The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the city of Houston $47.1 million in August 2019 to build the gates, a completion date for which has inched toward the latter part of the expected timeline since funding was first announced. City officials expect construction on the dam to likely be completed by late 2023 or early 2024, barring no delays in state and federal approval and environmental permits.
Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, who represents District E in Kingwood, said via email city officials would have preferred the gates be finished three years from the grant award, but comprehensive environmental studies contributed to the project's delay. He said the city is working with the state of Texas and the federal government to ensure residents downstream of the dam are not negatively affected by the project.
"Originally it was going to take 10-15 years, but we got them down to [five] to [seven] years, and now we are working on [three] to [five] years, which is pretty dang good for a major infrastructure project," Martin said. "There are a significant number of studies that need to occur to guarantee no environmental impact to our drinking water as well as impact to the lake itself."
The city of Houston has been working to add gates to the Lake Houston dam since Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017. The current dam is mostly a spillway structure with four small gates, which are made to release water at a rate of 10,000 cubic feet per second, according to a February 2018 report from Harris County and consulting firm Freese and Nichols.
The shortcomings of the Lake Houston dam came into full view during Harvey, as it was overcome with water being discharged water at a rate of 425,000 cubic feet per second, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. The Lake Conroe dam upstream of Lake Houston was releasing water at a peak rate of about 79,000 cubic feet of water per second.
When the city announced FEMA's grant in a news release Aug. 2, 2019, the release stated the goal was to complete the project by 2022. A dam project overview on the city of Houston's website and multiple officials also estimated August 2022 as the project completion.
The Coastal Water Authority hired Black & Veatch as the design contractor for the dam gate project in April. Houston Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello said Black & Veatch will present preliminary gate designs in mid-December featuring two gate alternatives. The designs will likely involve adding new gates to the existing dam structure rather than building gates elsewhere, Costello said.
"They are about ready to present to the team two alternatives that are all within the grant provisions, and then the team will decide which one to go with," he said.
Adam Eaton, project manager for the city of Houston, said construction on the gates could begin by early 2022 at the earliest. However, Eaton said the start date can be delayed further depending on state and federal approval as well as environmental permitting, which he said can be a lengthy process. Once started, construction on the gates will continue for about two years.
Once a design is chosen, Costello said the city and Harris County will host public engagement meetings to keep local residents informed on the gate process.
"I think we owe that to the community to tell them exactly what we're going to be doing," he said.
An additional year onto the gate construction timeline could pose a challenge with Lake Conroe residents, who fought earlier this year for the San Jacinto River Authority to end its flood-mitigation strategy of seasonally lowering Lake Conroe.
In January and February, Lake Houston-area officials and residents urged the SJRA to continue their temporary lake-lowering strategy at Lake Conroe, which involves lowering the lake seasonally during months of high rainfall. Local officials asked that the temporary policy continue while the dam gates were completed, which officials estimated, at the time, would be in August 2022 or by 2023.
Although many Lake Conroe residents were unhappy with the strategy—citing lack of access to the lake, lowered property values and safety as concerns—the SJRA board ultimately voted 5-1 to extend the temporary lowering until December 2022, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.
Martin said via email he believes the SJRA will vote to continue the lake-lowering strategy because the city of Houston owns 75% of the water in Lake Conroe, and therefore is a larger stakeholder in the lake's operations.
"I’m confident the San Jacinto River Authority will work with us on our lowering strategy until the Lake Houston dam project is completed," Martin said.