Senate bill trio could change the way Harris County approaches flood control

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (center) signed several pieces of legislation into law June 13 dealing with flood mitigation in Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (center) signed several pieces of legislation into law June 13 dealing with flood mitigation in Texas.

A trio of bills aimed at mitigating flooding across Texas and disbursing funds throughout damage-stricken parts of the state have been signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bills—Senate bills 6, 7 and 8—were written by lawmakers during the 86th Texas Legislature, which ended May 27. Each one deals with a different part of flood planning, said state Sen. Brandon Creighton. R-Conroe, who authored SB 7.

SB 6 is aimed at improving how emergency departments respond to flooding, while SB 7 deals with present-time Hurricane Harvey recovery. Both bills were signed by Abbott June 13.

SB 8—signed by Abbott June 10—calls for a statewide flood mitigation plan.

“In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we saw the unshakable spirit of the Lone Star State through the generosity of Texans helping their neighbors," Abbott said in a June 13 statement. "These important pieces of legislation are a symbol of that spirit, as well as a sign of Texas' commitment to improving the way we respond to natural disasters."

The bill trio has the potential to free up millions in funds for flood control projects throughout Harris County, provide comprehensive guidance on how to continue Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and lay a framework for handling disaster relief in the future, Creighton said.

Texas has declared the most major disasters, and has the most square miles of flood-prone land, of any state in the U.S., according to Houston Stronger, a coalition dedicated to implementing a comprehensive, regional flood control plan. Nine declared disasters related to flooding have happened across the state since 2015, and 65 percent of Texas counties have experienced flooding. Hurricane Harvey alone inflicted an estimated $125 billion in damage and caused 82 deaths, according to Houston Stronger.

"I am proud of the work that we did to address Harvey, and am confident that Texas will now have the most comprehensive flood mitigation and recovery package in the nation—which is what Texans deserve," Creighton said.

Senate Bill 6

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, filed SB 6 to establish a set of procedures for officials to follow in the immediate aftermath of a flood. The bill requires the Texas Division of Emergency Management to establish guides for local officials on disaster response and recovery. The model example laid out in the bill was based on studies showing Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery, rescue and relief efforts.

Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, said that more specifics will be known once the legislative workgroup is established.

SB 6 deals in part with debris removal and management, and the flood control district already has debris removal contracts prepositioned, Poppe said. By arranging these contracts in advance, they can be executed at a moment’s notice when a disaster happens, he said. However, this process could change depending on the guidance given by the workgroup, he said.

Senate Bill 7

SB 7 establishes the Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund, which acts as the funding mechanism for the other two bills. SB 7 deals with flood control planning, funding planning, mitigation and new infrastructure projects, and creates a financial structure to pay for those measures.

SB 7 would bring Texas tax dollars back to the state, maximizing federal recovery funds, according to remarks made by Creighton on the Senate floor March 20. Roughly $1.8 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund would go toward Creighton’s program and Senate bills 6 and 8, with another $1.2 billion directed at the local school tax revenue that was lost due to property damage, according to a Senate newsletter.

The money would be administered by the Texas Water Development Board and act as the state’s response for recovery from Harvey and mitigation in the future, Creighton said in March.

The TWDB and the TDEM are the two state agencies responsible for issuing guidance on this legislation, Poppe said. The internal guidance will better guide decision makers on how to get access to the funds, Including how the agencies will prioritize projects, which will be essential, Poppe said.

“There’s no secret that we will probably come up with more projects than the state has funding for at this point,” he said in a June 11 interview. “As the state starts issuing this guidance and ... starts setting up these regional flood planning groups, that’s really where the river’s going to start meeting the road, and that’s where some of the decisions and the better definitions come together.”

The bill would create a 9-to-1 federal to local funding ratio for public assistance projects and will offer grants and low-interest loans for flood mitigation projects. The loans can be used as a local match so political subdivisions can qualify for a federal match.

With this local match piece, Harris County and the flood control district are looking at a potential loan of several hundred million dollars, Poppe said.

Senate Bill 8

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, filed SB 8 to create a statewide flood mitigation plan that separates Texas into regions based on river basins. The bill is intended to allow officials and stakeholders to make decisions on projects at a regional level that protect local residents and property from flooding.

Poppe said SB 8 will be important for projects across the state, given that it is required for certain projects to be listed in the state’s flood plan before they’re considered eligible for funding through SB 7. It is possible the state will form a study group to help aggregate and prioritize all major flood risk reduction projects, he said.

The passing of the bill trio also comes several months after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo expressed concerns that local governments were reaching the limits of how much they could spend on flood relief.

Abbott also signed House bills 5 and 7 at the meeting, which call for TDEM to develop a catastrophic debris management plan and to develop a plan to assist local communities with disaster preparation contracts for services, respectively.

“We’re very grateful for all the work the legislature did and we look forward to working on this with them,” Poppe said.