Flood researcher Sam Brody is not ashamed to admit he keeps a broom in the trunk of his car at all times. If he spots a clogged street drain across Houston, he puts it to work.
“I’ll sweep those drains out,” said Brody, the director of Texas A&M University’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores. “If these neighborhoods and associations knew how important it was, they’d be out there doing it, too. We need to make sure what we have is working before we spend billions on projects.”
This kind of all-hands-on-deck approach is the region’s best bet for reducing the effects of future flood catastrophes, whether it is a hurricane or an afternoon shower, with a mix of creative solutions and maintenance key to protecting the dense Inner Loop, where options for flood-control are limited, officials, researchers and community leaders said.
In the two years since Hurricane Harvey, increasingly coordinated and better-funded efforts at the city, county and federal levels are chipping away at Houston’s flood problem, with more than half of the 239 projects under the Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond package underway.
“It’s pretty aggressive, but to be honest, most people I meet with feel like it’s not aggressive enough,” said Matt Zeve, the deputy executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. “They want all the projects done yesterday.”
Despite the progress, advocates said it is also time for leaders to look at more local-level solutions, from street improvements to greenways.
The flood control district’s agenda includes work to widen channels, add detention, and improve the flow and capacity of Houston’s bayous, but where most of Houston’s flooding occurs is in city streets.
The city’s storm drain systems are designed to handle a two-year event as the standard, equivalent to about 2.25 inches of rain in an hour, though they become overwhelmed in more intense storms, said Jeff Weatherford, the director of transportation and drainage operations for Houston Public Works.
“When you get bigger events like that, we kind of use the streets to hold water,” Weatherford said. “If I don’t put water in the roads, it will go in people’s houses. There’s nowhere else to put it. I would rather flood every road to keep water out of one person’s house.”
Unfortunately, not every road is well-suited for drainage, and nearly every capital project to address streets also includes a drainage component—usually moving away from ditches to underground flows, Weatherford said.
With around $100 million a year from the city’s drainage fee available to do projects, but with a street and drainage rebuild costing $12 million a mile, it can only go so far, he said. As the city’s drainage fee slowly reduces the city’s capital project debt, it should free up more cash—and more capacity to borrow—in the long run.
As frequent as street flooding can be—over 12,000 reports were logged on Houston’s 311 nonemergency hotline from 2015-18—it remains understudied and poorly understood, said Brody, who published a study in November in partnership with the University of Maryland, one of the first to examine the implications of flooding in dense cities.
“It may not have as much immediate impact, but the long-term chronic impact could be significant,” he said. “If the streets are flooded or your car is flooded, that’s how you get to school, to work, or to the dialysis center.”
This kind of flood risk is not well-communicated unless you know the street from experience, he said.
Inside the heavily developed Inner Loop, the flood control district’s options are limited. There are virtually no buyout candidates and very little opportunity for large detention ponds. But other opportunities exist, said Christof Spieler, a researcher with the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, such as the North Canal project, which would create a bypass where White Oak and Buffalo bayous meet.
“That could reduce flooding in that area by several feet alone,” Spieler said.
That project, at an estimated $100 million, is one of the priciest on the district’s bond-funded capital plan.
With large tracts of land unavailable, another solution is to think smaller.
“With microdetention, you could have several little pieces of land rather than one large pond,” he said. “Existing development, such as schools and service centers, could be retrofitted with this approach—another opportunity that has not yet been looked at fully.”
A study of this strategy is in the flood district’s plan, but Zeve concedes that land is in short supply.
“Two things are true about land inside the Loop: It never gets cheaper, and they never make more of it. And developers move quicker than us, so while we want to get to it before they do, it’s often just not practical,” Zeve said.
The flood control district’s projects in Houston’s suburban and unincorporated areas will have downstream benefits throughout the watershed, he said.
Greenways—and new ways of thinking
Solutions inside the Loop will have go be outside the usual toolbox, said Susan Chadwick, the president of Save Buffalo Bayou.
“What is it that makes a project? Unfortunately, most of it is designed for engineering companies to come in and solve … but we could be thinking more about the natural environment,” Chadwick said.
Efforts to bring attention to Houston’s bayous and natural channels have been growing, in part thanks to Bayou Greenways 2020, an effort that kicked off in 2012 with a $100 million bond and private fundraising.
While its main focus was to create bayou parks—as they were originally envisioned a century ago—the second benefit is providing flood reduction, said Chip Place, the managing director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.
“The Dutch have an expression: ‘Make room for the river.’ You need that additional green buffer where you can make room for the bayou, which is basically a slow-moving river,” Place said.
The program has set out to acquire as much bayou-adjacent land as possible while also improving the use of existing bayous through trails and parks, which brings even more attention to their role as a natural resource, he said.
Along with greenways, A wider view of what constitutes infrastructure is needed, Brody said.
“These are complex problems that can’t be solved through engineering alone. It has to do with people and behavior and things happening at a larger scale,” Brody said.
His research team is looking at ways to make street flood risk information more readily available so drivers can anticipate and reroute their commutes, for example. Both the flood district and Houston Transtar have recently added more flood-reporting information as well.
Researchers and bayou advocates agree: Aside from new initiatives, a focus on maintenance will go a long way.
“Maintenance—your street drains and storm drains—it’s not sexy, but it might be the unsung hero of drainage,” Brody said.