About 200 area residents filled the main meeting room at the Kingwood Community Center to attend Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin’s Town Hall meeting Feb. 25. They came seeking information and to voice their concerns. They went home with both answers and unanswered questions.
Flood mitigation efforts and infrastructure improvements were the top subjects of interest of both the formal presentation and questions from residents. Martin introduced Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and his panel of speakers, Steven Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer and Marissa Aho, chief resilience officer. TIRZ 10 Chairman Stan Sarman also provided an update on the expansion of Northpark Drive.
Turner and his team updated residents on the capital investment efforts underway in the Kingwood area. He explained that as a result of the approved $2.5 billion Harris County bond issue, the Rebuild Houston Initiative is now underway. He explained that he is changing the name of the initiative to “Build Houston Forward” to reflect the forward-looking objectives of the program. The online page to see the status of all of the projects will be available soon at buildhoustonforward.org.
Turner pointed out that the long-anticipated Northpark Mobility project is now a part of the Build Houston Forward initiative and is fully funded. He highlighted the hard work of Sarman, the entire Kingwood community, and especially Martin in getting the planning and funding issues for this project resolved. Turner explained that the project is located both inside and outside of the City of Houston, causing the funding arrangements to be both complicated and time consuming. Now that funding has been accomplished, construction is scheduled to begin in 2020 with completion in 2021.
Turner also addressed the Lake Houston Dam floodway gate project. “We are partnering with the Harris County Flood Control District and the Coastal Water Authority and requesting funding from FEMA under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to move this vital project forward,” he said.
Turner presented visual slides that explained how the $48.5 million project will add 10 gates to the existing dam structure. That capital improvement will enable Houston to efficiently and rapidly enable the release of water to reduce the level of the lake prior to storms in order to protect Kingwood and other areas around the lake.
Costello, who oversees the entire Hurricane Harvey recovery, described the San Jacinto River dredging flood mitigation projects, along with updates on all of the financing coordination and the drainage efforts being addressed in the San Jacinto River watershed. He highlighted the challenge of what has become known as the “mouthbar” of sand that impedes the river flowing into Lake Houston.
“The estimate is a million and a half yards for the mouthbar project,” Costello said to describe the amount of dredging required to remove it. He explained that it exceeds the entire dredging effort originally funded for dredging on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. He described the coordination effort going on now to get the additional funding needed and expressed confidence that it will get done.
Martin announced that, as part of the mouthbar funding, both he and Costello were going to Washington D.C. immediately the next morning (Feb. 26) to meet with U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw and FEMA officials to get federal funding for it and other projects in the Lake Houston area.
“That’s our mission, to go to FEMA, have a conversation with them with data reports that we’ve prepared to show them that the siltation and the sand sitting in our lake is a direct result of Harvey so we can apply funds that we can get through the Stafford Act,” Martin said.
Costello highlighted other non-dredging issues the City is working on to improve infrastructure within the Kingwood area that were flooded and where FEMA will pay for a part of the work. He explained the plan to consolidate and integrate four wastewater treatment plants serving the area into one. In addition to efficiencies, it will also take care of a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which the city has been negotiating for 12 years as a result of a violation of the Clean Water Act.
“What’s so unique about it is, at the end of the day it will save all of the ratepayers money after we build it,” Costello said.
Aho, Houston’s chief resilience officer, explained her job of managing the “Vison of a Resilient Houston” initiative. She explained that the initiative, designated by Turner and the city following Harvey, is a resiliency plan to find ways to prepare the city for chronic flooding and other climate change challenges going forward. Aho explained that the objective is to do everything reasonable and prudent to limit Houston’s impact on man-made global warming and to plan for adapting to extreme weather events that are increasing in frequency.
She explained that the vision includes five chapters to identify what people can do on individual, neighborhood, bayou, city and regional scales. These groupings throughout the city can address challenges and actions, including preparedness and resiliency planning for when events occur. Aho explained strategies include greening, access to parks and promoting healthy neighborhoods.
“Each of those scales needs to function resiliently or none of them do,” Aho said, and noted flood resilience is clearly a huge priority for Kingwood.
Sarman updated the status of the $88.2 million Northpark Mobility Project which will expand the Northpark Drive roadway from four to six lanes between Hwy. 59 and Woodland Hills Drive. He showed a video of artists’ renditions of how the “flyover” at the railroad road tracks and Loop 494 will work. It is planned to open in 2021.
Following the formal presentations, residents had questions. Most were about the dredging or flood-related recovery projects, mainly regarding the San Jacinto East and West Fork flood mitigation efforts. However, Beth Guide of Elm Grove asked about solutions to the Montgomery County drainage challenge to the north side of Kingwood, including the proposed buyout of land from Perry Homes to keep it from being overdeveloped and contributing to the flooding that has started to routinely occur.
Martin answered, “My concern as Harris County touches Montgomery County is Kingwood. We are trying to develop some things and work together [with Montgomery County]. I think the most important thing we can do moving forward is to purchase the land the Perry Homes now owns and create retention facilities there. That’s the number one priority that we have in this area; to make sure the water stays up in Montgomery County and does not come down to us.”
However, Martin explained, the issue from the perspective of Montgomery County is due to the economics of the situation.
“There could be 300 homes bringing in tax revenue into Montgomery County that I want to go away. I want to take their tax base and turn it into zero by us purchasing the land for retention projects,” Martin said, and pointed out that Montgomery people were willing to work with us. However he was clear there was nothing to announce yet.
Guide pushed back and questioned whether the parties on the other side were really serious as development seemed to be continuing in spite of the situation.
“I would like to ask that the city maybe get a little more engaged. I’ve got 500 people that are one flood from homeless,” she said.
Turner responded, “We will continue to monitor that situation,” and committed to have his departments make sure the parties involved are complying with any interim arrangements or cease-and-desist orders. Guide thanked both him and Martin for all they are doing.