Update: County Resilience Task Force. Will Same Problems Prevail?

Commissioners to Vote Tuesday

August 9, 2020

Update August 10: The Office of County Judge Lina Hidalgo today released the final proposed bylaws for the Community Resilience Task Force, now the Community Flood Resilience Task Force. Read them here.

Note: Harris County Commissioners Court will again discuss and possibly vote on the proposed bylaws for the new Community Resilience Task Force at its virtual meeting Tuesday, Aug. 11

Recently we told you about how the useless Harris County Flood Control Task Force was being transformed into a new Community Resilience Task Force.

On very short notice, the public was asked to participate in online workshops, send in comments by July 30, and speak at the July 28 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, which turned out to be a marathon 12 hour 22 minute meeting. (You can watch the meeting here. Discussion of the resilience task force starts around 7:35:00.)

The original task force was established in 1973 in response to a successful, years-long campaign to preserve Buffalo Bayou and prevent it from being stripped, straightened, and smothered in concrete. The 1972 bylaws approved by commissioners court to establish that task force cites “conserving and wisely using the God-given resources we have for the present and future enjoyment of our citizens” as a primary reason for the task force. “God-given resources” meant nature.

Social Equity and Green Infrastructure

In the intervening years, rather than just “enjoyment,” we have come to better understand the superior role of nature in protecting us from flooding, among other important benefits. But for some reason, the proposed new bylaws, in referring to the original task force, overlook this environmental concern as the driving force behind creation of the task force. And although the commissioners in 2019 instructed the district to emphasize nature-based solutions in “public and private projects” (see below), the proposed bylaws don’t mention this either.

The very broad overall purpose of the new task force is “to act as an advisory board to Commissioners Court on matters related to planning, projects, and other efforts concerning infrastructure resilience in Harris County that includes a wide range of stakeholders reflecting a diversity of experience and geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic attributes.”

A major component of this is “the equitable and effective expenditure of flood mitigation and other resilience funds.”

Background of the New Task Force

In August of 2019, commissioners court passed the Harris Thrives resolution, which, among other things, instructed the Harris County Flood Control District to “adopt a framework that ensures a process for the equitable expenditure of Bond Program funds.” In 2018 county voters had approved the issuance of $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood reduction projects.

The 2019 court resolution also called for the district to “bolster community engagement related to flood control by revamping the roles and responsibilities of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force and ensuring that a geographically diverse range of community members is represented …”

It also instructed the district to “emphasize an approach that respects, reclaims, and restores floodplains; preserves undeveloped prairies and forests that detain stormwater; and encourages the use of nature-based solutions, natural infrastructure, and cutting-edge technological methods where possible in public and private projects …”

The resolution resulted in the Harris Thrives initiative to expedite more equitable and effective projects and funding for flood control, housing, and emergency preparedness.

The Response

At the July 28 virtual commissioners’ court meeting, Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district, delivered a report documenting projects that reduce flood risk in neighborhoods with a “high social vulnerability index.” Poppe told the court that “almost 79 percent” of the district’s 145 active projects were in high or moderately high socially vulnerable areas.

He specifically referred to projects in the Greens, Halls, and Hunting bayou watersheds but cautioned that without adequate local drainage (which is the responsibility of the city or other incorporated areas within the county), it wouldn’t matter how many projects the district completed. The district is responsible only for “rivers, streams, tributaries and flood waters,” among other related things (including the “conservation of forests”).

There was a long discussion about funding, the issue of “worst first,” and the problematic benefit-cost ratio used by the federal government to fund projects, a ratio which has led to spending public funds protecting and restoring expensive properties rather than cheaper, more vulnerable homes. In many cases, county flood projects require federal partnership funds.

However there was no discussion of the benefit-cost ratio of the district’s methods and projects themselves. These costly and environmentally damaging engineering projects include constant dredging, stripping, deepening, and widening streams; grading and hardening with sheet pile and concrete riprap, practices that the district prioritizes over less expensive and more effective nature-based methods. The latter would include, among others, simply widening the floodplain rather than the channel itself. Deepening and widening channels, though discredited by modern flood management authorities, is still a priority for the county and city.

Public Comments. What Kind of Expertise?

Public speakers at the virtual meeting included engineers, developers, and home builders, several of them members of the prior flood task force. Community activists and environmentalists also spoke.

Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club and a member of the prior task force, called for the meetings of the new task force to be open to the public, with time provided for the public to speak. She noted that there was no slot in the proposed bylaws for anyone competent in green infrastructure or the natural sciences. “Landscape does not equal science,” she said.

Merz pointed out that the engineering and development community has asked for a 50/50 split on the task force between “technical” and “community” representatives. But “technical” expertise is not confined to engineers, she said.

Merz, as have others, attributed the ineffectiveness of the previous task force to the dominance of engineers and developers.

Read the Sierra Club’s full comments here.

Other speakers included representatives of historic east side neighborhoods such as community leader Bridgette Murray of Pleasantville, Keith Downey of Kashmere Gardens, and Tracy Stephens of Sunnyside. They talked about their largely man-made flooding problems, spoke in favor of an equitable approach to fixes, and called for better coordination between the city and the county on drainage and maintenance issues. Erthea Nance of Texas Southern University, a certified floodplain manager, among other qualifications, also addressed the issue of inequity and underinvestment in vulnerable east side neighborhoods.

Cynthia Neely of Residents Against Flooding, a west side group, complained about the lack of public notice and short timeline for creation of the task force.

Save Buffalo Bayou, in its written comments, recommended that no one who does business with or has any past or present financial connection to the district or Harris or surrounding counties be allowed on the task force. The organization called for the task force to establish a committee to assess the overall effectiveness and the policy and practice of the district compared to national and worldwide standards, and also suggested that scientific expertise rather economic interest be a priority for membership on the task force.

 Read Save Buffalo Bayou’s comments here.

Further information:

On August 11, from 1 to 2 p.m., there will be an online webinar focused on equitable approaches to urban flooding sponsored by the nonprofit US Water Alliance. Find out more here.

On July 15 Amanda Fuller, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program, gave a presentation on “Incorporating Nature into Houston-Area Flood Mitigation” to the Houston Galveston Area Council’s Regional Flood Management Committee. You can watch the presentation here.

To read the City of Houston’s resilience plan in full, go here.

brief summary is here.