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On drainage and flooding

Two items of interest from Gray Matters, both on the subject of the week. First, from Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne of Residents Against Flooding:

Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.

Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?

Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.

City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?

And two, from Bruce Nichols:

We can live without zoning. We’ve proved that. What we cannot live without, especially in a no-zoning environment, is sufficient regulation and administrative municipal clout to make sure commercial development is done in a way that doesn’t harm its neighbors.

Politicians and bureaucrats excuse themselves for repeated flooding, blaming flat terrain, tropical rain and semi-permeable soil. This amounts to hiding behind Mother Nature’s skirts in a city with a tradition of overcoming natural challenges — digging a ship channel to the Gulf, putting a man on the moon, building the Astrodome and finding oil in impossible places.

Commercial developers are able to summon the technical imagination and political will to get the water off their property. Why can’t the city — why can’t we — do more to keep developers from dumping their excess runoff into our homes?

While homeowners spend their time making a living and raising families, the city’s developers, engineers, contractors and their hired minions lobby — and fund campaigns — to keep city development rules weak. We need a leading developer to recognize his or her enlightened self-interest in protecting neighborhoods that house the people who shop and work in developer-built malls and office buildings.

There have been feints in the direction of improvement. Houston in recent years enacted rules that, to the casual reader, require developers to create detention basins to keep from flooding their neighbors. But there are loopholes that developer lawyers use to avoid doing so. They can cite previous development of a plot to get it “grandfathered,” exempting it from detention requirements.

These loopholes offends common sense. If we really want to master our special Gulf Coast environment and topography, if we really want to have meaningful flood prevention, we should require detention under all commercial developments and redevelopments, even if the plot were previously paved over completely.

Why is this essay more focused on detention than on bigger pipes and ditches, although we need them, too? It is because our bayou-based drainage system is overtaxed. The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District say flow rates into Buffalo Bayou are maxed out. The bayou cannot accept runoff any faster than it already does. That doesn’t mean it can’t accept more water over time. It can. But detention is needed to slow the rate of discharge and allow more time for the bayou to drain.

I don’t agree with everything said in these two articles, but I’m sure we can all agree that this is a problem and it needs to be addressed right away. What I would add to this discussion is that it’s not just a Houston problem. It’s very much also a Harris County problem, because an awful lot of formerly permeable grasslands and prairie have been paved over and developed into houses, shopping malls, parking lots, and our ever-expanding toll road network. What used to be absorbed is now runoff, and like everything else it flows downriver, which is to say in the direction of our fair city. We can enforce all of Houston’s ordinances to the letter, and we’re still going to have a problem thanks to the last 20 or 30 years of growth and development. What are we going to do about that?

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5 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    The completion of the Grand Parkway from 45 to 59 seems to me to be another nail in the coffin of everyone downstream. This road ensures the expansion of west and northwest Harris County sprawl into neighboring counties. Is there a realistic expectation that enough acreage can be devoted to detention ponds to cope with the additional runoff? The harsh reality is that the plight of flooding victims in Houston and Harris County is regarded as acceptable collateral damage that can be absorbed by the insurance and charitable relief sectors and that mitigation costs above and beyond current allocations to effectively reduce injury from intermittent natural events are considered too high to be politically palatable. The idea of reigning in the developers isn’t even on the table.

  2. Joel says:

    you live at sea level.

  3. Joel says:

    i apologize. i didn’t mean to be insensitive.

    my thoughts and wishes go out to everyone there.

  4. voter_worker says:

    Of interest: Harris County’s highest elevation is approximately 310 Ft/94 meters above sea level. http://peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=6382

  5. Roy Cormier says:

    You were correct with your first comment, and I live here. You cannot dig a ditch deep enough or wide enough to control flooding in this at sea level area. Yet, the people of Houston likes to talk about it’s “never” flood ed here. Yeah it has, just not in the time you’ve been paying attention. However, blame is easier.