Last year, New York State produced a series of model local laws to increase resilience. The 468-page document is a catalog of ideas for cities and counties to choose from. It covers everything from building in flood-prone areas to maximum lot coverage, land-clearing practices for new developments, stormwater controls, zoning, building elevation and more.
For those who can get past the not-invented-here syndrome, it could provide a valuable resource. As I read it, I found dozens of ideas that could reduce flooding in Houston.
Another recommendation: prohibit land clearing by developers until AFTER plats are approved. This could likely have helped prevent a lot of flooding on the San Jacinto East Fork where Colony Ridge cleared thousands of acres before even getting plats approved.
The real target for this document is local government officials interested in addressing resiliency issues in their municipal codes. However, the discussions around each proposal also provide interesting background for flood advocates who are lobbying their elected officials.
Best Practices Codified into Local Regulations
The ideas provide of menu of what has worked elsewhere and why.
For greater resiliency, it is a wise best management practice, claim the authors, to ensure that developers design subdivision layouts in a manner that:
Minimizes land disturbance (tree clearing, land grading, soil compaction);
Avoids steep slopes, flood-prone areas and wetlands;
Protects important natural areas and habitats; Limits impervious surfaces;
Does not negatively impact public infrastructure;
Does not overload the roadway system, and
Provides effective stormwater control.
Other Major Areas of Focus
Other major sections deal with protection alternatives for:
The ideas presented here do not represent a complete program that must be adopted from start to finish. They are more like an à la carte menu. Take a little of this. A little of that. Whatever you need. Wherever you need it.
Once local officials identify ideas they could use, the document even provides templates for the wording of resolutions.
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.
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Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis voted FOR the measure despite every speaker complaining about some aspect of it. Even those who had lobbied for a year to create the task force spoke against the final bylaws.
Two Vote AGAINST; Cite Timing, Procedural Issues
Commissioner Radack voted against it, citing a soon-to-be-released Army Corps study that could make the task force obsolete.
Commissioner Cagle also voted against it. He cited some troubling procedural issues having to do with public notice. The motion was placed on an emergency agenda late in the day on Friday – without backup. That meant the public could not see what it was about.
Then the task force bylaws changed several times over the weekend. And even during the meeting. This gave commissioners no time to review the measure they were voting on or to consult affected constituents.
Ambush Agendas Undermine Transparency
Cagle’s concern highlights a growing trend in Commissioner’s Court these days: ambush agendas.
The emergency agenda is posted late in the day on Friday. This increases the chances that people will miss it and reduces their time to respond or request explanation before the court takes action. Some might say that it’s being used as a tactic to minimize opposition.
Likewise, this administration uses supplemental meetings the same way. Hidalgo called a meeting on August 3rd at 4 pm to consider changing the election process. Without posting any explanation.
Such meetings also catch opponents off-guard. Between special meetings and emergency agendas, the public had only ten days for comment on the task force proposal that will guide $2.5 billion in spending. That is not enough to study an idea, understand it, and mobilize protests (if called for).
During testimony on the measure, it became apparent that those who favored the motion received revised bylaws over the weekend. However, those speaking against did not.
Such steamroller tactics make a mockery of transparency. Especially when there is no need to rush the measure through after so long.
A New Form of “Co-Government”
During the discussion, Judge Hidalgo’s comments made it clear that she sees the task force as a:
New form of “co-government”
Tool to oversee and overrule professionals in her own Flood Control District
Way to identify “the next big thing” in flood control.
Pattern for similar task forces in other departments, such as Transportation and Elections.
Avoiding Geographic Representation When Solving Geographic Problem
I previously posted about this subject more than a year ago. I spoke against the measure based on the fact that it represents only some people, not all. It excludes representatives from each watershed in Harris County, in favor of poor communities and communities of color – regardless of how much floods have damaged other communities.
Also, instead of having flood experts, the task force has equity and resilience experts.
Only three of the 17 people on the task force would have scientific or technical expertise, but they would be overseeing scientists, engineers and technical experts.
Both equity and resilience have been redefined to favor the “socially vulnerable.”
Index to Meeting Video
Video of the meeting shows how this went down. I urge you to look at it instead of simply accepting my summary. However, for easy reference, here is a recap of key thoughts with approximate time codes.
5:16: 53. Hidalgo summarizes the process, which started a year ago. She mentions other cities with similar task forces, and describes this one as a “best practice.”
15:17:31 Hidalgo describes the function of the group as oversight – to ensure that projects go according to the prioritization schedule approved by the three Democrats.
15:17:40 “Most importantly,” she says, “It will help the county look forward and tell us what the next big thing is going to be.” She claims they had multiple comments from hundreds of people and distilled their input.
5:18:07. She tells commissioners they got an edited version of the task force bylaws because she still doesn’t know which department the group will go in.
5:18:28. She says, “But I don’t want to hold this any longer just because we haven’t settled on the place.” (That’s the closest explanation we have as to why this appeared on the emergency agenda.)
5:18:40 Garcia congratulates Hidalgo for “engineering” the proposal.
“Which Version Are We Voting On?”
5:19:43 Cagle interrupts to ensure “we’re voting on the right version.” He complains about getting material over the weekend, which was then revised during the meeting they are now in.
CEER Calls Proposal “A Step Backward”
5:20:30. First speaker, Iris Gonzalez of CEER (Coalition for Environment Equity and Resilience) says the proposal addresses “communities that have been left behind.” But then she says, “We’re really disappointed in the language.” She also asserts that other groups in her coalition are also disappointed. She concludes by stating the bylaws fail to implement the full intent of the resolution passed a year ago. “This seems like a step backward,” she says.
5:23:18: The President of Katie Prairie Conservancy complains about one issue after another. She wants:
“Direct access to commissioners court on a regular basis”
“Supervision of flood management activities.”
“Membership of task force to represent the diverse communities that make up Harris County.”
Nature-based solutions for generations to come.
She says, the task force could be effective, but only if it has authority.
5:26:25 Radack thanks the Conservancy for its work.
5:29. Garcia does, too.
Residents Against Flooding Says Task Force Needs More Specialists
5:32:30 Cynthia Neely, from Residents Against Flooding, said she got copy of the revised bylaws Sunday afternoon. (Even though people speaking against the proposal, like me, did not). The task force, she says, needs more members of groups like Residents Against Flooding. She also demands specialists representing green infrastructure, natural sciences, soil, wildlife, etc.
Sierra Club Voices “Deep Concerns”
5:56 The Houston Sierra Club said it “…has very deep concerns about the Infrastructure Resilience Team and Task Force.” Specifically, it has no one with a background in green infrastructure, green space, natural sciences, or wildlife. The speaker proposes amendments to the language.
5:38:55 Bob Rehak (me) speaks for ReduceFlooding.com. I complain that the task force bylaws:
Represent some, but not all people
Allow diversions of bond money to non-flood issues
Define the words resilience and equity in a self-serving way that’s contrary to common understanding.
I also request that the measure be killed or put on the ballot in to November to give voters a chance to confirm that they agree with the new, unconventional definitions of resilience and equity that skew distribution of flood bond dollars unequally.
Cypress Creek Complains About Representation, Balance
5:42:31 Jim Robertson, Cypress Creek Flood Coalition, wanted representatives for each watershed and better balance between community and technical representation. He also wanted more than ten days of public comment and input.
Radack Complains about Timing
5:45:31. Commissioner Radack expresses concern about what a new Army Corps report coming out soon will say. He worries that it could “devastate” some members of the task, so he advocated not doing anything at this time.
Historical Discrimination Against Lake Houston Area
5:49:48 Rehak (who was cut off before commissioners could ask questions) comes back to answer one from Cagle. Cagle asks why I felt the Lake Houston area has historically been discriminated against in the allocation of flood dollars.
5:51:45 Hidalgo thanks everyone and says, “We’re trying to create a model for co-governing which everyone can see is like being passed around like a hot potato a little bit. I don’t want to keep holding this up.”
5:52:24 Hidalgo runs through comments received during the process because there “are so many different perspectives.”
“We wanted this to be a community task force.” But then, “We decided against including someone from each of the 22 watersheds because it would have become too large.”
“We have this huge charge to reimagine our flood future.”
“We need to move away from piecemeal approaches and be able to answer the question “What is success?” (Editorial Comment: To me, success is NOT flooding.)
Hidalgo Planning for Next Bond Election, Transforming Government
“We need people to help us PLAN for the NEXT bond election and the next big thing, she says.
“We could keep debating this forever, so I propose we vote on this today. It’s impossible to make everybody happy.”
“We also need to create community groups like this for Elections and Transportation.”
“This is the best shot we’ve got,” she says.
5:58:23. Ellis asks which department will house the task force?
5:58:30 Hidalgo talks about the options, but concludes it “doesn’t need to be decided today.”
Ellis Takes Credit for Equity Bias
6:00:16 Ellis says he favors the proposal. He claims he put the equity language on the bond ballet because of FEMA’s cost/benefit language. It supposedly favors rich neighborhoods (though statistics don’t back that up). “We know which neighborhoods have been neglected historically,” he says. Meaning HIS.
6:01 Ellis says, “There are some who would advocate just dividing 2.5 billion equally among the four precincts. Well, that’s not equity.”
“So I was glad to put that language on the ballot.”
“This was a worst/first strategy. I’m proud to implement it.”
6:02 Ellis seconds Garcia’s motion to adopt the Task Force Bylaws.
6:02:15 Hidalgo restates the motion on the agenda.
6:03:20 Hidalgo calls for a vote.
Garcia, Hidalgo and Ellis vote YES.
Cagle and Radack vote NO.
Cagle again complains about not getting enough notice.
Hidalgo says “We sent an email Sunday with the backup. So it’s just not accurate to say it was a surprise.”
6:04: Motion to create task force is approved.
Re-Purposing Government On the Fly
If you care to watch the entire meeting you will witness county government being re-purposed before your eyes. And it’s a real eye opener.
Remember this when they try to push the tax increase through. It will come up again in September. Will it be on an emergency agenda over the weekend with little public notice and no backup? Will we have more non-elected representatives determining how public funds are spent?
https://i0.wp.com/reduceflooding.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Ellis.jpg?fit=1200%2C809&ssl=18091200adminadmin2020-08-13 14:42:532020-08-13 15:48:50Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia Approve Community Flood Resilience Task Force Even As Supporters Turn Against It
Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court could vote on a proposal to create a Community Flood Resilience Task Force (CFRTF). The Task Force has the potential to shift billions of flood-bond dollars from Republican-controlled Precincts 3 and 4 to Democratic-controlled Precincts 1 and 2. It should be noted that resilience appears nowhere in the flood bond language that voters approved, so this may not even be legal.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Commissioner Adrian Garcia are using the committee and unusual definitions of “equity,” “equitably,” and “resilience” to justify the shift. Their efforts could kill much-needed flood-mitigation projects in areas such as Elm Grove and the wider Lake Houston Area. Mr. Ellis especially has been openly hostile toward helping Elm Grove.
Secrecy Surrounds Creation of Task Force
The CFRTF proposal has been placed on the Emergency/Supplemental portion of the agenda with no public explanation of what commissioners would actually vote on. See Item #8. It reads only: “Request by the County Judge for discussion and possible action on reconstituting the Harris County Flood Control Task Force as the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force and amending the bylaws accordingly.”
Harris County voters approved the flood bond in 2018 with the understanding that flood-bond dollars would be distributed “equitably.” The approved language specifically required that. Since then, however, Commissioner Rodney Ellis has led a concerted effort to redefinethe word equitably so that flood-bond dollars can be shifted disproportionately to low-income “communities of color.”
Recognized Definitions of Equitable and Equitably
Most people likely define equitably as fairly or impartially.
Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines it as equality – “without prejudice or favoritism.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “unbiased, impartial.”
Roget’s Thesaurus lists two pages of synonyms, most centered around the idea of “a level playing field.”
Black’s Law Dictionary has pages of definitions, most centered around the idea of “fairness.”
Ellis’ Definition of Equity
Mr. Ellis defines equity as righting the wrongs of the past, especially in regard to racial injustice. His definition relates to fairness only if you define equity, not in terms of the present, but of the past. He talks a lot about reparations for slavery. However, he ignores:
Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis and Commissioner Garcia intend to use this supposedly impartial task force to advise them on flood-control decisions. However, the flood-control experts and engineers don’t get to vote. They will only advise 17 political appointees. The appointees must have, according to the proposed bylaws, “a demonstrated knowledge of or interest in equitable approaches to flood resilience and the socioeconomic, demographic, and environmental factors that affect the relative resilience of communities in response to flooding.”
Of the 17 members:
At least two must represent low-income communities.
At least two must represent communities of color.
At least three must have expertise in flood resilience.
At least one will be a City of Houston representative with responsibilities related to resilience.
The task force will also include at least one person from each of eight competency areas, six of which are based on the idea of equity (See appendix A, page 12):
Equitable urban planning and transportation
Equity and social justice
The other two competencies are:
Flood risk mitigation
Authentic connections to local communities with “lived experience” (whatever that means).
A minimum 14 out of the 17 positions on the task force will ensure Hidalgo’s, Garcia’s and Ellis’ definitions of equity and resilience based on “social justice” are implemented.
Article II (Definitions) Paragraph 3 even spells out what’s meant by the term “equitable resilience.” It “takes into account issues of social vulnerability,” say the bylaws.
The bylaws then go on to say equitable resilience “…starts from people’s own perception of their position within their human-environmental system and accounts for their realities and their need for a change of circumstance to avoid imbalances of power into the future.”
Talk about political double speak! What does that even mean?
I think they’re saying that decisions will be made on subjective, not objective, criteria.
Also note Definition #6 – Flood Resilience Projects. The word mitigation (as in flood mitigation) appears nowhere in the definition.
In fact, the phrase “flood mitigation” appears nowhere in the entire 12-page document. Neither does the word “equal.” However, resilience appears 63 times. But “resilience” never appears once in the bond language that voters approved.
Resilience, like equity, does not apply to the entire county. Most people probably see resilience as a positive word that helps everyone. It doesn’t. The Ellis/Hidalgo/Garcia definition helps only a subset of people.
More Double Speak
A footnote on page 3 says “It is not within the scope of the CFRTF to alter or re-prioritize 2018 flood bond projects, except that the CFRTF should evaluate and provide feedback on whether those projects are being implemented in accordance with the [Harris County Commissioners] court-approved equitable prioritization framework and schedule.”
In other words, the task force can only make sure the equity priorities that Ellis, Hidalgo and Garcia approved are being implemented. These aren’t advisors; they’re enforcers.
Why are technical experts on flood mitigation being replaced by “equity” experts?
Why is the judgment of experts on flood mitigation being replaced by political appointees who don’t represent the spectrum of views in Harris County?
Why are changes that could fundamentally alter the nature of government and the allocation of tax dollars being considered on an “emergency” agenda?
Why has the voter-approved definition of “equitable” been replaced by one that’s inequitable?
Why are hundreds of millions of tax dollars moving to Precincts One and Two, denying other precincts their fair share?
If the Community Flood Resilience Task Force is so important, why is it not being put on the ballot for November?
Of all these questions, perhaps the last is the most critical. Voters deserve a say in how their $2.5 billion is spent. Not just a subset of voters. All voters.
Please email the county judge (CRTF@cjo.hctx.net) before Tuesday’s meeting and demand that creation of the resilience task force be put on the ballot for November. We need to clear up any confusion about what we approved in the flood-bond referendum of 2018 and how voters want bond dollars allocated.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/9/2020
1076 Days after Hurricane Harvey
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Blackburn’s white paper begins by tracing the Houston region’s meteoric growth, from about 110,000 in 1900 to 6.4 million people today. This growth, says Blackburn, was enabled by the intersection of several factors and trends. They included the transition to a carbon-based economy in the early 1900s, the presence of plentiful hydrocarbons in the region, and the development of the Port of Houston at about the time the Panama Canal was completed. Conditions were ideal for Houston to rapidly blossom into the world capital of the oil industry.
Changing Trends Put Houston at a New Crossroads
After the year 2000, however, Blackburn says, the complexion of growth began to change, just as it did in the previous century during the transition from horses to automobiles. We are now at another crossroads.
Concerns about the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Harvey and other recent 500-year storms have been widely linked to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Concerns about CO2 have encouraged the development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar. These alternative sources compete with oil and gas, the traditional drivers of Houston’s economic growth.
These trends also work together, according to Blackburn, in a way that makes the region less desirable for corporate re-location. Blackburn cites the recent decision by Amazon, which was looking for a second “headquarters” city. Houston did not even make the top 25 list of cities under consideration despite it’s mid-continent location; huge port; and excellent air, rail and highway transportation networks.
At the Crossroads of the Future and the Past: Decision Time
He makes a good point. We must make sure Houston is positioned for the future, not the past, if we want it to remain vital. The rust belt is littered with examples of cities that failed to see change coming. Blackburn also cites examples of cities that have successfully weathered change through history and discusses how they did it.
Blackburn crammed this 23-page white paper full of charts, graphs, maps, and tables that show the nature of the changes around us. He then poses the central question.
How can we capitalize on our assets to ameliorate our liabilities?
His prescriptions for change make this paper well worth reading. They include the way we manage flood plains and green spaces; how we grow and distribute food; and how we can capture the value of ecosystems by allowing land owners to be compensated for storing carbon through agriculture and forestry. Using nature, he says, is the oil industry’s only viable option for closing the carbon loop.
Blackburn proposes something called a Soil Value Exchange program. It reminds me somewhat of the emissions trading programs that helped reduce air pollution in Southern California. His descriptions of how farmers and ranchers can verify and capitalize on carbon capture represent hope for the future of a city whose economy is based largely on oil.
When you’re scraping muck out of a flooded home, it’s hard to focus on the big picture. It’s also important. Blackburn’s prescriptions are both visionary and practical at the same time. They are keys to economic resilience and sustainability.