The Mind-Boggling Underground Multi-Bayou Tunnel Drainage System Now Proposed for Harris County

THE MIND-BOGGLING UNDERGROUND MULTI-BAYOU TUNNEL DRAINAGE SYSTEM NOW PROPOSED FOR HARRIS COUNTY The Harris County Flood Control District is considering digging the nation’s largest network of high-volume tunnels 100 to 200 ft. underground to drain stormwater from several waterways, including — write the Chronicle‘s Mike Morris and Mihir Zaveri — Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Hunting Bayou, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Clear Creek, and Cypress Creek. “The goal under the plan,” they report, “would be for those waterways to be able to keep a 100-year storm event within their banks.” Flood czar Steve Costello argues that despite the project’s enormity, the tunnels might actually be the cheapest way to bring the all the county’s major waterways up to 100-year capacity. Even if such a one-shot solution does cost less than a series of smaller mitigation efforts, the pricetag for the tunnels would still be in the billions, or “perhaps $100 million per mile,” Costello says. On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court is set to vote on whether to pursue a contract with Fugro USA Land — a global engineering firm — for a feasibility study of the proposed project that would cost around $400,000. [Houston Chronicle ($)] Photo of Harvey flooding near UHD: Kelsie H. Dos Santos

54 Comment

  • “On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court is set to vote on whether to pursue a contract with Fugro USA Land — a global engineering firm — for a feasibility study of the proposed project that would cost around $400,000.” …. How about saving the taxpayer’s money and get an indication from the US government if they would be open to such a boondoggle plan beforehand. I bet they won’t as it would involve money they rather be spending on military spending. Houston doesn’t have the money and the state surely won’t as they hate Houston.

  • Elon Musk is missing an opportunity.

  • I find it fascinating that almost everything nowadays is considered a boondoggle, even when they are privately financed (See Texas Central bullet train plan). This country used to look onto these projects with awe and understood that they were there to tackle extraordinary challenges that we face. I feel like we couldn’t even build the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge in this present day because the political environment would label it as useless and wasteful and cast it aside. If you’re telling me we don’t need big ideas after major events like Harvey, the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods, I think you’re going to face ever growing problems for future floods that are inevitably going to come.

  • Use the $400,000 engineering fee for buyouts – this is silly…

  • hahahahahahahaha.
    this would be the stupidest waste of taxpayer money ever. how much do we pay these people to sit around and make stupid ideas like this? and they wonder why we don’t just want our taxes raised for no good reason. stupid stupid stupid.
    they could buy every piece of land flooded in every flood for the last 2 decades (including those in downtown and the medical district) and still have money left over from this project. what a stupid idea of a way to waste money.
    buy up flooded properties and make more parks, it’s a win all around.

  • The key thing with this proposal is that it would (in theory) eliminate the need for buying out lots of property to be converted to flood control as well as taking undeveloped property and using it for flood control (like adding another reservoir in Katy). That makes it a win win for builders and developers. But it is not a proven plan and it is expensive and will take a very long time to build out. Buying out affected property to expand flood control and building a third reservoir are strategies that are proven winners, are not as expected and can be accomplished quicker. But we have to bow to the very same people who caused this mess in the first place (developers) instead of getting moving on strategies that work.

  • Let’s say 10 BILLION dollars would be needed for this. If Harris County bought out 10 BILLION dollars of flooded properties and Harris County’s tax rate is say 1% annually (guess) then Harris County would lose $100 million each year assuming the bought-out properties were converted into parkland etc. The extra parkland would be nice no doubt.
    The tunnels would allow the money spent to be recouped gradually.

  • @Triton ….. I wouldn’t call the Texas Central a boondoggle as it isn’t going to have state or local money involved, just PRIVATE money and if they think it is a good investment then let them invest it and reap the rewards or cry in their milk. PUBLIC money is another matter as the taxpayer has a very small voice in the decision made and the officials have little consequence as it is swept under the rug

  • I wouldn’t necessarily call the plan unproven or dumb. Japan employs a similar concept in Tokyo to divert water from waterways prone to flood. It would come at a cost. Japan’s came with a $3 billion price tag.

  • Houston appears to be tunnel happy. What is it ? Out of sight, Out of Mind?

    Let’s see, there is the downtown tunnel system, putting those unsightly retail establishments and pesky pedestrians underground,. out of sight – out of mind.

    There is the proposed placement of Memorial Drive in a tunnel under Memorial Park. Get those unsightly and smelly cars out of sight – out of mind.

    There is the propsed, (at least at one time) Pierce Elevated being lowered into a tunnel. More unsightly and smell cars out of sight- out of mind.

    Now, let’s put all of that nasty floodwater into tunnels. Easy. Out of sight – out of mind.

    I am surprised that no one has suggested putting the Wheeler ave homeless camp under ground.

  • This can’t be real.

  • I propose we put the Wheeler Avenue homeless camp underground. I’m tired of seeing it or thinking about it.

  • @Dana-X Bingo, I think you hit the nail on the head. The main problem with the government buying flooded property and taking it under control is that it shrinks the quantity and quality of assets available to the private sector. Not only are you losing tax revenue, you are foreclosing on the opportunity for the private sector to develop extremely valuable real estate (and therefore add value to the city and generate amenities we all want). Besides, even if you buy up the current crop of flooded lots, you’ll just get an expanded flood area and more flooded houses a number of years later as development outside of flood zones add to the load on the bayous and they inevitably run over their banks again. Who wants a park that completely floods and turns into a mud pit of indeterminate size a few times each year in the middle of their rapidly growing (and increasingly dense) city? We need a permanent solution that tames the bayous and allows for economic and population growth.

  • This concept was recently employed (albeit for a much shorter distance) in downtown Austin to reduce flooding along Waller Creek.

  • Does Steve Costello know how sinkholes work?

  • We already have drainage tunnels all over the place. They’re called “storm sewers.” This is just the same concept on a much larger scale.

  • Not a new concept. Kuala Lumpur Malaysia has a flood control tunnel system that is used as a toll road when it is dry. Pretty brilliant.

    Tokyo, Japan also has massive underground flood control facilities.

  • Dana-X said;: “The tunnels would allow the money spent to be recouped gradually.” …. How will the city be able to recoup the money? Houston itself won’t be the only one paying for the tunnels …. it will be the whole metro area so don’t say the tax money on the flooded houses … they would be replaced with newer housing so even if they are in the suburbs they are going to pony up for this monster. Ema quoted a $3B cost for one tunnel in Japan … we are talking multiple tunnels over a much longer distance. If the Commissioners cannot get guarantees of support from all the Texas’ Congressional members this project is a “no go”. First things first.

  • Soooo, how would sinking water tunnels 200 feet below the water table work? Wouldn’t these tunnels constantly be filled with water? If so, how does this solve anything? Let’s build that monorail while we’re at it!

  • These tunnels will be below sea level – how will the water ever get out?
    And then salt water incursion will fill them more.
    There’ll have to be pumping going on constantly.
    Seems like too big a price tag to have to perform this perpetual, critical maintenance.

  • Since when are properties that experience chronic flooding valuable? That is the point, they are not worth shit. Only the greedy developers think that they are valuable and use that belief to dupe the unknowing.

  • @ Dana-X:

    If the county buys out homes and businesses in the flooded areas, it seems likely that most owners will buy another home etc somewhere in Harris County, so they will still be paying taxes here.

    Given how long the giant tunnel system would take to build, we could easily suffer from several more floods. Without ruling this out as part of a long-term solution, it seems to me that adding the third reservoir and more buyouts would make make progress on flood control much more quickly and easily.

  • @Shrub, you have it completely backwards and don’t seem to grasp those concepts very well.
    Downtown tunnels: allow the folks that work downtown to traverse its entirety without having to go into the summer heat or heavy down pours. Seems like a genius idea, and not just one to ‘hide’ people
    Memorial Park Tunnel: Proposed to have a better connection for the north and south portions of the park that have been long divided, as well as make it safer for the pedestrians. Not just to ‘hide’ cars. a parking garage would be a much cheaper solution if hiding cars was the point.
    Pierce elevated: proposal is to have it moved north of downtown to allow a better pedestrian connection between downtown and midtown.
    All these proposals / projects are there to serve the pedestrians (you and me) and make life better for us, yet you seem to focus solely on the negative. Houston’s not tunnel happy, it’s pedestrian friendly, or at least making an effort where it can. Unfortunately, there will always be the people who only see the bad in things even, if its only 10%, which prevents them from seeing the truly positive 90% side

  • @dana-x
    I sincerely doubt that 10 billion would be needed to buy out affected properties. I also sincerely doubt that 10 billion would be enough to build the tunnel system.
    but even under your thought of losing 100 million a year in tax revenues, it would take 100 years before that 100 million a year of lost tax revenues caught up to the 10 billion dollar cost of the tunnels.
    when in that time, most of the people (and buildings) that would be displaced would still need to live/work in Houston, which would increase the property values, and force a more dense market that it would probably offset that loss of 100 million pretty quick.

  • Beware. City of Austin just finished an underground tunnel flood control project for just one creek through downtown. The project came in over double its original budget, and lo and behold, the contractor failed to build it to design specifications. It’s now uncertain whether the tunnel will even perform its sole purpose of removing property from the floodplain, and the construction flaws may diminish the lifespan of the project.

    Without excellent quality assurance/project oversight, which cities generally lack, prepare to get screwed.

  • The $10 billion could be used so many things that would be more effective and with less risk: buyouts, elevating structures, condemning land for a new reservoir. Can you even handicap the likelihood of a budget bust in this kind of construction? I can: 100%. The level of spitballing that must have occurred to come up with this idea is inestimable. Steve Costello/Ed Emmett/glad-handing engineers and politicians must all be guffawing, thinking that this is even a consideration.

  • All this effort just so the developers can continue to pave over the Katy Prairie. How about we cease all development along the newly constructed highway 99 for starters. More concrete equates to more runoff coming into the denser populated areas more quickly. I don’t know what the solution is, but building a “tunnel” below sea level must be the most hair brained idea yet. I suspect the companies that build such things are behind the proposal.

  • It appears the everyone has forgotten about the feasibility study. I am more curious as to the scope of the study and what if information/data will be uncovered and would the study be available to the public? Will the project work or not? What are the geological, ecological, economical, sociological ramifications, etc. People need to understand that money will need to be spent to study any possible solution to Houston’s flooding problem.
    Move to higher ground or hope that there is not another flood event until the problem is resolved. If you want it done faster then you will need to spend even more money.

  • @cg
    “Pierce elevated: proposal is to have it moved north of downtown to allow a better pedestrian connection between downtown and midtown.”

    How? Its elevated. except at the far west end it causes no barrier to access and even then that stretch is between west dallas and pierce north to south.

  • The benefits of a deep tunnel are that it can be very nearly perfectly geometrically cylindrical and go in a straight line. The effect is to dramatically reduce turbulence and increase the velocity of water as it travels toward the sea. When it gets to the sea, there would need to be some big f***in’ pumps. This is not a very big technical challenge, just expensive. Good examples of similar infrastructure (in America) exist where a nuclear reactor is situated on the inland side of the intracoastal waterway and the hot water needs to get to the ocean. The outflow channel goes right up to the waterway, then there is a tunnel, then there is a pump, and then the outlet exists underwater somewhere offshore.
    However, I tend to think that fairly ordinary drainage improvements are still the low-hanging fruit. A lot of money was spent to improve the Brays and Sims Bayou watersheds and to harden the TMC and Downtown area, and these investments performed very well during Harvey. We need more of that sort of thing.

  • “Dredging” the existing reservoirs should be added to the list of low-hanging fruit….

  • @cg No amount of heat, humidity, or rain will change how worthless those downtown tunnels are. Those things need to die off if the area is to become a vibrant pedestrian setting.

  • @Turning_Basin

    worthless?? Clearly you have never used the downtown tunnels. Your asinine statement of “No amount of heat, humidity, or rain will change how worthless those downtown tunnels are” makes absolutely no sense. Those are the exact times when the tunnels are used the most. To make the area a vibrant pedestrian setting, Houston can start by removing the homeless folks that piss in the gutter while you sit at a stop light.

  • @Anestotle: Houston’s downtown tunnels are one of the most “vibrant pedestrian settings” in the world. All pedestrians, no motor vehicles, jam packed with (below) ground floor retail.

  • @cg
    Yes, those tunnels are worthless. They rob from the vibrancy of the street-level, diminishing the visibility that could help attract new shops, retail, etc to downtown. And all the access points are confined in office buildings instead of from the street, meaning that everything shuts down once work is finished, 9-5 style.

    Those weather issues are nothing that would warrant hiding from the outdoors. For one, they can all be accounted for simply by installing a network of verandas on the buildings lining the sidewalks. Nevermind that there are 8 other months of the year where the weather issues are either non-factors or aren’t as problematic. Those tunnels are of the same school of reasoning that keeps Reliant’s roof closed on nice, sunny 80F days…

    Appreciate the sarcasm.

  • Obviously, the Downtown Tunnel critic has never been to other major CBDs without tunnels. Because then he or she would have observed that all those retail establishments, at street level yet still catering as they do to office workers, shut down in the late afternoon, so that by 6:30 pm most of the sidewalks are devoid of life, except in areas with bars, restaurants and entertainment.
    Any retail that wants to sell to after-work and weekend folks is already at street level in Houston.

  • @Anestotle
    “network of verandas” I never laughed so hard!!! Yes, let’s install crappy awning all over downtown. bwahahahaha!!! Want to talk about worthless.
    the tunnels do not ‘rob’ from the ‘vibrancy’ of the Houston street level in downtown, the 105 degree 100% humidity takes care of that. Again, you must have never used them. If they are worthless, why is it that the majority of downtown pedestrians use them???
    and congrats on the attempt to tie the tunnels and reliant together. Quiet a stretch there, but it’s not surprising seeing how you failed to supply you school of reasoning.
    membag makes a very valid point, even if coupled with sarcasm. What’s the difference if you vibrant pedestrian setting is at street level or below it? You still have it. What, the mix of vehicular and pedestrian traffic are what make you golden pedestrian friendly utopia possible?? Have you not seen the number of Houston drivers with their face in their phone or applying makeup?
    @Local Planner – thank you. at least some of us understand this concept

  • Back on topic: I agree, that before we go for the Mother of All Tunnels, we should dredge our current Barker and Addicks reservoirs.
    Easy, proven, and relatively cost-effective. Plus, you don’t have to do a feasibility study on it. Just start dredging. The time to take some kind of action is now before the next hurricane season happens.

  • I can just see it now, young kids reading in their history books…There used to be a great city, Houston, but it is gone because instead of building infrastructure the people of this city demanded that homes be purchased in the great floods and turned into recreational space, over time as people rushed to find cheaper homes on the Katy prairie, more flooding occurred…more homes had to be purchased by the city until all that was left within the 610 loop was a huge swath of swampland returned back to nature. With no tax base to pull from, Houston went bankrupt leaving businesses and people to move farther inland and that is why Sealy is not the largest city in Texas.

  • @ jgbiggs & Mad Max: It needs to be borne in mind that the Katy Prairie in its natural state is only capable of retaining something like a 3-year storm before all additional stormwater is sent downstream. This owes to flatness, clay soils, and vegetation cover. The City of Houston and Harris County’s current development rules, as well as federal rules for infrastructure (including freeways), mandate that on-site detention must be available to capture the runoff from at least a 100-year storm. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the net impact of new development in the Katy Prairie is actually that it serves to protect older legacy development downstream. Additionally, because each new neighborhood has its own on-site stormwater detention, flood control is decentralized and geographically equitable. By contrast, small developments inside the City of Houston which pay impact fees because on-site detention is geometrically impracticable have that money go to big projects that are highly time-delayed and that may not even be in the same watershed, and their downstream neighbors can end up being immediately adversely impacted.
    That’s not to say that protecting the Katy Prairie or the densification of the urban core aren’t valid policy objectives, but where flood control is concerned as it relates to buildings that already exist at whatever elevations they exist at…that’s not your winning argument.

  • Incidentally, addressing the flooding problem isn’t an either – or, choose one and only one option sort of thing. Dredging out the silted reservoirs can occur in conjunction with detention requirements for new projects which can occur in conjunction with limiting new construction in flood prone areas.

  • @Mad Max, most of the properties that flooded in Harvey were outside the loop. Buyouts, if they occur, will be outside the loop.

  • When they dredge Addicks and Barker, they can use the fill dirt to build up the berms. Win-win!

  • @GoogleMaster, Raising the berms would just flood more property on the back-end (upstream)!
    @TheNiche, let’s put in a massive, nearly perfectly geometrically cylindrical tube toward the center of the Earth. Storm water run-off will turn into steam with the high temperature.
    Houston’s new geyser will have dramatically reduced turbulence and increased velocity!

  • @ movocelot: I know that you’re being sarcastic, but I am not. The tube is feasible from a technological standpoint. So many amazing things are! From a financial and political standpoint, I think not. So many things aren’t… There are easier ways, albeit less novel. Such is life.

  • @cg
    Verandas work just fine in New Orleans. Sheer pedestrian vibrancy over there that Houston can only dream of, all without a tunnel in sight.

    So what’s the weather excuse for this past March, with all these beautiful sunny days? Same reason they close Reliant’s roof on flawless 80F days: a bunch of pacified folks in this city like yourself trying to make up any excuse they can to avoid every little thing under the sun. If you can’t see the connection between the two circumstances, then you are the one who has failed the school of reasoning.

    And don’t flatter yourself, those tunnels don’t even have a fraction of the vibrancy you can get at your typical mall food-court. Too enclosed, private, and restricted for any real activity. And by taking away from the street, you end up with neither area having good retail vibrancy.

    No matter what you and @LocalPlanner say, the tunnels are still WORTHLESS. Pathetic, over-engineered contraptions that cater to the overly domesticated. You can always limit street access to pedestrians to prevent car traffic (see: Sixth Street), but nothing will change regarding the flaws of those tunnels. Quite telling that the most successful pedestrian areas of the city (Market Square, GRB) aren’t connected to any tunnels.

  • @cg
    Oh, and 105F AND 100% humidity doesn’t happen. Familiarize yourself with weather stats, and you’ll find that humidity % decreases with increasing heat (because hotter air can hold more water vapor). So it’s either one or the other.

  • The “pedestrian vibrancy” zealots are getting pretty emboldened. I’m just waiting to hear what the “will of the neighborhood” is though before I make any decisions on the matter.

  • At $100 million per mile the tunnels would cost less than the light rails we just built that no one is riding.

  • Do not dig tunnels underneath a coastal city to move water from here to there. Water seeks the lowest level, which will be these tunnels…

  • To all the fools disregarding this idea, consider that Houston is the 4th largest city in the country, that tunneling technology is quite advanced now, there are examples of this already, that you don’t know squat about what you are talking about. I suspect that many of the complainers selfishly just want there own property bought out and don’t care about a better solution for all.

  • You can not siphon water from 100 feet deep the max is 32 feet its simple physics. Atmospheric pressure will not let this work. Why Waste The Money?

  • There’s no need to pump or siphon the water from the proposed tunnels. The elevation of the inlet upstream in the reservoirs would be higher that the outlet at the ship channel so gravity would do all the work. The weight of the water upstream would push the water out downstream.

  • Let’s get Elon Musk’s the Boring Company to dig those suckas…He knows what he’s doing. It’ll piss off a LOT of his competitors. Nut too bad. Disruptive technology IS the 21st century. ..