Bay Area residents prepare for future flooding

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Two days after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast, Peggy Zahler’s League City home along Clear Creek started taking in water.

The streets were not drivable. Neighbors in her subdivision already had to be evacuated from their rooftops. Until she started flooding, Zahler had considered herself lucky.

“I honestly thought I had dodged a bullet,” Zahler said.

Her home took in only a few inches at first, but later, it got worse. Water started coming in so fast that Zahler was not sure she was safe even on the second floor.

“It was terrifying,” she said.

On Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast, Clear Lake residents will have the opportunity to vote in a Harris County bond election that could bring millions in flood-prevention projects to the Bay Area.

While Zahler is a Galveston County resident, planned projects go beyond Harris County borders. Harris County plans to pour hundreds of millions into improving Clear Creek, which could reduce flooding for those outside the county.

“We have to do something,” Houston City Council Member Dave Martin said of the bond. “I think we’re all smart enough to realize we need to do things differently. …”

The $2.5 billion bond will allow officials to address more than 150 flood-prevention projects across the county with the hopes of saving lives and property should another Harvey-caliber storm ever strike the Greater Houston area again.

“I’ve told people that it’s one of the most important elections in our lifetimes,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said. “We have to be proactive.”

Despite flooding concerns across the county and beyond, addressing issues near Clear Lake is particularly important. Stormwater flows through the area on its way to Clear Lake, Galveston Bay and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, and officials do not want the area to become a choke point during heavy rainfall.

“It all flows through [Harris County] Precinct 2, and it all flows through the Bay Area,” Morman said.

Bay Area projects

Of the $2.5 billion worth of proposed Harris County flood-control projects, about $148.9 million is set aside for the Clear Lake area—about $124.3 million for the Clear Creek Watershed and $24.6 million for the Armand Bayou Watershed, according to preliminary Harris County Flood Control District documents.

However, the benefit for Clear Lake residents would far exceed $148.9 million; several projects come with matching funds from other entities, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, totaling up to $222.1 million.

The biggest potential project in either watershed is flood risk management along Clear Creek. The project includes channel and drainage improvements along the creek, which makes up the border of Harris and Galveston counties.

If the bond passes the county would pay for $70 million of the more than $200 million project, and the Army Corps of Engineers would pay the rest, according to the documents.

Once completed, the project would likely protect 2,100-2,300 homes from flooding during a 100-year flood event, said Dave Walden, Morman’s chief of staff.

A nearly $16 million project to complement the Clear Creek improvements would create a stormwater detention basin and water conveyance improvements along Halls Ditch Road. Several other projects would complement the planned Clear Creek work.

A bit farther downstream, planned subdivision drainage improvements would cost $12 million and could protect more than 900 homes from taking on water during 100-year floods, according to the documents.

The district also wants to spend $9.7 million to buy about 170 buildings prone to flooding. Another $29.1 million in matching funds from partners would fund $38.8 million in buyouts.

In the Armand Bayou Watershed, it is challenging to address flooding problems because the watershed includes the environmentally sensitive Armand Bayou Nature Center, Walden said.

“You can’t go in there and put a concrete channel in there,” he said.

One $15 million project would create a stormwater detention pond near Red Bluff Road and Armand Bayou. A $2.5 million project would allow for conveyance improvements along Horsepen Bayou, according to the documents.

Many projects are necessary after ignoring concerns for far too long, Martin said.

“We reap what we sow, which is years of neglect that has caused us this trouble,” he said.

Early voting runs through Aug. 21. For polling locations, visit www.harrisvotes.com.

Regional solutions

Many officials believe it will take regional solutions to combat flooding.

If water backs up in Clear Lake, it backs up to the north, too. Flooding issues ignored or improperly addressed in one watershed could affect neighboring areas, League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said.

“We’re all in it together,” Hallisey said.

U.S. Rep.  John Culberson, R-Houston, announced in July that Harris County had secured $4.5 billion in federal funds to pay for flood-prevention projects across the county. About $4 billion will go toward a coastal storm risk-management and ecosystem restoration project from Galveston Bay to Sabine Pass, but about $295 million is set aside for Clear Creek.

Harris County Flood Control District and other officials said it is unclear at this point if the federal money will offset how much the county plans to put toward projects if the bond passes, but officials agreed the  $2.5 billion is not enough.

“The amount we’re asking for in the bond isn’t enough to do everything that needs to be done. The reality is if we had to do everything necessary to make our county resilient … it’d be a great magnitude more than $2.5 billion,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a July press conference.

Martin agreed.

“You’re gonna have more projects than available dollars,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

Zahler was recently appointed to the Clear Creek Watershed Steering Committee to seek regional solutions.

“That’s the only thing that makes any sense,” she said. “It’s bigger than one city, it’s very complex, and we need to move the ball forward.”

Residents seem to agree. Officials have heard positive feedback from Harris County residents and believe the bond has a great chance of passing.

If the bond passes, the average homeowner would pay just under $5 a year extra in taxes in 2020, rising to about $60 a year by 2035. Those 65 and older with a house worth $200,000 or less would not pay any extra taxes.

Exploration Green

It is not just the county looking for solutions; at least one local entity is getting creative, finding inventive ways to combat flooding.

The Clear Lake City Water Authority—an entity responsible for water, sewage and drainage in Clear Lake City and surrounding areas before Houston annexed the municipality—has already seen results from a $30.5 million project it set in motion in 2011.

“Because we’re small, we can do a lot of things big entities can’t do or won’t do,” authority board President John Branch said.

Once a golf course, Exploration Green—which is located between El Camino Real, Bay Area Boulevard and Space Center Boulevard—is now a detention pond that water drains into during storms, helping to protect an estimated 150 homes from flooding during Harvey, Branch said.

“We’re already seeing the benefits,” he said.

And that is only with a fraction of the project complete. Once all five phases are finished in 2021, Exploration Green will hold 500 million gallons of water and protect 2,000 to 3,000 homes from flooding.

The project won a 2018 Excellence in Green Infrastructure award through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies partnership program, according to a press release.

Exploration Green has hiking and biking trails. Wetland grasses and trees are being planted to beautify the area and make it more than a place where stormwater sits.

“It’s like you’re living next to a lake,” Branch said.

Officials were considering a 20-year timeline to complete Exploration Green, but after seeing how well it worked during Harvey, the deadline was pushed up to 2021. Public reception to the project shifted after it helped save homes from flooding and residents realized its potential to save more, project engineer Kelly Shipley said.

The community has pitched in to volunteer and make Exploration Green a reality.

“… If we didn’t have the community’s support, we wouldn’t be able to do all this because it’d just be too expensive,” Branch said.

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Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.
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