Ditch Mystery Solved

Origin of False Idea That Property Owners Must Maintain Open Stormwater Ditches

Plus: Earthen Ditches Still Way Better Than Concrete Curbs, Buried Pipes

Nov. 15, 2023

A big misunderstanding about who’s responsible for maintaining open stormwater ditches in Houston is still flowing around. We figured out the source. So maybe it’s time to clear it up.

The City of Houston has always been responsible for digging out, de-silting and regrading thousands of miles of roadside drainage ditches within the city. But for years now the idea has been circulating that due to a policy change some twenty years ago, the City stopped doing this. This alleged new policy supposedly left property owners with the extraordinary burden and expense of having to hire heavy equipment and properly scrape out ditches that, like underground pipes, connect to a community drainage system.

This is false and absurd on its face. But it’s an idea that refuses to die, repeated uncorrected in our leading local news media, cited over and over again. Circulating along with it is the false idea that humble earthen ditches are less effective than costly curb and gutter systems draining into buried concrete pipes. Wrong.

Based on this false idea, journalists even mis-reported an attempt by City Council to change this alleged policy. (Not giving links in the interest of decorum.) It’s possible though that not even the mayor and city council members are fully informed about this situation, although individual council members have discretionary budgets to spend restoring ditches in their districts through the City’s Stormwater Action Teams.

Graphic from City of Houston Public Works

Truth Confirmed by Director of Public Works

So finally we deduced what actually happened back in 2001. And our conclusion was verified by the director of Public Works herself, Carol Haddock, at an October conference on flooding sponsored by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center of Rice University. Haddock, an engineering graduate of Rice, was a little miffed that our leading media refuse to correct this issue. So we’ll do it, without naming any names.

What happened back in 2001 was that the City instituted the 311 Service Helpline system, a “consolidated call center designed to make city government more user-friendly and responsive.” Citizens were to call 311 anytime of the day or week to report any problems “from traffic fines and sewer concerns to pothole problems and neighborhood complaints.” (See also here.)

At the same time, the City apparently stopped regularly sending out teams to inspect drainage ditches, relying instead on citizen reports. Or, as Haddock told the conference, the system “changed to being reactive rather than proactive.” However, the City was still responsible for grading and desilting clogged ditches, including driveway culverts, reported by citizens. This process generally requires heavy equipment like a backhoe as well as calculation of flow direction, and so on.

After several years of much publicized and largely inaccurate concerns about open ditch maintenance, the City in August 2023 reinstituted its regular inspection program. (p. 7)

This was not changing maintenance responsibility from property owners to the City. It was reestablishing inspection teams. The City, once again, has always had the responsibility of grading and desilting stormwater ditches. Property owners are responsible for raking out light debris, leaves, trash, Frito bags, etc. (See also p. 6)

Open Ditches More Effective. Streets Flood with Buried Pipes

Open drainage ditch on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park.

Houston, as well as unincorporated areas and independent municipalities within the city,  has earthen drainage ditches in neighborhoods rich and poor all over the place. (Think wealthy Memorial Villages, Tanglewood etc.) Open ditches are, in fact, more effective, carrying ten times the volume of rainwater than underground concrete pipes. They are cheaper to build and maintain, more ecological, in essence a form of nature-based flood management helping to absorb, disperse, and cleanse stormwater. (See also here.)

Yes, rain can pond in open ditches for hours. That’s normal. Stormwater also backs up from underground pipes and fills streets lined with concrete curbs. That’s normal too, part of the design. Which would you prefer? A flooded street or a rain-filled roadside ditch? Residents clamoring to replace their grass-lined, frog-filled open ditches with concrete curbs and buried pipes may be surprised to find out that the street in front of their house will now flood.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency actually recommends replacing curb-and-gutter systems with open ditches. Among other things, curb-and-gutter systems are more likely to promote mosquitos.

But locally tens of millions of dollars are being spent to replace open ditches with concrete curbs and gutters.

Concrete curbs and stormwater gutters recently installed by Harris County along a street in northeast Houston. Previously rain ran off the street into open drainage ditches.


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