Harris County calls for $2.5B bond for flood prevention projects

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One year after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, Harris County is petitioning voters this August for a
$2.5 billion bond referendum, which could fund more than 100 proposed flood control projects across the region, including Spring Creek at the border of Harris and Montgomery counties.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously voted June 12 to call an Aug. 25 election for a bond package providing funding to the Harris County Flood Control District for projects throughout the county.

“Harvey changed lives. There are homes still abandoned, people still cleaning up [and]remnants of Harvey all these months later,” County Judge Ed Emmett said May 30 at a press conference. “But just as we endured and survived Harvey together, we must prepare for the future together. 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.”

While only a portion of The Woodlands Township is in Harris County’s jurisdiction, there are a few suggested solutions for Spring Creek that could alleviate creek overflow, including right of way acquisition, storm repairs and drainage improvements, according to a June 21 list of proposed projects from the HCFCD.

In addition to watershed-specific projects, bond funds would be spent on flood mitigation projects throughout the county, including upgrades to the Harris County Flood Warning System, updates to Harris County flood plain maps, preliminary engineering services for constructing tunnels to carry stormwater and mitigation projects done in partnership with other entities, according to HCFCD.

“If we can purchase right of way that’s in the flood plain that can’t be developed, it can be used for other things such as a natural flood plain area, trails and parks or possible regional detention basin[s],” HCFCD Chief Operations Officer Matthew Zeve said.

Spring Creek concerns

While flooding throughout Harris County was widespread, damage in The Woodlands and bordering neighborhoods was localized mainly to areas around Spring Creek, including the neighborhoods of Timarron Lakes, Grogan’s Mill and Timber Lakes-Timber Ridge, township officials said.

In the year since the storm, The Woodlands Township officials have regularly met with its Drainage Task Force, composed of more than 30 agency partners, including Harris and Montgomery counties, emergency management offices, municipal utility districts, neighborhood associations and engineering groups, to try to understand and find solutions to area flooding.

Bruce Rieser, township director and Drainage Task Force chairman, said during a task force update in late May it is unlikely that any solutions from their discussions would be implemented in the next 12-24 months.

One solution echoed by numerous officials and residents is the idea of a reservoir along Spring Creek that could prevent excess water from the creek in a heavy rain event from flowing into homes. HCFCD Environmental Chief Glenn Laird said the idea was a plan in the initial concept of The Woodlands, but never came to fruition.

“The idea of a reservoir on Spring Creek goes back to [The Woodlands founder] George Mitchell,” Laird said. “One of the earliest plans for the original 18,000 acres of The Woodlands was a 1,000-acre lake reservoir on Spring Creek somewhere basically in the area upstream of Gosling Road. In case no one noticed, it never happened. Like with all master plans, not everything quite gets done.”

While a reservoir near The Woodlands and unincorporated Spring was not included on the initial list of projects for the Harris County bond, as Spring Creek borders Montgomery County, Laird said HCFCD has reserved funds for partnership projects outside the county for projects that would also benefit Harris County.

One such project could come from a proposal from the San Jacinto River Authority. The SJRA announced plans in late May to submit an application to the Texas Water Development Board for a grant—to be matched with local funds from the SJRA—which would be used to study the feasibility of a reservoir along Spring Creek and a real-time gate operation tool for Lake Conroe to release water from the Lake Conroe dam. An exact amount for the grant has not yet been announced.

The proposal was compiled in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Rebuild Texas—a statewide effort to provide infrastructure for recovery and information for local officials—SJRA Director of Flood Management Chuck Gilman said.

A portion of the grant would fund a study to determine where one or more reservoirs could be located along Spring Creek as well as the size and boundaries.

If the grant is approved by the TWDB, the SJRA is also expected to study the environmental effects of the reservoirs, including habitats, wetlands and nearby properties, according to the grant proposal.

The application received resolutions of support from both The Woodlands Township board of directors and Montgomery County Commissioners Court in June.

“It has become fairly clear based on all of the information that been shared that [a reservoir]is probably the only way that we can get control over Spring Creek,” Rieser said. “It’s really not viable to dredge or widen because of the nature of the creek banks themselves. It doesn’t make economic sense.”

Gilman said the grant application deadline is July 11 and the SJRA hopes to hear a respond from the TWDB by mid-September.

Laird said Harris County is aware of the application to the TWDB and would be willing to contribute funds from the proposed bond to help develop the projects should the application and study gain approval.

“Our share out of the bond money would go to our participation with them for the study,” he said. “A lot are dependent on some decision and so what we want to do is making sure we’re ready to jump in on the one that makes the most sense and really happens.”

However, Laird said there is likely no simple solution to flooding that will meet the needs of every resident.

“Knowing what we know about how this whole system operates … and the competing public demands for nature preservation, recreational open space and get the water out of my living room, we’ve got to find a balance there in which we can do all of the above,” Laird said. “That’s what we want to be able to accomplish.”

Tax effects

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.

To fund the $2.5 billion in projects—of which nearly $44.2 million could be spent on projects along the length of Spring Creek—average Harris County property owners could see about a $5 annual increase to the property taxes they pay to HCFCD, beginning in 2020. That figure could grow to about $50 more a year by 2035, according to Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson.

A change in market conditions, interest rates or the HCFCD’s total tax levy could affect this increase, he said.

To put that into perspective, 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.

By 2035—as the bonds would 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, he said.

“This will involve a property tax increase; nothing’s for free,” Zeve said. “But it’s investment for the future viability of our entire county and area. It’s an opportunity. The key is to help us better prepare. We can’t stop the flooding, but we can reduce the risk of flooding for as many Harris County residents as possible.”

A final project list is expected to be released
Aug. 1 after the series of community engagement meetings concludes. A meeting was held for residents who live in and near the Spring Creek watershed June 27, and resident feedback on the area will be accepted through early August, according to HCFCD. Early voting for the bond begins Aug. 8.

Additional reporting by Zac Ezzone

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Wendy Cawthon
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Cawthon has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and joined The Woodlands edition in 2017.
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