Tag Archive for: Scott Elmer

Some Projects in Flood Bond Likely Won’t Get Done While Others Not in Bond Will

While speaking to a public meeting of the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, Scott Elmer, the Flood Control District’s new Chief Partnership and Programs Officer, predicted that some projects in the 2018 flood bond likely will not get done because of a funding gap.

Elmer made this remark while discussing a list of projects proposed by Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) for funding from grants totaling $825 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Texas General Land Office (GLO).

The $825 million is the last large pot of money still sitting on the sidelines from Harvey. But it likely won’t stretch far enough to complete all the projects in the bond.

Despite a partner funding gap of approximately $800 million (published in 2021), the $825 million would only reduce the gap by approximately an estimated $420 million. How could that possibly be? For one thing…

Not all projects proposed to GLO were in the flood bond.

Origins of Funding Gap

To understand the funding gap, one needs to start with the structure of the 2018 flood bond. It contained a list of projects totaling almost $5 billion, but voters approved borrowing only half of that. The other half was supposed to come from partners, such as FEMA, HUD, local governments and the Texas Water Development Board.

Then COVID and inflation struck. Supply chain issues and labor shortages drove up the cost of projects approximately 20-30%, according to Elmer.

Meanwhile, not all of the hoped-for partner funding materialized. For instance, Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) was hoping for a billion dollars from HUD, added Elmer, but received only $825 million. (The County siphoned off almost a quarter billion dollars for Harris County Engineering and Community Services Departments.)

Some Projects Expand While Others May Be Excluded

Complicating the squeeze between the upward pressure of price inflation and less-than-hoped-for funding, HCFCD added (in some cases) to the scope of projects listed in the bond.

  • For instance, HCFCD originally budgeted the Greens Bayou Mid-Reach Project for $20 million in the bond. But HCFCD lists it at $90 million in the proposed GLO list – a 4.5X increase. The first figure reportedly includes the original phases of the project. The second includes those PLUS others which had been deferred for a subsequent bond.
  • Another example: The Arbor Oaks Stormwater Detention Basin in the White Oak Bayou watershed started out as a $13.3 million project in the bond, but now weighs in at $42.3 million. Its price more than tripled.

A person familiar with the Arbor Oaks project said it could easily be phased, but that it appears some phases (which had initially been deferred) were now recommended for immediate construction.

Lower part of Arbor Oaks area on bottom left. Bridge is on West Little York. Looking SE toward downtown.
Lower part of Arbor Oaks area on bottom left. Bridge is on West Little York. Looking SE toward downtown.

Those two projects alone account for an additional $100 million in scope.

“Use It or Lose It” Deadlines Place Emphasis on Shovel-Ready Projects

The projects recommended on the GLO list largely came from projects which had already been extensively studied and which are near shovel ready. That’s primarily because of two factors:

  • The county took 2-years between GLO’s announcement of a $750 million allocation for Harris County and the County’s submission of a plan for spending the money.
  • Meanwhile, the original HUD deadlines placed on using the money have not slipped. So, HCFCD now has its back up against a “use it or lose it deadline” wall.

If money isn’t spent before HUD deadlines, HUD will take the money back – not just unspent funds, but all funds allocated to incomplete projects. So, say for instance, HCFCD spent $50 million on a project, but had $10 million to go when the deadline arrived. HCFCD would have to give back the $50 million it already spent.

Obviously, the specter of having already-spent funds clawed back by the federal government made “construction readiness” a huge factor in project selection that wasn’t there almost six years ago when Harvey struck.

This means projects given priority by the Equity Prioritization Framework were closer to shovel ready. Presumably, they also helped meet Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) requirements placed on the HUD funds.

No other large pots of aid dedicated to Harvey remain out there. So, annual programs, such as FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) and Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) represent HCFCD’s best hope to make up the rest of the funding gap.

But the competition for those grants is nationwide. They include all states, territories, the District of Columbia and tribal lands. And Texas applications are handicapped because Texas has not updated its building codes in almost a decade to qualify for BRIC funding – despite an 11-to-1 payback.

Updating Project Cost Estimates to Recalculate Funding Gap

Elmer says he cannot calculate an exact funding gap at this time. “We’re still working on updating all project costs with the inflation estimates,” he said.

Elmer hopes to have a firmer estimate by August when the Flood Control District expects to issue its second flood-bond update this year.

I personally hope that the District’s recent reorganization can help it track such financing issues better in the future. It appears that after years of promising residents that all projects in the bond would be completed, now some may not be…while others that were not in the bond will be.

And I suspect I know whose won’t be.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/24/23

2125 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.

HCFCD Recommends More Study for $30 Billion Flood Tunnels

(Update: Since posting this story, HCFCD has provided a link to the entire 1860-page flood tunnel study online.)

On June 16, 2022, Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) held a virtual meeting to present the results of Phase 2 of its flood-tunnels study. Phase 2 recommended eight tunnels estimated to cost $30 billion for further study. The purpose of Phase 3: to advance the design far enough to quantify the benefits and validate cost assumptions in order to apply for grants that would help offset costs.

The secondary purpose of the meeting: to gage public support for tunnels, none of which would benefit the Lake Houston Area.

Below, see a brief summary of the one hour and twenty minute meeting.

Watersheds Where Tunnels Being Considered

Phase 2 recommended additional study for tunnels in the following watersheds:

  • Brays Bayou
  • Buffalo Bayou
  • Clear Creek, Berry and Vince Bayous
  • Halls and Hunting Bayous
  • Little Cypress and Cypress Creeks
  • Sims Bayou
  • White Oak Bayou
From Page 34 of presentation delivered by Scott Elmer, Asst. Director of Operations, HCFCD

The conveyance of all eight projects would TOTAL approximately 75,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). To put that in perspective, that’s approximately 4,000 CFS less than the SJRA released from Lake Conroe during Harvey.

Potential Advantages of Tunnel System

Scott Elmer, P.E. CFM and Assistant Director of Operations for HCFCD, gave most of the presentation. A large part of it focused on the benefits of a flood tunnel system. The hour and twenty minute presentation contained more information than the presentation online. So, I will try to fill in some blanks for you.

Mr. Elmer talked extensively about “inherited flooding.” Much of Harris County, he says, developed before we fully understood flood risk and developed regulations to reduce it. For instance, he showed a series of three images around Halls Bayou and I-45.

  • #1 showed rural farmland.
  • #2 showed development starting near the bayou.
  • #3 showed development so dense that it would require buyouts before mitigation by conventional means.

Mr. Elmer then discussed the time, cost, and disruption of buying out enough properties to construct basins and widen channels. I posted about this last year in regard to the detention basins that straddle Halls at US59. Entire subdivisions had to be bought out before construction could begin. Each of those two basins took approximately a decade to finish, with most of the time consumed by buyouts.

Example of Ideal Location

Here’s an example of another location, farther up Halls between I-45 and Airline Drive.

One of the areas of heavy, repetitive flood damage in Harris County. Image from 1978. Area was farmland in the 1950s.

Many homes in this flat area are no more than a foot or two above the bayou banks. Some even sit below street level.

Same area seen in FEMA’s national flood hazard layer viewer. Cross hatch = floodway. Aqua = 100-year floodplain. Brown = 500-year.

The entire area lies within some kind of flood hazard. And keep in mind, that this flood map was developed after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. It does not even represent the risk under Atlas 14, the new flood probabilities developed after Harvey.

Harris County’s Flood Warning System shows Halls has come out of its banks at Airline Drive at least 12 times since 1984. Yet there is very little room to widen the channel or build detention basins.

Best Locations for Tunnels

Tunnels represent an ideal complement to traditional solutions in such cases. They:

  • Expand options for flood damage reduction
  • Make the county’s stormwater network more robust
  • Reduce community disruption and increase resiliency

They make the most sense in areas where:

  • Land for traditional solutions is unavailable
  • Residential property acquisition would disrupt neighborhoods
  • Surface solutions would result in environmental impacts

Elmer presented a hypothetical situation to demonstrate equivalent risk reductions. Thirty-four acres required for tunnel construction could offset 3,145 acres of land needed for channel improvements and stormwater basins.

How Tunnel Locations Chosen

In describing how HCFCD chose the eight watersheds for further study, Elmer focused on:

  • Population density
  • Damage centers with high risk
  • Safety of lives
  • Strategic locations for intakes and outfalls
  • Identifying opportunities to integrate tunnels with other flood damage reduction measures
  • Avoiding geologic and man-made hazards, such as oil and water wells; or geologic faults.
Page 33 of Tunnel Presentation

As for the absence of tunnel recommendations on the eastern side of the county, Elmer simply said, other solutions would be more cost effective. He did not provide additional explanation.

For Elmer’s full presentation, click here.

To see a YouTube Video of this entire presentation including the Q&A that followed, click here. The meat of the presentation starts at about 8 minutes and 30 seconds into the video.

  • Elmer’s presentation lasts a little more than half an hour.
  • A moderator describes the need for public comment before September 30 at 41:26.
  • Q&A begins 42:30.
  • The video ends at 1:18:00.

Items Not Covered

HCFCD gave no specific rationales for:

  • Locations of each of the eight tunnels.
  • Excluding large areas of the county.

I, for one, want to read the entire report before submitting my comments. But HCFCD has not made the report available online.

The presenters did not mention current flood risk in the respective locations. Nor did they say whether their recommendations accounted for recent flood mitigation investments.

Since 2000, the watersheds benefitting from the eight tunnels have already received 64 percent of all flood mitigation investments in Harris County. That includes partner spending. For instance:

  • Brays Bayou has received $575.3 million.
  • White Oak has received $526.3 million.
  • Sims Bayou has received $460 million.
  • Cypress and Little Cypress have received $442.5 million.
  • Greens has received $440 million.
  • Hunting and Halls have received $293.7 million.

Full Study Not Released

Before I vote on flood tunnels for these areas, I want to know how much flood risk remains compared to other areas that received less investment.

However, HCFCD has not yet released a study on the level of service (flood frequency likelihood) for every channel in the county.

The Phase 2 study just completed indicates we could spend $30 billion more on 132 miles of tunnels. That works out to almost a quarter billion dollars per mile.

Before I invest that much, I want to know how engineers arrived at these recommendations. Specifically, how much did politics enter into these decisions? The write up on HCFCD’s tunnel page makes it clear that “equity considerations” including the social vulnerability index weighed heavily.

I also want to know how the Cypress tunnel emptying into the San Jacinto West Fork between US59 and West Lake Houston Parkway would affect flooding in the heavily populated Humble/Kingwood Area.

Public Comment Period Lasts Through September 30

If you wish to submit public comments on the flood tunnels, you have until September 30, 2022. Submit comments at Public Input.com/tunnels. I intend to request the entire engineering study and will post more when I learn how HCFCD made the recommendations.

Posted by Bob Rehak

1755 Days since Hurricane Harvey