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Harris County Flood Control District

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”

[…]

City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

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?

Let’s review those flood control regulations

Seems like a good idea, wouldn’t you say?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to review Harris County’s flood control regulations to gauge whether they sufficiently neutralize the flood risk posed by the region’s booming development, a question that has drawn increasing scrutiny after a series of storms in recent years, capped by Hurricane Harvey, have devastated the region.

The Harris County Flood Control District already had begun a review of the regulations and asked in August for a third-party re-examination by the Corps. The district expects preliminary results at the end of October.

“We are looking at where development is going, is there any trend that we are seeing,” said Ataul Hannan, planning division director for the flood control district. “We might have to go in and fine-tune areas.”

The county’s flood control rules largely center around a principle called “detention,” a requirement that any development – subdivision, strip mall, gas station – hold runoff in a basin and release it slowly so as to not increase flooding downstream.

Regulations mandate that the basins, also called detention ponds, hold enough water to mimic the landscape being paved over.

After repeated storms in recent years, a growing chorus of critics has connected the county’s rapid development with its destruction.

Following last year’s Tax Day floods, a Houston Chronicle investigation found that flood control regulations, including detention requirements, routinely were undercut by developers.

[…]

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney who has sued the Corps and the county over flood control issues, said a Corps review would not be objective, given the ties between the agencies.

“They need an independent assessment because the problem with Harris County’s detention regulations is they are not strict enough,” said Blackburn, a co-director of Rice University’s center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters.

The city will be doing its own separate review of its detention requirements in the coming months. Doing the review is one thing, but enforcement is quite another, and ensuring that the review is sufficient and spares no concern about anyone’s feelings is still one more. There’s no room for denial anymore. We’ve been given a very clear demonstration of what the flaws in our current policies are. There’s no excuse for not getting it right this time.

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.

More flood mitigation coming

This is ambitious.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After local leaders stood on the banks of Brays Bayou to celebrate a creative agreement that is expected to speed up work on a long-delayed effort to lessen the risk of flooding in southwest Houston, some angry Meyerland-area flood victims peppered them with questions.

The press conference was called to tout a plan under which the city of Houston would borrow $46 million from the state, give the cash to the county to speed up work on Project Brays, then be reimbursed later with federal dollars.

City officials hope to repeat that process for two other bayous – White Oak and Hunting- ultimately forwarding the county about $130  million.

For more background on this effort, click here. For more information on another recent flooding initiative Mayor Sylvester Turner and his “flood czar,” Steve Costello, announced, click here.

And for more information about Project Brays, visit this county Flood Control District page.

[…]

Turner — who, like flood control officials — was mobbed by residents after he stepped down from the podium, answered questions for several minutes before departing.

“There’s no question that there are frustrations and I understand the frustrations,” the mayor said. “Nobody wants their homes flooded once, four times or seven times. And that’s why the city, in an unprecedented move, took the lead and borrowed the $43 million. Now we have certainty that this project will be completed.”

Harris County Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe said his agency expects to complete channel widening through Meyerland to Fondren in the next two years. The city loan, which will be used chiefly for downstream bridge replacements, is important, he said, because bridges that are too low can create significant backups, heightening the flooding risk for those upstream.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and as you can see there are statements from multiple other elected officials, at different levels of government. The plan, which has received preliminary approval from Council, is a bit convoluted, but it’s also an example of Mayor Turner leveraging his experience in the Legislature to forge complex agreements. Homeowners who have been badly harmed by recent floods had some understandable questions about how all this will affect them, not all of which are addressed by this plan. Still, I think we can all agree that bayou improvements are a key component in flood mitigation, and streamlining the process to make it happen more quickly will help. It would be nice if we could come to a similar consensus about preserving flood plains and wetlands, but one step at a time. The Press has more.

Who’s willing to pay for more flood mitigation?

I have three things to say about this.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Harris county’s four commissioners said Wednesday they could support either a property tax increase or reallocation of funds in the county budget to better fund flood control projects after a series of storms and floods this spring destroyed property and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would support a tax increase if there was a concrete plan on what to do with the extra revenue, and Gene Locke of Precinct 1 said through a spokeswoman he could likely get behind such a measurebut also would want the federal government to help pay more for flood control projects.

The two other commissioners – Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 and Jack Morman in Precinct 2 – said they would not support increasing the tax rate but could support reallocating funds to tackle flooding problems.

County Judge Ed Emmett declined to comment, but said through a spokesman he would not weigh in before a specific proposal was on the table.

The discussion about a possible property tax rate increase was sparked by recent comments Radack made at a meeting with a civic group in Cypress, which was recently hard-hit by flooding.

“I will tell you right now, I will vote for a tax increase for the Harris County Flood Control District,” Radack said to dozens in the audience last week, noting that he’s the only commissioner on court who has ever voted for a property tax increase. “But I’m one person. I’m not criticizing my colleagues. I’m just telling you this. That’s the way it is.”

On Wednesday, Radack reiterated his support for a tax increase, but qualified his position somewhat saying he would want to see a list of projects vetted by the public and by county government and would want to involve the city of Houston and the federal government in helping fund the projects.

He said he would want to have county voters weigh in on a potential bond issue that outlined that list of projects.

“I would support a tax increase for flood control, I would support it,” he said. “Now bear in mind, you don’t just have a tax increase without a plan.”

[…]

The tax rate for the flood control district is currently about 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value, [county budget officer Bill] Jackson said. That includes the amount designated directly for the flood control district – 2.7 cents per $100 – as well as a chunk that’s being used by the county to pay down debt.

The flood control district’s property tax rate can be raised by commissioners to no more than 30 cents per $100, Jackson said.

Morman was adamant, however, that he would not support an overall tax increase to solve the problem.

“I’m a homeowner, most of my constituents are homeowners, we already pay enough property taxes,” Morman said. “It’s kind of like enough is enough at some point.”

Morman said he could also support reallocation of funds, but did not know exactly where that money would come from.

Locke could in theory support a tax rate increase, though he would need to see the final plans and would want the federal government to help pay for more flood control projects, spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Cagle said he would not support an overall tax increase, but would support reallocating funds toward flood control from the county’s public hospital district. In the past, they had been reallocated toward the hospital district and away from flood control, he said.

“I believe the taxpayers are interested in a reallocation of the tax base back to making flood control the priority that it once was,” Cagle said.

1. This was what Radack was talking about when he made his infamous “some people enjoy flooding” remarks. The Press had a story that ran after I published that included his thoughts on the tax rate, and I think there’s a lot to what he’s saying here. He definitely put his foot in his mouth on this point – I get what he was trying to say, but you’d think a guy who’s been in office for as long as he has might have a better grasp of how not to say things in the worst possible way – and he deserves the heat he’s getting, but the rest of what he said should not be lost.

2. Morman and Cagle’s insistence that we don’t need to raise any more revenue, we just need to shuffle things around in the budget is a load of bollocks. How much should we be spending on flood mitigation? What specific budget items would you cut to make up the difference between what we now spend and what you think we should spend? Give me details and then maybe I’ll believe that you’re not just dodging the question.

3. All that said, the single best thing we could do going forward to not make our flooding problem worse is to stop paving over the undeveloped land that currently serves as the best flood mitigation we’ll ever have. People have been saying for years that the Grand Parkway would be a disaster from a flooding perspective, but that didn’t stop the County from building a massive road in the middle of what used to be nowhere to serve the needs of people who didn’t live there yet. If we ever got serious about encouraging denser development and transportation solutions that support it, we’d have less mitigation to worry about having to pay for.

Don’t expect any flood project funding from Congress, either

Nice thought, but ain’t gonna happen.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

As the flood threat across much of the Houston region lessened Friday, local leaders began shifting their focus to recovery and two Houston congressmen announced legislation to fund more than $300 million worth of regional flood control projects.

U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green said their bill, which they filed Thursday, might mitigate devastation like that caused by this week’s deluge they called the “Tax Day floods”: 240 billion gallons of rain water, more than 17 inches in some areas, drenched the county in the most significant downpour in 15 years.

“It’s important for us to say that we want to take care of our city,” said Al Green.

[…]

The Houston congressmens’ bill would appropriate $311 million projects on several bayous across the county, including an ongoing widening project on Brays Bayou. Earlier this week, the bayou spilled over its banks, flooding dozens of homes, as it did last Memorial Day, when swaths of Meyerland were inundated by flood waters.

Funds would also go toward bridge replacements, detention ponds and widening and deepening measures on Clear Creek, Greens Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou.

President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget currently does not allocate funds despite multimillion dollar need, a challenge local officials said was part of an ongoing struggle

The Brays Bayou project was initially expected to be finished in 2016, but the completion is now anticipated for 2021, according to flood control district executive director Mike Talbott, in large part due to funding constraints.

Flood control district spokeswoman Kim Jackson said work on the Hunting Bayou – specifically an alteration to the shape of the channel that would allow water to better flow through – is also on hold due to lack of federal dollars. So are improvements to the White Oak Bayou, including a work on the channel from Cole Creek to upstream of Jones Road and the construction of one detention basin.

“We keep designing, designing and we’ll construct as we can,” Jackson said. “That’s what’s kind of gotten us behind.”

It’s not to say bayou improvements have not been made over the years. Three flood control basins have been built as part of the Brays Bayou project, along with 12.3 miles of improvements to the channel. Almost $212 million in federal dollars have gone toward the project since 1998.

The flood control district estimates that without some of the improvements, 2,000 homes and business would have been flooded during last year’s Memorial Day flood last year.

But flood control officials say more work is needed. If passed, the $311 million in the legislation would provide a steady stream of funding for a decade, boosting many of the projects toward completion.

Despite enthusiasm for the bill’s passage from both Congressmen, University of Houston – Victoria political science professor Craig Goodman said it would be an uphill battle, in part because the sponsors are Democrats in a Republican-controlled legislature.

“Appropriations is going to be really tough in this Congress,” Goodman said.

As with the coastal floodgate proposals, the first problem is simple partisanship. Democratic-written infrastructure bills have no chance of being passed in a Republican Congress. There are scenarios under which some of these things get some funding, but they all involve some level of Republican support. What do you think are the odds of that? KUHF has more.

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?

Ghosts of Allison

I sure hope everyone made it through yesterday’s ferocious rain all right.

The storm that flooded the greater Houston area on Monday – drenching the region with the most rain since Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than 24 inches in June 2001 – packed a mighty punch in mere hours.

Some areas saw as much as 4 inches of rain fall in an hour Monday morning. Unfortunately for some motorists, the heaviest downpours occurred between 6 and 7 a.m., just as they had started their commute to work.

Parts of Harris and Waller counties to the west of Houston were swamped with as much as 18 inches. For that section of Harris County, and much of central Waller County, the rainfall totals matched those expected during a one-in-200-year rain event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Totals were much lower for eastern Harris County, where fewer than 4 inches of rain fell in some locations.

Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said between Sunday night and mid-afternoon on Monday, an average of 7.75 inches of rain fell in neighborhoods across the county. That’s the equivalent of 240 billion gallons of water.

“The big problem with this storm was the volume of rain it produced in such a short amount of time,” said Don Oettinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office.

[…]

As the heavy rainfall moved out of the Houston region on Monday afternoon the question became: what comes next? Fortunately, drier air contributed to a quiet Monday evening, in terms of rain showers.

Unfortunately, the greater Houston region is not done with the potential for heavy rainfall this week, as moisture will continue flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico to recharge the atmosphere, and the atmospheric instability that led to Sunday night’s and Monday’s downpours isn’t going away entirely. However, another gargantuan, slow-moving system that Houston just experienced seems unlikely.

The National Weather Service forecast for the Houston region calls for additional showers and thunderstorms over the next three days, with accumulations of perhaps 1 to 4 inches more rain between Monday night and early Friday.

It is possible there will be higher levels in certain areas. Meteorologists say Wednesday is the day when the region could see the most organized rain showers.

HISD schools are closed again today. Some parts of town experienced terrible flooding yesterday, and they are in danger of further damage today and tomorrow. I haven’t seen any information about what to do to help those who have been affected. If and when I do, I’ll post something about it. In the meantime, stay safe, and for God’s sake heed all warnings about high water on the roads. The Press has more.

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.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

The parks part of the county bond package

The plans are more specific for the part of the bond package that’s easier to sell.

HarrisCounty

Commissioner Jack Morman thinks of the East Aldine residents waiting outside Crowley Park before dawn for workers to unlock the gates. Commissioner Steve Radack cites Easter weekend crowds of roughly 75,000 at Bear Creek Park. Commissioner El Franco Lee pictures the opening day parade of Little Leaguers at his eponymous park. Commissioner Jack Cagle riffs on the joy of encountering turtles, egrets, herons and bald eagles along his greenways, mere miles from neighborhoods.

Harris County officials said they are in locked in a steady struggle to keep pace providing plentiful green space amenities as the population of unincorporated Harris County continues to grow unabated. They’re asking voters to approve millions in improvements in four upcoming ballot measures that total $848 million.

The $60 million park bond will help fund land acquisition, as well as updates and improvements in the county’s 170 parks. If the voters approve it, the money will be split four ways and each commissioner has discretion to spend his pot on park projects of his choosing, pending approval of Commissioners Court. They don’t need to pin the money to any specific undertaking. Each commissioner takes a unique approach to doling out the funds.

Commissioners said they almost never request all of the money up front. It’s usually spent to supplement projects that are underway as the costs come up. Bill Jackson, the county budget director, said there isn’t a final deadline for cashing in on bond money. In some cases, if the need never materializes, the bond debt is not issued, as was the case of the bond for a family law center that never got built.

Constituent needs vary throughout the county and within each precinct: “What matters to somebody in the northeast might not matter to somebody in the southeast,” Morman said.

In his precinct, he said, “We err on the side of doing something the community would love. My personal tastes don’t come into it.”

You can read the rest for each commissioner’s detailed wish list. The sidebar reminds us of the other items in the bond package, the biggest part of which is $700 million for roads and bridges, though we don’t know what the particulars are for that. What are your thoughts on these bond proposals?

Endorsement watch: Bonds, five bonds

There are four Harris County bond issues on the ballot this fall. The Chron supports them all, with some reservations. I’m just going to focus on the first one, since it’s by far the biggest and the one for which there is the strongest argument against it.

HarrisCounty

Proposition 1 – For

More than 75 percent of Harris County’s growth in the past 15 years has been in the unincorporated county. In those suburban and exurban developments, nearly 2 million people look to their county commissioner as their only representative for local needs – and today they need roads. From the new Exxon-Mobil campus in the north to Port of Houston traffic in the east and new neighborhoods all around, Harris County’s road system is being pushed to the limit.

The commissioners want $700 million to make sure that the people moving into their new homes and driving to new jobs don’t hit a gridlock on day one. Of that, $60 million will be spent repairing roads in older subdivisions, such as near FM 1960.

However, unlike school bonds or the city’s annual capital improvement plan, the county provides no public list of intended goals. People who live within the city of Houston probably won’t benefit directly from any of that spending, despite our pockmarked streets. That’s a tough sell for the skeptical voter.

Nevertheless, these roads are needed if Harris County is to keep growing, and that growth will help everyone in the region no matter where you live.

Our Gulf Coast metropolis exists in a tangled web of overlapping local governments that nobody would willingly design from the groundup. The millions living in the unincorporated county need their own cities to provide local services. The economic engines of downtown, the Texas Medical Center and the Galleria area need more support from county government. But before we can take a serious look at reforming local government, voters need to approve Proposition 1.

I tried to schedule an interview with County Commissioner Steve Radack to discuss the bond issues, but we weren’t able to make it happen. The Chron lays out the main objection to this – it’s basically going to enable more sprawl, but won’t do much if anything for the already-built environment. Take whatever action you deem appropriate on this one – whatever happens, I’m sure this won’t be the last time we’re asked to authorize capital expenditure for more county roads. The other three issues, having to do with parks, veterinary and animal adoption services, and flood mitigation ponds (which, let’s be honest, would not be as needed if we were better stewards of the natural flood mitigation areas in the county and surrounding areas) are all worthwhile and I’ll vote for them. This one will be a game day decision. I will note that I did receive a mailer touting the county bond referenda the other day. I’d been wondering what kind advocacy there would be for them, if any, given the close call that the 2012 jail referendum had and the likelihood of some “No”-minded voters coming out because they think they’ll get to vote on HERO. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Also on the ballot for some of you is a San Jacinto College bond referendum.

San Jacinto College, one of nine Gulf Coast regional community college systems, serves as a bridge between a diverse group of high school students -­ 77 percent of whom are the first in their families to go to college – and the burgeoning requirements of a regional hub of the energy, manufacturing, maritime and aerospace industry.

Passage of the $425 million San Jacinto bond referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot will provide students a state-of-the-art education in dozens of careers and improve the competitiveness of the workforce for local businesses and industry.

I’m in HCC territory, so I know next to nothing about any of this. I’m including this for completeness. What are your thoughts on these issues?

Bayou trails update

Coming along nicely.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative will build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along the city’s nine waterways, a $220 million effort that Mayor Annise Parker says is “one of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to work on as mayor” – and which is only now gathering steam.

“It’s a transformative project designed to string the beads of existing trail systems into an integrated whole,” Parker said, “but also designed to put accessible park and green space into every neighborhood of Houston by putting trails along all of the small rivers that cross the city.”

The ambitious plan advanced Wednesday as City Council approved $19 million for the next phase of trails in north Houston and also cleared the way for the purchase of land on which some of the trails will run.

[…]

Bayou Greenways’ construction progress has been modest thus far as the parks board designs the new trails and slogs through the dual permitting process of the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the parks board’s Catherine Butsch, as both entities have jurisdiction.

About 3.5 miles of trail have been built, mostly along White Oak Bayou, but Butsch said the pace is likely to increase sharply.

Construction is to start soon along a section of White Oak in the I-10 corridor. That follows the recent openings of a new bridge near T.C. Jester and 11th Street over White Oak, and of a new trail section from Antoine to Alabonson.

Along Brays Bayou, a trail section from Mason Park to Old Spanish Trail opened last year, and that segment will soon be extended to the University of Houston.

On Sims Bayou, construction is scheduled to start on the two trail sections at the far eastern and western edges of the city limits by year’s end, in tandem with design work on the middle sections.

Design also will start this year on two sections of trail along Greens Bayou and on a far western section of trail planned along Brays.

“When it is completed by 2020, we estimate that six out of 10 Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of one of these Bayou Greenways,” Butsch said. “That’s really enhancing access to park land. We’re really able to use our natural resources, our bayous, in a special way like no other city.”

I love this project, and I believe it will do a lot to make Houston a better place to live. We have all these bayous, we should be taking full advantage of them. A lot of the funding for this is privately raised as well, making it a better deal overall. I’m especially looking forward to the White Oak/I-10 work, but it’s great to see this happening farther out as well.

Bell wants Meyerland flooding investigated

It’s a story about flooding and the Mayor’s race, but not the story about flooding and the Mayor’s race you might have been expecting.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Mayoral candidate Chris Bell on Sunday called for an independent investigation into why so many Meyerland homes flooded during the heavy Memorial Day weekend rains.

Surrounded by about two dozen residents at a press conference by Brays Bayou, Bell said it was important to figure out why infrastructure projects in the area didn’t prevent major flooding and why others were not completed on schedule. Bell challenged the assertion, backed by experts, that flooding was inevitable considering some areas were hit with more than 10 inches overnight.

“The least we are owed is an explanation of what happened,” said Bell, a former congressman and city councilman who lives in Meyerland.

Bell called for an outside investigation, saying that a report by the Harris County Flood Control District would be “biased” because the agency helped design projects in the area as part of the city’s drainage and streets program, ReBuild Houston. A spokesperson for the agency could not be reached Sunday.

Bell is not the first of the seven mayoral candidates to criticize the city’s ReBuild Houston initiative, the pay-as-you-go program that voters approved in 2010, in the wake of the Memorial Day flooding. Many of the candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker have seized on the flooding to criticize the city’s infrastructure or talk about speeding up flood mitigation efforts.

Well, except that Bell never mentions ReBuild Houston in this story, and that the next three paragraphs have to do with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the effect it had on Brays Bayou and the massive project that the Harris County Flood Control District undertook to mitigate those effects, which some people including Bell are now saying have taken too long and not done enough. None of this, you may note, has anything to do with ReBuild Houston. I’m sure Bell has been critical of ReBuild Houston, but as far as I can tell what he has not done – along with Adrian Garcia and Marty McVey – is publicly express an opinion on the Supreme Court ruling or the subsequent new litigation or the call for a revote. Any or all of those things would have been nice to know, but none of them are a part of this story. I don’t know if Chron reporter Tina Nazerian didn’t think to ask about any of these things or just didn’t report the answers she got when she did. Either way, we got nothing. For a bit of writing that does have something to do with ReBuild Houston, see PDiddie.

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.

Bayou battle

Another one of our local disputes that has been picked up by national interests.

A Harris County Flood Control District proposal, submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in April, would reconfigure and stabilize about a third of the semi-natural bayou left inside Loop 610. And it would do so using an approach called Natural Channel Design that, though in wide use across the country, is denounced in many scientific circles.

One of the method’s foremost critics, G. Mathias Kondolf, a professor of environmental planning at the University of California at Berkeley, was with the group on the bayou.

“This is such a remarkable place right in the heart of the city,” he said, standing on the bank. “Here you could let the river be a river. And so why not just leave it alone?”

Natural Channel Design, which the Harris County Flood Control District has used since 2006, was created and popularized by Colorado-based hydrology consultant Dave Rosgen. Rosgen has little in the way of formal scientific training, but he recognized a demand for stream-restoration methods long before academics moved to meet it. Rosgen’s method, taught in short courses rather than Ph.D. programs, uses tree trunks and other natural materials to stop streams from eroding or changing course.

“Rosgen claims that channels designed using his approach are both stable and natural, a deeply appealing combination,” Rebecca Lave, an Indiana University associate professor of geography, writes in her 2012 book “Fields and Streams.” “His NCD approach has been adopted and implemented by local, state and federal agencies throughout the United States despite opposition so strenuous and long-lasting that the controversy has come to be known as the Rosgen Wars.”

[…]

The bayou’s surrounding urban environment, however, has sometimes made the channel’s dynamism difficult to accommodate.

As flood-control district director Mike Talbott tells it, Buffalo Bayou is “coming unraveled.” The bayou has eroded and shifted course as Houston has boomed and development increased, and the proposed project would demonstrate a way to stabilize it.

Notably, the last semi-natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou inside Loop 610 runs between Memorial Park and some of the city’s most visible and most expensive real estate, creating a dividing line between public land and private property.

The flood control district and conservationists agree that this marriage of public and private space has not been a happy one.

Some of the landowners whose properties border the bayou have responded to the bayou’s natural erosion with ecologically and hydrologically problematic solutions – things like removing vegetation and replacing it with vast concrete walls. The flood-control district can’t control what those landowners do.

But by addressing an area slightly downstream from these expansive backyards and their bad solutions, the district intends to showcase a better way, Talbott said, one that would stabilize the bayou and reduce erosion without being so ecologically destructive.

“The people aren’t going to let it do what it wants to do,” Talbott said of the property owners along Buffalo Bayou. “That’s why the idea of intervention sounds like the right thing.”

The Memorial Park Demonstration Project, which would cost an estimated $6 million, has both money and broad institutional support, with funding lined up from the flood-control district, the city of Houston and the River Oaks Country Club. The Memorial Park Conservancy and the Bayou Preservation Association are also backing it.

But the project is not a done deal. Even if the Army Corps of Engineers approves the flood-control district’s proposal – there is no specific deadline for them to do so – it will have to go through another public hearing process, as required by the Texas Parks and Wildlife code.

See here for the background, and here for the case against the Rosgen approach, as articulated by Save Buffalo Bayou. Prof. Kondolf was here in November to inspect this part of the bayou and give a report on it; you can read a brief summary of that here and see a video of his presentation here. Save Buffalo Bayou is a good resource if you want to know more about this part of the bayou that most of us never get to see. It seems likely to me that the Memorial Park Demonstration Project will go forward as planned, given the support for it, but we should at least understand what the alternative is.

On the bayou and erosion

A portion of the work being done on Buffalo Bayou, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is drawing opposition for being too big a change to the natural state of the bayou.

Borne of a 2010 workshop hosted by the Bayou Preservation Association, the project calls for reshaping the banks of the bayou that wind past the [River Oaks Country Club], the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a residential neighborhood and the southernmost border of the 1,503-acre park.

The plan calls for the segment of Buffalo Bayou – stressed, both sides agree, by the increased runoff that has come with urban development – to be widened, its course adjusted in some places and its crumbling banks shaped into stable slopes. A mass of vegetation would be stripped away from its banks and trees removed. Replanting would occur toward the end of the project, the cost of which Harris County, the city of Houston and the country club have agreed to share.

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, which will oversee the project, the plan would “create a self-sustaining bayou that would slow the erosion process” and potentially serve as a model for future projects – if it works. The project would be the first along the bayou to employ “natural channel design techniques,” as opposed to traditional concrete lining, something Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett describe as a sign of progress. It has been dubbed a “demonstration” project because officials say it would showcase the benefits of the methodology.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and the Houston Audubon Society, however, say the plan would destroy all wildlife habitat along that stretch of the bayou, and that the science behind it has not been proven to reduce erosion.

“If we strip off 80 percent of the vegetation, if we remove the trees that shade the water, we will actually ruin a mile and a quarter of the main channel of Buffalo Bayou,” said Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The group is proposing an alternative that involves promoting the existing habitat by planting native vegetation. It would impact the area less “because it will be aimed at the areas that most need support,” Merz said.

Save Buffalo Bayou is leading the activism against this. Two of its members had an op-ed in the Chron recently, reprinted here, that lays out their case. I haven’t followed this closely, but the way they illustrate what the plan is sure doesn’t make it look appetizing. If you want to offer your feedback, you have until June 30, when the public comment period closes. Here are their recommendations for what to say. CultureMap has more.

Trudi Smith: What’s going on with Buffalo Bayou

The following is from a series of guest posts that I have been presenting over the past few weeks.

Transformation of Buffalo Bayou Park, one of Houston’s most iconic green spaces, is well underway. With an historic $30 million catalyst gift from the Kinder Foundation, a strong public-private partnership has been created to include Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), City of Houston led by the Houston Parks & Recreation Department and Harris County Flood Control District. BBP has been charged with leading the enhancements of the 160-acre, 2.3-mile bayou stretch from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street.

Likened to Houston’s own Central Park, the ambitious $55 million project will:

  • Restore the bayou to a more natural and self-sustaining version of what exists today
  • Reintroduce native park landscape
  • Add amenities to enhance safety and visitor experience

After two years of design and engineering, trail work is being constructed and additional improvements are slated to begin this summer. The entire project is expected to be complete in mid-2015. Here’s the Master Plan.

Buffalo Bayou Park Phase I Begins

Steps to Crosby Outfall along Allen Parkway just west of Sabine Street

Phase I work will be executed in two stages. The first stage includes a new pedestrian bridge at Jackson Hill, a new bridge and trails providing access to the Police Memorial, and a new footbridge, stairs and earthwork at the Crosby Outfall area at the intersection of Sabine Street and Allen Parkway.

The 345-foot Jackson Hill Bridge will be the first bayou spanning bridge to be built, and it will connect via a small plaza to the existing pedestrian bridge which crosses over Memorial Drive. Similar in aesthetic to the Hobby Center Bridge, it will provide a safe and convenient route for cyclists and pedestrians to cross over Buffalo Bayou. A trail connector to the east and a footpath connector to the west will also be added.

Improvements planned at Sabine Street and the Crosby Outfall will complement the existing trail into Eleanor Tinsley Park. The new footbridge will be 53 feet long and stairs will be upgraded to resemble those at the Sabine Promenade.

Phase I construction is expected to be completed by September 2013.

Harris County Flood Control District Begins Work at the Police Memorial

In August, the Harris County Flood Control District will start its channel conveyance restoration project. Work includes restoring the conveyance capacity of the bayou by removing accumulated sediment, repairing erosion and stabilizing bank failures. The District will also conduct selective clearing to remove invasive vegetation and, ultimately, implement a tree planting plan.

The District’s work will begin on the bayou’s north bank near the Police Memorial (north of Memorial Drive) and then proceed in seven phases to Shepherd Drive. This work will continue until late 2014 and is a continuation of the successful Pilot Project the District completed in 2010.

Overall, trail use in this area should not be heavily impacted. However, trails may be temporarily closed due to construction traffic crossing the trails. During these times, the construction contractor will have flagmen on-site directing pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Canoeists and kayakers should note there will be times when the bayou will be closed for safety reasons due to the construction.

South Bank Trail Closure at Taft & Allen Parkway

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the City of Houston continued work on the 4.6-mile Sandy Reed Memorial Trail on the south side of the bayou at Taft and Allen Parkway, extending eastward to Sabine Street. Trail users: Please note that for safety reasons the trail on the south side of Buffalo Bayou at Montrose (on the west) and Sabine (on the east) will be closed through approximately October 2012. Trail users are asked to stay on the north bank trails or detour from the south across the Rosemont Bridge.

The Water Works Cistern

In early January, the Houston Chronicle highlighted one of Buffalo Bayou Park’s most fascinating features. Below the signature lawn being developed as The Water Works performance area, north of the existing Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park, sits an unused City of Houston water reservoir. This 100,000-square-foot area has enormous potential. While there is currently no funding to develop the “Cistern,” as it has been dubbed, Houston-based SmartGeoMetrics has volunteered to produce 3D imaging of the cavernous space. Their work will help BBP accurately document the Cistern’s current as-is condition, conceptualize ideas for developing the space, and, with luck, facilitate funding. Imaging is expected to be completed by late summer. SmartGeoMetrics’ imaging will be given to the University of Houston’s Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2) who will vet a web-based public ideas process to come up with creative and sustainable potential uses. Stay tuned for details on this public ideas process!

Behind the Scenes: Familiar Faces-SWA Group

Front left to right: Jenny Janis, Jiyoung Nam, Josh Lock, Peng Xu; middle left to right: Clayton Bruner, Tim Peterson, Kevin Shanley (President, SWA Group); back left to right: Jake Salzman, Scott McCready, Michael Robinson; not pictured: Xin Sui, Alaleh Rouhi

Friends of Buffalo Bayou Partnership will recall SWA Group leading the award-winning Sabine Promenade Project. SWA Group is once again collaborating with Buffalo Bayou Partnership on the design of Buffalo Bayou Park improvements. As one of the world’s top landscape architecture and planning firms, SWA has designed countless projects in Houston and around the world. Their work includes revitalization of the landscape architecture of Hermann Park and framework planning for Houston’s Brays Bayou Corridor, among others. The Buffalo Bayou Park team is led by President Kevin Shanley, who has been involved in innovative flood management projects along a majority of Houston bayous. Rounding out the skilled team are Scott McCready, lead designer, and Tim Peterson, project manager.

For additional information on the Buffalo Bayou Park Shepherd to Sabine, click here.

To read more of the July/August 2012 In the Works e-newsletter, click here.

To sign up to receive Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s monthly e-newsletters, click here.

Trudi Smith is the Director of PR and Events for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is the non-profit organization revitalizing and transforming Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s most significant natural resource.

Buffalo Bayou begins its makeover

This is going to be great.

The jogging and biking trails that wind through Buffalo Bayou Park west of downtown are about to get a bit more circuitous as a $55 million effort to transform the area into an iconic green space for Houston begins in earnest this month.

[…]

The Harris County Flood Control District will kick off $5.1 million worth of earthwork along the bayou next month, dredging silt from the channel, fixing erosion problems and pulling or planting vegetation.

“It’s a very popular area. The challenge is leaving the park open for the public to use while we have large construction equipment in there,” said Sandra Musgrove, infrastructure division director for the flood control district. “I just hope people will be patient and tolerate all the construction, because the end result will be a really nice park.”

The district generally will work westward, reaching Shepherd by December 2014. The partnership will follow, extending the landscaping, distinctive blue lighting and waterside jogging trails it built between Bagby and Sabine to Shepherd by spring 2015.

Work to replace the main hike-and-bike trail through the park already has begun, overseen by the Texas Department of Transportation.

See here for full details of the plan, and this Swamplot post from last year for more pictures. Buffalo Bayou Park is already one of this city’s great amenities. The completion of this project will make it that much better.

Reliant drainage deal?

Will wonders never cease?

There may be a resolution to the spat over whether the county has to pay the city drainage fee imposed on Reliant Park – an annual bill of $353,000.

Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda includes an item that authorizes the Public Infrastructure Department to negotiate with the city on the Reliant Park drainage fee.

But Mayor Annise Parker hinted last week that a deal is already in the works that would have the Harris County Flood Control District provide services in lieu of cash from the Reliant Park property.

As the story notes, the Clear Lake City Water Authority has the same deal with the city – their customers don’t pay the drainage fee, but in return the Authority agrees to do an equivalent amount of drainage-related work inside the city. Seems eminently reasonable to me, much better than venting one’s spleen through the legislative process. If this actually goes through, I promise to refrain from insulting Steve Radack for an entire week. We all must make sacrifices for the greater good.

Transforming Buffalo Bayou

Awesome.

A $55 million upgrade to parkland along Buffalo Bayou is set to add performance venues, improve recreational areas and revitalize downtown-area green space that officials hope will become a magnet and refuge similar to New York’s Central Park.

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved an operating agreement paving the way for construction, including a major restructuring of Buffalo Bayou and restoration of its ecosystems. The Harris County Commissioners Court will take up a similar agreement Tuesday.

The plan’s cost will be covered by $50 million in donations, including $30 million from The Kinder Foundation, with construction expected to run from June 2012 through 2015. The city will contribute $2 million annually to maintain and operate the upgraded park, and the Harris County Flood Control District will pitch in $5 million to assist with changes to the waterway. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership still is raising private funds for the project.

The restructuring effort will focus on a 158-acre, 2.3-mile stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine, with an emphasis on “resculpting” the bayou channel to restore a more natural meandering path that was scraped away during a 1950s flood control project, said Guy Hagstette, a consultant for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which developed the plan.

The city’s press release is here, and you can learn all you want to know about the project at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership webpage. Keep in mind that the San Antonio Riverwalk started out as a flood control project, and transformed over time into a star attraction and a reason for people to visit the city. Buffalo Bayou already has some nice amenities, and what’s being planned now will really make it something. Who knows what it could be in once this is done?

Who needs flood control?

Not Harris County, apparently.

Harris County, despite a history of costly floods, appears likely to scale back its flood control work in the coming years in the face of declining federal funding.

In a typical year, the county gets about $30 million in flood control work from the Army Corps of Engineers, Harris County Flood Control District director Mike Talbott said. This year, the county appears likely to receive no more than $3 million.

[…]

The Corps’ Galveston District, which includes Harris County, spent $56 million on flood control during the last federal fiscal year. This year, without stimulus dollars or Hurricane Ike recovery money, the district has $9 million.

Harris County Commissioners Court members, reluctant to raise taxes to cover the gap created by federal cuts, say they would rather shift spending away from other items to fund flood control. That, however, may prove difficult, given the 10-percent budget cut the county enacted earlier this year.

“The only answer we have here locally is to raise taxes, and I will not vote for a tax increase, even if it means we’re not going to be able to be as aggressive on our flood-control projects,” county Commissioner Steve Radack said. “We have spent a lot of money on flood control. We will continue to spend a lot of money on flood control.”

There is another answer, actually. Since the gap in Harris County’s funding comes from a loss of federal appropriations, you could urge Congress to take action on this important issue. The need for flood control projects isn’t going to go away just because the funding isn’t there. With negative real yields on Treasury bonds, it will never be a better time for the federal government to make these kinds of infrastructure investments, and it might put a few people back to work, too. And if your Congressperson refuses to hear any of this, you can take the next step and support someone else for the office. Not that Steve Radack will do any of this, of course. You can be sure that he’ll be prepared to blame someone else the next time there is a flood that could have been mitigated, however. That’s always cheap and easy to do.

Beautifying the bayous

Very cool.

A local nonprofit hopes its $55 million plan to overhaul 158 acres of parkland along Buffalo Bayou west of downtown will transform the area into an iconic green space for Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s plan calls for extensive upgrades along the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine, intended to improve aesthetics, attract more visitors and reduce the risk of flooding.

The plan will reach City Council this week and Commissioners Court later this month. These expected nods of approval will start talks on final details, to be fleshed out in the coming months.

Construction is expected to start in mid-2012 and take three years.

The effort will be funded almost entirely by private donors, save $5 million from the Harris County Flood Control District. The Kinder Foundation has given $30 million, believed to be the largest gift ever given to a park project in Houston. That leaves the partnership with $20 million to scrape together.

“That area of the bayou is so used,” said Nancy Kinder. “The trails are in such dire shape. That was really what caught our focus — that this could be a world-class park if you did just some basic work.”

You can read more about the plan here. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all shapes up.

In the meantime, Tuesday was the ceremonial grand opening of the bridge formerly known as Tolerance, now simply called Rosemont. I went by on my way home with my camera, intending to take a few pictures, but the “ceremonial” aspect of the opening meant that the bridge itself was not yet available. I did actually take a few shots, but then I saw that Swamplot had a much better assortment, so I figured I’d save myself some time and just point you there. I’ll try again some time after the bridge becomes open for real.