Paper: Public, private stakeholders have role to play in fixing Houston’s flooding problem

The private sector can play a major role in fixing the serious problems that all levels of government and the development community, as well as their engineers and lawyers, have created in regard to flooding in Houston, according to a paper by an environmental expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: Shutterstock.com/Rice University

The paper, “The Role of Public and Private Stakeholders in ‘Solving’ Houston’s Flooding Problem,” is a joint publication of the Baker Institute and Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. It was authored by Jim Blackburn, a lawyer, professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice, Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar and co-director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center. It outlines a range of actions that will need to be taken by federal, state and local governments as well as the private sector.

“This effort needs to be coordinated, swift and effective,” Blackburn wrote. “It needs resolve and vision. And swift action, resolve and vision often arise from the private sector.” Several of Blackburn’s key recommendations follow.

One way the private sector can become engaged is through the formation of a nonprofit corporation dedicated solely to moving Houston into the 21st century relative to flooding and “resilience thinking,” Blackburn said. “At this time, no nonprofit is specifically focused upon flood resilience or has the independence from current policies and political leadership to be able to make the hard choices that are before us,” he wrote. “This new nonprofit will only stay in existence until adequate steps have been taken to address this problem and then will dissolve. The nonprofit is not intended to be an institution but, rather, is intended to solve this true public-trust issue.”

Blackburn said the nonprofit should be based on a vision of a city that manages rather than attempts to “control” flooding. “Houston needs to make room for its bayous and creeks much like the Netherlands has ‘made room for the river,’” Blackburn wrote. “The Dutch breakthrough concept recognized that planning and understanding hydrology were as important as dikes and engineered solutions, and that they had to work together. Houston needs green ribbons where space has been opened up for water flow along every bayou system in all parts of town, rich or poor, Anglo or Hispanic or African-American or Asian. This is an equitable approach to the future that involves both buyouts and new policies.”

On the federal level, there are many actions that must be pursued by Houston’s congressional delegation and senators, Blackburn said. “First and foremost, they must undertake immediate action to address the mess that is the Addicks and Barker reservoirs,” Blackburn wrote. “These dams have been classified as two of the six most dangerous in the United States, and special operating policies have been developed based upon these findings. We need these dams repaired and restored to first-class condition.”

In the Texas Legislature, the first priority is to change Chapter 359 of the Local Government Code, Blackburn said. Section 359.079 exempts Harris County from having to construct projects for which it charges developers an impact fee. “A situation arising from this provision involved White Oak Bayou, among others, whereby Harris County charged developers an impact fee to be paid in lieu of building a detention pond; this fee was supposed to be used to construct a ‘regional’ detention pond,” Blackburn wrote. “However, Harris County did not collect enough money and did not build the reservoir — even though Harris County ‘knew’ that the failure to build the reservoir would flood people downstream.”

Locally, Harris County needs to become more transparent on flooding issues, Blackburn said. “For too long, Harris County has focused on those who are yet to come rather than on those who live here now,” he wrote. “New growth and development can no longer be subsidized by harming existing development, as it has in the recent past, including during Harvey. Our flooding on Brays, Buffalo and White Oak bayous and Cypress Creek has been worsened by our failure to control the downstream impacts of upstream development, which essentially subsidizes new development upstream. That policy and that attitude must change.”

Historically, the city of Houston has left most major flood protection and flood management decision-making to Harris County, Blackburn said. “This policy has not served the city well,” he wrote. “In the future, the city of Houston should take an active role in county flood work and must fight to protect the homes and businesses within the city limits. This can be done in several ways. But it must be done. First, the city of Houston should work with Harris County on the creation of a buyout fund (for properties in areas that have flooded multiple times). Depending upon the amount of the buyout that is pursued by Harris County and FEMA, the city of Houston should stand ready to supplement such a fund with city funding. The city has a significant problem with recurrent flooding of certain areas and properties. Those properties should be clearly identified, and the city should utilize its full power to assist in securing adequate and equitable buyout funding.”

The region has much work to do to take charge of the city’s future course, Blackburn concluded. “Both the private sector and the public sector have critical roles in making sure we do what is necessary to choose the path to a successful future for all of us,” he wrote. “The ideas set out in this document are one person’s view of what needs to be done. I hope all readers will consider this document as a starting point of a discussion. I hope that our current elected officials will take this in the spirit in which it is offered — a call to action. But we must act. We simply cannot continue doing things the way we have been doing them.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.