It’s been five weeks since Texas Governor Greg Abbott visited Kingwood. What progress has been made?
One of the biggest challenges is jurisdiction and coordination of various government agencies. Part of the challenge in Kingwood is that one tributary might snake through land owned by Montgomery County, Harris County and the City of Houston. Who’s in charge?
For years, this has left gaps in coverage and has created tremendous coordination challenges among the various entities. In one example, the Harris County Flood Control District is mowing grass on City of Houston land. Technically, they are trespassing, so lawyers for both parties have to get involved to strike new agreements.
Despite the red tape, progress is occurring. Here’s what’s happened since then.
San Jacinto River Authority: During his visit, Gov. Abbott reminded the authority that they had responsibility “for prevention of devastation of lands from overflows and uncontrolled flood waters” in the region. Abbott tasked newly appointed Kingwood area authority board members Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti to coordinate a regional flood management program and develop a funding mechanism for it.
In response, the San Jacinto River Authority has taken on a leadership role by creating a new flood management division to better implement flood mitigation activities. Leadership roles are not typical for river authorities in Texas because they don’t have the power to levy taxes. This role is traditionally done by flood control districts which are tax-funded. The authority's challenge is to identify new funding strategies and they’re looking at funding partnerships with federal, state and local entities to implement regional solutions with minimal impact to local taxpayers. The authority issued a press release stating, “This time we hope to leverage federal funds and other partnerships to minimize any impact on local taxpayers; but if there is no will on the part of the public or our local, state and federal partners to support and fund these activities, then they won’t happen.”
The San Jacinto River Authority is leading the watershed study of the San Jacinto River area. The study encompasses an area that stretches from Huntsville to Interstate 10 and uses grant money. The grant application is in Austin and bids are being reviewed in a 20-day review. The top two scoring teams will be interviewed and the study is expected to start in July or August and take approximately one year to complete. The outcome will be an identification of all the watershed projects needed to reduce flooding.
Harris County Flood Control District: The district is the only regional agency with both the authority and funding to tackle flooding but they can only do it on Harris County lands. The district maintains 2,500 miles of waterways in Harris County. About one percent, or 25 miles of that, is in Kingwood. District engineers Carl Woodward, special projects manager, and Matthew Zeve, director of operations, provided an update on these challenges at an April 25 community meeting to discuss drainage issues in Kingwood. Zeve and Woodward both said that coordination with the City of Houston and other entities has been the best it’s ever been. City of Houston Council Member Dave Martin echoed these sentiments.
The Harris County Flood Control District updated residents on ongoing and completed de-snag and de-silt projects. The district is rebuilding infrastructure and removing trees and debris that are blocking drainage routes. For example, they completed an infrastructure project at Sandy Forks near Creekwood Middle School and have replaced all the backslip pipes at the Deerwood golf course. The district will next focus on two of the major water-carrying tributaries, the Ben’s Branch channel and River Grove Park area.
Other projects like sand removal near the YMCA require a depth finder (bathymetric) study. The water is too murky, making it impossible to determine how deep the sediment is. That study is planned to start May 1, and the district should be able to begin bidding the job out in mid-June. The remote area will need to be accessed by boat. Part of the purpose of these community meetings is for the district to get new information from residents. One resident reported that a large dumpster was blocking flow in that area and asked the district to remove it.
Zeve also gave an update on FEMA buyouts. 134 of the 1,000 anticipated Harris County buyouts are in Kingwood. In total, the county expects a $211 million buyout of damaged properties – amounting to the biggest buyout in America. Buyouts are voluntary and homeowners will be offered the pre-flood price based on pre-Harvey appraised values.
State of Texas: Two weeks after Abbott’s visit, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick did an aerial tour of the area on April 3. Patrick has visited the Lake Houston area five times since the flood but had not surveyed the damage by helicopter. “One area of major concern is the layers of sand deposits that have changed the flow and capacity of the river. Even six inches of rain, as we had recently, can cause further problems. Dredging, cleaning up river debris, and restoration efforts must be a top priority in this area,” Patrick said.
Dredging: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with the emergency dredging of the San Jacinto River. The team finished its hydrologic and hydraulic survey of the river in mid-April and concluded that “excessive debris from Hurricane Harvey is exacerbating and impeding the free flow of water down this portion of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River." The district reported that the team has been running a 24/7 operation to plan the dredging. They will advertise the contract on May 9, and plan to award it June 4, with dredging to start June 8. The dredging effort will remove an astonishing 3 million cubic yards of sand, the equivalent of filling 911 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Dredging is planned at a depth of 30 to 40 feet and a width of 350 to 500 feet. Dredging alone will cost $40 million; the entire project could reach $90 million. Bidders will be instructed that the dredging project must be completed in less than one year. One resident asked where the excess sand will go. While plans are not final, there has been discussion of putting the sand near an embankment close to the West Lake Houston Parkway bridge.
City of Houston: Rains in late February created widespread flooding that had many Kingwood residents feeling incredibly uneasy. When the same rains were expected in late March, Martin took action to work with the mayor to temporarily reduce the lake level from 42.5 feet to 40 feet. “We are doing this temporarily for seasonal rain events until the river, lake and interior channels can be dredged," Martin said.
Mayor Turner began an Adopt-A-Drain program in Houston, benchmarking from many other cities that use the practice. Kingwood residents are asked to inspect nearby storm drains and roadside ditches and remove debris to clear them if it can be safely done. Otherwise, the city is asking residents to call 3-1-1 or go to the 3-1-1 website to notify the city of the problem. Over 100,000 drains are up for adoption in Houston.
Community Efforts: Several community groups have formed and continue to hold meetings at the Kingwood Community Center and other locations to keep citizens informed of progress.
The Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative is co-chaired by Kingwood residents Dianne Lansden and Bill Fowler. The group has held several meetings at the Kingwood Community Center with typical guest speakers such as Martin and Cambio to keep residents apprised of post-Harvey progress. At their April 17 meeting, Fowler explained that the group is now affiliated with the Bayou City Initiative, a city-wide effort for flood mitigation (BCInitiative.org). The group also launched a website called reduceflooding.com, which has all the latest post-Harvey happenings.
Lansden said, “I think everyone in the audience comes away from the meetings with a much better grasp of what will be done pertaining to flood mitigation in our area. I encourage everyone to go to the website reduceflooding.com to get the most up-to-date information on this topic.”
The Kingwood Lakes Community Association Board, represented by Barbara Hilburn, and the Kingwood Service Association, represented by Ethel McCormick, hosts monthly meetings (typically the last Wednesday of the month at the Kingwood Community Center) specific to the topic of drainage. Their April 25 meeting featured the above district update. Hilburn let everyone know about the Flood Risk Advisory Tool (floodsmart.gov) that projects future flooding in Lake Houston areas.
Humble ISD: On April 10, Humble ISD requested reappraisal of the district tax base. Homeowners are bound by law to continue to pay taxes on the full property value even if their property was destroyed by Harvey. Only taxing authorities like Humble ISD can authorize a property reappraisal after the counties have completed their typical annual appraisal. In November 2017, the Small Business Administration reported that Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 16,000 homes and 3,300 businesses in the Lake Houston area; City Councilman Dave Martin had given a preliminary estimate of damages running into the billions and a reduction of the area’s tax base by 20 to 30 percent in 2018. The Humble ISD trustees voted on April 10 to issue the reappraisal, which will cost as much as $125,000 to conduct. The district estimates that their tax revenue loss due to the storm will not exceed $10 million.
Humble ISD joins nine other taxing jurisdictions in Harris County, all of whom have requested reappraisal from the Harris County Appraisal District. Never before have 10 taxing jurisdictions asked for reappraisal all at once in Harris County, although this has been done in other Texas counties with this kind of storm damage. The appraisal district will send notices to residential property owners within the district, and those with flood damage will receive notice that their 2017 value has changed. Property owners can either accept the value offered or negotiate for a lower value; they can also request a district hearing to review the case. Humble ISD then reimburses the property owner for school taxes that were paid based on the pre-flood value.
Harris County: Although some Humble ISD residents may get a tax break from their reappraisal, Harris County is considering the possibility of a bond election, and if passed, will most certainly require a property tax hike.
Judge Ed Emmett serves as the chief executive for Harris County, and is pushing for a multi-county water authority to be enacted by the state of Texas. Kingwood is situated at the bottom of a large funnel; many tributaries drain into this area. Martin echoed Emmett, saying that this type of group would alleviate the major concern he has over water coming down from Waller County, which has no flood control effort in place. Such an authority could take a wider view of efforts like the discussed dredging of Cypress Creek. While that may work well for other counties, Martin said that Kingwood absolutely will not support the Cypress Creek dredge project, as that would create even more water flowing down on this area. The San Jacinto River Authority reports that decades ago, voters rejected an effort to create a Montgomery County Flood Control District. Abbott is in favor of the multi-county authority, and may create the water authority as an emergency measure when the Texas legislature is back in session in January 2019.