Flooding in Spring, Klein in 2016 spurs need for mitigation efforts

Several creeks overfilled in 2016 as a result of historic storms, causing flooding to roads and neighborhoods.

Several creeks overfilled in 2016 as a result of historic storms, causing flooding to roads and neighborhoods.

Flooding in Spring, Klein in 2016 spurs need for mitigation effortsAlthough speculation varies on the reasons for recent flooding events across the Greater Houston area, officials agree on one thing: flooding mitigation is critical.


“This is a very hot topic because look at what happened in the Cypress Creek and Spring Creek watershed last spring,” said Jill Boullion, Bayou Land Conservancy executive director. “So many people flooded that had never flooded before. It’s not going away. People are upset and want to see the community and our elected officials come together and talk about it.”


Flooding in April and May of last year affected hundreds of residents and business owners in the Houston area, and Harris County Flood Control District and BLC are working on a number of projects to address the
problem.


Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the county is working on flooding mitigation with a renewed
fervor.


“We always respond to the latest crisis,” Cagle said. “[It is] just as when we were in the middle of a drought, [and] everyone was trying to get more water in the area.”



Mitigation projects


With homes and businesses throughout Harris County under water as a result of the floods last April and May, including in Spring and Klein, Matt Zeve, director of operations for HCFCD, said the county is seeking solutions.


HCFCD budgeted $62.8 million for flood mitigation projects and funded $13 million for four detention basins in the Little Cypress Creek watershed. Additionally, HCFCD has budgeted $26.5 million and funded $20.2 million for projects in the Cypress Creek watershed, including the Cypress Creek overflow management study and two detention basins.


Zeve said in the past five years, HCFCD has spent $7.3 million on maintenance projects throughout waterways in Spring and Klein to assist in flooding mitigation. The maintenance projects include channel restorations, erosion repairs, sinkhole repairs, tree plantings and vegetative maintenance.


Additionally, in March 2016, the county implemented its $2.2 million Cypress Creek Overflow Management Plan in which HCFCD created developmental guidelines and criteria for new developments within the Harris County portions of the Cypress Creek watershed, Zeve said.


Guidelines, which apply to residential and commercial developments, include mitigation of increases of runoff that may be attributable to development and management of runoff overflow that occurs during heavy rainfall.


“Acquiring properties adjacent to the creek will prevent them from being developed,” Zeve said.


In addition to construction projects and development guidelines, 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. Zeve said HCFCD offers homeowners fair market value to purchase their homes.


HCFCD spent $4.9 million countywide in buyouts in 2016, with a total of 63 homes released for acquisition. Within the past five years, HCFCD has spent $1.6 million to purchase nine homes in Spring and Klein, Zeve said.



Flooding in Spring, Klein in 2016 spurs need for mitigation effortsLand preservation


No major projects along Spring Creek are planned by HCFCD, but it is acquiring properties along the Harris County side of Spring Creek as part of the Spring Creek Greenway program.


HCFCD addresses mitigation by acquiring properties along greenways to protect the land from development. Zeve said each year HCFCD sets aside between $2 million and $5 million to acquire land along the Spring Creek and Cypress Creek greenways for flood plain preservation.


“Non-developed land can [safely] flood since it will not affect houses or businesses,” Zeve said.


Preserving flood plains from development helps to mitigate flooding, said Jim Robertson, chairman of the Cypress Creek Greenway Project, which works to build parks and trails and preserve land along Cypress Creek.


“We continue to work with Harris County Flood Control, identifying potential tracts for acquisition for flood plain preservation because flood plain preservation helps with the flooding issues,” he said.


Zeve said HCFCD also constructs wetlands as a means of flood mitigation.


“Constructing wetlands definitely works,” Zeve said. “It lasts forever. We have legal agreements that require us to maintain it, and we budget for that every year.”


HCFCD is working on a proposal to build Rothwood Mitigation Bank Site in about two years, and a stream mitigation bank in Spring just west of I-45, estimated to cost roughly $500,000.


“Rothwood proposes to restore, re-establish, enhance and preserve 22.45 acres of wetlands and 2,663 linear feet of stream,”  Zeve said.


Wetland maintenance—also known as green infrastructure—helps to keep stormwater from causing floods, Boullion said. Bayou Land Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, aids in flood mitigation throughout the region through its preservation of land and wetland efforts.


While the conservancy is not at liberty to share what properties it is targeting—it could affect cost negotiations—it is identifying property to conserve more land in watersheds that feed Lake Houston, to reduce flooding, Boullion said.


The BLC looks to buy development rights to land when the funds are available and work with invested landowners who have an interest in donating property to be conserved.


“Green infrastructure is protecting what we already have, which is the riparian corridors along streams,” she said. “Those trees and the wetlands and the habitat suck up and hold a lot of water. So rather than concrete, where that water is just going to hit and immediately run off, it’s going to soak in—it’s going to hold and it’s going to release it out slowly.”


BLC Land Stewardship Director Suzanne Simpson said wetlands help prevent blowouts, which occur when the creeks fill up too fast during a storm, causing the water to spill past the banks and resulting in flooding—like what occurred last April along Cypress Creek.


“We need to be moving more into the green infrastructure where it’s a gradual absorption of floodwaters,” Simpson said. “The channels and banks are getting blown out by the floodwaters.”



Flooding in Spring, Klein in 2016 spurs need for mitigation effortsFunding obstacles


Implementable and specific plans for watersheds and adequate funding are integral pieces to mitigate flooding, said Richard Smith, president of the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition, which serves to address flooding on the Cypress Creek watershed.


“Until we get those resolved, flooding will continue to occur and worsen,” he said.


HCFCD receives about $60 million to address flood mitigation through capital improvements every year. Voters approved another
$64 million in bond money to the district in 2015 as part of $848 million in bonds that passed in the November
election.


However, during the annual budget hearing in late February 2016, which addressed the fiscal year-end budget, the county did not sell the bonds, which would have made funds available to HCFCD, Zeve said.


The bonds approved for flood control and mitigation are tied in with the road bonds, in that flood mitigation funds are released simultaneously with road bond funds, said Frank Bruce, the Harris County budget and planning director. When road project funds are issued, then flood control projects can receive funding.


“At this point, the county has sufficient funds on hand to do the current road projects,” said Bruce. “Within the next year or two, the road bonds likely will start to be issued as needed. The flood control bonds would likely be issued on the same time frame.”


The budget for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins
March 1, was presented to Harris County Commissioners Court on Jan. 31 and is scheduled to be approved Feb. 14,
Bruce said.


HCFCD is not receiving any money from the 2015 bond referendum, but in fiscal year 2017-18 it is expected to receive $120 million from Harris County: $60 million for capital improvements and $60 million for operations and maintenance, Zeve said.


While HCFCD relies on county revenue and bond money, BLC relies on donors and grant money.


BLC has received donations from Houston Endowment, Hamman Foundation, Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation, ExxonMobil and Southwestern Energy as well as individual and family donors. The range of funds BLC has acquired since 1996 has been somewhere in the millions for land acquisitions countywide, and the organization spent $500,000 it raised in 2012 to acquire the 100 Acre Wood preserve on Cypress Creek in the same year, Simpson said.


“As flooding has risen to being a high-profile issue in the Houston area, we’ve been trying to emphasize that conservation is one of the best tools in the toolbox of flood mitigation,” Simpson said. “It’s not just a luxury or a convenient do-good activity that we do when it’s convenient for us. There’s a sense or urgency with conservation, and I think that the community is starting to respond to that.”