Tag Archive for: watershed spending

Third-Quarter Flood-Mitigation Spending Trends, Surprises

Third quarter flood-mitigation spending data is now available for Harris County Flood Control District and its partners. In some ways, the data shows a continuation of previous trends. But the data also contained some surprises. The major findings:

  • Spending continued to dip. Slower project delivery means inflation will claim an increasingly large percentage of taxpayer dollars and may force cancellation of some bond projects.
  • If the last quarter of this year is anything like the first three, we could see less than half the activity in 2023 than we saw in 2020.
  • The trend toward investing more heavily in minority areas continued and even accelerated. But there was one notable exception – Cypress Creek and its tributaries.
  • An unusual $9.7 million real-estate transaction for a stormwater detention basin near the Mercer Arboretum skewed the Cypress Creek total. That was 16.5% of all HCFCD spending for the quarter.
  • Without it, many of the numbers below would also have been skewed. For instance, total spending and average spending per watershed would vary dramatically.
  • The focus on so-called “equity” spending and the Cypress Creek watershed meant 15 watersheds saw less than a million dollars in activity during the quarter. And five of those received less than $100,000.

Let’s look at each and the implications. Everything below INCLUDES the unusual real estate transaction near Mercer. In several places, I note how things would have changed without Mercer.

Overall, Slowdown Magnifies Inflation Concerns

Overall, flood-mitigation spending dipped about 5% in the third quarter compared to the previous quarter. It declined by a little more than $3 million to $58.8 million. That may not sound like much, but it continues a 3-year downward trend and creates delays that expose residents to more flood risk.

As projects are delayed, their costs also escalate due to inflation, raising concerns about whether there will be enough money in the bond to finish all the projects promised to voters.

Spending this year will likely be a hundred million dollars less than the first full year of the 2018 flood bond – when projects were ramping up. See chart below.

Annualized estimate for 2023. 23Q4 data estimated based on average of first 3 quarters. Without Mercer, the 2023 estimate would be below $200 million.

Moreover, spending will be $200 million less than the peak year of 2020 – about half of what it was then.

Halfway through the 2018 10-year flood bond, HCFCD has spent only about a third of the funds approved by voters – $1.65 billion. However, if the present slowdown continues, this will be the third straight year of decline.

The slowdown in project delivery means inflation will increasingly raise costs and undermine the purchasing power of the dollars authorized by voters.

HCFCD acknowledges the serious impact of inflation in its latest bond update to Commissioners Court, and hopes toll-road money remaining in the Flood Resilience Trust will cover any shortfall.

Average Spending in LMI Areas Growing

Data also reveals that with one exception (Cypress Creek and its tributaries), the trend of preferentially allocating funds to Low-to-Moderate-Income (LMI) areas continued and even accelerated when measured by average spending per watershed.

On average during Q3, watersheds with a majority of LMI residents (hereinafter called “LMI watersheds”) received 2.5X more funding than more affluent watersheds – $3.1 million each vs. $1.2 million. That’s up from 1.7X over the longer period since Harvey. So, the gap is widening.

Without the Mercer real-estate transaction, the average for more affluent watersheds would have been cut in half to $600,000. That would have almost doubled the ratio. The recomputed average would created a 4.7X ratio between LMI and all other watersheds for the third quarter.

That trend will likely continue for some time as projects funded by HUD through the Texas General Land Office get approved and start construction. That pot of money will spread across the income spectrum, but projects in lower income areas will likely start first.

Cypress Creek Spending Explodes

In fifteen Harris County watersheds, more than 50% of residents make above the average income for the region.

As a group, those 15 received $18.6 million last quarter – $2 million more than the $16.6 million received by the eight LMI watersheds.

However, the first group is twice the size of the second. And looking deeper within the more affluent watersheds, we can see that Cypress Creek and its tributaries (Willow and Little Cypress) received 79% of that $18.6 million last quarter.

The three Cypress watersheds received almost 4X more funding than the 12 other watersheds in the more affluent category put together.

Cypress Creek and its tributaries consumed 79% of all HCFCD/Partner spending last quarter among watersheds without a majority of LMI residents.

Here’s how that same spending looks in a bar graph.

Only the first three watersheds on the left received more than a million dollars in Q3. The twelve on right received less than $1 million each.

The 12 other watersheds divvied up $3.8 million; they averaged just $348 thousand each.

FOIA request. Data supplied by HCFCD.

$348,000 is one ninth of the $3.1 million average for LMI watersheds. And we know that some of those, such as the San Jacinto, have huge, unmet needs.

Cypress Knocks Brays Out of First Place

Now, let’s look at ALL watersheds in both categories. When looking only at the third quarter, Cypress Creek surged into first place. It nudged out Greens, White Oak, Brays and Sims, all of which have LMI populations greater than 50%.

HCFCD and Partner spending by watershed
Includes all 23 watersheds during 23Q3.

HCFCD finished Project Brays 15 months ago, but still managed to spend $3.8 million there last quarter. That was almost 10X more than it spent during the third quarter in the San Jacinto watershed, the county’s largest, and where the flooding was deepest. HCFCD spent only $400 thousand in the entire San Jacinto watershed last quarter.

worst first
Comparison of 33 gages in Harris County during Harvey showed San Jacinto had worst flooding.

Brays Still Ranks #1 in Total Spending Since Harvey

Since Hurricane Harvey (not just last quarter), Brays still ranks #1. But Cypress now ranks second. If you added its Little Cypress and Willow Creek tributaries in the graph below to the Cypress Creek total, they would rank #1 by more than a $100 million.

Includes all 23 watersheds since Harvey

Brays even managed to increase in the last quarter by $1.5 million while the San Jacinto decreased by $55,000.

Granted, some watersheds have smaller needs than others, but the ratio between the highest and lowest spending exceeds 300X.

Impact of Equity Formula

The spending priorities shown in this post reflect the Equity formula adopted and periodically revised by Harris County Commissioners Court.

Ironically, the language approved by voters in the flood bond never mentions the word “equity.” Paragraph 14G does say that Commissioners Court shall provide for an “equitable expenditure of funds.”

However, most dictionaries define “equitable” as “nondiscriminatory.” Yet the current formula prioritizes projects largely on the racial composition of neighborhoods as described in the CDC’s social vulnerability index.

The theory is that poor people are financially less able to fix their homes after a flood. I accept that.

But some commissioners are using that to push the idea of fixing 500-year flooding in poor neighborhoods before fixing 2-year flooding in more affluent communities.

Therefore, I ask:

  • At what point do we do we say enough money has gone into an LMI watershed and start spending elsewhere to reduce greater flood risk?
  • Why isn’t HCFCD publishing updated flood risk maps as it completes mitigation projects so we can make objective comparisons and see what our tax dollars bought?
  • Why does Harris County’s formula for allocating flood-mitigation funds NOT consider:
    • Flood damage to homes, businesses and retirement communities?
    • Damage to infrastructure, such as bridges, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, traffic arteries, water and sewage treatment plants, etc.?
    • Height of floodwaters, i.e., the severity of flooding?
    • Deaths caused by floods?
  • Is a poor person’s carpet worth more than a rich person’s life?
  • Will there be enough money in the flood bond and flood resilience trust to finish all projects in the bond given inflation?

So many questions. So few answers. Perhaps this explains why trust in government has reached a 70-year low.

Only 20% of Americans now say they trust government “just about always or most of the time.” That’s something to think about as we near the next election.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/15/23 and updated 10/16/23 with additional info on Cypress Creek

2238 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.

San Jacinto Flood-Mitigation Spending Down 81% in One Quarter

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. On 4/20/23, I reported about a drastic slowdown in the rate of Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) spending. Data obtained via a FOIA request indicate that with a few exceptions the slowdown has affected watersheds across the county.

Two thirds saw a decline in flood-mitigation spending last quarter. But the decline in the San Jacinto Watershed, which had the eighth most flood damage in Harris County in the last quarter century, was particularly steep.

The San Jacinto watershed decreased from $1.614 million in the fourth quarter of 2022 to $306,000 last quarter – an 81% decline in one quarter!

Admittedly, that’s over a very small base to start with. But that in itself is a testament to how little flood-mitigation activity there is in Harris County’s largest watershed at this time.

4Q22 to 1Q23 Changes

Comparing the last quarter of 2022 with the first quarter of 2023 shows that spending increased in only eight watersheds: Greens, Luce, White Oak, Armand, Goose Creek, Barker, Vince, and Spring Creek. Spring increased only from $24,000 to $37,000 in the first quarter.

Arranged in order of 4Q22 spending.

Increases totaled only $6.1 million. They were offset by $16.4 million in decreases, for a net spending decline of more than $10 million. Spending totaled only $38 million for the quarter.

San Jacinto Ranking Slips

Below, you can see how each watershed ranked solely on the basis of first-quarter spending.

Watersheds ordered by 1Q23 spending

The San Jacinto watershed slipped to 17th place in 1Q23 (down from 14th when the ranking includes spending going back to 2000).

Spending by watershed since 2000
From 1/1/2000 to 3/31/2023. Data supplied by HCFCD in response to FOIA request.

San Jac had ranked as high as 7th in post-Harvey spending back in mid-2021.

HCFCD construction in the San Jacinto watershed has seen multiyear delays in start dates while other areas received higher priority based on factors unrelated to flooding.

So-called “equity policies” instituted by a majority of Harris County Commissioners starting in 2019 have punished San Jacinto residents. That’s because the watershed contains only 31% low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents and the area is predominantly white. Under the County’s current policy…

“Socially vulnerable” areas with higher percentages of minorities and LMI residents get priority, even if they have less severe flooding.

Damage No Longer a Factor in Allocation

For instance, in five major storms since 2000 (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey and Imelda), the San Jacinto Watershed had the eighth largest number of damaged structures. It also ranked fourth in the percentage of the population affected by flooding (see below).

When looking at flood incidents as a % of population, the San Jacinto has fourth highest % in Harris County.

Clearly, Hunting and Halls Bayous need all the help they can get. So do Greens and the San Jacinto Watershed. But the San Jac is getting little. Despite the percentage of residents who have flooded. Not to mention that 40% of all businesses in the Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce also flooded.

If I hear County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis or Commissioner Adrian Garcia talk about “worst first” one more time, I’m going to send them “GET REAL” cards. What rationale do they offer for ignoring the watershed with the deepest flooding – the San Jacinto?

worst first
Feet above flood stage at 33 gages on misc. bayous in Harris County during Harvey.

Here’s what that 20+ feet of floodwater looked like.

San Jacinto West Fork at I-69 during Harvey

If Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis and Commissioner Garcia want to see “social vulnerability,” I challenge them to visit Kingwood Village Estates, a complex 1.2 miles from the San Jacinto West Fork that caters to seniors.

Residents trying to escape as Harvey's floodwaters rose
Twelve seniors ages 65 to 95 from Kingwood Village Estates died as a result of Harvey.

I doubt Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia will take me up on that challenge. So, in the meantime, we need to accelerate flood-mitigation spending – across the board. HCFCD spent just $38 million in the first quarter in the entire county. That’s very close to the spending rate before the 2018 flood bond.

We need to determine the reasons new projects are not starting in a timely way. We’re only 25% of the way through the flood bond. We have plenty of pressing projects waiting.

Policies, procedures, practices and people that subject anyone anywhere to higher-than-necessary flood risk longer than necessary need to change. More on that in a future post.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/22/23

2062 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.