Harris County prepares for flood season

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Harris County prepares for flood season

Although speculation varies on the reasons for recent flooding events across the Greater Houston area, officials agree on one thing: Flooding mitigation is critical.

“This is a very hot topic because look at what happened in the Cypress Creek watershed last spring,” said Jill Boullion, Bayou Land Conservancy executive director. “So many people flooded that had never flooded before. It’s not going away. People are upset and want to see the community and our elected officials come together and talk about it.”

Flooding in April and May of last year affected hundreds of residents and businesses owners in the Greater Houston area, and the Harris County Flood Control District and BLC are working on a number of projects to address the problem.

The county is working on flooding mitigation with a renewed fervor, Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. 

“We always respond to the latest crisis,” Cagle said. “And just as when we were in the middle of a drought, everyone was trying to get more water in the area. Now that we’ve been hit with these flood events, [people are asking]‘How do we keep from having all this water?’ So it’s on everybody’s minds.”

Harris County prepares for flood seasonMitigation projects 

With homes and businesses throughout Harris County underwater as a result of the 2016 flood events, including in Cy-Fair, Matt Zeve, director of operations for the HCFCD, said the county is seeking solutions to prepare for the next flood event.

HCFCD spent $6.3 million on two detention basins along Little Cypress Creek in fiscal year 2016-17. Plans in HCFCD’s 5-year capital improvement program call for another $23.6 million to be spent on detention basins along Mueschke and Schiel roads through 2021. 

The district also began engineering, excavation and revegetation on the Upper Langham Creek frontier program in 2016 while investing $550,000 in two basin projects around Greenhouse Road and John Paul’s Landing. 

Additionally, in March 2016, the county implemented its $2.2 million Cypress Creek Overflow Management Plan in which HCFCD created developmental guidelines and criteria for new developments within the Harris County portions of Cypress Creek watershed, Zeve said.

In addition to construction projects and development guidelines, HCFCD offers a home buyout program, which includes buying and demolishing houses that are in flood-prone areas and helps homeowners relocate to areas that are not in flood zones. Zeve said HCFCD offers homeowners fair market value as a way out of their homes. HCFCD spent $4.9 million in buyouts in 2016, with a total of 63 homes released for acquisition.

Greenway, wetlands preservation

HCFCD also addresses flood mitigation by acquiring properties along greenways to protect the land from development. Zeve said each year HCFCD sets aside between $2 million and $5 million to acquire land along the Spring Creek and Cypress Creek greenways for flood plain preservation.

Preserving flood plains from development helps to mitigate flooding, said Jim Robertson, chairman of the Cypress Creek Greenway Project, which works with local entities to build parks and trails and preserve land along Cypress Creek.

“We continue to work with Harris County Flood Control [District], identifying potential tracts for acquisition for flood plain preservation because flood plain preservation helps with the flooding issues,” Robertson said.

Zeve said HCFCD also builds wetlands throughout the county.

Wetland maintenance —also known as green infrastructure—helps to keep stormwater from causing floods, Boullion said. Bayou Land Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, aids in flood mitigation throughout the region through its preservation of land and wetland efforts. 

Harris County prepares for flood seasonWhile the conservancy does not share what properties it is targeting—it could affect cost negotiations—it is identifying land in the effort to conserve more land in watersheds that feed Lake Houston to reduce flooding. The conservancy looks to buy development rights to land when the funds are available and work with interested landowners who have an interest in donating property to be conserved. 

“Green infrastructure is protecting what we already have, which is the riparian corridors along streams,” Boullion said. “Those trees and the wetlands and the habitat suck up and hold a lot of water. So rather than concrete, where that water is just going to hit and immediately run off, it’s going to soak in—it’s going to hold and it’s going to release it out slowly.”

Ed Browne, chairman of Residents Against Flooding—a Houston-area group dedicated to stopping preventable flooding—said preserving land is a good focus, but development standards should be strengthened as well.

The existing standards for detention and allowable fill dirt—a material used to raise elevations of low-lying construction sites—are not enough to stop stormwater runoff during floods, he said.

“We allow fill dirt to be hauled in and an entire property elevated, changing the water surface elevations for the entire area,” he said. “There are limits to how much fill can be added, so [developers]divide the project into multiple LLCs. Each one has the same maximum limits, so more LLCs [results in]more fill dirt.”

Harris County commissioners approved new HCFCD-recommended rules in March 2016 strengthening development standards for projects in the Cypress Creek, Addicks and Barker watersheds. The guidelines, which apply to residential and commercial developments, include mitigation of increases of runoff that may be attributable to development and management of runoff overflow that occurs during heavy rainfall.

Harris County prepares for flood seasonFunding obstacles

Specific implementable plans for watersheds and adequate funding are integral pieces to mitigate flooding, said Richard Smith, president of the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition, which serves to mitigate flooding on the Cypress Creek watershed. 

“Until we get those resolved, flooding will continue to occur and worsen,” he said.

HCFCD receives about $60 million in the county budget to address flood mitigation through capital improvements every year. Voters approved another $64 million in bond money to the district in 2015 as part of $848 million in bonds that passed in the November election. 

However, bonds approved for flood control are tied in with road bonds, said Frank Bruce, Harris County budget and planning director. When road project funds are issued, then flood control projects can receive funding.

The budget for FY 2017-18, which began March 1, included $120 million for HCFCD: $60 million for capital improvements and $60 million for operations and maintenance. 

While the HCFCD relies on county revenue and bond money, the BLC relies on donors and grant money. 

BLC has received donations from Houston Endowment, the Hamman Foundation, the Jacob and Therese Hershy Foundation, ExxonMobil and Southwestern Energy. It also relies on individual and family donors. Through these funds, the BLC spent $500,000 to acquire 100-Acre Wood in Cypress Creek in 2012, and $4 million was spent on Deer Park Prairie in 2014. 

“As flooding has risen to being a high-profile issue in the Houston area, we’ve been trying to emphasize that conservation is one of the best tools in the toolbox of flood mitigation,” Simpson said. “It’s not just a luxury or a convenient do-good activity that we do when it’s convenient for us. There’s a sense or urgency with conservation, and I think that the community is starting to respond to that.”

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Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.
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