Rice experts: Money and new ideas can solve Houston flooding

Baker Institute, SSPEED Center paper: New approaches needed to stop flooding

Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

Houston and Harris County have serious flooding problems to address, but they can be solved if funding is available and both the public and local officials commit to adopting new approaches and concepts for flood mitigation and prevention, according to a paper by environmental and engineering experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED).

The paper, “Houston a Year after Harvey: Where We Are and Where We Need to Be,” was co-authored by lawyer Jim Blackburn, a professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice, Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar and co-director of SSPEED, and Phil Bedient, the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering and director of the SSPEED Center. It is a joint publication of the Baker Institute and the SSPEED Center.

Building on the experiences of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast almost a year ago, the authors present a summary of flooding issues in Harris County and discuss proposed local and federal projects in preparation for the Aug. 25 flood bond election (early voting is underway).

“One clear accomplishment in the months since Harvey is the decision by the Harris County judge and commissioners to call an election for the public to vote on the issuance of $2.5 billion in flood control bonds to finance various local and federal projects,” the authors wrote. “As this is being written, a series of public meetings have been initiated by Harris County to discuss and solicit possible projects to be funded by this bond money, providing the kind of transparency and public involvement demanded by those harmed by catastrophic flooding events in Harris County, including Harvey, the Tax Day Flood of 2016, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and Tropical Storm Allison of 2001.”

The 55-page paper discusses Harris County’s obsolete 100-year flood plain maps and increasing rainfall, concluding they are keys to fully understanding the current problems and shaping alternative concepts for long-term protection. The paper also provides a geographic overview of the flooding issues in various watersheds across Harris County and potential responses to them. Finally, different flood management concepts are discussed for three zones of the Houston area that have different flooding issues.

The plan proposed by the authors identifies three different zones for action – the western, less developed area of Harris County, the large central developed area and the eastern Galveston Bay section. The authors urge that all three must be addressed but in different ways. Inherent in the plan is a philosophy that flooding cannot be controlled but better management of floodwaters and integration of water into the future design of the city and county is necessary.

“Harvey jolted the local community, causing many to take an interest in flooding matters that often have been conducted out of the public eye,” the authors wrote. “This has led to demands for more information and transparency by governmental entities responsible for flood control, such as the Harris County Flood Control District. A second clear result of Harvey is that Congress has appropriated $15 billion for infrastructure projects for areas affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in HR 1892 (Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018). Due to the congressional prohibition on earmarks in appropriations, it is not clear exactly where these funds will be spent or on which projects.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in July that $4.88 billion had been set aside for Texas. There is also additional funding coming from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with an initial $1 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding designated for Houston and another $1 billion for Harris County. For many federal projects, a local match is required, which is one reason for the proposed Aug. 25 bond vote.

“If it passes, a substantial amount of money will be available to begin addressing key flooding problems in Harris County,” the authors wrote. “The mere availability of funds, however, does not guarantee success in addressing the area’s flooding problems. Good decisions and good choices must be made about spending these funds, and such decisions require information.”

The paper is written on the heels of what its authors call an “excellent publication” by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, which is composed of academic researchers. Blackburn and Bedient’s paper differs from the consortium’s report, “Strategies for Flood Mitigation in Greater Houston,” in its focus on certain policy issues and its overall flood management vision.

On Aug. 30, the Baker Institute and the Bayou City Initiative, of which Blackburn is the founder, will host a public discussion, “Houston a Year After Harvey: Ongoing Flooding Challenges and Proposed Solutions.” Those interested in attending must RSVP at www.bakerinstitute.org/events/1952.

About Jeff Falk

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