Ten months after Hurricane Harvey dropped a trillion gallons of water across the Greater Houston area last August, Harris County is petitioning voters this August for a $2.5 billion bond referendum that could fund more than 100 proposed flood control projects across the region.
Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously voted June 12 to call an Aug. 25 election for a bond package that would provide funding for Harris County Flood Control District projects across the county.
“Harvey changed lives. There are homes still abandoned, people still cleaning up remnants of Harvey all these months later,” County Judge Ed Emmett said May 30 at a press conference. “ … We can’t make sure it doesn’t happen again, but we can certainly do a lot of mitigation and make our community more resilient.”
If voters approve the referendum the average Harris County property owner could see about a $5 annual increase on the property taxes they pay to HCFCD beginning in 2020; that figure could grow to about $50 more a year by 2035, Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.
The HCFCD has hosted community meetings in each of Harris County’s 23 watersheds over the last two months to seek input from residents on the proposed projects in their area. Some of the proposed projects will eventually be included in the $2.5 billion bond.
Some of the proposed projects in the Addicks Reservoir watershed, which concerns the Katy and Cypress areas, include desilting the entire reservoir, desilting the 17 channels that lead into the reservoir and creating more regional detention basins throughout the watershed. A final project list is expected to be released Aug. 1.
“This is part of recovery, but it’s more than that. It’s more looking forward and preparing the county and all of our various communities for the next flood event,” HCFCD Chief Operations Officer Matthew Zeve said. “This will involve a property tax increase—nothing’s for free—but it’s an investment for the future viability of our entire county.”
Although the election will take place on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the proposed projects were deemed necessary based on the last several flooding events in Harris County, HCFCD Executive Director Russ Poppe said during a May 30 press conference. Harvey was the third time some Katy-area homes flooded in three years, following the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods of 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“Harvey was certainly the catalyst that’s causing the conversations we’re having today, but that by no means is the benchmark that we use to develop these projects,” he said. “We have to look at the sum total of our previous flooding events, and that really gives us a better picture on what areas are prone to flooding.”
The bond funding would increase the HCFCD’s available capital project funding from $60 million annually to about $100 million annually from 2020-35, Jackson said.
While the proposed list of projects totals about $2.5 billion, Emmett said he estimates the county would need as much as $25 billion.
If voters approve the bond referendum Harris County would have $5.5 billion to work with for flood mitigation projects over the next 15 years—constructing about half a billion dollars of projects each year, Jackson said.
The county’s $2.5 billion would include $1 billion of funding to match $3 billion from the U.S. government for flood prevention projects, Jackson said. The remaining $1.5 billion of the bond referendum would be reserved for an additional funding match or for HCFCD capital projects.
“We wouldn’t be issuing that $1.5 billion on Day 1. It would be over a period of time,” he said. “We may do it quicker than [15 years]; just these projects take time, and the federal government just doesn’t give you $3 billion up front.”
In addition to watershed-specific projects, funds would be spent on countywide projects, including upgrades to the Harris County Flood Warning System, updates to Harris County flood plain maps, preliminary engineering services for constructing large diameter tunnels to convey stormwater and mitigation projects done in partnership with other entities, according to HCFCD.
“The reality is right now [flood plains are]a bit of a guess,” Emmett said. “So some of this funding is going to go to figuring out [where the flood plains are]. So many people flooded this time that thought they were in no danger, and we just can’t let that happen again.”
The two watersheds that concern the Katy area are the Barker Reservoir and Addicks Reservoir watersheds. The HCFCD’s community meeting for the Addicks Reservoir watershed was held June 22 and saw a strong turnout. The Barker Reservoir watershed meeting is set for 6-8 p.m. Aug. 1.
Of the list of preliminary projects included in the Addicks Reservoir watershed, seven proposed projects totaling $126 million would be funded solely with local money if the bond referendum passed. Eight more proposed partnership projects totaling $192.5 million would be funded through the HCFCD and the federal government through either the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. Department of Urban Housing and Development, Zeve said.
Some of the proposed projects include proposals to help fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to potentially remove accumulated silt in the Addicks Reservoir, extending outfalls to lead into detention basins, providing more regional detention, increasing conveyance capacity along all the watershed’s different streams, such as Bear Creek, building a regional detention facility in Cypress Creek to address overflow in the area and desilting all 17 channels.
State Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, said the most important project that could benefit Katy residents is the creation of a third reservoir, though it is not on the proposed list of projects.
“There wouldn’t be a question of having to worry about opening the Addicks gates in the middle of a storm if you had a third reservoir behind it slowing down the flow of water into Addicks in the first place—and that was the original proposed function of that reservoir,” Schofield said.
Zeve said a $3 million project to fund a study required by the Corps for any modification to the Addicks and Barker reservoirs is the first step to accomplishing a third reservoir. Funding for the project was approved in early July.
Schofield said he was not surprised that the third reservoir was not included in the preliminary list.
“They did not mislead us into believing it would be in here, but it needs to be part of our overall plan regardless of the funding source,” Schofield said. “People do not care which level of government or what bond pays for it when they are knee deep in water in their living room.”
Schofield said aside from the third reservoir he thinks the most important projects for Katy included in the proposed list are the desilting of the 17 channels and tributaries.
“Much of the flooding is really caused because the little waterways clog up and water never gets to where it’s going,” Schofield said.
Katy resident Doyle Boutwell said he agreed with Schofield. Boutwell said he lives just north of Mayde Creek, which is an infamous spot for flooding in the county.
“It’s not the main reservoir that is the problem, [and]it is not the capacity of the reservoir, it’s the things leading into the reservoir,” Boutwell said.
Boutwell said the reservoir and surrounding creeks near him were dry before the rain that ensued in late June, but neighbors became weary when they saw the banks of the reservoir overflow.
“The rain level we’ve had over the last 3 or 4 days we should have been able to handle easily,” Boutwell said. “There was no neighborhood flooding per se, but it got out of the banks and people were nervous.”
One of the proposed projects that could help address flooding in Boutwell’s area includes constructing a new bridge at Greenhouse and South Mayde Creek. Some city officials have said some of the projects have been needed long before Harvey hit Texas.
“I hate to say it, but we wouldn’t have had this opportunity for the federal funding is this [Hurricane Harvey] wouldn’t have happened. And we need to do everything we can to maximize this,” said Lance LaCour, president of the Katy Area Economic Development Council.
Funding the bond
To fund the $2.5 billion in projects Harris County property owners would see a property tax rate increase beginning in 2020 of $4.63 for a home valued at $166,000 after exemptions, said Frank Bruce, Harris County senior director of finance and budget.
Yet a change in market conditions, interest rates or the HCFCD’s total tax levy could affect this increase, he said.
As the tax rate is expected to rise as bonds are sold the average taxpayer would pay about $50 more in 2035 than in 2018, Jackson said. By 2035—as the bonds will be issued over a 15-year period—the HCFCD tax rate is anticipated to increase by 3 cents, roughly doubling the existing tax rate assuming no change in market conditions, interest rates or the tax levy, Bruce said. A homeowner with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional tax. Early voting begins Aug. 8.
“Harvey brought it [flood-control projects] to everybody’s attention,” Schofield said. “Hopefully we can get some of these projects underway before everybody gets too dry and forgets about it.”
Additional reporting by Shawn Arrajj, Zac Ezzone, Vanessa Holt and Chevall Pryce