Flooding over the past two years has caused 16 deaths and over $1 billion in damage across the Greater Houston area, Houston City Council Member Dave Martin said.
Meanwhile, residents and business owners throughout the Lake Houston area have dealt with heavy water damage.
The Harris County Flood Control District and the city of Houston are working on projects to address the problem.
However, reducing flooding in the Lake Houston area is difficult, because local officials must balance flood reduction efforts with potential economic development, said Martin, whose district includes Kingwood and parts of Atascocita and Summerwood.
The development of land near bodies of water, such as Spring Creek, removes much of the trees and plants that absorb rainwater. The unabsorbed water flows into the West Fork San Jacinto River, putting more stress on its banks and threatening local homes during heavy rain, he said.
“We’ve had developed land that was at one time raw land, woods and forests and trees that absorb water that are now all concrete, especially north of us in Montgomery County—it’s growing like crazy,” Martin said.
With homes and businesses throughout Harris County—including in the Lake Houston area—under water as a result of the floods last April and May, Matt Zeve, director of operations for HCFCD, said the county is seeking solutions.
Zeve said in the past five years, HCFCD has spent more than $5 million on maintenance projects throughout waterways in the Lake Houston area to assist in flooding mitigation. The maintenance projects include erosion repair, sinkhole repair, tree planting and vegetative maintenance.
HCFCD offers a buyout program, which includes buying and demolishing houses that are in flood-prone areas and helps homeowners relocate to areas that are not in a flood zone. Zeve said HCFCD offers homeowners fair market value to purchase their homes.
The county is also aggressively purchasing homes in the Lake Houston area, he said. The HCFCD has spent $7.6 million to purchase 73 properties in Humble, Kingwood and Atascocita over the past five years.
“Acquiring properties adjacent to the creek will prevent them from being developed,” Zeve said.
In January, the city of Houston created the Storm Water Action Team—an initiative spearheaded by Chief Resiliency Officer Stephen Costello that targets small projects in areas that are far from waterways. The $10 million program features 22 projects, such as the repair of culverts, which are tunnels that allow water to pass under a road, sidewalk or sewer, Martin said.
Although the city has no planned projects in Kingwood or Summerwood for the first SWAT program, the city is targeting future projects in the Forest Cove subdivision for SWAT funding, said Sallie Acorn, senior staff analyst for the city of Houston’s Resilience Office.
“Costello calls it the mayor’s pothole program, but on drainage,” Acorn said. “It’s a way to quickly address drainage problems that fall somewhere above regular ongoing maintenance of drainage systems and below a full-blown capital improvement project.”
Humble has no flood mitigation projects planned within its city limits, Humble Assistant City Manager Jason Stuebe said.
Harris County and the Bayou Land Conservancy said purchasing land near waterways and keeping them from being developed helps limit flooding.
In February, Harris County purchased a 19-acre tract of land in Atascocita south of the intersection of Will Clayton and West Lake Houston parkways for $4.3 million. The new park allows the county to preserve green space, said Jeremy Phillips, Harris County Precinct 2 senior director of infrastructure.
“We tear down trees all the time for roads. Now we get to save a few and maybe plant a few,” Phillips said.
Zeve said HCFCD also constructs wetlands as a means of flood mitigation.
“Constructing wetlands definitely works,” Zeve said. “It lasts forever [and] we have legal agreements that require us to maintain it.”
Wetland maintenance—also known as green infrastructure—helps to keep stormwater from causing floods, said Jill Boullion, executive director of the Bayou Land Conservancy.
The BLC, a nonprofit organization, is identifying property to conserve more land in watersheds that feed Lake Houston to reduce flooding, Boullion said.
The BLC expects to receive a development easement on Bender Lakes Mitigation Bank, a tract just east of Jesse H. Jones Park in Humble by the end of the year, BLC Land Stewardship Director Suzanne Simpson said.
The 58-acre tract, which Harris County Precinct 4 owns and the HCFCD maintains, will never be developed, Simpson said. The land is bordered by trails that are part of the Spring Creek Greenway.
“Green infrastructure is protecting what we already have,” she said. “Rather than concrete, where that water is just going to hit and immediately run off, it’s going to soak in.”
Meanwhile, Martin and fellow Council Member David Robinson have assembled experts to discuss the challenges of abating floods in April 5 panel discussions for the Flooding and Storm Surge Symposium. The symposium was scheduled for March but was postponed by heavy rain and flooding.
As the city of Houston, Harris County and the BLC address flooding in the area, the entities are also confined by their budgets.
HCFCD receives about $60 million to address flood mitigation through capital improvements every year. Meanwhile, voters approved another
$64 million in bonds to the district in 2015 as part of $848 million in bonds that passed in the November election.
The bonds approved for flood control will be released with road bond funds, said Frank Bruce, the Harris County budget and planning director.
“Within the next year or two, the road bonds likely will start to be issued as needed,” Bruce said. “The flood control bonds would likely be issued on the same time frame.”
While HCFCD relies on county revenue and bond money, BLC relies on donors and grant money.
“We’ve been trying to emphasize that conservation is one of the best tools in the toolbox,” Simpson said. “It’s not just a luxury or a convenient do-good activity that we do when it’s convenient for us.”