Harris County will ask voters to approve a $2.5 billion bond referendum on Aug. 25 that would be used to fund projects for the Harris County Flood Control District through 2035.
HCFCD officials said the need for the bond is underscored by several devastating storms that have caused billions of dollars in damage across the county since 2015, including Hurricane Harvey, which flooded an estimated 154,170 homes in Harris County last August.
“On Aug. 25, the voters in Harris County will get to [make] one of the most important decisions in our history,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “Between now and then we must craft a plan to make our community more resilient, and we must craft that plan together.”
A series of community meetings was planned this summer to solicit resident feedback on flood control needs within each of the county’s 23 watersheds, including the four main watersheds that make up the Cy-Fair area: Cypress Creek, White Oak Bayou, Addicks Reservoir and Little Cypress Creek.
Three of those meetings took place in June, and the fourth—for residents in Little Cypress Creek—is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 31 at the Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center, located at 8440 Greenhouse Road, Cypress.
A draft project list released by the county conveys what officials said is an effort to tackle flood prevention needs from a variety of different angles. In the Cy-Fair area the bond money would fund voluntary home buyouts, damage repairs from recent storms, subdivision drainage improvements, channel flow improvements and the construction of multiple new detention basins.
A 15-year plan
If the bond referendum is successful, homeowners will see an increase in the HCFCD tax rate over the next 15 years. Currently set at about 3 cents per $100 valuation, the tax rate would double, increasing by a total of 3 to 3.5 cents by 2035 if the referendum passes, Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.
If voters approve the referendum, Harris County will have a total of $5.5 billion to work with to pursue flood prevention projects from 2020-35, Jackson said.
The first $1 billion in bonds is needed to provide a local match to obtain $3 billion pledged by the federal government for projects, Jackson said. The additional $1.5 billion in bonds will provide money for other projects—an additional $100 million each year—and it could match funds for future federal partnerships, Jackson said.
“It’s going to be a priority of ours to push as many of these forward as we can to capture federal funding, which in many cases do require a local match,” HCFCD Executive Director Russel Poppe said.
Jackson said the owner of a home valued at the county average, which is about $200,000, would pay about $5 in additional taxes in 2020 if the referendum is successful. That amount would increase over time to an additional $50 in 2035 for a $200,000 home, he said.
“If we started doing these projects next year, the first bond payments wouldn’t be due until the following year,” Jackson said. “There would be no effect on your taxes in 2019.”
Residents age 65 or older are exempt from taxes on the first $200,000 of home value, and the typical homeowner will see an increase of no more than 1.4 percent in his or her overall property tax bills if the proposal passes, Jackson said.
Strategies along Cypress Creek—where many homes were hit by flooding in back-to-back storms in 2016 and 2017—focus on voluntary home buyouts and land acquisition. The draft plan calls for spending $100 million on right-of-way acquisition along the creek.
“One of our strategies is to purchase properties inside the 100-year flood plain,” HCFCD Chief Operations Officer Matthew Zeve said. “If [HCFCD] purchases the right of way it can’t be developed, and we can either leave it as natural flood plain … Or we can make it part of a park system, or we can potentially design and construct a regional detention basin.”
Zeve said flood plain restoration is a more cost-effective and expedient solution than widening and deepening the creek, a process that would cost billions of dollars and involve starting where Cypress Creek ends in northeast Houston and working backwards.
Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said home buyouts are already underway. Harris County was awarded $51 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on June 14 to purchase 294 homes, including homes near the confluence of Cypress Creek and Little Cypress Creek in Cy-Fair and homes along Cypress Creek near Jones Road.
Residents along White Oak Bayou in Cy-Fair were largely spared during Harvey but were not as lucky during the 2016 Tax Day Flood, which Jersey Village city officials estimate flooded 238 homes in the city.
County officials are aiming to use $20 million from the bond to match $75 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a project to improve stormwater flow through White Oak Bayou between FM 1960 and Tidwell Road. The project could reduce flood risks for 1,800 buildings in the 500-year flood plain, according to an HCFCD analysis.
Proposed projects in the Little Cypress Creek watershed include spending more than $100 million on improving and constructing new stormwater detention basins, which will be concentrated largely upstream of Cypress Rosehill Road.
With development expected to pick up along Little Cypress Creek over the next decade, HCFCD officials said they are looking to expedite an area frontier program, an effort to prepare for future land development by addressing drainage needs. Another $30 million in bond funds would be used to remove about 730 acres from the 100-year flood plain.
Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said efforts in Little Cypress Creek will have additional benefits downstream.
“Up in Little Cypress Creek you are helping Cypress Creek,” he said. “Many of our watersheds, they are integrated and connected with other watersheds.”
Zeve said the county is considering resident input as it moves toward finalizing its list of prospective bond projects by Aug. 1.
“These numbers in the bond program are kind of our best guess at the time, and they are all subject to change,” he said.
Zeve said he has received dozens of emails from residents in the Cypress Creek watershed stating the $100 million slated for rights of way is not enough. One item added to the project list in June based on community input was $50 million for a maintenance project to remove silt from tributaries to Cypress Creek, which he said will increase capacity.
Several residents at a June 15 Cypress Creek watershed feedback meeting said they would like to see more projects targeting the part of the creek west of Hwy. 290. Residents noted this part of Cy-Fair holds the majority of the remaining undeveloped land in the area, which could be set aside for more detention projects before more homes are constructed. However, county officials said finding land owners who were willing to sell in this area has been challenging.
Carmela Simmons, a Cypress resident who lives in Enchanted Valley, said she is concerned about the lack of projects along the back end of Cypress Creek. She said she still supports the bond, but is not certain that other residents will.
“Anything we do is going to help, but I know a lot of people who are saying ‘if there’s nothing for us, I’m voting no,'” she said.
Richard Smith, president of the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition, said the organization—a nonprofit state corporation—supports the referendum. He said he hopes the county keeps its eyes on another long-term project: a third Greater Houston area reservoir along Cypress Creek.
A Cypress Creek reservoir could not be included as a bond project because it is an Army Corps project, Zeve said. However, he said the bond provides $375,000 to partner with the Corps on a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Addicks and Barker reservoir system. The study could be the starting point of a plan for a third reservoir.
Auggie Campbell, president of the West Houston Association—an economic development group that has developed its own flood protection plan—said he would still like to see Cypress Creek widened at some point, calling the creek a “poster child” for where a widening effort could have a substantial positive effect.
However, he said he still supports the bond, the failure of which he believes could spell dark times for the Greater Houston area.
“I think you’ll legitimately start seeing people refer to Houston as ‘flood city’ instead of ‘space city,’” he said.
Additional reporting by Anna Dembowski, Zac Ezzone, Vanessa Holt and Chevall Pryce