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American Society of Civil Engineers

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.

We need infrastructure, yes we do

But paying for it is often a problem. That doesn’t work very well for a chant, I’m afraid.

The American Society of Civil Engineers Houston branch assessed the structural and economic viability of roads, transit, solid waste, wastewater and drinking water facilities.

Drinking water systems received a D, and roads and highways got a D+. Bridges, flood control and transit scored a C-, while solid waste received a C and heavy rail systems – freight rail and Amtrak – a C+.

The report is the first local assessment done by a Texas branch of the national engineering society. Houston is the 11th region nationally to look at local infrastructure. Most regions fared slightly better than Houston, with most categories in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, for example, receiving B and C grades.

Houston drinking water systems in particular are behind on needed maintenance, said Clay Forister, chairman of the engineering society committee that produced the report.

“I think everyone remembers last summer and all the water-main breaks,” Forister said, referring to the drought-related line failures around Houston, which peaked at 1,000 in a single day in August 2011.

[…]

Future demand is great, the report found. The combined population of Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Montgomery, Liberty and Chambers counties is expected to grow by 3 million, to 8.8 million, by 2035, the engineers said.

Without improvements, the 422 miles of local highways will not accommodate that growth, and water and sewer plants will strain to serve an increasing number of people.

You can see the report card and related information here. As the story notes, the city is taking some steps to fund infrastructure renewal – Rebuild Houston is the obvious thing we’ve got going on, but there was also that water rate hike from 2010 that was done in part to fund infrastructure projects for Houston’s water system. Houston’s problems are hardly unique, of course, as are their concerns about how to pay for what needs to be done. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the federal government needs to put up a few billion dollars for infrastructure projects around the country. Water systems everywhere are in desperate need of upgrade, and this would serve as economic stimulus at a time when it’s still a good idea. Unfortunately, that won’t happen any time soon, most likely not until we’re past the point of crisis.