texas General Land Office (GLO) announced that it would support a direct allocation to Harris County from HUD Mitigation funds for $750 million.

On May 21, the GLO announced winners of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants totaling more than a billion dollars for Hurricane Harvey flood mitigation. Only problem: none went to Harris County Flood Control or the City of Houston despite the fact that we experienced half of the statewide damage in Harvey. Only $90.4 million went to small cities in Harris County. (See below)

Harvey at Peak Intensity

Ever since GLO’s announcement, Harris County Commissioners have been scrambling, trying to figure out how to fill a funding shortfall. That’s because they were counting on attracting matching grants that didn’t materialize. Without the grants, some of the projects could be delayed – especially those in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, which HUD targets – until alternative sources of funding can be identified.

Yesterday’s Harris County Commissioner’s Court Meeting spent more than four hours on the dilemma. Commissioners arranged for angry residents to call in and each testify for 3 minutes. At the end of their allotted time, they were thanked and asked to call the Texas General Land Office (GLO).

The phones must have rung off the hook at the GLO today, because by the end of the day, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush punted the decision for the next round of funding to HUD.

Below is the full text of a GLO press release sent out at 6:28 PM this evening.

GLO Press Release

“Today, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced his request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for Harris County to receive a direct allocation of $750 million for mitigation efforts.”   

“I have heard the overwhelming concerns of Harris County regarding the mitigation funding competition,” said Commissioner Bush. “The federal government’s red tape requirements and complex regulations are a hallmark of President Biden’s administration. I am no stranger to standing with the people of Texas as we fight against the federal government. As such, I have directed the GLO to work around the federal government’s regulations and allocate $750 million for mitigation efforts in Harris County.”  

“An amendment to the state action plan regarding the administration of Community Development Block Grants for Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) in the State of Texas will be submitted to HUD by the General Land Office to implement these changes. A final mitigation competition will be held for the other 48 eligible counties at a later date.”  

“Although Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017 and Congress appropriated these mitigation funds several months thereafter, the GLO’s hands were tied waiting for HUD to publish the rules regulating the use of these funds until they were published in a Federal Register notice, which did not happen until August 30, 2019 – two years after the storm and 19 months after the appropriation. The scoring criterion required by HUD to be included in the state action plan for distribution of the funds was approved by HUD on March 27, 2020.”

Flood Mitigation Should be Non-Partisan

I don’t want to get in the middle of the cross-fire on this. One of my biggest concerns is that flood mitigation remain non-partisan.

So rather than speculate about people’s motives and try to decipher where things went awry, I will simply post the following documents:

Regarding the last item, the copy is from a draft circulated before the meeting. However, reportedly, Commissioners made no changes. They approved it (or something very close to it) unanimously.

Before the end of the meeting, Commissioners had also resolved to meet with the Governor, HUD, President Biden, Congressmen, Senators and the tooth fairy. One thing is certain. Harris County is not taking this lying down.

One strange thing that several people have commented on: approximately a quarter of all the grants awarded went to improve water and sewage treatment plants – not flood mitigation projects. As one Congressional aid said today, “Separate grants are available for those. That took a lot of money out of circulation.”

Projects Awarded within Harris County but Not to HCFCD

In fact, three of the four projects awarded to cities in Harris County fell into that category.

  • City of Pasadena: Flood Mitigation Project – $47,278,951.21 LMI Percentage: 65.37%
  • Jacinto City: Wastewater Treatment Plant Improvements Project – $5,319,717 LMI Percentage: 78.45%
  • City of Baytown: East District Wastewater Treatment Plant Phase II – $32,394,113.86 LMI Percentage: 52.29%
  • City of Galena Park: Water Plant Improvements Project – $5,482,123 LMI Percentage: 60.22%

Almost as much is going to water and wastewater plant improvements as flood mitigation.

Posted by Bob Rehak on May 26, 2021

1366 days after Hurricane Harvey

Harvey Repair, Rebuild Assistance Still Available for Harris County Residents

Assistance is still available for those who live in Harris County if you have not yet repaired or rebuilt your home damaged in Hurricane Harvey. Applications are NOT for reimbursement.

They are for repairs and rehab handled through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contractors, that meet HUD specs. So forget about marble floors and countertops, adding garages or extra bedrooms, or upgrading to top-of-the-line appliances.

As long as you live in Harris County and you meet the requirements, you can still submit an application. However, understand that Harris County (compared to the City) has far more funding available than applications in its pipeline. Also understand that you can apply through the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which now handles applications for HUD; you don’t need to go through the City or County directly.

Lloyd Nelms and family receive the keys to a rebuilt home.

Types of Help Available

The GLO can provide homeowner assistance through:

  • Repairing and rehabilitating homes
  • Reconstruction
  • Improving a damaged home so that it is more resilient against natural disasters
  • Elevating homes above flood level

How to Apply

How and where to apply depends on whether you live inside the City of Houston or out.

If you live in Harris County but OUTSIDE the City of Houston:
  1. Apply online here.
  2. Download and complete a paper application below. Applications can be submitted by email at harriscounty.glo@recovery.texas.gov or mail to Homeowner Assistance Program 2100 Space Park Drive, Suite 104, Houston, TX 77058. 
  3. Call 346-222-4686 or 1-866-317-1998 (toll free) and a regional office team member will assist with the application process.
If you live in Harris and are INSIDE the City of Houston:

This page explains all the necessary steps and documents: https://recovery.texas.gov/hap/houston. You also have three easy options.

  1. Apply online here.
  2. Download and complete a paper application below. Applications can be submitted by email at houston.glo@recovery.texas.gov or mail to Homeowner Assistance Program 2100 Space Park Drive, Suite 104, Houston, TX 77058. 
  3. Call 346-222-4686 or 1-866-317-1998 (toll free) and a regional office team member will assist with the application process.

All Documents Necessary Before Apps Will Be Processed

Applications, including all necessary documentation, must be completed and submitted BEFORE the GLO and its partners will begin processing it for eligibility. Each application submitted must be individually evaluated to determine eligibility. Please use this checklist for reference whether you live inside or outside of the City.

Without enough qualified applicants, GLO will be forced to send the money back to Washington. So hurry, before the money goes away or runs out.

What to Expect

Potential applicants can watch this video about What to Expect.

The GLO created this video about homeowners who received assistance through this program. Here’s another showing a homeowner who just received keys to a rebuilt home.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/15/2021

1295 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Is There a Shortfall in Harris County Flood Bond Money? Yes. No. Maybe. It Depends.

The 3/9/2021 meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court started with a presentation by the Harris County Budget Management Director David Berry on the County’s Capital Improvement Plan. Mr. Berry asserted early in the meeting that the County had a shortfall of approximately $900 million to $1.35 billion needed to complete projects in the Flood Bond passed by voters in 2018. Is there really a shortfall? It depends on the exact way you phrase any number of possible questions.

Confusing, Unexplained Map Triggers Almost 2 Hours of Discussion

Near the start of the meeting, Mr. Berry put up a very confusing map (below) that frequently heated the next 100 minutes of discussion to the boiling point. The discussion made every front page in town and many of the TV news shows.

  • The map showed the projected funding shortfalls by watershed as a percentage of the total funding allocated to each in the 2018 flood bond.
  • The stories featured sensational quotes by Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis (We will have blood on our hands if this stands.) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Garcia (I feel like someone hit me across the back with a baseball bat.)

The map implied that construction had started on projects that the County did not have enough money to finish, especially the ones in yellow and red below.

Map from Page 16 of Harris County CIP Budget for Fiscal Year 2021/2022.

Was Flood Control Not Following Equity Guidelines?

To add more context to this discussion, understand that Halls and Greens Bayous rank among the poorest in the county. That they seemed so far behind more affluent watersheds in funding rankled Ellis and Garcia. The two had argued to prioritize flood bond spending by a “social equity” formula that addressed the poorest neighborhoods first. To say that the map above was like waving a red flag in front of two bulls would understate its effect.

So What’s Really Going on Here?

Did prices of flood-bond projects suddenly escalate, causing the shortfall? No.

Did Flood Control underestimate costs? No.

The reason has to do with the delayed arrival of long-awaited federal matching funds.

But Berry did not make that apparent in his setup. Commissioners Garcia and Ellis then peppered Russ Poppe, head of the Flood Control District, with angry, accusatory questions for more than 40 minutes. At one point, they asked 11 questions in a row before they gave Poppe a chance to answer one.

Poppe then explained that Flood Control relies on matching funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for low-income areas. Why? Unlike FEMA which requires a positive benefit/cost ratio, HUD does not. Flood Control is currently waiting for answers on HUD grant applications totaling almost half a billion dollars for mitigation work in the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds.

Commissioners Court then spent another 40 minutes trying to understand the chances of getting those grants. They also crafted a motion directing the Flood Control District to develop a backup plan in case grant money didn’t arrive by June 30.

Text Of Motion

The motion reads as follows: “To direct the Flood Control District to work with Budget Management in developing a plan by June 30, 2021 to address the funding gap in flood mitigation projects under the 2018 bond while maintaining an equitable approach to the expenditure of funds, including plans to lobby federal, state, and local partners for funding, identification of alternative funding options, a description of projects that are currently stalled due to incomplete funding and how that affects timing of project completion, and a potential timeline for a future potential bond election regarding the funding of current and future flood control projects. If the County is unable to secure funding to complete all proposed projects, the plan should address how the County should prioritize the investment of existing resources to ensure equitable flood protection and comply with the prioritization framework adopted by Harris County.”

The motion eventually passed unanimously at 1 hour and 32 minutes into the meeting.

Answers to Questions About “Underfunding”

Is construction money in Halls or Greens Bayous invested so far at risk?

No. Money spent so far, according to Poppe, has only been for land acquisition and preliminary engineering studies. The County will need both regardless of how it pays for construction. So the County didn’t waste a penny of flood-bond money invested to date. Construction can start later when a path to funding becomes clear.

Did Flood Control try to hide a shortfall?

No.  The partial reliance on partner funding now characterized as a “shortfall” was shown in the Bond Program from Day One. The projected shortfall was never greater than on the day voters approved the flood bond. At that point we had secured no partnership funding for those watersheds or any others. We still haven’t for Halls and Greens.

Have we found partnership funding faster in other watersheds?

Yes. Especially in watersheds where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a leadership role in construction or where partners could demonstrate a positive benefit/cost ratio for FEMA. In 2018, Poppe estimated Harris County Flood Control could find $2.3 to $2.4 billion in matching funds based on $872 million allocated for seed money in the Flood Bond. But Berry estimates the budget shortfall at $900 million to $1.35 billion. Subtracting one estimate from the other indicates Flood Control has already found a billion dollars or more in matching funds for other watersheds. That’s great work. And that accounts for the differences in colors on the map.

Can Harris County count on the HUD money?

No. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) is still reviewing Flood Control’s grant applications to HUD. We could get some, all, or none of the requested grants.

When will we know how much HUD money, if any, we get?

Initial indications were that we would get answers by late April or early May. Today, I learned from an independent source who requested anonymity that the answer may not come until October.

If the money doesn’t come from HUD, where will it come from?

It depends. Commissioners floated several ideas in the meeting. They included self-funding with another Flood Bond and shifting money from existing sources within Harris County, such as the Toll Road Authority. They could have mentioned Texas Senate Bill 7 (from 2019), but didn’t. Among other things, SB7 provided partial reimbursement for local matching funds for federal grants. The motion approved by Commissioners Court today requires Flood Control and the Budget office to explore all the possibilities and lay out options for consideration.

Another flood bond? Seriously?

Yes and no. According to former Judge Ed Emmett, the $2.5 billion approved by voters in 2018 was always pitched as a “down payment.” Even with partnership funding potentially doubling the size of that, it still would not be likely to solve all of Harris County’s flood woes. So what’s the real total? During the meeting, the Judge and Commissioners tossed out figures ranging from $10-$40 billion. But no one believes another bond is politically feasible. Especially at this time. First, COVID has siphoned off valuable funds. And some of the commissioners have seen fit to redefine equity in the bond language in a way that benefits their constituents at the expense of all others. Now, they may not be able to deliver for their constituents. And they’ve managed to honk off everyone else. Everyone believes the likelihood of passing another bond is zero at this point.

Why is HUD taking so long?

It depends (on whom you talk to). Reportedly, the GLO and HUD have had concerns about the City of Houston and Harris County administering flood-disaster-relief funds to homeowners (separate from mitigation money for flood control projects). Even though Harris County Flood Control wasn’t involved in that program, HUD decided to have the Texas General Land Office (GLO) administer/oversee a giant pot of mitigation money for the entire state instead of sending a portion of it directly to Harris County. That created an extra step. And Harris County must compete with the rest of the state, a process that has inevitably delayed announcements.

Is it worth waiting for a half billion dollars?

Again, it depends. On whom you ask. If your home is flooding and you can get someone else to foot the bill, hell no. If your home is not flooding and there’s still a chance that HUD could come through, why hurry?

Partnership funding maximizes the amount of projects Flood Control can develop, but it can also delay some projects. This is a glass-half-full debate.

Shouldn’t we be captains of our own fate?

It depends on when you ask. When the flood bond passed in 2018, Flood Control was applauded for aggressively chasing all of the Federal funding it could. Yet during Tuesday’s Court meeting, some commissioners criticized Flood Control for going after any partner funds – a complete 180 from just two and a half years ago. 

Will funding shortfalls discussed above affect additional gates for the Lake Houston Dam?

No. At least not if the City can prove up its initial benefit/cost ratio. FEMA has already provisionally allocated funds for gate construction.

For More Information

See these links to:

The entire 358-page Capital Improvement Plan

Video of the Commissioners Court Meeting. Click on Departments (Part 1 of 4) and start about 7:36 in.

The final Prioritization Framework for the Flood Bond projects according to “social equity” criteria.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/10/2021

1289 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Photo Essay: How “Backslope Interceptors” Reduce Erosion, Ditch Maintenance, Flood Risk

“Backslope interceptors” help prevent erosion that can clog drainage ditches and contribute to flooding. Most people have probably seen them, but never paid much attention to them. Nor do they understand can reduce ditch maintenance costs by lengthening maintenance intervals. This photo essay shows what a difference they can make. All three counties in the Lake Houston Area require them, but Liberty County doesn’t enforce its own regulations. So the visual differences are dramatic.

What Are They? How Do They Work?

We’ve all observed water flowing through drainage ditches. But how does it get into the ditch? Broadly speaking, it can get into the ditch by a) flowing down the banks or b) through pipes. Option A increases erosion. Option B decreases it. B also reduces flood risk and the long-term cost of ditch maintenance.

What is a backslope interceptor? Imagine a small ditch (or swale) parallel to but offset from the main ditch. The swale captures runoff and overland sheet flow before it gets to the main ditch. The swale then funnels the flow into pipes that run under the banks of the main ditch. Keeping large volumes of water off those banks reduces erosion which could otherwise quickly fill the ditch with dirt and reduce its carrying capacity. If erosion reduces carrying capacity enough, water can flood nearby homes and businesses. The illustration below shows how backslope interceptors work.

Real-Life Examples

On 3/3/2021, I flew over three counties: Harris, Montgomery and Liberty. The “with/without” photos below illustrate the difference that properly constructed backslope interceptors can make. I shot the first one over the new Artavia development in southern Montgomery County. Note how the backslope interceptors let the developer establish grass on the banks of the ditch despite construction still in progress.

Ditches WITH Backslope Interceptors
Artavia ditch in Montgomery County. Note series of backslope interceptors behind the maintenance roads that flank the ditch.
Drainage ditch in Atascocita in Harris County. Again, backslope interceptors let grass establish on the sides of ditches, reducing erosion.
Wider shot along same ditch.
Ditches WITHOUT Backslope Interceptors

The rest of these examples came from Colony Ridge in Liberty County.

Lack of backslope interceptors has led to severe erosion. Runoff goes straight down the banks of ditch and into the East Fork San Jacinto.
Close up of same Colony Ridge ditch.

Role in Establishing Grass

The next two photos show the role of backslope interceptors in establishing grass. By preventing bank erosion from sheet flow, the interceptors give grass time to establish and grow, reducing erosion even more.

Ditch in Artavia, a still-developing area in Montgomery County, where developer has recently hydromulched to establish grass.
Liberty County ditch in newly developing part of Colony Ridge, also recently hydromulched. Without backslope interceptors, hydromulch has washed into bottom of ditch and will eventually wash away, leading to more severe erosion.

How Enforcing Regulations Can Reduce Costs, Flooding

Ironically, Liberty County drainage regulations updated in 2019 require developers to install backslope interceptors and plant grass on the banks of drainage ditches.

Page 100 states: “Erosion Control: All drainage facilities must be designed and maintained in a manner which minimizes the potential for damage due to erosion. No bare earthen slopes will be allowed. [Emphasis added] Various slope treatments, including turf establishment, concrete slope paving, and rip- rap, are accepted. Flow velocities should be kept below permissible values for each type of slope treatment. Interceptor structures and backslope swale systems are required [Emphasis added] to prevent sheet flows from eroding the side slopes of open channels and detention facilities.”

Unfortunately, Liberty County does not enforce its own regulations.

When the developer eventually tries to turn Colony Ridge over to Liberty County, the county will inherit as massive maintenance burden because of non-compliance with these regulations. But even before then, the developer is creating rivers of mud that reduce the conveyance of ditches, and thus contribute to flooding nearby residents in Plum Grove.

This Colony Ridge drainage ditch in Liberty County is rapidly filling in. Residents use it for joy-riding in their ATVs, which further contributes to erosion.

The sediment also contributes to dredging and water purification costs for people downstream in Harris County.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/6/2021

1285 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 534 since Imelda

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.

Harris County Commissioners Approve Two Projects That Could Benefit Humble-Kingwood Area

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved two items on today’s agenda that could eventually benefit the Humble/Kingwood Area.

  • #60 Recommendation to execute a Partnership Agreement with TXDoT for preliminary engineering and environmental review for a railroad grade separation on Hamblen Road, from Loop 494 to Laurel Springs Lane.
  • #83 Authorization to negotiate an interlocal agreement for a partnership project with the SJRA, Humble, and five utility districts for a feasibility study and conceptual design on the Spring Creek Watershed Flood Control Reservoirs.

Consideration of the projects was originally scheduled for last Friday. But visits by President Biden and Governor Abbott delayed that part of the meeting until today.

More About the Projects

The first item will formally establish a partnership with TXDoT to study the feasibility of rerouting Hamblen Road north to meet up with a bridge over US59 at Sorters-McClellan Road. The project, is key to managing traffic in Harris County’s new 90-acre Precinct 4 Edgewater Park. The preliminary engineering study will also look at building a bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The latter is important because UP has announced its intention to start running longer trains. If one derailed, it could theoretically block every exit to Kingwood.

Site of Precinct 4’s new Edgewater Park. Hamblen Road (center) could be re-routed north to connect with the bridge over 59 at Sorters-McClellan road (top center). The project could also create a railroad bridge over the Union Pacific tracks (right).

The second item will further explore the feasibility of one or more Flood Control Reservoirs upstream from the Lake Houston Area along Spring Creek. This could reduce the amount of inbound water during future floods. In that regard, it is worth noting that the amount of water coming down Spring Creek during Harvey almost exactly equaled the amount of the SJRA’s release from Lake Conroe. Thus, such a project could partially offset future Lake Conroe releases during floods.

San Jacinto River Watershed Flow Rates
Where Water Came From During Harvey. Source: SJRA.

Next Steps

Neither of these projects involves approval to begin construction. They simply will study the feasibility, locations, costs, and nature of construction. Commissioners would have to approve construction after studying the results of the studies. But first the engineering department and Flood Control District must solicit bidders to conduct the studies.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/1/2021

1280 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Rosemay Fain’s Harvey and Imelda Stories

Rosemary Fain and Archie Savage live on three acres in Magnolia Estates, in far northeast Harris County just a block from the Liberty County line, about halfway between Luce Bayou and the San Jacinto East Fork. They’re more than two miles from each and never flooded before the development of Colony Ridge, one mile north. Since then, during both Harvey and Imelda, East Fork floodwater rose so high that it came through their property and started flowing down toward Luce Bayou. The water damaged their home, barn, garage, workshop, pool, hot tub, well, septic system, chicken coop and more. But they were lucky compared to neighbors who had homes swept off foundations. This interview discusses their attempts to recover and their advice for others.

Rehak: How long have you all lived here?

Fain: Archie’s lived here since 1995. I joined him in 2015.

Never Flooded Before Harvey

Rehak: Did the property ever flood before Hurricane Harvey?

Fain: No, not at all.

Rehak: OK. How far are you from the East Fork of the San Jacinto?

Fain: More than two miles.

And Then Came Harvey

Rehak: What happened during Harvey?

Fain: Well, we knew that the hurricane was coming. And we did as much as we could to prepare for high winds. But how could we prepare for that much water? We never expected that much. It just…it looked like a river.

It looked like we were sitting in the middle of a river. 

Rosemary Fain

We had people calling from all over the country to make sure we were OK. Then we lost power. Power lines went down at Magnolia Boulevard and Plum Grove Road and there were kids riding four wheelers in the water!

I have video of the water. It was coming from the East Fork and running into that gully that goes to Luces Bayou. And it was just a torrent. It was just an absolute torrent.

Video of Hurricane Harvey in Magnolia Estates courtesy of Rosemary Fain

On FM1485, people were loading boats to go down Huffman/Cleveland Road and rescue people that had their homes washed completely off foundations. And the East Fork … Oh, my God, way up here. Way up here! 

After, on FM1485, people with tractors were pulling cows out of the ditches.

Rehak: You’re kidding.

Fain: No.

Rehak: Dead cows?

Fain: A lot … dead. They found an awful lot of carcasses down in the culvert. 

Imelda “Much, Much Worse”

Two years later, Imelda came along. And it was worse! Much, much worse. Kids were kayaking out on the street. That’s how bad it was.

Kayaking down the street in front of Fain’s house during Imelda

Rehak: Wow.

Fain: Archie had made it to work that morning and I called him and asked, “Do I need to start getting blankets and comforters to put in front of the door? And he says, “Honey, it’s water. Nothing’s going to stop it. If it’s coming in, it’s coming in.” And that’s when it came right up to the top step. It was within inches of coming in the house.

Video of Tropical Storm Imelda in Magnolia Estates courtesy of Rosemary Fain

Rehak: Did it undermine the corner of your house?

Fain: It messed up more than that.

Rehak: Catalog the losses for me. You lost some machinery in your wood shop.

Fain: We lost the jumper pump in our well house. Our septic system flooded. We had damage to the pier and beam foundation under our kitchen and dining room, where the foundation later collapsed – between Christmas and New Years of 2020. We had no idea how bad it was.

Part of damage caused by delayed collapse of one corner of house after Imelda
Corner of the house in kitchen that bore the brunt of Imelda’s floodwaters.

The pier-and-beam foundation and kitchen floor have to be completely replaced, as well as the bottom kitchen cabinets. We lost the motor and the heater to the hot tub, and the hot tub footings shifted, causing the hot tub to crack. We lost the motor to the pool. Our chicken and pigeon coops had to be demolished.

The neighbors behind us lost their sheep pens, but there were no sheep there at the time.

Neighbors sheep pens destroyed by Imelda.

And there’s now black mold in the well house and the garage shop.

Black mold in well house.

And, you know, by law we can’t sell this place with the black mold issues. So, what do we do? 

We can’t afford to fix it and we can’t afford to move. This house is paid for. It’s our investment for retirement. But we can’t afford to fix what needs to be fixed and sell it.

Insurance doesn’t cover black mold. 

Who would have thought we’d need flood insurance this far from the river? We have it now. But we didn’t when the floods hit.

Poorly Drained Soils Now Much Worse

Rehak: What can you tell me about the soils around here? Were they a factor?

Fain: It’s all clay-based.

Rehak: How does it drain?

Savage: Not well. These properties, if there’s a lot of water, they’ll hold it a good while to where it should percolate down. But it doesn’t. It cannot go through clay. Harvey deposited a lot of silt. Since Harvey, it just seems like the ground is constantly saturated even during the summer. And, if you dig down two … two and a half feet, it gets really, really messy.

Clay-based soil throughout area drains poorly.

Rehak: When you first moved here, did you go up Plum Grove Road and explore?

Savage: You could tell that it was a low-lying area.

Rehak: A lot of palmettos up there? 

Savage: Yeah. 

Loss of Thousands of Acres of Forest, Wetlands with Colony Ridge

Fain: The first time I came out here, it was a very pleasant, beautiful little drive. I was really impressed with the canopy of the trees and this whole area. And I’m telling you, it just is such a shame what it’s come to. It was all woods and all trees, and now it’s just nothing but tore up roads and mud.

Rehak: How did the changes coincide with development of Colony Ridge? 

Fain: We never flooded before Colony Ridge. All the problems came after they started clearing trees. I remember all the logging trucks coming up and down Plum Grove Road. And then in 2017, Harvey hit and it was just horrendous. 

Rehak: Do you feel that if the development hadn’t happened you would have been safer?

Fain: Definitely. It was scary. I mean, I wish we had taken our little flat bottom boat and tied it to that tree.

Slow Recovery and Then More Disaster

Rehak: How has the recovery been? 

Fain: FEMA came out and they cut us a check for $357.

Rehak: $357!

Fain: And there is nothing available for Imelda. Project Recovery … I’ve called them twice, emailed them, and they haven’t responded at all. 

Rehak: Are you in the City of Houston?

Fain: No, this is New Caney. But we’re in Harris County. The Liberty County line is about a block east.

Rehak: Tell me more about the damage to the corner of your house?

Fain: We just didn’t know the extent of the damage under our house after Imelda. We were just thankful that it didn’t get in. Then all of a sudden the whole corner of the house collapsed more than a year after the storm.

One day between Christmas and New Years of 2020, I walked into the kitchen to get dog food and I saw the whole corner of the house had collapsed. I went, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, Archie! There’s something going on in the kitchen.” 

Close up of corner of the house that collapsed suddenly 15 months after Imelda.

We started pulling the flooring and floorboards away. I marked the wall and it’s gotten much worse since. We just had no idea what the extent of the damage was. 

And now it looks like the window has closed for any assistance. So we’re having to repair this essentially on our own. Insurance will cover some of it, but they’re not going to cover all of it.

Refrigerator resides in front entry hall until repairs to kitchen can be made.

Disabled and Trying to Recover With One Income

Rehak: You’re disabled now? 

Fain: Yes, I can’t work anymore.

Rehak: How has the COVID situation affected Archie’s job? 

Fain: He’s been lucky. They cut him back to forty hours. There’s no overtime, but he’s been very fortunate to keep his job through all this.

Rehak: He’s the sole breadwinner. That has to make doing all these repairs tougher.

Fain: Oh yeah! 

Rehak: Is there anything else around here, besides Colony Ridge, that may have affected flooding?

Fain: Not in our neighborhood. There are no new homes going in at all. It’s been built out for a long time.

Doesn’t Want to Move, But Can’t Afford to Fix

Rehak: If you could sell this house right now without taking too much of a loss on it, what would you do? Would you find another place in the country?

Fain: We’re so close to retirement, we don’t really want to move. But if we did, it would definitely be to a place in the country. And away from anywhere with a hurricane, tropical storm or any of that.

Rehak: Until you’ve gone through a few of them, it’s hard to imagine the destruction.

Fain: Well, I’ve been through two in five years now, Harvey and Imelda. I’d never been through one before.

Rehak: Did this place flood during Tropical Storm Allison?

Fain: No. Archie told me that he could see the trees leaning, leaning, leaning in front. And then he went to the back and he’d see them lean in the other direction. But it didn’t flood.

Rehak: What about during Ike?

Fain: Same thing. Wind, but no water near the house.

Advice to Others

Rehak: If you could tell the world one thing, what would it be?

Fain: If you see development going on around you or your neighborhood … get involved. Make sure they understand they’re being watched. If they don’t do things right with their drainage, it could ruin your neighborhood and ruin your home and ruin your life.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/17/2021 based on an Interview with Rosemary Fain and Archie Savage

1237 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Thousands of Acres in East Fork, Luce Bayou Watersheds to be Developed as Part of Kingland

Back in 2015, HHF and Land Advisors advertised 8,673 acres of timberland for sale that bracketed the State Highway 99 extension in Montgomery, Harris and Liberty Counties. They called the property “Kingland” and billed it as one of the largest undeveloped areas left in the Houston area – perfect for a masterplanned community.

Subsequently, CH B-Kingland LLC (the owner) sold 4,394 acres in Liberty County to Colony Ridge in 2016.

Colony Ridge has already started the process of clearing and developing most of their purchase, north and east of the new Grand Parkway (SH99). But ironically, Colony Ridge’s construction practices are sending rivers of mud down the once pristine river and bayous where Kingland could itself soon start developing also.

North of Lake Houston, South of Colony Ridge, Spanning 3 Counties

Here’s a 2017 map of the 4000+ acres remaining in Kingland after the partial sale to Colony Ridge.

From 2017 sales brochure by HHF and Land Advisors. Map shows remaining parts of Kingland not sold to Colony Ridge, the area to the north.

Here’s what the property looks like from the air in January.

From near the San Jacinto East Fork looking east. SH99 bisects property. Photo January 1, 2021
Reverse angle. Looking northwest across Kingland from where SH99 turns south. You can see part of Colony Ridge in the upper right.

Development Usually Follows Concrete

TXDoT says this section of the Grand Parkway should open sometime in the spring or summer of 2022. When it does, you can expect development in this area to accelerate rapidly.

Castle Hill Partners in Austin, the company that owns CH-B Kingland LLC, did not return phone calls re: its development plans. However, since tollway construction is moving from west to east, it would make sense to develop the western portions in Montgomery and Harris Counties before moving east into Liberty County.

Kingland’s 2017 sales brochure shows that almost half of the western section lies in Montgomery County along the San Jacinto East Fork. The remainder of the western section lies within Harris County. Both portions lie partially within the City of Houston’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction.

Western section of Kingland shows a 41.3 acre detention pond, plus seven smaller ponds. But it’s unclear whether they will lie in the floodway or floodplain.

FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer shows the extent of the floodway and floodplains in that area.

Crosshatched area = floodway. Aqua = 100 year floodplain. Brown = 500 year.

Wetlands pockmark the entire area, too.

I interviewed a family in that small development south of Kingland property that straddles the Harris/Liberty County Line and discovered that they flooded from the East Fork during both Harvey and Imelda. They live more than 1.5 miles from the nearest mapped floodplain. However, that could soon change when the new post-Harvey flood maps are redrawn.

Anyone downstream on the East Fork or Luce needs to keep a close eye on this one. It has the potential to further alter the hydrology of the watershed.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/11/2021

1231 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 480 since Imelda

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.

Woodridge Village Purchase on Wednesday’s Houston City Council Agenda

Houston City Council will consider two items Wednesday that could ultimately pave the way for the purchase of Woodridge Village from Perry Homes. Woodridge Village twice contributed to the flooding of hundreds of homes in Kingwood’s Elm Grove Village last year. For more than a year, the City, Harris County Flood Control and Perry Homes’ subsidiary Figure Four Partners, LTD have discussed purchasing the property and turning it into a regional flood-control detention basin.

268 acres currently owned by Perry Homes could be turned into a regional floodwater detention basin if the purchase is approved by Houston City Council tomorrow and Harris County Commissioners Court on December 15.

If successful, the City and HCFCD would work together to reduce the volume of water flowing out of the headwaters of Taylor Gully.

$4 Million in Cash from City Plus Land

The two agenda items are #59 and #65. They call for an interlocal agreement between the City and HCFCD to jointly purchase the property. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, the purchase price would total approximately $14 million. The City would pay approximately $4 million of that in cash. However, in the past, the City has also discussed the contribution of land to make up its 50% of the purchase price.

The City has also said in the past that it hopes to acquire a portion of the site outright in order to consolidate several wastewater treatment facilities in Kingwood outside of the San Jacinto floodplain. Presumably, the City’s cash would go toward the purchase of that part of the site. Both sides previously agreed to share equally in the purchase, operation, development, and maintenance of the rest of the 268 acres.

Requirements Imposed by Draft ILA from May

Earlier this year, I obtained a draft copy of the interlocal agreement by a FOIA request, which the State Attorney General partially redacted. In May, the City provisionally agreed to:

  • Adopt Atlas-14 precipitation frequency tables
  • Require a minimum detention rate of 0.55 acre-feet per acre of detention for any new development on tracts one acre or larger in size
  • Prohibit the use of hydrographic timing (flood-routing studies) as a substitute for any detention requirements, unless the project emptied directly into Galveston Bay.
  • Enforce these provisions both within the City and its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

The volume of detention ponds currently on Woodridge Village is about 40% short of what the new higher Atlas-14 requirements dictate. The current detention was approved and construction started before Atlas 14 became effective in Montgomery County.

The use of flood-routing studies in Montgomery County to avoid building detention ponds has long been a controversial practice that downstream residents have fought.

Next Steps in Terms of Flood Mitigation

If Council approves the money and ILA tomorrow for the Woodridge Village purchase, Harris County Commissioners would take up the issue at their next meeting on December 15. Approval by both bodies certainly would make Christmas much merrier and more hopeful for hundreds of Kingwood families devastated by flooding last year.

Kudos to Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin for pushing this forward.

The outcome of the votes could affect projects considered in the Kingwood Area Drainage Analysis. If the purchase goes through, it could reduce or eliminate the need for widening and deepening Taylor Gully itself. It is not immediately clear whether the City and County have set deadlines for the design and construction of the detention basin.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/8/2020

1197 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 446 since Imelda

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.