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Addicks Reservoir

How about we excavate those reservoirs?

Okay by me.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is quietly exploring the possibility of excavating dirt from Addicks and Barker reservoirs, reviving an oft-discussed proposal that would allow the reservoirs to hold more storm water and keep it out of nearby Houston neighborhoods.

Depending on the scope of the project, removing silt and dirt could increase the reservoirs’ capacity significantly, perhaps even doubling it, by one Corps official’s rough estimate. Whether the agency moves forward could depend in part on whether it can find someone to take all the dirt.


The idea of excavating the reservoirs has been a fixture of official reports and politicians’ to-do lists for more than 20 years. Thanks to Harvey, its time may finally have arrived.

In a notice posted on the Internet, the Army Corps said it “is evaluating the level of interest from government, industry, and others parties for the excavation and removal of alluvial soils deposited within” the reservoirs.

“The concept of the potential project is to allow for the beneficial use of material by interested parties while increasing capacity” at Addicks and Barker, the notice said.

It appeared Jan. 24, with no public announcement, on a website that advertises business opportunities with the federal government.

Corps officials won’t say anything further about their plans, including how much soil would be excavated, how much it would cost or who would pay.

Read on to learn more about the dirt, which is actually kind of interesting. The question of how much this would cost and who would pay for it seems to me to be the more fundamental issue. A third reservoir is still a good idea, but increasing the capacity of the existing reservoirs would be wise as well. Probably cheaper, and faster to accomplish, too. I doubt anyone is opposed to this, so what do we need to do to get this started?

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.


The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”


U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

What should the people living near the dams have known?

More than they were told, is what they’re saying.

A federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims government officials knew for years that water impounded behind Addicks and Barker dams would flood thousands of suburban homes during an extreme storm – and yet did nothing to advise or compensate property owners.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Christina Micu, a homeowner in the Canyon Gate neighborhood in Cinco Ranch, a subdivision that essentially became part of the Barker Reservoir during Harvey. The case is pending in the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Canyon Gate was inundated for more than a week when the Army Corps allowed water impounded behind the dams, called the “flood pool,” to reach record size as more than 50 inches of rain fell between August 25 and 29th.

The suit was filed as a class action on behalf of everyone who owns property that flooded behind both dams. Though other lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those whose properties were flooded by dam releases, this is the first case filed on behalf of those whose property flooded directly from what engineers call “reservoir pools” or “flood pools.”

More than 30,000 people own property and more than 140,000 people live in areas that Harris and Fort Bend county officials have identified as subject to inundation from those flood pools, according to a Chronicle analysis of evacuation orders issued during Harvey.

There’s already one lawsuit over the issue of compensation for the damages caused by the dam releases – basically, that’s a takings claim, like when eminent domain is used. This one has that element and more in it, and there’s still more where those came from.

In the weeks since the storm, a slate of high-powered law firms have coordinated to recruit as many as 10,000 plaintiffs in Houston. Other lawyers — particularly those who specialize in eminent domain and environmental law — are operating independently. Most of them are pursuing cases for downstream residents like Pledger who live along Buffalo Bayou and were impacted by the Army Corps’ controlled releases.

On a recent weeknight, Pledger and dozens of other flood victims packed into a private meeting room at a local Mexican food restaurant to consider a pitch from yet another legal firm over complimentary fajitas. Other than flooding during Harvey — most for the first time — the residents all had one thing in common: They live downstream of two federally owned reservoirs that got so full during the unrelenting rainstorm that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to release an unprecedented amount of accumulated water into a bayou that snakes through their neighborhoods.


All told, lawyers and legal experts say the spate of lawsuits may become one of the largest inverse condemnation-related legal challenges in U.S. history, driven in part by the high value of the impacted homes, which are all on Houston’s wealthier west side.

But they are mixed in their forecasts of how the cases might play out. Many say the property owners have little chance of winning, citing a variety of state and federal legal opinions; others say property owners have a fighting chance, although many admit it’s not a slam dunk.

They all agree on one thing: It will take years and untold millions of dollars to litigate.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s easy to say the government will win,” said New York University law professor Richard Epstein, who has been called the nation’s leading academic expert on eminent domain and takings law. But, he added, “There’s nothing about this which is straightforward or simple.”

If there are still legal battles being fought over this ten years from now, I won’t be surprised. Neither will I be surprised if there are a flurry of bills in the next legislative session to expand or abridge the rights of those who are suing. Get settled in for the long haul, we’ll be watching this for awhile.

Can our dams handle the load?

Pretty important question, wouldn’t you say?

The state climatologist is warning that Texas dams will become less able to withstand extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which are expected to occur more frequently as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm in coming years.

Dams are designed with a wide margin of safety and are meant to withstand extreme, worst-case scenarios that are never expected to happen. But what stunned state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and other weather experts was that Harvey exceeded or matched the preposterous amounts of rainfall that dams in Texas are built to hold back.

“The probable maximum precipitation amount should never be reached,” said Tye Parzybok, the chief meteorologist at MetStat, a Colorado-based company that helped Texas calculate the rainfall amounts. “It should never get close to it.”

After Harvey, dam regulators will have to recalculate the maximum amount of water that dams should be capable of holding back, said Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change means that powerful storms are bringing vastly more rain than they did a century ago, he said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe,” said Nielsen-Gammon of Texas’ dams. “They will be less safe than they were designed to be.”

On the one hand, Harvey was an extremely unlikely event; by some estimates, a one in 500,000 year event. Nobody plans for that, and for good reason. On the other hand, if it could happen once it could happen again, and the consequences of a dam failure would be catastrophic. Even before Harvey, it was the case that the capacity of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was declining due to the buildup of dirt and sediment over the years. Surely this is something that can be addressed.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is calling for the replacement of the aging Addicks and Barker dams that spilled over during Hurricane Harvey.

“As we recover and rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, it is crucial that we also learn from this catastrophic storm and prepare for the next one,” she said in a statement. “A critical takeaway is that our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”


Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is pushing provisions in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that would provide $3 million to fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ Houston Regional Watershed Assessment Flood Risk Management Feasibility study, as well as $100 million for flood control infrastructure.

Seems like a reasonable approach to take. What do other members of Congress that represent the Houston area, as well as our two Senators, think of this? Before you answer that, consider this:

“Addicks and Barker were not designed to impound large pools behind them for an extended period of time,” an Army Corps official wrote in a 2011 email, which was made public through a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Corps over a road project near the reservoirs. “These larger and longer lasting pools … [are] increasing the threat to both dams.”

Another Corps document, this one from 2010, shows that the agency was using terms like “risk of catastrophic failure” for the dams for flood events much smaller than what Houston experienced during Harvey.

That 2010 “interim reservoir control action plan” sets what it calls “maximum pool” levels for Addicks and Barker at elevations well under 100 feet, levels that could be expected during a 25-year storm — which has a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Such a storm is about 30 times smaller than the rains generated by Harvey.

“The purpose of this … is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure by [releasing water from the dams] quicker and increasing embankment surveillance,” the document says, adding that at 25-year levels, the dams “need to get additional attention.”

The document, which also became part of the 2011 Sierra Club lawsuit against the Army Corps, doesn’t specify what the true risk of dam failure might be at such levels. It also doesn’t say what exact actions the Army Corps would take when water reached that point.


“I think that the documents, and I think that the issues, are clear,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer who filed the Sierra Club lawsuit. “The consequences of failure are horrific, and it would be truly frightening to the public if they really knew what the worst-case scenario looked like.”

Blackburn said the failure of the Army Corps to make the 2010 document public is just one example of the agency’s hesitance to address the risk of a dam breach.

“I think they have not wanted to have an honest conversation about it, for some reason.”

Matthew Zeve, the Harris County Flood Control District’s director of operations, said he had not seen the 2010 document before the Tribune sent him a copy. But he said he didn’t think the document expressed concern about the dams actually failing at such low water levels but rather indicated a “trigger” for when the agency should be continuously monitoring the dams and doing whatever it can to diminish risk.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we think it’s going to fail,’” he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Corps but offering his personal interpretation of the document.

Yeah, that’s not very reassuring. Let’s start investing in better flood mitigation infrastructure, shall we?

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”


Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

Will we spend on some flood mitigation projects?

Maybe. We’ll see.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is calling for the construction of flood control infrastructure in the Houston area — things he said should have been built “decades and decades ago” — including a coastal barrier to protect the region from deadly storm surge.

“We need more levees. We need more reservoirs. We need a coastal barrier,” Patrick said late last week during an interview with Fox News Radio. “These are expensive items and we’re working with [U.S. Sens. John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz and our congressional delegation to … get this right. We’ve had three now major floods in three years — nothing at this level but major floods.”

The need is particularly pressing because of the state’s rapid population growth, Patrick added, noting that “a lot of that growth is around the Houston area.” And he said the billions in federal aid that Texas is poised to receive presents an opportunity for Texas “to really rebuild and do things that, quite frankly, should have been done decades and decades ago.”


State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is seeking $320 million to build another reservoir that would take pressure off Addicks and Barker. That’s exciting, Bettencourt said, because the Austin Republican “can lift more than the average congressman” as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But last week during a meeting with officials in Katy, he described such a project as “long-term” and said he has discussed funding with Gov. Greg Abbott, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

“We need to look at long-term solutions from an infrastructure standpoint,” he said.

None of it will be covered by the $15 billion short-term relief aid relief package Congress has approved for Texas, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will pay for any flood-control infrastructure projects in Texas.

As the man once said, show me the money. What we have here is state officials talking about getting Congress to spend some money on projects here. There’s no indication of willingness to spend any state funds, which among other things would raise ticklish questions about how to pay for them (*). Maybe this Congress is willing to do that, and maybe it’s not. Let’s just say that the track record is not encouraging.

(*) You may recall that in 2013, voters approved a constitutional amendment to fund a water infrastructure fund that among other things could be used to build reservoirs. The idea of this fund, which came on the heels of the devastating drought of 2011, was to make more water available for cities and industry, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be tapped for something like a flood-mitigation reservoir. I don’t know the specifics of the legislation, and frankly I haven’t heard much about this, the SWIFT fund, since its approval. As such, I may be mistaken in what it can and cannot be used for. But at the very least, it seems like a decent starting point for discussion.

More post-Harvey ideas

From the Chron, which likens this moment to what Galveston faced after the great hurricane of 1900:

1. Establish a regional flood control authority

Floodwaters ignore city-limit signs and county-line markers. We can’t adequately address drainage issues with a mélange of municipal efforts and flood control districts split between local jurisdictions. Instead of dividing these disaster-prevention efforts into provincial fiefdoms, we need a single authority with the power to levy taxes that will take charge of all of our area’s drainage issues. Gov. Abbott should call a special session of the Legislature and set up such an authority.

Although we are skeptical about whether lawmakers obsessed with divisive social issues can turn their attention to urgent needs, establishing this authority requires action from Austin. Our governor and our Legislature need to get this done immediately.

2. Build a third reservoir

Addicks and Barker dams, reservoirs and spillways, constructed more than 60 years ago, are dangerously inadequate. The U.S. Corps of Engineers rated both as “extremely high-risk” infrastructure years before Harvey. Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn maintains that at least one new reservoir should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. He urges the construction of additional upstream locations on virtually every stream in our region.

Harvey shoved us uncomfortably close to catastrophe. We need a third reservoir, and probably more, to avoid unimaginable consequences the next time. Some experts estimate this could be a half-billion-dollar infrastructure project. It is a small price to pay to avoid catastrophe and should be part of any federal relief plan.


5. Approve new funding streams

We need money. A lot of it. Current local budgets are inadequate to cover the costs of the massive infrastructure investment we’ll need to keep this region safe from floods. The Harris County Flood Control District has a capital improvement budget of $60 million per year. Mike Talbott, the district’s former executive director, estimated that we need about $26 billion for necessary infrastructure updates.

That third one is the key, of course. A lot of what the Chron suggests requires at least some input from the Legislature. Given everything we know about this Lege and this Governor and the recent anti-local control obsession, what do you think are the odds of that?

By the way, the Chron also mentions ReBuild Houston and its associated drainage fee. It sure would make some sense to have a dedicated fund like that for all of Harris County, and perhaps for Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston too. I’m going to ask again – what exactly is the argument for continuing the lawsuit over the 2010 referendum, and what would be the argument against re-approving this fund if it has to be voted on again?

From The Conversation:

Proactive maintenance first. In 2017, U.S. infrastructure was given a D+ by the American Society for Civil Engineering Infrastructure Report Card. The bill to repair all those deteriorating roads, bridges and dams would tally $210 billion by 2020, and $520 billion in 2040. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are 15,460 dams in the U.S. with “high” hazard ratings.

Yet, when our cities and states spend on infrastructure, it is too often on new infrastructure projects. And new infrastructure tend to emulate the models, designs and standards that we’ve used for decades – for instance, more highway capacity or new pipelines.

Meanwhile, resources for long-term maintenance are often lacking, resulting in a race to scrape together funding to keep systems running. If we want to get serious about avoiding disasters in a rapidly changing world, we must get serious about the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure. When analyzing breakdowns in infrastructure, it is tempting to blame the technical design. Yet design parameters are set by institutions and shaped by politics, financing and policy goals.

So failures in infrastructure are not just technical failures; they are institutional ones as well. They are failures in “knowledge systems,” or the ability to generate, communicate and utilize knowledge within and across institutions.

For example, the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina are often interpreted as technical failures. They were, but we also knew the levees would fail in a storm as powerful as Katrina. And so the levee failureswere also failures in institutional design – the information about the weakness of the levees was not utilized in part because the Hurricane Protection System was poorly funded and lacked the necessary institutional and political power to force action.

In the wake of Harvey, basic design and floodplain development parameters, like the 100-year flood, are being acknowledged as fundamentally flawed. Our ability to design more resilient infrastructure will depend on our ability to design more effective institutions to manage these complex problems, learn from failures and adapt.

On that first point, the Addicks and Barker dams both need some fixing up. Let’s not forget that sort of thing.

Finally, from Mimi Swartz, in Texas Monthly:

Yet if dirty air and dirty water and flooded, congested streets all sound a little familiar, there’s a reason. As Ginny Goldman, a longtime organizer who is currently chairing the Harvey Community Relief Fund, said to me, “There are often these problems in a city of any size, but here, where we haven’t done enough to deal with affordable housing and transportation access and income inequality, and where the state has blocked public disclosure of hazardous chemicals in neighborhoods, then a natural disaster hits and we pull the curtain back and it’s all on full display.”

Just after Harvey started pounding Houston with what looked to be never-ending rainfall, I got an email from an old friend who was lucky enough to be out of town for the main event. Sanford Criner is an inordinately successful member of Houston’s developer class, a vice chairman of CBRE Group, the largest commercial real estate and investment firm in the world. He is also a native Houstonian, and like so many of us here, he was already thinking about what was coming next. (Yes, it’s a Houston thing.) “Either we are committed to a future in which we collectively work for the good of the whole,” Criner wrote, “or we decide we’re all committed only to our individual success (even perhaps assuming that that will somehow lead to the common good). I think our story now is either: (i) Houston is the new Netherlands, using our technological genius to develop sophisticated answers to the most challenging global problems of the twenty-first century, or (ii) we are the little Dutch boy, who pokes his finger in the dike, solving the problems of the twenty-five people in his neighborhood. How we respond to this will determine into which of those categories we fit and will define Houston’s future.”

“I’m hopeful. But scared,” he added, neatly summing up the stakes moving forward.

In the past few decades, even as Houston was making its mark on the global economy, building gleaming towers designed by world-class architects and mansions the size of Middle Eastern embassies, as we were hosting world premieres of radically new operas and ballets and coming up with those crazy Asian-Cajun fusion dishes to die for—even as we really were and are optimistic, innovative, entrepreneurial, pretty tolerant, and all that other good stuff—we were doing so selectively. That instinct for the quick fix, or no fix at all, has been with us since the city started expanding in the sixties and seventies and is still a part of the Houston way. In reality, we keep dragging our dark side forward, a shadow sewn to our heels with the strongest surgical wire.

So now the question we face is this: Will Houston become a model for flood relief and disaster recovery, or just another once grand city sinking into mediocrity? In other words, can we be true to our reputation for innovation and aim for something higher than the status quo? The answer depends on which aspects of our culture wind up dominating the search for solutions.

That’s more of a high-level view than a specific suggestion, but it sums up the issue concisely. It’s important to realize that none of the things that many people have been saying we should do are impossible. They are all within our capabilities, if we want to do them. The choice is ours, and if the politicians we elect aren’t on board with it, then we need to elect new leaders. It’s as simple as that.

Lawsuits filed over dam releases

This ought to be interesting.

A group of flooded-out Harris County homeowners and businesses sued the federal government on Tuesday, accusing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of knowingly condemning their properties by releasing water from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs after Hurricane Harvey.

Bryant Banes, a civil attorney whose Heathwood home and his wife’s home business were deluged after the rains had subsided, is seeking compensation that could reach into the billions of dollars in what he hopes will become a massive class-action lawsuit that would include compensation for homeowners, building managers and business owners within the area flooded by the controlled releases.

“When they opened up the dams full blast, several hundred homes that were dry and not yet directly impacted by the storm — including mine —got flooded by the Corps’ action,” Banes said.

Banes doesn’t contend that the Corps did the wrong thing, only that the government must pay for the damages it caused.

“When they make a choice to flood one area to save another, it’s their responsibility to pay for the consequences,” he said.

Banes’ is one of three lawsuits filed Tuesday in state and federal court seeking to hold government agencies liable for flooding from the controlled releases.


Justin Hodge, an expert in eminent domain at Johns Marrs Ellis & Hodge LLP, said such cases boil down to knowledge and intent — whether the government know what it was doing and intended to cause flooding that essentially amounted to “taking” of people’s properties.

“The government can’t accidentally take your property,” Hodge said. “If they accidentally opened the lever to the dam or the gates, that would not be a taking — that would be negligence.

“But if the government intentionally floods someone’s property there would be real merit,” he said.
Individuals can’t sue the government for an accident. But if the flooding was intentional and knowing, a person can file a claim. He said historically class actions have occurred in condemnation lawsuits but they’re very difficult to pull off.

“A lot of folks may be directly damaged by the dam releases but an investigation has to be made into each person’s claim,” he said. “I would caution property owners … not to try to jump in and file something without doing an appropriate investigation.”

He added, “I’d caution them to hire a lawyer that’s knowledgeable in this area of the law.”

It’s not exactly a secret that the Corps did what they did knowing it would flood some houses that had not previously flooded. And as attorney Banes said, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about paying for the damage done. I Am Not A Lawyer, but this seems like a pretty straightforward claim that has merit to it. We’ll see how it plays out, and in the end how much it costs.

“We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem”

Offcite points to a way forward.

We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem, not get in its way. As Albert Pope, a professor at Rice Architecture, has pointed out in a series of proposals, most of Houston’s housing stock will be rebuilt over the next fifty years. It would make the most sense to plan that development outside floodplains. It’s a simple idea that requires a big shift in how we insure, subsidize, finance, and govern ourselves. We have to rethink our economy the way Jim Blackburn, Rice Professor in Practice and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED), has come to understand it: ¨‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative.¨

We should push for collaborative regional planning entities in lieu of independent fiefdoms of utility districts. Texas has produced innovative approaches in the past. Galveston reinvented municipal government to raise the entire city up after the Great Storm of 1900. When subsidence started swallowing up whole neighborhoods, the entire region worked together to transition from ground to surface water. Bayou Greenways 2020 is creating the beginnings of a new backbone that marries flood mitigation, parks, transportation, ecosystems, and economic development. The proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area would provide a tourism infrastructure for private landowners and institutions that agree to preserve the natural buffers that protects our coast. Likewise, the dikes, floodgates, and seawalls we need to protect lives and industry from storm surges and rising sea levels can be designed to help not hurt wildlife and improve rather than impede public access to our bays and beaches. We should look to the lessons learned from New Orleans, where the response to Katrina exacerbated inequalities, and from the Dutch, who have developed a holistic approach to water management.

Also offering constructive suggestions – twelve of them – is Jim Blackburn:

2) We must get a handle on the projected rainfall from big storms such as Harvey as well as the simpler frontal movements such as those that generated the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods. Our current concepts of the 100-year and 500-year floods and flood plains are obsolete. We have to stop denying that our climate is changing. We have had too many big storms over the last few years to simply write them off as aberrant. They are part of a new pattern of severe storm events that will plague us for decades to come, according to climate change experts. We need to understand what we are dealing with and start giving our citizens first-class information about these issues. State and local government employees are afraid even to mention climate change because of the politics – because of fear of losing their jobs. Well, the politics need to be damned if they refuse to recognize a key element of protecting our citizens from current and future flood problems.

3) Addicks and Barker reservoirs are the best flood control investment ever made in the Houston region, combining large land areas and high levees to impound water upstream of the heart of the city. But these dams are currently in bad shape and are rated as two of the six most dangerous dams in the United States due to structural issues that are compounded by the large population protected by them. The protection and restoration of these dams is a major priority that must be taken forward. Even more important is the fact that over the 60 or more years that they have been protecting us, they have slowly been filling with dirt and sediment from stored storm water. The capacity of these reservoirs could be increased substantially by removing this accumulation, and we should do it. There is at least one new reservoir that should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help on flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. It should be pursued as soon as possible, and other upstream locations should be found on virtually every stream in our region.


10) Our pattern of development has been outward from the center of the city up the watersheds of the various bayous and creeks. As such, our new upstream development has dumped increased runoff on our older downstream subdivisions and commercial structures. Inadvertently, we have flooded older neighborhoods while attempting to keep flood-control costs lower in the new ones, effectively subsidizing new development on the backs of the downstream residents. Floodplain maps have grown, and more people are in the 100-year floodplain than in the past. We must ensure policies exist that require no more runoff from new development than was the case before development.

Read the whole thing, both of them. We can choose to do things differently. It will take years to make it happen, but it can happen if we want it to.

The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund

From the inbox:

After receiving calls from corporations and others who want to help financially, Mayor Sylvester Turner is establishing The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund, to accept flood relief donations.

“We’ve been hearing from residents who are confused about where they should donate to get assistance directly to the residents of our city who are suffering, said Mayor Turner. “The creation of this fund will ensure the dollars donated stay in our community. The fund will focus on aiding storm victims and relief organizations in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.”

Mayor Turner thanked Waste Management for making a $50,000 donation, the first since the fund’s creation.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation, a 501 (c)(3)nonprofit public charity, will administer the fund at no cost, so 100% of all donations will go toward helping flood victims. However, online credit card donations will be assessed a small fee, typically 3%, by the credit card companies. Donors have the option of increasing their credit card donations to cover this fee.

To donate, go to and follow the instructions.

Donation instructions are here. If you’re looking for a way to help, this is a pretty good one.

Also from the inbox:

Commissioner Gene L. Locke’s crews will be picking up water-soaked debris that people re-move from their homes in unincorporated areas. Workers also will remove trees that have fallen on streets and sidewalks. Here’s how the program works:

Residents can place furniture, carpet and other items on curbside
Inform Commissioner Locke’s office about downed trees
Call Precinct One at 713-991-6881

In addition to the flood recovery that Precinct One is conducting in unincorporated areas of Harris County, Commissioner Locke has spoken with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and pledged to provide debris removal resources in portions of the city limits that are located in Precinct One.

A copy of the Commissioner’s flyer is here. Cleanup is a huge job, so if you’re in Precinct 1 and you need the help, reach out and get it.

In other news: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would lead a project to develop a barrier system to prevent people from repeatedly driving into high water areas. Joke if you want, but three of the eight deaths reported in the Houston area attributed to the flooding happened in underpasses like these. If there’s something we can do to prevent them, we should.

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs are at record levels, and roads near them will be under water, likely for several days. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Mayor Turner was scheduled to give his first State of the City address this past Monday. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Sometime between now and whenever that gets rescheduled, he will be appointing a flooding czar. That person will have “the sole responsibility of pulling together all the different stakeholders and coming up with a definitive plan on how to address flooding in the city of Houston.” Best of luck to whoever that is.

Finally, if you’re still thinking about helping out, give a thought to the folks in Greenspoint who were flooded out. They could definitely use a little help right now.

Those damn dams

In case you didn’t have enough to worry about.

Here’s the deal with what could be a terrible threat to Houston: most of the time, it isn’t. In fact, it’s a 26,000 acre recreational greenspace on Houston’s west side. It lies on both sides of the Katy Freeway at Highway 6.

On one side is the Addicks Reservoir. On the other is the Barker Reservoir. Both have dams, but most of the time there is very little water to be held back by either. So the acreage is used for parks and has miles of paved bike trails.


Even a moderate rainstorm last month created a pool of water but only right up behind the Barker Reservoir dam. That’s where we met Richard Long who for 35 years has worked at the dam for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He took us to the top of the dam gates, unlocked the control panel, and flipped a switch.

“This is the gate operating right here,” Long said as an electric motor hoisted the gate upwards inch by inch, allowing the pool of water to slowly drain into Buffalo Bayou.

“We want to get rid of the water as fast as we can so the reservoirs are available for the next rain event,” Long said.

But therein lies the cause for concern: what if that “next rain event” is something really, really big? It’s been on the mind of Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental attorney.


Richard Long, the dams’ manager, offers this scenario: “Because of our flat terrain here, we don’t have a valley that the flood would go down. It’ll spread out over a very large area. It won’t be like the horror movies you see where a wall of water is coming down a canyon. It would be very rapidly rising water and cause an extremely large amount of damage and possibly a loss of life.”

The Army Corps estimates that a dam failure could cause flooding from Buffalo Bayou and Downtown all the way over to Brays Bayou and the Medical Center. For years, the Army Corp has been monitoring “seepage” of water underneath the dam gates. Those leaks led to the Corps designating the Addicks and Barker dams “extremely high risk” and among the six most critically in need of repair in the nation.

Isn’t that nice to know? I knew you’d think so. I don’t have anything useful to say here, so I’m just going to embed a Led Zeppelin video:

Let’s hope it never comes to that, shall we? Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy some sandbags.