Following historic floods across the Greater Houston area last spring, county and city entities have worked on a number of projects to address flood mitigation and water rescue challenges in the Tomball and Magnolia areas.
Local officials said the April 2016 and Memorial Day 2015 floods were 500-year events—meaning affected areas have a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in a given year, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
“[It was] unprecedented to have two 500-year storms back to back,” Tomball Public Works Director David Esquivel said. “With that being said, I don’t know if there’s any one entity that’s going to design for that kind of storm event.”
To prepare for future flood events, Harris and Montgomery counties have focused on flood mitigation projects and studies, while the cities of Tomball and Magnolia have focused on improving drainage, repairing washed out areas and improving water rescue capabilities.
The historical storms in 2015 and 2016 put pressure on area entities to mitigate flooding. Regardless of development guidelines, local officials said areas near Spring, Willow and Walnut creeks have experienced the greatest amount of flooding in the last three floods.After high rainfall rates put several Harris County homes and businesses in the area under water last spring, including in Tomball.
HCFCD Director of Operations Matt Zeve said the county is seeking solutions. Zeve said in the past five years, HCFCD has spent more than $228,000 on maintenance projects throughout waterways within Tomball ISD boundaries to assist in flooding mitigation. The maintenance projects include erosion repairs, silt removal, channel and sinkhole repairs, tree plantings and vegetative maintenance.
Additionally, Zeve said HCFCD has funded $31 million in a 10-year period for projects in the Little Cypress Creek watershed—partially located in the Tomball area—which includes funds for construction of six detention basins. Five of the detention basins are still under construction, which includes acquiring right of way and designing the project in addition to actual construction.
No major projects along Spring Creek are planned. However, HCFCD plans to address mitigation by acquiring properties along greenways to preserve the floodplain. To date, HCFCD has purchased 14 properties in Tomball, totaling nearly $1 million, along the Harris County side of Spring Creek as part of the Spring Creek Greenway project.
“Non-developed land can [safely] flood since it will not affect houses or businesses,” Zeve said.
Additionally, Zeve said HCFCD is in the process of purchasing a home in Tomball as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, which assists HCFCD in purchasing severe repetitive loss properties.
Countywide, HCFCD offers a home 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. HCFCD spent $4.9 million countywide in buyouts in 2016, with a total of 63 homes released for acquisition.
While creating a Montgomery County Flood Control District has been discussed in the past, County Judge Craig Doyal said he does not think voters would approve one.
“I would think there’s probably a better opportunity in creating some local drainage districts, which we have several of here in the county,” he said. “Trying to create another level of bureaucracy where people who don’t have flooding issues would be voting to fund a mechanism for flood control [with tax dollars] would be tough to get passed.”
Doyal said there are no existing plans within the county to pursue additional drainage districts or a flood control district.
However, Montgomery County—in partnership with the city of Conroe and the San Jacinto River Authority—began work on a countywide flood mitigation study earlier this year. Partially funded by a $460,000 grant from the Texas Water Development Board, Phase 1 of the study examines the Lake Conroe watershed and the upper West Fork of the San Jacinto River. Future phases of the study will cover additional watersheds in the county, according to SJRA officials.
Montgomery County Engineer Mark Mooney said the study will provide the county with up-to-date floodplain maps.
“The floodplain maps that we have right now—developed by the federal government—they’re accurate to a certain level,” he said. “This study is going to provide more accuracy.”
Improving water flow
After last spring’s floods, Magnolia and Tomball officials are working to improve drainage and detention.
Magnolia City Administrator Paul Mendes said the city is working with FEMA to repair a roadside channel on Nichols Sawmill Road and a dam at Unity Park, both of which were washed out by previous flooding. Mendes said the construction timing and cost of each project are dependent on FEMA.
Flooding eroded the banks of the Nichols Sawmill channel and caused damage to a sewer line underneath, which must be relocated and replaced before the channel can be repaired, he said.
“[The channel is] a major conduit for transferring stormwater down along Nichols Sawmill [Road],” Mendes said. “When we get that fixed, the water will flow better, and we won’t have to worry about it coming close to washing out Nichols Sawmill [Road] in the storm.”
Improving water flow is also on Tomball’s agenda. Esquivel said Tomball City Council has approved the construction of various drainage channels, many of which are in the design phase. According to the fiscal year 2016-17 budget, the city has more than $10.5 million allocated for drainage improvements.
“The next step for us is trying to put together a master plan of how to get drainage to the major channels,” he said. “Once you put in a channel, that doesn’t necessarily solve all your issues.”
Esquivel said the drainage master plan will be discussed ahead of the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Keeping stormwater out of the older areas of Tomball—structures built before various development guidelines were in place—and finding space for water detention may be the city’s biggest challenges in flood mitigation, he said.
Emergency response efforts
In addition to flood mitigation projects, addressing water rescue challenges has also been a priority for officials in Tomball and Magnolia. Throughout the last three floods, fire departments in both cities performed more than 50 life-saving water rescues, officials said.
Despite having previously invested in additional training, flotation gear and rescue boats, performing swift water rescues last spring proved to be a challenge for the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Gary Vincent said. In some cases, high-water vehicles flooded and rescue boats had to be abandoned or carried across land.
“Even with everything we’ve done, there still [are] isolated places where because of the water conditions, we just can’t get to everybody who’s trapped in these conditions,” Vincent said.
To decrease response times and increase rescue capability, the MVFD purchased a custom-made, amphibious Hydratrek vehicle, which will allow first responders to cross both land and water, Vincent said. The vehicle—which MVFD expects to receive in May—will allow seating capacity for 18 passengers, feature room for medical equipment and offer towing capability. The MVFD would not provide a cost for the vehicle.
“We can evacuate a whole lot more people in a much shorter time and move onto other areas quicker,” MVFD Assistant Chief Chuck Grant said of the vehicle.
However, Vincent said rescue boats would remain the primary rescue unit in the event of a flood.
“The goal is to make this [vehicle] a multipurpose unit so it can be used to solve a number of challenges that the fire department faces,” he said. “There’s nothing else like this. It’s going to make the community a safer place.”
To assist with water rescues in the Tomball area, the Tomball Police Department acquired a 2.5-ton military vehicle—capable of driving through 4-5 feet of water—through a donation-based military surplus program in FY 2015-16, Tomball Fire Department Chief Randy Parr said. Rather than carrying cargo, the vehicle will be used to evacuate people from flooded areas in future flooding events.
“Virtually everything that occurred last year is still a challenge,” Parr said.
Additional reporting by Julie Butterfield and Hannah Zedaker