Harris County adopts 'worst-first' guidelines for remaining flood bond projects

Roughly 80 of the 230 projects funded through a 2018 bond referendum in Harris County have yet to begin.

Roughly 80 of the 230 projects funded through a 2018 bond referendum in Harris County have yet to begin.

With roughly 80 projects yet to be started from a $2.5 billion flood bond passed by voters in 2018, Harris County officials are looking to bring more transparency to the process of deciding which should be done next.

Commissioners approved a new set of guidelines for prioritizing projects with a 3-2 vote Aug. 27 following a recommendation from the Harris County Flood Control District. Proponents said the new guidelines are based on addressing the most flood-prone areas first.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the guidelines are also meant to reduce the influence of cost-benefit ratios when dedicating local flood bond money, a metric often required for projects to receive federal funding and one critics said can keep lower-income communities from getting needed improvements.

"We really need to make sure that from today on ..., the decisions we make in Harris County, as it pertains to flooding, are based on being smart—they are based on putting people first," Hidalgo said.

A total of eight metrics will be taken into account when evaluating projects moving forward, according to the Harris County Flood Control District. The metrics to receive the highest consideration include:

  • Flood risk reduction: A metric based on how much of the floodplain is reduced and how many structures benefited by the project. Total number of homes will be taken into account instead of the value of the homes.

  • Drainage level of service: A metric based on the drainage capacity of the channels relevant to a project.

  • Social vulnerability index: A metric devised by U.S. Centers for Disease Control that takes into account the ability of certain communities to recover from disasters, such as flooding. Factors include percentage of elderly residents, prevalence of limited English proficiency and number of households without a vehicle.

Other metrics include project efficiency, partnership funding, long-term maintenance costs, minimization of environmental impacts and potential for multiple benefits.

The adoption of the new guidelines was opposed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. Cagle stressed his support for the majority of the guidelines, including "worst-first" guidelines designed to make sure communities that flood repeatedly do not see delays in projects.

However, Cagle said he did not agree with the weight given to social vulnerability in determining how projects should be prioritized. In a project rating system provided by the HCFCD, 25% of a project's score comes from flood risk reduction, whereas about 20% comes from the social vulnerability index.

"Water didn’t care whether you are of a wealthy neighborhood or a poor neighborhood," Cagle said. "Water didn’t care how much education you had. It found the lowest spot. I think we’re getting away from science and we’re getting into other issues."

HCFCD Executive Director Russ Poppe said the district had already been using some version of seven of the eight metrics all along. The eighth—the social vulnerability index—will allow the district to account for the "human factor" when looking at projects, he said.

Poppe said the goal of the HCFCD is to have all 80 remaining projects underway within the next 24 to 30 months. Of the projects yet to start, the highest-rated projects using the new framework include the conveyance improvements along Greens Bayou; the construction of a detention basin on White Oak Bayou at Arbor Oaks; and land acquisition and construction along Sims Bayou.

More information can be found online at www.harristhrives.org.


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