Bayou City Sitrep: What’s Been Happening

It’s All About Flooding

Open House public meetings, May 24, 26, and 31. Tell your flood stories to the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group

List of committees, groups, studies, projects, etc., focused on regional flooding

May 10, 2022

Well, a lot has been happening in the past few months. And we’re talking about here in Houston. Though we haven’t been posting much, we have been attending numerous meetings, following developments, taking notes, and making comments.

The big topic is flooding, of course, and what to do about it. From the federal government on down through the state, region, county, and city, as well as local community and business groups, at every level there are projects, task forces, committees, and meetings about flooding in the Houston region.

View of Buffalo Bayou below Shepherd Bridge looking towards downtown Houston on August 28, 2017, during Harvey flooding.

The main issues are figuring out where flooding occurs (so far little focus on why), what to do about it, and how to spend public money to protect people (or structures?) in a fair and equitable way. Who needs flood protection the most? How to protect the most people? And what about critical structures like hospitals, fire stations or even grocery stores?

In the past the benefit/cost calculation for projects has been based on dollar values. In recent years there has been a general recognition that that’s not fair. A home is a home, no matter the appraised value.

So far the focus remains vaguely centered on “projects,” which would imply “engineering.” However, state (pp. 87-88) and county guidelines mandate the use of non-structural (including  buyouts) and nature-based solutions. A recent federal flood assessment of the region also urged a greater reliance on green, nature-based, and small-scale solutions.

Nature-based methods are prioritized not only because they are the most beneficial and cost-effective. But also because nature moves. Storms change. Hard structures don’t. So spending billions on building and maintaining massive engineering projects like flood tunnels, ripping out trees and widening, deepening streams and bayous may not be the best investment. In fact, recent studies have shown that green infrastructure, which includes trees, parks, and green space, wetlands and prairies, adds value to property. (See here and here.)

Dams and Flood Tunnels

Some two years ago the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers released its Interim Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study. This was in response to the massive flooding that occurred during Harvey in 2017 upstream and downstream of the federal dams on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston.

Almost a year later the Corps released its draft study of the entire regional watershed. Known as the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment, its main finding was that the metropolitan region needs a coordinating body “across all levels of government,” including highway, railroad, and utility agencies, to “set priorities” and plan for flood protection. (pp. 75-76)

It was not the first call for an overall coordinating body. And with the plethora of active committees and studies, it’s perhaps too soon to tell how much duplication of effort might be going on, what sort of coordination might occur, or how effective their plans might be.

Here is a list, current as of May 2022, of committees, groups, studies, projects, etc., focused on regional flooding and what to do about it. (See also our page of Rainfall, River Flow Gauges, Flood Maps, Tree Benefits, and Other Useful Links.)

Shocked Into Action

The initial Buffalo Bayou draft report shocked community groups into action. That first study rejected as too costly a massive flood tunnel to carry stormwater from the (normally dry) federal flood control reservoirs in the upper Buffalo Bayou watershed out towards the bay. The study also rejected, among other things, nature-based approaches to slowing and absorbing stormwater runoff before it enters our pipes and streams, as other cities are doing.

Interestingly, the Corps’ subsequent regional watershed assessment recommended holding rain where it falls, which is modern stormwater management. (See herehere, and here pp. 32-33 and here. And also here.) It also recommended a greater reliance on green and nature-based features, including pervious surfaces, and small-scale individual and neighborhood efforts to “reduce risk to downstream communities and broaden awareness of shared responsibility.” (p. 77)

So far we have seen little focus on these enlightened, cost-effective, and generally beneficial approaches during the many meetings we continue to attend and monitor. We’ve not yet even seen much focus on why different areas flood or whether current methods are working, though there are numerous ongoing attempts to figure out where flooding occurs, including efforts to reach out to the public.

Changing Course

The Corps’ initial Buffalo Bayou study proposed stripping, dredging, deepening, and widening some 22 miles of meandering Buffalo Bayou from the federal dams in west Houston through Buffalo Bayou Park almost to downtown. Of course, the Corps knew this could never happen. Whether they also realized it wouldn’t work is unclear.

In any case, as a result of public pressure, the Corps has changed course. Last December the federal agency announced that in conjunction with the Harris County Flood Control District, and with additional funds from the federal government and county commissioners, it would re-consider the flood tunnel idea. The Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries study was extended to December 2023 and the total cost of the study, including funds from County Commissioner Precincts 3 and 4, is now some $11.2 million.

In the meantime, the state-sponsored San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group, whose region extends from Galveston to Huntsville, is working on a draft flood plan to send to the Texas Water Development Board by August 1. Here is the required Technical Memo the group submitted to the board in March. And here is their public engagement website which seems to be attracting very little public engagement. The group’s Facebook page has 23 followers.

However, the group’s Public Engagement committee has now set up three open house public meetings: two in-person meetings (one in the Woodlands on May 24 and another in Clear Lake Shores on May 31) and a virtual meeting on May 26. Here is information about attending these meetings on the group’s website.

Here is Save Buffalo Bayou’s comment to the flood planning group from last June which includes information on what other cities are doing to make themselves into “sponge cities” and slow and absorb stormwater before it floods our streams.

In response to a question about nature-based projects, Cory Stull, head of stormwater management for the engineering firm Freese and Nichols, which is acting as the technical consultant for the San Jacinto group, replied in an email that “projects” could also include nature-based projects.

Harris County’s Community Flood Resilience Task Force meets regularly to discuss equitable approaches to flood planning, promote public engagement, and advise  the County’s Infrastructure Resilience Team. The latter is working on a county Flood Resilience Plan for 2050.

Here are the minutes to the last meeting of the task force on April 28.

The Problem with Dams

The issue of funding equity figures prominently in discussions about flood tunnels and whether some parts of town are getting more than their fair share of costly flood and drainage projects.

The Corps’ problem is that back in the Forties the Corps built two dams, Addicks and Barker, on Buffalo Bayou and its upstream tributaries to try to control flooding in downtown Houston. Unfortunately, developers rushed in and built and sold houses and other properties in the beautiful, forested floodplains along the bayou. They also developed behind the dams, on land that was supposed to be part of the reservoir flood pools (the reservoirs are normally dry parkland). But the federal government never bought the land, which was then farms and ranches.

Then came Harvey in 2017. Some 12,000 structures flooded behind the two dams in Harris and Fort Bend counties, according to attorney Larry Dunbar, citing Corps statistics. Another 17,000 flooded below the dams, both before and after the Corps was forced to open the flood gates. Rising stormwater threatened to overtop the earthen dams, a major cause of dam failure. (Note that virtually all of the structures that flooded below Beltway 8 downstream flooded from stormwater running off the land – before the floodgates were opened.)

In response to the Corps’ Interim report, numerous groups in the Buffalo Bayou/Addicks/Barker watershed came together to develop and promote their own plans. (In addition two separate lawsuits were filed against the Corps on behalf of upstream and downstream property owners.)

Cost and Equity

Upstream of the dams, Houston Stronger, an alliance of mostly business groups, has been pushing for a 40-foot diameter flood tunnel and for excavation of the federal reservoirs to increase storage capacity during storms. Its Buffalo Bayou Community Plan also proposes, among other things, preservation of the Katy Prairie, which slows and absorbs stormwater runoff.

A 40-foot-wide tunnel to carry stormwater some 23 miles from the reservoirs to the bay would cost $4-6 billion, according to speakers at a recent Environmental Roundtable sponsored by Houston Stronger. But planners are also looking at connected flood tunnels draining various parts of the region, a system that could cost $30 billion, they said.

The Barker Flood Prevention Group, which also supports a flood tunnel, is promoting a plan developed by the Willow Fork Drainage District to excavate Barker Reservoir and increase storage capacity.

How should flood benefits and costs be calculated? Advocates say that a community’s total historical expenditures should be divided by its population density and flood risk.

Engineer Michael Bloom, who is also a member of the county’s Community Flood Resilience Task Force, points out that based on that index, which would include the historic cost of building the federal dams and expenditures for the last 85 years, the cost of a flood tunnel to carry stormwater from the reservoirs cannot be justified.

But Dunbar, one of the attorneys for the property owners who flooded upstream of the dams and won their lawsuit against the Corps, says that the Corps has a problem that needs to be fixed and damages need to be paid. These damages could be as high as $4-5 billion, he said. A trial to assess the damages starts in June.

Pouring Money Into Projects Not Evidence of Flood Protection: Brays Bayou

Brays Bayou in 1925 in the area which eventually became the Texas Medical Center. Looking north towards Hermann Park with Harris Gully to the left. Note the high banks. John P. McGovern Historical Collections, Texas Medical Center Library

And by the way, after some 70 years (and more than $550 million spent in the last 20 years alone) the Corps’ project (in conjunction with Harris County Flood Control) to strip, straighten, deepen, widen, and line Brays Bayou with concrete, and then deepen and widen it again, is almost done. Just a few more bridges to fix. And a new $10 million detention project to dig.

However, peak stream flows in Brays continue to increase, water level continues to rise (gages here and here) and unfortunately, flooding along Brays Bayou has only gotten worse. During Harvey in 2017 more structures were damaged around Brays Bayou than in any other watershed. Note that Harris County Flood Control divides Buffalo Bayou into three watersheds: Buffalo Bayou below the dams, and Addicks and Barker watersheds above the dams. Counting those three related watersheds together, Buffalo Bayou would have had the most flooded structures in Harris County.

“Project Brays is a big help but I’m not sure it’s going to have the level of protection we’re hoping for,” commented Phil Bedient, director of the SSPEED Center at Rice University, at a recent conference there on flooding.

Graphic from the Harris County Flood Control District.