Coffee With Impact: 11 flooding-related questions answered by local experts

From left to right: Jeff Lindner, Stephen Costello and Jill Boullion discuss flood issues in Houston and what residents should know in case of future weather events.

From left to right: Jeff Lindner, Stephen Costello and Jill Boullion discuss flood issues in Houston and what residents should know in case of future weather events.

Jill Boullion, executive director of the Bayou Land Conservancy; Jeff Lindner, meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District; and Stephen Costello, chief resilience officer with the City of Houston, answered questions on area flooding during a Coffee With Impact, Community Impact Newspaper's ongoing series of Q&A interviews with community leaders.

See what these experts had to say bout flood plain remapping, development, green space acquisition, disaster relief funding and more, here:

Q: What makes the Houston area especially prone to flooding, compared with other major metropolitan areas nationwide?
Costello: There’s been an ongoing debate on whether or not climate change is having this impact on the Earth. I don’t weigh into those facts, I’m more of an engineer, I’m not a climatologist, I’ll leave it up to people like Jeff to figure that out, but we do know that we’re anticipating right now is that our rainfall, our design rainfall, our new 100 year is going to change.

We’ve been advised by [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] that they’re estimated that our new 100 year rainfall will be close to what our 500 year rainfall is today. So we talk about our flood insurance rate maps, we talk about our flood maps, I always tell the public that our maps are what we call living maps—they always change as we get more and more knowledge of our design frequency. So you’re seeing that now in both Harris County and other cities proposing changing some of our regulations in terms of floor elevations in anticipation of our maps changing in the future.

Q: What have developers done across the Greater Houston area over the past few decades that may have contributed to some of these major flood events that we’ve seen over the last few years?
Costello: The development community is simply following the rules and regulations that regulatory agencies established. So the real question is: do we have the right rules and regulations in place to accommodate for future development? There’s no question about the fact that as you pave over green space you’re increasing the volume of runoff.

Now our design criteria is really focused on peak flow, not volume flow. So maybe there should be a further discussion about volume flow because what we do in our criteria is we tell a developer ‘no new harm.’ So what they’re doing is they’re developing and mitigation the impact of their project only, and yet, we’re not looking at it in total to see what impact it has. So, we have to go back to looking at a watershed in total and then figuring out how we manage the development within the watershed.


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We have research that shows that rainfall hasn’t increased dramatically over the last 30 years. The nice thing about Harris County is all the stream flow gauges we have and a lot of them have been in place for decades so we can go back and look at data from decades back and so we don’t see the significant increase in rainfall and we look at that as an organization and say, ‘Is there a climate thing happening here?’

Q: Harris County implemented new development guidelines regarding flood plains in December. How important is implementation of these types of development guidelines to mitigating future floods and is this something we could see other counties and cities implement across the Greater Houston area?
Costello: The issue-what Harris County did, was they first of all separated what they call ‘conforming subdivisions’ and ‘non-conforming subdivisions’ and they said that if you design a subdivision post-2009, then you can follow the criteria that they have today. If you’re in a non-conforming subdivision, if you’re building a home in that subdivision then you have to elevate that house to the 500-year flood plain.

Now the city has taken a little different view: and what we rolled out this past week is, we’re actually not segregating between conforming and non-conforming subdivisions, we’re just going to go to the 500… So this is what I think both agencies are thinking about, we’re anticipating the revised storms that are going to be analyzed by NOAA and also we don’t want people to rebuild at risk and we’re trying to prevent them from happening.

Q: Can you tell us what role climate change plays in the severity of flooding in recent storms that we’ve had and do you expect hurricanes like Harvey to become more frequent in the future.

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There is good consensus that the earth is warming. Where we start to get into the disagreements is why is the earth warming? Is it a natural cycle or is this a man-made induced warming? But there’s little denying that the earth is warming. Science will tell you that if the temperature is warmer, the air mass or the atmosphere can hold moisture—that’s a fact. So you would expect an increase in rainfall from a warmer climate. But can you say Hurricane Harvey is a result of climate change and the answer is no. You cannot say this event or Memorial Day ’16 or Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina is a result of climate change—you cannot say that for a particular event.

Q: We’ve seen flooding occur now multiple times in the 500-year flood plain across the Houston area. Why haven’t updates been made to the flood planes in light of these events and is that something that we might see in 2018?
Costello: My discussion with Harris County Flood Control District is they’re probably going to remap the entire county over again—it won’t take as long as when we remapped for Tropical Storm Allison. If you recall, when Allison occurred in 2001, we started the remapping process in 2002 and the maps weren’t finished until six or seven years later and there’s a reason why. Some of the reason had to do with, we were not only redoing all the [maps], but we were taking another look at how we study rainfall and the modeling of the rainfall.

In this particular situation, we already have all of the hydraulic models that shows the conveyance of the watershed, this will just be simulating the rainfall so that’ll reduce some of the technical time. The rest of the delay is due to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency's] process as you adopt community maps, there’s a series of technical review periods both in terms of locally as well as nationally, and then you get into the public hearing process. So that’ll probably be four to five years, it’ll be condensed slightly.


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We focus so much on floodplains here—are you in a floodplain or are you outside a floodplain? We all have a flood risk. We are virtually flat—we have very little topography. Sometimes the difference between being in and out of a flood plain is inches, because we’re so flat here. So we really need to push the public education of we all have a flood risk, if you’re in a mapped floodplain you have a higher risk, but just because you’re outside of a flood plain does not mean that you do not have a risk—we all have a risk.

Q: Since the hurricane season is only a few months away now, what short-term flood mitigation projects already have funding in place and are expected to begin in the next year and then maybe what are the larger projects that aren’t quite funded yet?

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When Harvey impacted us, the government allocated $15 billion to the region right away. Well, we haven’t seen any of that money. So the public is expecting us to get things accomplished and we haven’t had any recovery money. We have a little over $2.5 billion of facilities that were damaged, and so just like when you negotiate with an insurance agent on damage to your house, it’s a negotiation process. So we do the same thing with our facilities.

We have over 600 of those types of assessments, we’ve only done 30 percent of them and we’ve yet to have one where we agree on a price. So it’s not something that happens right away, this could take five, six, seven years of full recovery period. But the district has a number of federal projects ongoing that they could use advanced funding for and so, if you go back and you go to the flood control district’s website, they have a federal briefing document that shows all the projects they’re working on right now that they’re advocating for advanced funding for.

Lindner: The main thing that the flood control district has been focused on is returning our channels to the state they were in before Harvey happened, so debris, damage to the channels, damage to the infrastructure and I believe there were some thousands of locations with that, most of the big debris blockages have been removed, we’re still working on portions of Buffalo Bayou and now the next thing is fixing where the slide slopes have caved in or we’ve had significant failures there where culverts have blown out or where the concrete slope pavings cracked and is washing out, that’s the next step and I believe there was a request sent up to the state last year for funding to help with that.

Boullion: I think one of the things that needs to happen and can be an immediate positive impact would be to remove people that are in harm’s way, that have their homes in the 100-year floodplain is going to increase so that’s going to mean that more people are going to be—while their risk hasn’t changed, their known risk now will go up, so significant funding to go into helping with buyouts is something that I think would be a more immediate help to the region and there’s a lot of people out there that are wanting those buyouts. It’s much more cost-effective for us to get people out of harm’s way than it is to try and engineer them out of harm’s way.

Q: How important is green space acquisition to this flood mitigation conversation?
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Boullion: Well it’s very important and one of those things that we would like to see as that conservation be at the table and be part of the solution—the discussion about how we move forward, because we can’t go back and create more green space easily, once it’s gone. Our organization focuses on north Harris County and Montgomery County as far as land preservation and if they have a really bad rain in Montgomery County it’s going to end up in Harris County. So there’s an opportunity now to preserve some land. There’s very little remaining undeveloped land on Cypress Creek—we should be getting that land so that it can’t be developed.

Costello: My office is developing a program called Greater Green, where we can develop an incentive program to encourage developers to encourage developers to do green infrastructure rather than gray infrastructure and we have a grant that’s pending before the Houston Endowment to pursue that. The issue here is you have to figure out an incentive program to encourage the development community to use these types of facilities. The challenges we have when you build green infrastructure is the long-term maintenance and whether or not the city is willing to take on that role moving forward as we advance that effort.

Q: What about dredging bodies of water across Houston—our major creeks and bayous and lakes, is that something that’s at the top of head right now?
Lindner: If you go up to the north and out to the west, you do get into sedimentation issues, especially on the West Fork of the San Jacinto [River], on Cypress and Spring creeks. Cypress and Spring are relatively natural creeks, so those creeks and ecosystems tend to deal with that on their own. They behave very much like a river system and so the sedimentation will come and then it will become a natural part of that creek. The West Fork of the San Jacinto [River] is fairly significant. The sedimentation after Harvey was extremely deep out there and it was deep after the Memorial weekend ’16 floods, so there is some very significant sedimentation that has happened on the West Fork and Lake Houston and there is a study that the flood control district and the SJRA are entering in to look at ‘what’s the capacity now of Lake Houston’ and ‘has that capacity been reduced due to flow of sedimentation on the West Fork and the possible dredging of that.’

But one thing to keep in mind, the flood control district did do dredging in the western part of Harris County after the Tax Day storm on creeks, and Harvey pretty much undid all of that work. So it’s expensive and you’re still at the mercy of if you do have another flood event, it can undo all of that work, so that’s why we have to kind of look at what the best solutions are for some of these problem areas.

Boullion: We have a history of advocating for regulation of mining along the San Jacinto River. So, I’ve had several people ask me specifically in the last several weeks about dredging, because there’s a big push by the community to dredge.

So when we look at dredging, we recognize that there are some pros and cons to that and if you don’t address the source of the sand, then dredging is just a very short-term solution and there’s also some catastrophic impacts that you have to consider with dredging, it impacts water quality, it impacts recreation and fisheries, so you have to think about that impact and really, most of the sand in flues that happens is when the water is just approaching the peak, it’s not really in the overflow period, so if we can find a way to reduce the peak flows into the river, then we ought to be able to manage a little bit about the sedimentation somewhat, so that’s the kinds of things we’re looking at.

We’re actually hoping to put a bill together than would bring Texas up to the standards for stream side mining that other states have—Texas is one of 10 states across the country that has the most mining per aggregate and Texas has the lowest bar—all you have to do is register with the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality]. Most other states require a mining operation to restore or reclaim that land when they complete the mine, that is not required in Texas.

Q: What your opinions are on the reservoir that is being proposed in the Cypress Creek watershed and then if you had any thoughts specifically on how it might affect some of the creeks in that area, such as Cypress Creek?
Lindner: The third reservoir will be part of the Addickes and Barker system. I’m hard pressed calling it a reservoir—it’s not a reservoir like you’re thinking, like Lake Conroe or Lake Travis—it’s really a big detention pond. It really will only help mitigate flows out of the Cypress Creek overflow so when Cypress Creek gets really high up around Katy Hockley and Sharp Road and far northwest Harris County, it can spill over it’s watershed divide and all of that water spills into Addickes and it gets into Bear Creek, Langham Creek and South Mayde Creek and then that water goes down into the Addickes reservoir.

So the idea is to help mitigate or prevent that from happening or measuring it out so that it’s not all happening at once, so you’re not having this wide flood across the western part of Harris County and then also metering the water that’s going down into Addickes. So not as to put all that water down there at once, like we’ve done in the past storms with the natural overflow that occurs. That really only impacts two watersheds: Cypress Creek and Addickes Reservoir, and potentially Buffalo Bayou depending on how Addickes and Barker are behaving. So it has no impact on Spring Creek, it has no impact on Brays Bayou, it has no impact on White Oak or Greens.

Q: What are the potential funding sources that are being considered for major flood mitigation projects across the Greater Houston area.
Lindner: The major funding sources are going to be the federal government and probably through the Corp of Engineers, so funding the Corp of Engineers to do these very large mitigation projects, if you’re talking about something along the lines of what happened on Sims Bayou—that’s Corp of Engineering work. I don’t know where exactly everything stands on a potential bond election coming up which would be more on a local level, but those are the funding sources I know of.

Costello: On the city’s side, our two funding categories are FEMA Disaster Recovery and HUD Community Development block grant programs. Each one of them are slightly different, obviously FEMA is for recover and getting back to what it is today and then HUD is primarily for housing but you can also use it for infrastructure as well if it accommodates for the housing.

Q: If the proposed $1 billion bond election is not successful, how can the HCFCD fund the needed food mitigation projects.
Lindner: If that is not successful without federal funding, like Stephen said, we get $120 million every year in our budget and about $60 million of that goes to operation and maintenance, so that’s the answer.

Costello: I firmly believe that the public is very knowledgeable, some of our political leaders probably don’t believe that, but I think we in general believe that the public is very knowledgeable. If the county prepares a bond issue that identifies where we’re going to spend the money, it’s gaining public trust. Even though you read the articles about the polls that say a bond issue won’t pass—I don’t believe that. I do believe that the public understands the challenges that we have and they’re willing to invest in the government as long as they know where the money is going. I believe that if we do prepare a bond issue, that the city will help pass that bond issue because we have confidence in local government.

Q: How would the creation of flood control districts in other counties aid with flood mitigation projects and funding?
Costello: I publicly have gone before the Texas House Committee on Natural Resources and said that’s not a good idea to create another taxing entity and the reason that I say that is because if you compare Harris County to all of the other counties, Harris County Flood Control District has the largest engineering firm in comparison to private practices in storm water management. So we could easily create interlocal agreements between each county and have Harris County be the lead, just like we do with toll roads—HCTRA is the lead agency for all the other toll roads—it’s interlocal agreements, we can do the same thing without creating another taxing entity and this way, we can have these interlocal agreements because, everyone knows this: water doesn’t follow political boundaries, it follows watershed boundaries.

By Hannah Zedaker

Editor, Spring/Klein & Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood

Hannah joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In March 2019, she transitioned to editor of the Spring/Klein edition and later became the editor of both the Spring/Klein and Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood editions in June 2021. Hannah covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Hannah served as associate editor of The Houstonian, interned with Community Impact Newspaper and spent time writing for the Sam Houston State University College of Fine Arts and Mass Communication and The Huntsville Item.


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