More post-Harvey ideas

From the Chron, which likens this moment to what Galveston faced after the great hurricane of 1900:

1. Establish a regional flood control authority

Floodwaters ignore city-limit signs and county-line markers. We can’t adequately address drainage issues with a mélange of municipal efforts and flood control districts split between local jurisdictions. Instead of dividing these disaster-prevention efforts into provincial fiefdoms, we need a single authority with the power to levy taxes that will take charge of all of our area’s drainage issues. Gov. Abbott should call a special session of the Legislature and set up such an authority.

Although we are skeptical about whether lawmakers obsessed with divisive social issues can turn their attention to urgent needs, establishing this authority requires action from Austin. Our governor and our Legislature need to get this done immediately.

2. Build a third reservoir

Addicks and Barker dams, reservoirs and spillways, constructed more than 60 years ago, are dangerously inadequate. The U.S. Corps of Engineers rated both as “extremely high-risk” infrastructure years before Harvey. Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn maintains that at least one new reservoir should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. He urges the construction of additional upstream locations on virtually every stream in our region.

Harvey shoved us uncomfortably close to catastrophe. We need a third reservoir, and probably more, to avoid unimaginable consequences the next time. Some experts estimate this could be a half-billion-dollar infrastructure project. It is a small price to pay to avoid catastrophe and should be part of any federal relief plan.


5. Approve new funding streams

We need money. A lot of it. Current local budgets are inadequate to cover the costs of the massive infrastructure investment we’ll need to keep this region safe from floods. The Harris County Flood Control District has a capital improvement budget of $60 million per year. Mike Talbott, the district’s former executive director, estimated that we need about $26 billion for necessary infrastructure updates.

That third one is the key, of course. A lot of what the Chron suggests requires at least some input from the Legislature. Given everything we know about this Lege and this Governor and the recent anti-local control obsession, what do you think are the odds of that?

By the way, the Chron also mentions ReBuild Houston and its associated drainage fee. It sure would make some sense to have a dedicated fund like that for all of Harris County, and perhaps for Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston too. I’m going to ask again – what exactly is the argument for continuing the lawsuit over the 2010 referendum, and what would be the argument against re-approving this fund if it has to be voted on again?

From The Conversation:

Proactive maintenance first. In 2017, U.S. infrastructure was given a D+ by the American Society for Civil Engineering Infrastructure Report Card. The bill to repair all those deteriorating roads, bridges and dams would tally $210 billion by 2020, and $520 billion in 2040. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are 15,460 dams in the U.S. with “high” hazard ratings.

Yet, when our cities and states spend on infrastructure, it is too often on new infrastructure projects. And new infrastructure tend to emulate the models, designs and standards that we’ve used for decades – for instance, more highway capacity or new pipelines.

Meanwhile, resources for long-term maintenance are often lacking, resulting in a race to scrape together funding to keep systems running. If we want to get serious about avoiding disasters in a rapidly changing world, we must get serious about the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure. When analyzing breakdowns in infrastructure, it is tempting to blame the technical design. Yet design parameters are set by institutions and shaped by politics, financing and policy goals.

So failures in infrastructure are not just technical failures; they are institutional ones as well. They are failures in “knowledge systems,” or the ability to generate, communicate and utilize knowledge within and across institutions.

For example, the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina are often interpreted as technical failures. They were, but we also knew the levees would fail in a storm as powerful as Katrina. And so the levee failureswere also failures in institutional design – the information about the weakness of the levees was not utilized in part because the Hurricane Protection System was poorly funded and lacked the necessary institutional and political power to force action.

In the wake of Harvey, basic design and floodplain development parameters, like the 100-year flood, are being acknowledged as fundamentally flawed. Our ability to design more resilient infrastructure will depend on our ability to design more effective institutions to manage these complex problems, learn from failures and adapt.

On that first point, the Addicks and Barker dams both need some fixing up. Let’s not forget that sort of thing.

Finally, from Mimi Swartz, in Texas Monthly:

Yet if dirty air and dirty water and flooded, congested streets all sound a little familiar, there’s a reason. As Ginny Goldman, a longtime organizer who is currently chairing the Harvey Community Relief Fund, said to me, “There are often these problems in a city of any size, but here, where we haven’t done enough to deal with affordable housing and transportation access and income inequality, and where the state has blocked public disclosure of hazardous chemicals in neighborhoods, then a natural disaster hits and we pull the curtain back and it’s all on full display.”

Just after Harvey started pounding Houston with what looked to be never-ending rainfall, I got an email from an old friend who was lucky enough to be out of town for the main event. Sanford Criner is an inordinately successful member of Houston’s developer class, a vice chairman of CBRE Group, the largest commercial real estate and investment firm in the world. He is also a native Houstonian, and like so many of us here, he was already thinking about what was coming next. (Yes, it’s a Houston thing.) “Either we are committed to a future in which we collectively work for the good of the whole,” Criner wrote, “or we decide we’re all committed only to our individual success (even perhaps assuming that that will somehow lead to the common good). I think our story now is either: (i) Houston is the new Netherlands, using our technological genius to develop sophisticated answers to the most challenging global problems of the twenty-first century, or (ii) we are the little Dutch boy, who pokes his finger in the dike, solving the problems of the twenty-five people in his neighborhood. How we respond to this will determine into which of those categories we fit and will define Houston’s future.”

“I’m hopeful. But scared,” he added, neatly summing up the stakes moving forward.

In the past few decades, even as Houston was making its mark on the global economy, building gleaming towers designed by world-class architects and mansions the size of Middle Eastern embassies, as we were hosting world premieres of radically new operas and ballets and coming up with those crazy Asian-Cajun fusion dishes to die for—even as we really were and are optimistic, innovative, entrepreneurial, pretty tolerant, and all that other good stuff—we were doing so selectively. That instinct for the quick fix, or no fix at all, has been with us since the city started expanding in the sixties and seventies and is still a part of the Houston way. In reality, we keep dragging our dark side forward, a shadow sewn to our heels with the strongest surgical wire.

So now the question we face is this: Will Houston become a model for flood relief and disaster recovery, or just another once grand city sinking into mediocrity? In other words, can we be true to our reputation for innovation and aim for something higher than the status quo? The answer depends on which aspects of our culture wind up dominating the search for solutions.

That’s more of a high-level view than a specific suggestion, but it sums up the issue concisely. It’s important to realize that none of the things that many people have been saying we should do are impossible. They are all within our capabilities, if we want to do them. The choice is ours, and if the politicians we elect aren’t on board with it, then we need to elect new leaders. It’s as simple as that.

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9 Responses to More post-Harvey ideas

  1. voter_worker says:

    Concrete pavement that allows water to percolate down is a thing. What are the reasons that it’s not in widespread use in Harris County?

    Get The Katy Prairie Conservancy and similar advocates involved in establishing native prairie and wetlands in the basins of any new reservoirs, and in the basins of Addicks and Barker.

    Should the IH-45, IH-10 and IH-69 proposal be revisited? It has been designed for a pre-Harvey Houston so I wonder what it should look like in a post-Harvey Houston. Is that funding better directed to the ambitious and costly solutions discussed above?

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    Houston was once a grand city?

  3. Robert Kane says:

    When I ran for city council about 8 yrs ago, I reiterated Lane Lewis’ statement that we needed to invest over 500 million to BEGIN to address Houston’s drainage/flooding issues. (is on the record, my interview in this site)

    Nearly everyone that I came into contact with had the same reply….”we don’t have the money”…including my opponents.

    I said we either make this investment now or pay much more for it down the road.

    Cities and towns across the country have made these errors and continue to….when will we learn?

    With the crumbling infrastructure , what’s the next “disaster” that could have been avoided…. a collapsed bridge or caved in tunnel?

    Sometimes I feel like I am watching the U.S. turn into a third world country, divided more than ever and the wealth gap increasing…..smh

  4. C.L. says:

    I’m no civil engineer, but instead of increasing the pool surface area of Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, how about spending the next five years making them deeper ? Keep digging in the center twenty square acres until you hit the water table, then dig some more. A deep hole in the middle of a relatively shallow hole wouldn’t exert more pressure on the existing levees and dams, would it ?

  5. Ross says:

    CL, Barker holds 209,000 acre feet of water. A 20 acre hole 100 feet deep would hold 2,000 acre feet, a 1% increase. Increasing capacity by a useful amount needs to consider the entire area of the reservoirs, buying additional properties like Canyon Gate, and deepening large areas in the current storage area.

  6. Bill Daniels says:

    How about installing a pipeline or two paralleling 1-10, along with some pump stations, to pump water out to West Texas, where they 1) usually need water, and 2) would have wide open spaces to put it?

    I realize this would probably be cost prohibitive, even though the right-of-way for the project wouldn’t need to be purchased from private landowners.

  7. Ross says:

    @Bill, the peak flow from Addicks/Barker was 14,000 cubic feet per second. That’s 104,727 gallons per second, and to convert to oil field measurements, 2,494 barrels per second. That’s 215 million barrels per day. The TransAlaska Pipeline was designed to carry about 2 million barrels per day in a 48 inch pipeline, to put things in perspective. The 1996 proposal for a conduit to carry water under I-10 to the Ship Channel called for 12 12×12 foot channels. That capacity would require water move at 5.5mph to keep up with the 14,000 cfs flow. I think that’s doable, but it again gives an idea of the scale here.

  8. C.L. says:

    I’m thinking a giant pipeline of excess rain out to West Texas would be cost prohibitive if Houston is only going to have a major flood event once every 100 or 500 or 800 years.


  9. Flypusher says:

    WaPo had a piece about Meyerland and its recent flood woes. One pertinent point- you also have the figure in all the development upstream. Meyerland once was a place that was not a flood risk, but the lay of the land has changed. It’s not the fault of the people who bought houses before 2015 and didn’t have any information about how the risk had changed. Ellen Cohen was quoted as not liking the idea of FEMA buyouts, but that may be the cheapest solution. I don’t now if that’s cheaper than raising up all the houses, but I noted a couple weeks ago, when I was in that neighborhood to help a friend who got flooded clean up and salvage her belongings, that even some of the jacked up houses got flood water in them.

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