The Flood Czar’s Committee

Who Are They and What Are They Doing?

Dec. 29, 2017

(Update 1.17.18: The meeting of the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force scheduled for today, Jan. 17, has been cancelled due to weather. The meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Flood Management Council also scheduled for today also has been cancelled.)

(Update 1.2.18: Link to 2017 roster of the members of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force has been fixed.)

The flood czar for the City of Houston now has someone to answer his phone. “This is Sallie,” she says. He also has a committee. This committee has met six times already.

Who is on this committee and what are they doing?

There are 48 members of the committee, including the flood czar himself, Steve Costello, whose technical title is chief resilience officer. The committee members were selected by Costello. Costello, a civil engineer, former city council member, and former mayoral candidate, was appointed to his position by Mayor Sylvester Turner after the Tax Day flood of 2016.

Most recently Costello was in the news when the Chronicle reported on Dec. 20 that his engineering firm, Costello Inc., engineered the development of residential subdivisions in the flood pools behind Barker and Addicks dams – even after finding, in a report commissioned by Harris County, that thousands of those homes were at risk of flooding from the reservoirs.

A representative of another engineering firm involved in the development of homes in the Barker reservoir flood pool is also on Costello’s task force. Lee Lennard is president and chief executive officer of that firm, Brown and Gay, now BGE.

The official name of Costello’s committee is the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force. Its task, according to an email from Sallie Alcorn, who now answers the flood czar’s phone in his office at city hall, is:

“To ensure the City of Houston’s design standards are conducive to responsible development which does not negatively impact drainage, and

“To empower the City of Houston to effectively and consistently apply and enforce drainage-related development rules.”

Looking downstream at downtown Houston from the Shepherd footbridge over Buffalo Bayou. Photo on Aug. 28, 2017 by Jim Olive

But What They Are Really Talking About?

Task force discussions have focused on three topics: detention, fill, and drainage right-of-way, according to a member of the task force, which is weighted towards developers and real estate interests. (See below.) The results of these discussions are to be forwarded as recommendations to the City administration and to the city Legal Department.

Detention

Detention is the slowing down or temporary holding of rainwater running off the land into a drainage system, either natural or built. The faster the runoff, the higher the peak flow and greater the flooding. Removal of trees and vegetation greatly increases the speed of runoff. Covering the land with impervious surface increases runoff speed even more.

Currently the City of Houston requires new development to have .5 cubic feet of detention per square foot of new impervious surface, though there are exceptions. Points of discussion have been whether the detention requirement should be higher, as in 1 cubic foot per square foot of impervious surface, whether there should be any exceptions, and whether new detention should be required when redeveloping land that has previously been paved.

Fill

Fill is when dirt or some other material is brought onto a piece of property to elevate a structure. Elevating structures with fill is frowned upon as it causes runoff to drain onto neighboring properties.

According to Residents Against Flooding:

“Houston regulations on fill don’t take into account that: 1) detention should be added either on-site or nearby to compensate for the effects of fill dirt; 2) the water surface elevations for all the surrounding properties are elevated because water that used to be on the elevated property now runs off.  There is no requirement for mitigating fill except in a floodplain where it is required to be mitigated one-for-one; e.g., for every acre-foot elevation an acre-foot of detention must be added.  Unfortunately, even in a floodplain, fill can be mitigated by buying compensating detention from a mitigation bank, which may be located where it doesn’t really help like in a different watershed.”

Drainage Right of Way

The City would like to remove obstacles that have been placed in drainage ditches or other right-of-ways. That seems reasonable. It should be noted that there is a movement globally to “daylight” or open up urban streams. Rivers and creeks will continue to seek their historic paths, and sometimes will cause surprising flooding if filled or obstructed. Houston, which is not so flat as it seems, has covered up, filled, and even built streets, homes, and subdivisions on top of streams and ravines.

Note that open drainage ditches absorb as well as convey and cleanse stormwater more effectively than closed pipes. When filled with useful plants, they are also more scenic and beneficial. Frequently maligned as backwards or medieval, open drainage ditches run throughout many of Houston’s older neighborhoods. In others they have been replaced with closed pipes that are often too small and can serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos. (See discussion of ditches and pipes.)

The Members of the Task Force

The members of the committee are not secret, though Costello, who is very busy, didn’t respond to an initial request on Dec. 1 for the names of the members. Alcorn, after asking for another request in writing and checking with the City Legal Department, sent Save Buffalo Bayou the names of the task force members.

So of the 48 members of the task force:

  • 13 are involved in real estate development or management
  • 13 are engineers from the private sector generally working for developers and local government
  • 12 are people who are or have been elected to public office or served in some neighborhood or community capacity
  • 10 are engineers working for the public
  • 9 have some drainage expertise
  • 8 are lobbyists or publicists
  • 4 work in the hospital or medical industry
  • 4 are architects, landscape architects, or planners
  • 4 are affiliated with the Urban Land Institute, a global real estate association founded in 1936
  • 3 are connected to the West Houston Association, which promotes development in West Houston
  • 3 contract for the government at some level, not including above-mentioned private engineers
  • 1 works in the energy industry

Of those who have some discernible personal connection to a part of the city:

  • 5 are from southwest Houston, including Sharpstown, Meyerland, and Westbury
  • 2 are from west Houston
  • 1 is from northwest Houston
  • 2 are from north Houston
  • 1 is from northeast Houston (Kingwood)
  • 2 are from east Houston
  • 2 are from southeast Houston
  • 1 is from central Houston

 Next Meeting is January 17 at 3:30 p.m.

Though the meetings are not public meetings, they are open to the public. The task force will meet again on January 17, 2018, at 3:30 p.m. in the first-floor conference room at 601 Sawyer in Houston.

Here are the members of the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force.

 

Other Governmental Flood Committees

Houston-Galveston Regional Flood Management Council

Also meeting on the same day and nearly the same time is the Regional Flood Management Council of the Houston Galveston Area Council. This group includes government representatives from the Houston region and surrounding counties.

The flood management council meeting is at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, at H-GAC offices in Conference Rooms B and C located at 3555 Timmons Lane in Houston.

Harris County Flood Control District Task Force

The Harris County Flood Control District also has a citizens’ advisory task force that meets every three months on the fourth Monday of the month. The next meeting of that task force is January 22, 2018, at 2 p.m. at flood control district offices, 9900 Northwest Freeway. Here is the most recent roster of the members of this task force as well as the minutes of the last available meeting. Note that eight positions out of thirty-one are vacant.

Community Flood Groups

Among the citizen-led community flood groups are:

Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition

Residents Against Flooding

Citizens Solutions to Houston Flooding

Local Initiatives

Houston Consortium

Bayou City Initiative

National Groups Addressing Flooding

American Rivers

National Wildlife Federation

Rain Ready

Slow the Flow