The Biggest Stories of 2019
With 2019 almost behind us, we should look back to see what we accomplished on flood mitigation. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the stories that will likely define 2020.
In 2018, FEMA and the Army Corps announced that they would dredge 2.1 miles of the San Jacinto West Fork when they were given authority to dredge 8 miles. Questions immediately started to swirl about why they were not dredging all the way to Lake Houston. The answer was “part of the mouth bar was there before Harvey and we can only spend disaster relief funds on what Harvey deposited.”
After arguing for more than a year with the City about how much sediment FEMA deposited, the Corps finally decided to dredge 500,000 cubic yards from a 600 acre acre in front of the mouth bar. They finished on or about Labor Day. Then the dredging contractors waited several more weeks to see if there would be an additional assignment. There was not. They then departed in October.
Regardless, they left the biggest blockage in the river. Imelda washed a tremendous amount of sediment downriver. In mid-October, RD Kissling sent me a photo from his kayak. He as standing in water less than knee deep 700 yards south of the mouth bar. It’s important to understand that sand bars are like ice bergs. You only see the tip above water. Most of the bar exists below water. And much of this mouth bar remains to be removed.
We need to cut a channel through this area to the lake to restore conveyance of the river. If Harvey couldn’t blow this dune out of there, nothing will.
To learn more about this controversy, search this site using the key words “mouth bar.”
Flood Mitigation Legislation: A Big Win
No one budgets for disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey. So after the disaster, cities and counties had to scramble for grant money to even qualify for matching funds from the Federal government. More than two and a half years after the event, money is finally starting to trickle down to the areas that need it to implement flood mitigation projects. That’s thanks in large part to Senator Brandon Creighton who authored Senate Bill 7.
SB7 creates dedicated Texas Infrastructure and Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Funds for flood control planning and the funding of flood planning, mitigation, and infrastructure projects. The Texas Water Development Board is finalizing rules for the distribution of those funds right now. SB500, a supplemental appropriations bill, includes funding for SB7 and an amendment that would dedicate $30 million for dredging at the confluence of the San Jacinto and Lake Houston. State Representative Dan Huberty authored the amendment to SB500 that provides the $30 million.
For more information about legislation affecting this area, see the Legislation page of this web site or search using the key words “SB7” or “SB500.”
Sand Mining Legislation: One Small Gain, Some Big Losses
Activists statewide pushed for legislation to reign in the excesses of an out-of-control aggregate industry. Here in the Houston area, State Representative Dan Huberty introduced HB 907. It passed and doubles the penalties for not registering a sand mining operation. It also increases the frequency of inspection from every three years to two years and established a registry of active sand mines.
That was the only bill that the high powered lobbyists of TACA (the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association) would allow to pass. That’s mostly because their members are already registered.
However, other important bills died in committee due to the lobbying power of TACA.
- HB 908 would have provided for penalties up to $50,000 for water code violations and every-other-year inspections.
- HB 909 would have created best management practices for sand mines.
- HB 1671 would have extended water quality protections to the West Fork of the San Jacinto currently enjoyed by the John Graves District on the Brazos and attached penalties for non-compliance with best practices defined under HB909.
- HB 2871. Would require sand mines and other aggregate production operations to acquire a reclamation permit and to file a performance bond ensuring reclamation.
For more information about sand mining in the Lake Houston area, see the Sand Mining page of this web site. You can also search on the key words “sand mining, TACA, Triple PG, TCEQ, breach, Liberty, and white water.”
High Rises Near the Floodway of the West Fork
Early in the year, two investors from Mexico announced plans to build a series of high rises surrounded by more than 5000 condos in the floodplains and wetlands near River Grove Park. Their company, Romerica, proposed to build the high rises on land that was deed restricted to single family residential development. They even proposed underground parking!
The tallest buildings would have been 500 feet and located on the edge of the current floodway. That floodway will almost certainly expand in light of new Atlas-14 rainfall data. The developers also announced a marina that would have held 640 40-foot boats and 200 jet skis. There were no evacuation routes that would have remained above water in the event of a flood.
A massive public outcry arose. More than 700 people and organizations filed letters of protest with the Army Corps, TCEQ and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In the end, regulators showed good judgment and common sense. The Corps withdrew Romerica’s permit application.
The developer’s web site now says the project is on hold, pending improvements to the West Fork and Lake Houston.
For more information on this development, see the High Rises page of this web site or search for the key words “Romerica, high rises, eagle, or The Herons.”
The $2.5 Billion Flood Bond Equity Flap
When the wording for Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond offering was worked out in early 2018, leaders from the Humble/Kingwood area in Precinct 4 argued to include the notion of an equitable distribution of funds. Why? Historically the Flood Control District had focused more on projects in other parts of the county, especially Precinct 1, that Precinct 4.
Humble/Kingwood voters turned out in record numbers to support the bond. It passed. But when it came time to implement the projects, Commissioner Rodney Ellis from Precinct 1 tried to redefine equity to mean reparations for historical discrimination, i.e., slavery.
In one meeting after another, Ellis’ ringers showed up in commissioners court to complain about discrimination in the distribution of funds for buyouts, construction spending, and more. Yet in every category, Ellis’ precinct already had the lion’s share of funding.
This is an on-going controversy that affects everyone in the Lake Houston area. Ellis is looting transportation dollars from Precinct 4. You have to hand it to Ellis. Even if he doesn’t know what equity means, he knows how to work the system.
For more information on this topic, search this site using the key words “equity or Ellis.”
In 2010, voters managed to get a referendum on the ballot that would create a dedicated fund for drainage improvements. It passed by a narrow margin. Almost immediately, city officials started using the money it raised for other purposes.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that the language in the summary of the referendum on the ballot was misleading. It failed to disclose that the money would be raised through a new tax. So the Court ordered a revote.
In 2018, the Mayor “resold” the fee by saying, “If you want a lockbox around the money, vote FOR Proposition A. If you don’t want a lockbox around the money, vote AGAINST it.”
It was another artful dodge. There was nothing in the language of the bill to create a lockbox. The language in Prop A was almost identical to the original bill. But the funding formula was even looser!
Unaware voters once again approved the fee. And the Mayor continued to divert money from the fund. These diversions became a central element in the Mayoral campaign this year after thousands of people flooded in May and again during Imelda.
Nevertheless, the Mayor won re-election.
To learn more about this topic, search this site using the key word “Proposition A.”
10 New Gates for Lake Houston
The flood gates on Lake Conroe can release water 15 times faster than the gates on Lake Houston. During Harvey, that bottleneck contributed to the flooding of thousands of homes. A study showed that additional gates would have lowered the water level by almost two feet in the event of another Harvey. During smaller storms, the gates would also help pre-release water faster to create a buffer against possible flooding.
The City of Houston applied for a grant from FEMA and the Texas Division of Emergency Management to add ten new gates. FEMA approved the project. It’s happening in two phases. The first includes design and an environmental survey. The second includes construction. Each will take 18 months. We’re now six months into Phase One.
For more information on this topic, search this site using the key word “gates.”
Temporary Seasonal Lowering of Lake Conroe
After Harvey, people in the Lake Houston area started pleading for more upstream detention, dredging and gates. Dredging started immediately. The project to add more gates to the Lake Houston spillway has also started. Upstream detention is still years way. The San Jacinto Watershed Study is only now beginning to identify possible locations.
To help provide Lake Houston area residents with an additional buffer against flooding while officials worked on these mitigation measures, the SJRA Board voted to lower the level of Lake Conroe seasonally and temporarily. One foot during the rainiest months in Spring and two feet during the peak of hurricane season.
Many lakefront property owners on Lake Conroe, however, claim the lowering hurts their property values and damages their bulkheads. Buses full of protesters showed up at the December SJRA Board meeting wearing red shirts that say, “Stop the Drop.” So many came that two busloads full of people had to be turned away.
Net: the policy to lower Lake Conroe temporarily is under assault. The SJRA will likely vote on whether to continue the policy in February. The SJRA will hold two additional meetings at the Lonestar Convention and Conference Center in January and February to give everyone who wants to provide input a chance to do so.
For more information on this topic, search this site using the key words “lake lowering.”
Flooding from Upstream Development
By far, the biggest and saddest story of the year had to be the flooding of Elm Grove Village, North Kingwood Forest, and even many homes in Porter. Not once, but twice this year. In each instance, runoff from Perry Homes’ newly clearcut 268-acre Woodridge Village development spilled over into surrounding streets and homes. Perry Homes filled in natural streams and wetlands without an Army Corps permit. And they still have not even installed 25% of the detention capacity required for an area that large.
They haven’t even finished the detention ponds they started, in direct violation of a promise to the City of Houston. In fact, Perry Homes has shown no interest in resolving the problems it created. They have scarcely done any work on this site since August. Meanwhile hundreds of residents live under the heightened threat of flooding.
This is another issue that will carry over into 2020.
For more information on this topic, search this site using the keywords “Perry Homes, Woodridge Village, Figure Four Development, PSWA, Elm Grove, Spurlock, cease and desist, detention, what went wrong, North Kingwood Forest, or drainage criteria.”
There’s your digest of the biggest stories of 2019. 2020 to follow.
Posted by Bob Rehak on December 19, 2019
842 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 92 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.