After three consecutive years of disastrous flooding in Harris County, officials are heading into 2018 with a plan to secure funding for projects that can potentially bolster the region’s defenses against future catastrophic floods.
More than 3,600 homes in unincorporated Harris County—representing 6 percent of homes, including houses along Cypress and Spring creeks—flooded during Hurricane Harvey in August, Harris County Engineer John Blount said. Two-thirds of those buildings were located outside of flood plains, leading the county to approve more restrictive guidelines for new development starting Jan. 1.
However, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said a bond referendum for at least $1 billion is needed in 2018 to begin addressing the region’s immediate needs, which include a massive home buyout program, improved water conveyance along area bayous and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a third Houston-area reservoir along Cypress Creek.
“I believe voters will approve a bond, but they are going to want to know exactly where the money is going,” Emmett said.
Bond money needed for buyouts
Emmett said he anticipates the county placing a bond referendum on the May or November ballot, but the county first needs to see how much funding the state and federal government will provide the county for flood mitigation projects.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed an $81 billion disaster assistance package for recent hurricanes and wildfires in December. It provides funding to the Corps, which will distribute the funds to local municipalities, according to Houston-area Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Woodlands. The Senate will vote on the bill in January.
Emmett said passing a referendum would raise property tax rates, but he will not know by how much until the bond package amount is determined. He said the largest share of the bond package would go to home buyouts.
Augustus Campbell, president and CEO of the West Houston Association, a nonprofit advocacy group representing property owners and employers in West Houston, said a proposal by the WHA and several other Greater Houston area nonprofits suggests a $2.2 billion bond, which would carry a tax increase of
4 cents per $100 valuation.
“That would cost the average homeowner $8 a month or $100 a year on a $250,000 house,” he said.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle estimated about $850 million is needed for home buyouts in Harris County, including homes along Spring and Cypress creeks in Precinct 4, which includes Spring and Klein.
Harris County Flood Control District would receive the majority of funding from the bond, but some could also be allotted directly to the county commissioners, Emmett said. HCFCD Director of Operations
Matthew Zeve said the district is already planning how to deploy funds across the county if a referendum is successful.
The buyouts would allow the county to create new areas where floodwaters can be collected and directed away from inhabited areas, Zeve said.
Since Hurricane Harvey, 3,680 residents have volunteered to have their homes purchased by the HCFCD,
Zeve said. A total of 829 of those are located in previously identified buyout areas. Those purchases would cost $166 million and would top the agency’s list for projects to begin immediately, he said.
“Land doesn’t get cheaper; it only gets more expensive, and they don’t make any more of it,” Zeve said.
HCFCD is focusing on projects that can be designed and constructed within five to six years in addition to buyouts, he said. Other potential uses for bond money include $25 million for countywide land preservation within flood plains, including those in the areas surrounding Cypress and Spring creeks.
Spring, Klein projects
Regardless of whether a bond referendum passes next year, Cagle said he would like to see the state’s Rainy Day Fund used to help fund mitigation projects in Harris County, since the region produces about a quarter of the state’s sales tax revenue and houses a fifth of its population.
“It would be really nice if the state would allow us to have 25 percent of the Rainy Day Fund,” Cagle said. “There is over $10 billion in there, so that’s $2.5 billion.”
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he agrees the state needs to tap its Rainy Day Fund.
“We don’t know [how much]yet,” Bettencourt said. “In my mind it is going to be substantial, but this is clearly something that is long overdue.”
Emmett said Harris County is unique in Texas because nearly 2 million people live in its unincorporated areas, and the county is responsible for providing infrastructure for those residents but is not given tools—like sales tax—to generate additional revenue aside from property tax revenue.
One of the larger projects that could potentially be included in the bond is a third Houston area reservoir for Cypress Creek that would work in conjunction with Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Emmett said ideally the third reservoir would be a project funded by the federal government, developed by the Corps and cost-shared with the county, but it could also be fully funded by the county through a bond referendum. County officials did not estimate the cost of a third reservoir but the plan suggested by the WHA and other groups includes $370 million slated for the project.
“If we can retain the water in a third reservoir, we can diminish the impact on Barker and Addicks [reservoirs], and we can diminish the impact down Cypress Creek,” Cagle said.
Other projects that could be paid for through the bond include improvements to clean out and widen bayous throughout the county and a flood warning system. However, Cagle said he would also like to see funding to continue preserving greenspace along Spring and Cypress creeks before the land can be developed.
New engineering rules
A successful May or November bond referendum will not begin to provide funds for flood mitigation for many months, but in December, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a new set of development rules designed to reduce the likelihood that newly built structures will flood. The rules went into effect Jan. 1.
Developers in areas designated as 100-year flood plains—areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding each year—will have to build at 2 feet above the level required in a 500-year flood plain—areas which have a 0.02 percent chance of flooding each year—according to the new guidelines.
The new regulations may increase the cost of development, as building plans will need to be engineered to a higher standard, Zeve said.
Jill Boullion, executive director of the Bayou Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that preserves land along creeks and bayous in the Greater Houston area, said the new development guidelines are a positive step, but she believes further action could be needed because it does not address structures already within the 100-year flood plain.
Emmett said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will develop new flood plain maps within the next few years. After these maps are developed, further changes to county development guidelines could be necessary, he said.
“Areas that were designated 500-year flood plains have now flooded three times in two years,” Emmett said. “That’s not a 500-year flood plain.”
Additional Reporting By kelly schafler and Danica Smithwick
This story is one update from The January Issue. View the full list of Top 8 stories to follow in 2018 here.