After Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, the home took in 3 1/2 feet of water. Keene then learned from her neighbor the home had flooded three times before. Keene’s home was one of 2,410 in Friendswood that flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
Keene and her husband had flood insurance and were able to rebuild their home in the Wedgewood Village subdivision. However, since Harvey, the home has flooded again, as many of the banks of Clear Creek that held back flooding were damaged in the storm.
“I would like to see the creek dredged, and I would like to see the Army Corps of Engineers do another report,” Keene said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has plans for completing the Clear Creek Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project, which could help alleviate the effects of future flooding. The total project costs $249 million, and the Corps needs federal funding and authorization to get it done, according to Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the Army Corps of Engineers’ commanding officer for its Galveston office.
The bipartisan budget bill signed into law Feb. 9 includes $15 billion for Corps projects related to flood and storm damage reduction. Even so, it is unclear whether Clear Creek will emerge as a priority to receive funds.
Until then, there needs to be more clarity from local and federal officials on what can and will be done for current and future residents, Keene said.
“I just want that information out there because now whenever I go in and I search, the only information I get is one to two pages of information from the Harris County Flood Control District,” Keene said.
A long time coming
The project was authorized as part of the Flood Control Act of 1968. The initial plan developed by 1986 proposed more than 14 miles of channel improvements from Clear Lake to the Brazoria County line.
Fifty years later, only a small part of the project has been completed, leaving Friendswood longing for relief from recurring floods.
Completed parts of the projects include a second outlet channel and gated structure, and eight bridge replacements and modifications. The Mud Gully and South Belt Stormwater Detention Basin project is also underway; Phase 1 is complete, and Phase 2 is set to be completed by October.
When Zetterstrom spoke to the Clear Creek Watershed Steering Committee in February, some, including Friendswood Council Member Jim Hill, who sits on the committee, felt they were left with little comfort.
“I am not optimistic anything will get done,” Hill said.
According to Hill, one of the problems is too many waterways flow into Clear Creek with not enough water flowing out, effectively turning Friendswood into a basin.
“The basic problem in Friendswood is there are five creeks that flow into Friendswood and one flows out. It’s like a funnel,” Hill said. These creeks have been widened and enlarged through the last 50 years. Everything except where the water flows out—Clear Creek. And therefore, we are the funnel where it runs over. We catch the brunt of it.”
While this situation can be mitigated, it has taken too long to do anything to prevent flooding in the watershed, Hill said.
“FEMA and the Corps of Engineers has done nothing in 12 years,” Hill said.
According to Hill, the most helpful thing to the area in the short term would be for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update its flood maps. The maps FEMA is using for the Clear Creek Watershed are from 1999 and don’t include several homes prone to flooding, Hill said.
The result is flood insurance costing more, leading many in Friendswood to opt out of buying it.
Federal, local partnership
In 1999, the Corps began a re-evaluation to find what needed to be done to mitigate flooding in the Clear Creek Watershed, which spans portions of four counties: Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston and Brazoria.
The revised project includes the second outlet channel and gates from Clear Creek to Galveston Bay, 20.4 miles of channel improvements along Clear Creek, Mud Gully, Turkey Creek and Mary’s Creek, 500 acre-feet of in-line stormwater detention along Clear Creek, a 900 acre-foot detention basin along Mary’s Creek and environmental enhancements, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
The second outlet channel began in 1996 and was completed the following year. The gated structure at the second channel started in 1989 and was finished in 1991.
Control over the channel and gated structure were handed over from the federal government to the Harris County Flood Control District in 1998.
The flood district is working on the South Belt stormwater detention basins. Construction for Beamer Ditch improvements could begin this summer, the district said.
Millions of dollars in local funds—including $10 million from Galveston County—have gone into this project, but the district would like to receive federal reimbursement, if possible.
The district has a budget of $60 million per year for capital improvement projects for the whole county. The total budget would only cover a portion of the Clear Creek Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project, much less the flood control projects for the whole of Harris County.
The total cost of the project is an estimated $249 million. As originally proposed, 61 percent of the funding would come from the federal government, and 39 percent would come from state and local jurisdictions, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
The local funding would come from the counties represented in the Clear Creek Watershed Steering Committee.
To do this, the individual cities and drainage districts would likely have to go to the voters for a bond. If passed, this could mean higher property taxes to generate the funds needed to complete the project.
However, Hill does not expect federal funding to be granted in time for a measure to be put in front of voters this November.
However, residents may not be willing to pass bonds that would allow the necessary tax increase to fund the local portion of flood mitigation projects.
A phone survey conducted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey asked residents if they would be willing to pay higher property or sales taxes to fund flood mitigation projects, a category that includes the Clear Creek Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project. The survey reached 2,002 residents of Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Brazoria counties.
The result? A little over 46 percent of those interviewed opposed a property tax increase. Almost 50 percent opposed a sales tax increase. Because of the sample size for Brazoria County, the Hobby Center said it was not possible to get an accurate view of just one county.
On the federal side, $10 billion of the total $15 billion Corps construction budget will go to areas that were affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Additional funds have been provided in the budget to complete any studies necessary for these projects.
According to Zetterstrom, the language of the law cannot specifically say the money must be allotted for this project because of congressional rules against earmarks.
However, the bill does favor projects that would alleviate flooding in areas that have had repeated disasters, such as areas in the Clear Creek Watershed.
However, the money will be prioritized through a cost-benefit analysis, and the bar for approval for the money is set high, Zetterstrom said.
That is why talking to local representatives is the best way to lobby for the federal funding, he said, adding the Corps itself cannot lobby for specific projects.
The existing project schedule estimates completion in 10 years. However, Zetterstrom said with full federal funding, that schedule could be shorter.
“If we get funded, then this project will be a priority,” Zetterstrom said.
The lack of federal funding has held up the project, he said.
“If we have not been as agile as you would think, it’s because we have been funded incrementally. If we receive all the money upfront, then we will be able to execute this project,” Zetterstrom said.