Comment of the Day: Who Foots the Bill for Houston Floods

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHO FOOTS THE BILL FOR HOUSTON FLOODS Flooding Coastal Homes“Since much of the development inside the Loop is done over existing impermeable surfaces, it would seem to me that the majority of the additional demand on our bayous is coming from the large greenfield production builders further upstream. My intuition is that the amount of building going on out there most likely dwarfs what’s occurring inside the Loop (can anyone find numbers on this?). And what’s really fueling all that development is the billions of federal, state, and local tax dollars going [toward] expanding and enlarging highway construction all over the place. By reducing the time/cost of commute, they serve as enormous incentives enabling building and selling more cheap houses further away from the employment centers closer to the city. In a nutshell, that is the sprawl Houston is famous for and I think the main source of our flooding woes. There’s no easy answer since we all want cheaper houses — but someone pays for that, somewhere.” [Build Up, commenting on Why Houston Keeps Flooding; Meet Photo Blog Purple Time Space SwampIllustration: Lulu

20 Comment

  • theoretically, the cost of constructing retaining ponds and other flood mitigation infrastructure should be the cost that is imposed upon the developers working on these green field areas. theoretically.

  • This has been an ongoing problem for Houston for a long time and it will only get worse until the city of Houston decides to start taxing these far-flung satellite communities a fee for runoff. I don’t know how they will do it but it is definitely a problem that developers and highway planners should have thought about a while back. This is an issue that will only get much worse. Especially now that they have opened up the next ring of development with the Grand floodway. Not only are they destroying the wetlands out in katy but they are creating new swaths of concrete which will only exacerbate runoff and major flooding for downtown Houston.
    They really need to reinforce Addicks and Barker spillways because its only going to get worse.

  • This is completely absurd. People who live in town did not get flooded by developments in Katy. They got flooded by developments down the street that didn’t put it water detention. The suburbs are now getting too developed and flooding themselves. When you say crap like this, you are basically saying there is no practical, immediate answer to in-town flooding which is completely untrue.

  • Totally right

  • In regards to source of the floodwaters, new development (especially outside of the Beltway) have strict storm water runoff requirements. The massive flooding that has happened there and made their way into the beltway is because rainfall totals were in the range greater than 100-year (1% storm event) or greater than 500-year (0.2% storm event). These greatly exceed design standards of today and the flooding that happened was expected for that level of rain. If there was NO development outside the beltway, the same flood water would have pushed through the beltway and inner loop causing pretty much the same level of flooding even though the volume would be a bit less.

    I still think it is laughable that Houston is always aligned with sprawl when cities like Chicago, DC, Boston, and many other have just as much sprawl if not further out than Houston. Not mentioning L.A. since that is a given.

    Much of the sprawl is completely out of Houston’s hand and no amount of zoning and development code changes at the city level will ever change it. Development is occurring in areas, where the City may only have a say in design standards or major thoroughfare alignments (ETJ areas). Large swaths of sprawl are actually other cities or out of the ETJ for Houston. Houston has no business in telling Pearland, Sugar Land, or Conroe that they can’t grow. Neither Houston has the ability to tell neighboring counties they can’t grow.

    The freeways are a state domain not municipal governments. Also local officials and citizens can have voices in some planning, but it is not really their jurisdiction. TxDOT has really been open to alternatives to any proposed improvements to the downtown ring. Several alternatives from regular citizens have been given serious considerations. I guess we’ll see at the next public meeting what may change.

    The Houston metro area is unique in that the toll road are authorities are county based and not regional like the Central Texas and North Texas authorities. Even then, the toll road authorities will have no problem canceling a project to local objection. HCTRA has canceled several major projects at the early stages due to public objection (Post Oak toll extension to Fort Bend Parkway, the northwest corridor from 290 to SH249, and Hardy extension project to Downtown). The Grand Parkway is a state tolling project separate from local authorities. Back to TxDOT for that one.

    In regards to encouraging development with new roads…so what. That’s the purpose and no one is hiding from this and shouldn’t. Roads are not built to just ease traffic, but also to increase commerce. I really wish TxDOT would amend their lettering to TxDOTD where the D stands for development. Neighboring Louisiana does this. Their transportation department is known as LaDOTD. One of their missions specifically is to encourage development. Actually, all transportation agencies in all states have this as part of their objective. Most communities support this. You only get objection from inside large metros from selfish central planner types and their supporters that would rather divert funds for impractical rail projects.

    For people that love rail, for it to become remotely feasible in Houston, our sprawl needs to be much larger and much denser. The inner loop and parts of the inner beltway are growing in density. I still think it’ll be another 15-20 years of growth in these areas to make it worth it. We could spend a lot of money and build a similar failing system that DART operates in Dallas, at least our METRO board focused more efforts or making our bus system much more efficient and actually helping people. Keep in mind that transit rail only moves people. Freeways and roads move commerce…lots of it. So much that we support it with freight rail where feasible. The Katy Freeway not only moves commuters, but also billions of dollars in commerce that make the price tag for the freeway look like chump change compared to the net economic benefits.

  • Better detention ponds or suburbs paying their “fair share” may be missing the point. What’s needed is much better regional coordination and probably tougher regulations on development. You know, the antithesis of everything Houston stands for.

  • Well if TXDot can be pro-development then so can flood control. Maybe some state agency or even a federal one could build new canals and market them as “water features” and maybe they will attract development if included in a park setting, not unlike that area along Memorial Dr. near downtown. I’m imagining another Discovery Green combined with a landscaped park/bayou…and it is surrounded by very tall luxury high-rises.

  • Yeah, kjb434 went on a rant that probably won’t win over a lot of folks with his rhetoric…but he’s right to the extent that the new development is beholden to much more strict rules than was formerly the case.

    That’s why you see so many detention ponds in the newer subdivisions and why streets are usually excavated with fill used to build-up the lot elevations. Greenfield retail centers and business/industrial parks all have detention ponds tucked out of the way; maybe you don’t notice them, you’re not really supposed to notice them, but they’re always there. Even government projects, like the Katy Freeway itself, are held to these requirements. (You may have noticed that The Woodlands stopped sparing its trees about a decade ago; that has to do with the economics of providing sufficient detention without hauling the fill off-site. If you put any more than about six inches of fill on top of tree roots, the trees will die; so they stopped protecting trees because of this.)

    Another recent policy development is that subsidence is now taken very seriously with massive infrastructure being built to put utility districts onto surface water from Lake Houston and the Trinity River. But it was a very very big problem up until around 1990, so you had all this sprawling development inside of Beltway 8 and off of 1960 and out near West Oaks and there wasn’t adequate on-site or off-site stormwater retention infrastructure that had been built, and that same development thereafter was *sinking* at a steady rate so that any flood control infrastructure was becoming increasingly obsolescent for reasons other than simply rainfall rates and runoff.

    And of course, these problems which affect all that pre-1990 development…those impact the majority of the watersheds above the major urbanized confluences and most of the heart of Houston. Many of the areas that are now growing quickly don’t even drain into watersheds that are relevant to the heart of Houston; they drain instead toward the Brazos or San Jacinto Rivers or Clear Creek, so its not right to put the onus on flooding downtown on…say, Bridgeland. Even the stuff in Katy, which drains to the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs…is the problem about that that there is more runoff (and is that actually the case) or is the problem that this 1940’s-era dam infrastructure is unsafe in 2016 regardless of the development pattern?

    I see a lot of comments made out of ignorance or that lack nuance. That’s a big problem, one that sensible voices in our local government and engineering community do not seem to be capable of addressing. (And if I may be so cynical, is it possible that the motivations from therein are such that there is a conflict of interest for speaking reasonably?) When will somebody write the definitive history of Houston’s flood control efforts? A companion piece to “Houston Freeways” by Eric Slotboom. That would be interesting.

  • “But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!”
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    Sorry mom, the mob has spoken.

  • Good points kjb and Niche.
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    Part of the problem, I think, is that people don’t realize that properly-working flood control infrastructure will still inconvenience you. The street in front of your house is *supposed* to flood in a 10-year storm. SH 6 is *supposed* to be under water right now.
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    I’ve seen Meyerland’s persistent flooding on new development in Fort Bend County, or on the Texas Medical Center. No, folks, the Brays/Keegan watershed is almost entirely in Harris. And TMC runoff isn’t moving upstream to flood Westbury. If you want to point a finger at upstream imperv, look to Alief.
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    And if you want to accelerate flood efforts, start sending truckloads of money to HCFCD; the Corps does to project schedules what Michael Watts does to rap tracks. When Lee Brown got tired of the Feds playing keep-away with light rail money, he built the Red Line with local cash. We could easily do the same with e.g. Cypress Creek if the political will was there.

  • We ALL pay in terms of time ( the MOST valuable commodity) lost ; money paid in damage losses through OUR insurance premiums, time spent rebuilding over and over. We as a nation are NOT making the HARD decisions to stop the unchecked urban sprawl nor are we dealing with OVER population ,which is one of THE causes of environmental degradation. Our current model is NOT working. NEEDS to change drastically ASAP !!!

  • I live on North Braeswood Boulevard, and on Monday I put on my rubber boots and walked west along the bayou edge until I could no longer safely pass. The problem was not that the bayou was overflowing into the neighborhood, but instead water was clearly flowing over the banks of the bayou from the neighborhood into the bayou. Now you can say that the normal bayou drainage system had been overwhelmed and that is the real cause, but that alone was clearly not enough to cause the level of flooding that I witnessed. Local rains and local structures (many highly graded lots with new construction and lot-filling townhome complexes with no yards like the Lovett complex on Bellaire) were clearly to blame as well.

  • According to the Chronicle, the National Weather Service has a new “a high-resolution, real-time hydrologic forecasting model” for use in flood analysis.
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    With technology like this the upstream/downstream dichotomy is now obviated as flood control can be, it would seem, simulated every which way and then micro-managed well ahead of time…I have no idea if that’s what developers had in mind as a solution but it seems like that’s what it’s really come to.

  • Floods in the city are messy events. You have a system of interconnected bayous, ditches and sewers, along with ever changing impervious surfaces, that get dumped on by moving storms with highly variable rainfall rates. During this past flood, I saw one ditch in my hood where the culvert got clogged with lumber (from a nearby construction site), backing up the ditch 5 feet higher on one side of the roadway than on the other. All these make it extremely difficult to model and plan for flooding. All you can really base any assumptions on for any given property is a loose combination of past flood performance + FEMA maps + the rule that the higher you are, the better.

  • A lumber jam sounds like a total anomaly, and though some sense it could have been avoided, it’s clearly true that much of flood damage is difficult to predict.
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    Having said that, it would make sense that using real-time hydrologic forecasting in combination with maybe some type of water-retention-pond trading scheme, not to mention enforcing existing retention-pond laws, would befit a city named as one of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Cities That Are Leading the Way in Urban Innovation.”

  • @ anon22: A lumber jam, yes, is somewhat unusual. However, clogged ditches, culverts, and gutters are very serious drainage issues in Houston. Usually its yard waste or trash that does it, but anything that can be washed away is a candidate. With open ditches, weeds and sedimentation can be a problem. This sort of stuff can only ever really be resolved with a fair bit of manpower. Of course, there can be a downside to that as well; water that backs up in one neighborhood as such isn’t entering regional stormwater detention or channels, and if those are already overflowing then clearing a channel for it is mostly just taking floodwater from one place and putting it in another. OTOH, without adequate maintenance the flood maps and this early warning technology you’d like to see applied somehow would have limited predictive value.

  • Well, the way you’ve set it up, it almost sounds like even a policy change would be of no use whatsoever, so fair enough I guess.