JUDGE EMMETT: KATY PRAIRIE DEVELOPMENT SHOULD STOP ONCE AND FOR ALL
Here’s Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s declaration Wednesday at a Rice University flooding conference: “We need to completely protect the Katy Prairie. Just set it aside and not touch it.” Or . . . what’s left of it. Last October, he called for a third reservoir in west Houston to “be part of a larger project to create a state or national park for the Katy Prairie.” And he wants Gov. Abbott to tap the state’s “rainy day fund” in order to build the prairie pond. (As for where it would go, a 2015 Harris County Flood Control District study proposed several sites, all on not-yet-developed parcels west of the Grand Pkwy. between Hwy. 290 and FM 529.) [Travis Bubenik] Photo of Matt Cook Wildlife Viewing Area on Warren Lake, south of Hockley: Katy Prairie Conservancy
THE ASTONISHING RISE OF UNINCORPORATED HARRIS COUNTY
You already knew that more people in Harris County live outside Beltway 8 than inside it, right? And that of the people residing inside the Beltway, fewer than a quarter live inside the Loop? Here’s another nugget contained in the latest Harris County population report: the population of Harris County’s unincorporated areas will likely surpass that of Houston in 2020. That’s right: for 16 years, more than 80 percent of the growth in Harris County has taken place outside of the city limits of Houston and the 34 other cities that make up the county. Already, says the report, “‘Harris County Unincorporated’ would be the second largest city in Texas, the fifth largest in the U.S. and has a larger population than 14 U.S. states.” [Harris County Budget Management Department via Houston Chronicle] Map of populations inside and outside of ring roads: Harris County Population Report – January 2017
COULD HARRIS COUNTY SAVE UP SOME FLOODWATER FOR WHEN IT’S REALLY NEEDED? Finding a way to stockpile floodwater during years of plenty, commissioner Jack Cagle tells Mihir Zaveri this week, might not only help to make more water available for use during Houston’s drought years. It might also be a way to check the Houston region’s tendency for subsidence (that slow, permanent sinking that can happen when groundwater is pulled out of Houston’s soft clay layers too quickly). Or maybe, Zaveri adds, it could be used to help keep seawater from being sucked into aquifers as fresh water gets sucked out the other side — as long as doing so didn’t accidentally contaminate those same aquifers with junk from the surface. Who knows? Nobody, yet — but the county commissioners have given the $160,000 okay to a study team to shed light on whether it would be possible, feasible, or advisible for Harris County to pump floodwater underground for storage during major storms. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Meyerland flooding on Tax Day 2016: Tamara Fish
The 20,000-sq.-ft. building at 11902 Spears Gears Rd. is getting cleaned up for a new gig as a school for Harris County students in recovery from addiction and substance abuse. The spot formerly housed the county’s Highpoint School North, one of several campuses around town that took in expelled students, but has been shut down since 2015. The county Department of Education signed off on the new use for the building this week, and says the school should open in September with capacity for up to 30 post-rehab students for now. The building sits just north of Davis High School, tucked next to the 2-acre lot that’s been built up since 2014 into the grounds of Cực Lạc Buddhist Temple.
Photos: Harris County Department of Education
New Paths Near Greens Bayou
GROUP PETITIONS FOR 13-COUNTY FLOOD PLANNING A group called Citizen Solutions to Flooding — not to be confused with the Residents Against Flooding group currently suing the city and TIRZ 17, though containing some of the same members — is circulating a petition calling for a region-wide plan to address man-made flooding issues, and an agency to oversee it. The petition lists out some of the specific technical concerns that signers want incorporated into future flood planning, including a shift from floodplain-level thinking to whole-watershed rules. The petition also calls for coordination across all 13 counties in the Houston-Galveston Area Council region; Citizen and Residents member Ed Browne tells Ed Mayberry that “flooding doesn’t know any boundaries. I mean, water doesn’t care whether you’re in Harris County or Montgomery County or Fort Bend. Unless we address the whole watershed, one area or another is going to suffer.” [Houston Public Media; previously on Swamplot] Watershed boundaries superimposed across Houston-area county boundaries: Galveston Bay Foundation and Houston Area Research Council’s Find Your Watershed map
TERRY HERSHEY, 1922-2017 The stretch of Buffalo Bayou running between the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and Shepherd Dr. looks the way it does today in large part because Terry Hershey and some friends spotted the unannounced work to pave and reroute the bayou — and raised some hell about it with the county, the Corps of Engineers, and others. The early actions of Hershey and her associates stopped the pave-over, led to the founding of what became the Bayou Preservation Association, aided the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires public involvement in projects that could impact the environment), and helped to catalyze Houston’s environmental movement. Hershey’s legacy includes founding, laying groundwork for, and participating in many other organizations to protect green space and environmental quality in Houston and throughout the state, many of which are still active today; the 6-mile park along Buffalo Bayou between Hwy. 6 and Beltway 8 is named for her. Hershey passed away today at age 94. [Houston History, Houston Chronicle] Photo of Terry Hershey Park: Save Buffalo Bayou
THE GRAVESITE BREAKUP MYSTERY NEAR ALDINE MIDDLE SCHOOL Who, exactly, ordered the unannounced, interrupted, and apparently haphazard plant and gravestone removal at the unmarked Aldine Cemetery near Aldine Middle School last week? As of Friday, Mike Snyder writes, the local sheriffs were still trying to figure that out — as were some of the (living) family members of the buried, and unofficial Aldine historian Elizabeth Battle, who had been working to get the cemetery its own historical marker. Battle tells Snyder she’d been under the impression that “people . . . barreling in and destroying graves without contacting the descendants” wasn’t something that was likely to happen; University of Houston professor and periodic gravesite construction advisor Ken Brown notes that any disturbance of the 30-ish headstones, even by the property’s owner, should have required a court order. [Houston Chronicle] Photo of semi-cleared Aldine Cemetery on Aldine Meadows Rd: State rep. Armando Walle
From some of the same folks who brought you those fun-with-worst-case-scenarios hurricane flood maps earlier this year — Neena Satija and Kiah Collier of the Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw of ProPublica — comes a fresh set of animated maps of a few of Harris County’s most flooded and floodable places, along with a bit of investigation into how they got that way (and whether that might change any time soon). The new illustrated presentation shows off the spread of properties that took a dip during some of Harris County’s last few citywide submersion events (flooded properties from Tax Day 2016 are shown in yellow above, along with the Memorial Day 2015 flooded properties in orange).
Texas A&M Galveston researcher Sam Brody tells the authors that “more people die here than anywhere else from floods. More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.” In sorting through some of the whos, whats, and hows of Harris County’s flood infrastructure and chronically soggy residents, the article juxtaposes the recent flood damage data with the likes of FEMA-mapped 100- and 500-year flood zones (shown above), a visual tally of the land area developed last decade, and a view of what’s left of Houston’s coastal prairie (as of 2010):
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Harris High Water
COUNTY APPROVES FIRST $10.5 MILLION FOR ASTRODOME BASEMENT PARKING GARAGE PLAN The Harris County commissioner’s court voted this morning to approve the design phase of that plan to fill in the Astrodome’s below-grade levels with a 2-story parking garage. Mihir Zavari writes that today’s vote okayed the first tenth of the estimated $105 million cost, which the commissioners say will be split between hotel taxes, parking revenue, and the county’s general fund; Zavari notes that “the general fund component, around $30 million, is roughly equivalent to the amount the county estimates it would cost to demolish the Dome.” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Image of Astrodome parking garage conversion plans: Harris County Engineering Department
CROSS-COUNTY ACCOUNTING FOR THE HOUSTON FLOODING PUZZLE Kim McGuire checks in on the local hardscape in Friday’s Chronicle, as part the latest piece in a series examining roots of the area’s chronic flooding habit. The Houston Area Research Council tells McGuire that roughly 337,000 out of 1.1 million acres of Harris county were covered by surfaces impervious to rainfall runoff as of 2011 (the most recent year of data); meanwhile, softer surrounding counties (including the ones hosting much of the much-reduced Katy Prairie) have been racing to catch up with much higher rates of added hard area. McGuire notes that while developers are generally required to add detention basins to projects that increase the rate of runoff from their land, this does not actually require them to “eliminate runoff from their projects.” Mark Mooney, an engineer for Montgomery County, also tells McGuire that despite the regulatory scrutiny on any individual project with respect to keeping a balance betweeen added runoff and added detention, its still “clear [that] the way water moves through our county has changed. It’s all part of a massive puzzle everyone is trying to sort out.” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Map of Houston drainage and current/historic Katy Prairie extent: Katy Prairie Conservancy
FIRST ZIKA BIRTH DEFECTS CONFIRMED IN HARRIS COUNTY AS CONGRESS GOES ON BREAK On Friday Congress left for a 7-week recess without approving any funding to deal with the potential for the Zika virus to spread in the US; the break started just 2 days after Harris County Public Health confirmed the county’s first case of a baby born with Zika-related microcephaly. While no home-grown cases of the virus have yet been reported in Texas, Baylor’s Dr. Peter Hotez tells Maggie Fox that local spread “might already have started on the Gulf Coast and we would have missed it,” noting that federal funding would have given a boost to underprepared local agencies in mosquito-heavy Southern states. Hotez and other public health types say that the kinds of mosquitos that carry the virus (which are adapted to urban environments and are active during the day) are able to breed anywhere from a drip pan in a suburban refrigerator to the perennial piles of illegally dumped tires around Fifth Ward. Healthcare workers at Legacy Community Health Services also tell Fox that Houston is “a perfect place for Zika to take hold and reach a crisis point,” particularly since the 16-plus percent of Texans who are uninsured aren’t likely to seek treatment and get diagnosed. [NBC] Photo of Legacy Community Health Services building at 1415 California St.: Candace Garcia
THE ESTIMATED PRICETAG ON A STOP TO HOUSTON FLOODING Amid the latest round of area flooding last week, Dylan Baddour traces the roots of Houston’s massive publicly funded drainage projects, which have brought the total length of Harris County waterways up to 2,500 miles (many of those channels widened, lined with concrete, or dug from scratch). Baddour also talks with current county flood control district director Mike Talbott about what it would take to expand and refine the city’s outdated flood infrastructure (which is often locked into place by close surrounding development) up to modern expectations — namely, that the flow of water over land that would otherwise be totally submerged should be totally controlled. Baddour writes that Talbot “has a simple solution: allocate $26 billion, more than a fifth of the state’s 2015 budget, mostly to buy property adjacent to the waterways, bulldoze and expand the canals.” Rice University ecologist Ron Sass tells Baddour he’s surprised the city hasn’t been tearing down old houses to build new bayou channels: “We build freeways. I would think that a bayou would be as important to our infrastructure as a freeway.” [Houston Chronicle] Map of Harris County waterways: Harris County Flood Control District
The many exclamation points scattered across the map of Harris County above mark spots where stream channels are currently overtopping their banks (in red!) or potentially thinking about it (in yellow!). The capture comes from the Harris County flood warning system interactive map, which automatically updates data from its county-wide network of rain and flood gauges every 5 minutes. Most of the current overtopped locations are concentrated toward the northwest areas of the county, parts of which got more than 17 inches of rain since Sunday morning. The green shapes mark channel gauges that aren’t currently at spillover stage or close to it (whether or not any spillover occurred earlier today).
The county’s online map also shows cumulative rainfall across the area — here’s what the totals look like across town for the last 24 hours:
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On and Off the Rise
Go ahead and play around with the map above (created by activist Kris Banks), showing the precinct-by-precinct outcome across Harris County for last month’s Republican presidential primaries. Shades of red show the spots won by Cruz (most of them, though a lighter shade indicates less solid support). Precincts won by Rubio show up in shades of blue (mostly clustered on the west side of the Inner Loop), while Trump support is marked in gold (mostly northeast and south of Downtown, as well as strung out along the Westpark Tollway); a few Carson precincts show up in green.
January Advisors’s Jeff Reichmann recently took a look at Banks’s election maps, which include results from both parties’s primaries and a starkly geographically-split down-ballot race for the Democratic district attorney nomination. You can click on each precinct to get its number and a breakdown of the results. Here’s how things looked for the Democrats, with the Sanders precincts in green spangling a field of Clinton blue:
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Drawing It Out
The Army Corps of Engineers is holding a public meeting amid this evening’s predicted thunderstorms to chat about the recently begun replacement work on the Addicks and Barker dams, which have each won the rare and highly distinguished label ‘extremely high risk’ through a combination of structural issues and close proximity to Houston. For those not planning to flood the Corps with questions and comments in person, there’s a somewhat-outdated online survey, as well as an online map of updates on the project’s progress. Work to replace the outlet structures of the dams began in February, and is expected to take about 4 years.
The 2 reservoirs, spread out across 26,000 acres on either side of the Katy Fwy. near Highway 6, starred in the Sierra Club’s 2011 lawsuit over the construction of Segment E of the Grand Parkway through the reservoirs’ catchment area. The club claimed development spurred by the road could send major additional runoff to the reservoirs, increasing the chance of dam failure, which Dave Fehling of Houston Public Media reports “could do an estimated $60 billion dollars in damage to downtown Houston, to industries along the Houston Ship Channel, [and] even to the Texas Medical Center.” The judge didn’t stop construction of Segment E, but did order new studies on its potential flooding impacts.
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Addicks and Barker Reservoirs