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Flooding as election issue

I suppose this was inevitable.

As thousands of Houstonians recover from the recent storms, the flooding is emerging as a political issue. Mayoral candidates are criticizing the city’s drainage infrastructure, attacking an unfinished project along Brays Bayou – around which much of the flooding occurred – as well as ReBuild Houston, the controversial street and drainage repair program that voters approved in 2010.

Even if the long-term goals of both efforts had been met before Memorial Day, however, experts say the city still would have flooded, as no drainage system could handle the 11 inches of rain that fell overnight in Epps’ and other neighborhoods.

“The rainfall greatly exceeded any design standard for the street system: ReBuild Houston, the old systems, whatever. And the rainfall exceeded any expectation for the bayou systems to contain water,” said Mike Talbott, director of the Harris County Flood Control District. “Any time you exceed the design capacity rainfall event, you’re going to see flooding occur.”

During major downpours, swampy Houston’s first lines of defense are its streets and the underground pipes or roadside ditches alongside them. City storm sewers can send an inch or two of rain over a few hours to the bayous without water pooling in the street, but much more than that will cause road flooding – and this is by design.

The ultimate goal of the city’s current standards, said Carol Haddock, senior assistant director of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, is to contain a “100-year” rain event – in theory, the worst 1 percent of storms – within the public right of way. That means residents living on any street rebuilt since the early 2000s, when these standards were enacted, should be able to take 13.5 inches of rain in 24 hours without their homes or yards flooding, though their street and sidewalks will be underwater. It’s unclear how many streets have been fully rebuilt under the current standards, but it is certainly no quick task to replace Houston’s more than 8,000 miles of roadway.

What happened with the recent storms, however, saw some areas take nearly that much rain in half the time. Haddock said she is aware of no city that designs to such a standard.

“If everybody wanted us to be able to accommodate every rain event and keep everything open, it would cost every project we build a multiple of what we already spend,” said Wayne Klotz, president of local engineering firm Klotz and Associates and a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The passage of ReBuild Houston, a program fed largely by a drainage fee levied on property owners, did not change the city’s design standards, but Haddock said the funding it provides will improve drainage by speeding up the replacement of older streets with poor drainage.

Some areas flooded last month because the water could not get to the bayous, Haddock said – that is the city’s job, and what ReBuild is supposed to address. Other neighborhoods flooded, she said, because the bayous had insufficient capacity and broke their banks; improving those channels is the Harris County Flood Control District’s job.

“When Project Brays is done, and 20 years from now, when many of these neighborhoods have been rebuilt, I think the models would predict that we’d fare much better,” Haddock said. “There’s always the possibility that a storm event will exceed what it was designed for, whether you’re talking about pipes or streets or levies or dams. What you’re trying to do is reduce that risk as much as you can.”

These are important issues, but let’s maintain some perspective. No city is built to withstand the kind of rain we were getting without some floods occurring. Whatever you think of ReBuild Houston, we’ve got years to go and many millions of dollars to spend to get a significant number of our streets updated. Go reread that Jim Blackburn piece for some ideas of what kind of questions we should be asking our Mayoral hopefuls going forward. There are a lot of things we’d like to do and that we need to do, but we’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions about how to prioritize them, and how to pay for them.

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13 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    I’m with Kuff on this one. Wouldn’t the amount it would cost to rebuild all the streets to spec on this probably taking every dollar coming in for 50 years, dwarfing the Rebuild budget and other projects for storm events that realistically happen very rarely, yes? Houston is mostly low lying swamp with a high water table that is prone to flooding in the first place, at least major portions of it, the only way to achieve the stated goal would be to ALSO rebuild the businesses and homes around the city. Improvements can be made in a variety of ways but there are so many other priorities to come first that this doesn’t seem very realistic a fix (even King wanting to toss billions on storm surge projects out in the Gulf that would add on to this deal in a major way).

  2. Manuel Barrera says:

    The rain tax, does not tax one of the main culprits, government. When I first came to Houston, 1970, we did not have the type of flooding we have today. Since then, freeways, and streets without retention ponds was the norm. Now there is at least an attempt to build some retention ponds as freeways are widen.

    White Oak Bayou and the Hike and Bike trail, a 10′ wide street on the banks of the trail certainly does not help with the flooding. Where were the retention ponds for all that concrete?

    With the more development rules in place here, we have more concrete and less dirt to absorb some of the rain.

    We live on top of a lake that has gone down because of our water use, that has also contributed to our sinking, we are lower now than we were 40 years ago. Here is an article from 1982 http://www.nytimes.com/1982/09/26/us/houston-s-great-thirst-is-sucking-city-down-into-the-ground.html

    Here is an article from 2010 http://travel.usnews.com/features/7_Cities_About_to_Sink/

    When I first became aware, I created two small shallow retention ponds, rain gardens, to help our sinking problem. Think what would happen if every homeowner were to have a small retention pond? If you are worried about mosquitoes get some mosquito dunks. But the water does not stay there that long before it goes down to the aquifer. Some people laugh at me because the amount is miniscule, but so are my efforts at recycling in Houston.

    Here is an article on rain gardens, http://www.lowimpactdevelopment.org/raingarden_design/whatisaraingarden.htm

  3. Steven Houston says:

    Different parts of Houston have flooded with major storms a number of times, what most people remember are the widespread floods from storms like the two Allison’s, Claudette, and a few others like Frances, Ike, etc. Meyerland used to flood all the time in the 80’s as did portions along Memorial and all around Clear Lake since before the annexation years back.

    But otherwise, the more development, the wider roads, and relative lack of retention ponds probably has made it worse as time moves forward like MB says.

  4. Manuel Barrera says:

    Besides how is the rain tax being used? Excellent article in BIG JOLLY, here

    http://bigjollypolitics.com/renew-houston-flood/

  5. Steven Houston says:

    MB, while I’m sure you know this already, the guy that wrote that article (Don Hooper) is the self proclaimed genius that believes Houston workers are paid far too much and are much better compensated than workers from other cities. Having held my nose a great many times at his wildly inaccurate comments regarding HFD, HPD, and city finances, I’m less than inclined to give the gadfly any more credibility in regard to complex issues like flooding. Just sayin’

  6. Manuel Barrera says:

    He is right on the Rain Tax, I am not familiar with comments on City finances or city workers pay. Familiar with Bob Lemer, who has been an out spoken critic of city pensions for years.

    Like most places some at the City are paid too much and others not enough.

  7. Steven Houston says:

    Lemer is another anti-government, Tea Party darling that never met a governmental expense he agreed with type (only a slight exaggeration). He would predictably come out with a hit piece just before elections or bond issues to try and influence voters, telling them the result of voting against his wishes would mean total financial ruin immediately. Needless to say, he’s been running around saying that for so long that most people ignore him altogether, his ability to weave just enough facts into his hit pieces (I’d say half truths but that would be far too kind) that he causes some on the extreme right to panic. He’s predicted the collapse of the sports authority for years, the collapse of the city for far longer, and so on. He’s often the perfect example of the limits of an accountant over someone with advanced training in finance.

    Hooper, on the other hand, really isn’t an expert at anything. He has espoused laying off all the employees of HFD to move to an all volunteer fire department, suggesting the resulting savings would restore all city streets to pristine condition in no time. According to him, they are paid far too much compared to others, as evidenced by the fact that many people apply to be firemen (forgetting the whole qualifications lacking in most candidates). His anti union stances and anti employee stances apply to everyone but his circle of pals. Mainstream GOP folks typically avoid him like the plague. If you say his article is well written, I’ll take your word for it but he’s another one that typically points fingers at all the usual boogeymen including causes near and dear to your heart given our discussions here.

    I’d say both apply a double standard to those of different political philosophies (Lemer and crew used to defend Helena Brown all the time as one example) but aside from the holier than thou attempts to influence locals, neither is consistent enough to make that claim.

  8. Manuel Barrera says:

    By the way the Supreme Court today ruled against the City on the Rain Tax. Based on their opinion I would say that the City is going to lose.

    “The City did not adequately describe the chief features—the character and purpose—of the charter amendment on the ballot. By omitting the drainage charges, it failed to substantially submit the measure with such definiteness and certainty that voters would not be misled. Accordingly, summary judgment should not have been granted in the City’s favor. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals, and, because only the City moved for summary judgment, remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

  9. Steven Houston says:

    From The Chron too:
    “Though the final outcome is far from certain, the possible absence of the largest of ReBuild Houston’s four sources of revenue – the hundreds of millions of dollars Houstonians have paid through the drainage fee – would greatly undermine the city’s infrastructure repairs. As of this spring, $655 million had been spent or earmarked for new projects under ReBuild Houston, with almost 100 projects completed. That work includes 515 miles of rebuilt or repaved streets, 697 miles of ditches graded and 188 miles of storm sewers cleaned – all while paying down old debt, supporters say.”
    and
    “As City Council on Wednesday considers Parker’s $5.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, some critics question how a budget could be approved with $104 million in projected drainage fee revenue when a court could block the city from collecting some of those dollars.”

    I suppose we can now formally scratch Costello from the race as this was his pet project. 🙂

  10. Mainstream says:

    The Supreme Court decision was a reversal of a summary judgment, and will return the case for a full trial. I think anyone writing off Costello, or assuming the result in the trial court is being premature.

  11. Steven Houston says:

    Mainstream, given just how strongly the court worded the order, it will be curious to see how the fee (and Costello’s bid for being mayor) could survive. The bulk of GOP extremists are firmly against the fee and that is his core group of support, those on the left unlikely to choose him and those in the center already more likely to go with one of the others. In handicapping a political race, isn’t it customary to figure in adverse rulings to the biggest (or only) major project tied to a political career?

  12. Manuel Barrera says:

    Mainstream, what the wording said is we are got granting summary judgment against the City because the other side did not ask for it. The City has problems. Reminds me of Lee P. Brown and the 100s of millions they were going to collect from all those companies with pipes underground. I recall Browns people coming and lobbying the council offices how it was a done deal. The companies came and said we will win in court, they did. The City was then in a financial mess as Brown had returned 50 million to Metro and promised City employees all kind of goodies (primarily police). Thus begin the era of balancing budgets with mirrors and smoke.

  13. Steven Houston says:

    MB, don’t you think the use of the $50 million from Metro in the first place was a mess? From a public policy standpoint, the monies provided Metro were not to replace city transportation projects so they could spend a like amount on other things. In fairness to Brown, he made a campaign promise to stop raiding Metro and kept his word (though he did lots of other things I scoff at) but Lanier was the one that started the practice and also the one that thought deferring compensation via a DROP program without providing the needed amounts as the liabilities were incurred was a keen financial move.