Op-Ed: The Tax Day Flood by David Hightower

By David Hightower, President of The Energy Corridor Management District

The “Tax Day Flood” is an appropriate name for what occurred on April 17, 2016. Like “Remember the Alamo”; “Remember the Tax Day Flood” should be a call to action.

Tropical Storm Allison holds the record for the most intense rainfall event in our history, but the brunt of its devastation was mostly limited to the Greens Bayou and adjoining watersheds. The so called “Tax Day Flood” impacted a much broader swath of our metropolitan Houston area.

Historic rainfall occurred in the upper reaches of multiple watersheds, mostly on the west side of the City. A recent Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) rainfall report states that in some areas the storm exceeded the 500 year event. The heaviest rainfall occurred over the un-developed areas of north and western Harris and County most of Waller County. Waller County is mostly rural and currently has no improved drainage and flood control facilities with a significant portion of its runoff flowing into western Harris County.

Many of the most recent problems occurred within the City, generally inside Beltway 8 and were designed and constructed prior to the time that detention requirements were adopted in the mid- 1980’s. Most of Harris County’s drainage infrastructure is capable of handling no more than 6 to 8 inches of rainfall in a 24 hour period. Most of the City of Houston’s drainage infrastructure can handle even less. Given the fact that up to 17 inches of rain fell within a 12 hour period, we should not be surprised at the large number of homes and businesses that were flooded.

While there are some areas that flooded as a result of the near historic rains, in general the system worked. Upstream detention facilities prevented much worse flooding had those facilities not been in place. Had HCFCD not invested in the major detention facilities upstream of Beltway 8 (Art Storey Park, Old Westheimer and Eldridge Detention Basins), the flooding in Meyerland would have been much more widespread and devastating. Unfortunately these types of major facilities are too few and more facilities must be designed, and constructed quickly.

Throughout the entire greater Houston area, the lack of routine maintenance of the many drainage systems contributed significantly to the Tax Day Flood. Drainage channels and mitigation facilities must be routinely maintained, as one cubic yard of silt in a channel or detention facility means one fewer cubic yard of water that can’t be stored or conveyed as intended. Far too many of our facilities are overgrown with vegetation which also significantly impedes the flow of flood waters and takes up valuable storage capacity as well.

Many are quick to blame new development as the cause of the recent and prior flooding events. It is important to note, however that since the mid1980s all new development has been required to provide detention facilities that mitigate the drainage impacts of the development associated with a 100 year flood event. With few exceptions those facilities worked as intended. In some cases these newer systems exceeded their expectations for performance by handling runoff in excess of a 500 year event with no attendant structural flooding.

Adding to the debate are renewed calls to protect the prairie wetlands, with the thinking that these wetlands would have prevented the region from flooding. Much of the area where the bulk of these rains occurred is currently in an undeveloped state and the area’s wetlands are of extremely limited benefit in preventing the runoff from significant rainfall events. Yes, wetlands do serve a function in lesser rain events, those that are not major flood generators, but prairie land and wetlands have an insignificant impact when water is sheet flowing two to three feet deep across wide sections of land. Two of the largest detention facilities ever built in the US, Addicks and Barker Reservoirs were constructed following floods that devastated downtown in 1929 and 1935; a time when everything outside of today’s Loop 610 was rural, undeveloped land. Nevertheless wetlands mitigation can serve a role in dealing with the flooding issue as will be discussed later.

What do we as citizens and taxpayers need to do? We must demand that our leaders (city, county, state and federal) commit the resources that are needed to address flooding and make this commitment in real time. If New Orleans, a city one-sixth the size of Houston, can receive $13.4 Billion in Community Development Block Grants from the Federal government, how much should Houston demand? But, the citizens of Harris and surrounding counties must also be willing to pay for these needed improvements. No one wants to pay more taxes; however, Houstonians have demonstrated repeatedly that when asked to approve additional funding for specific and necessary infrastructure improvements, they will step up to the challenge.

    1. Harris County Flood Control District is a distinct taxing entity. Its tax revenue goes to one thing “drainage and flood control”. However, its annual capital budget for new flood control investment is only about $60 million compared to a need of over $200 million. The vast majority of its budget goes to maintaining existing drainage and detention facilities which maintenance, as stated earlier is inadequate given the miles of channels they are responsible for. Today’s HCFCD tax rate of $0.02337/$100AV it is only 8% of its statutory ceiling of $0.30/$100AV. The County needs to stop using the HCFCD’s tax as a balancing account to offset increased spending in other areas and to begin a measured increase of its tax rate to $0.10/$100AV. The early estimates for the damage done by the recent floods will measure in the HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of dollars while the costs to solve many of the flooding problems will only cost in the MILLIONS of dollars. Increasing HCFCD’s portion of Harris County’s tax rate will generate approximately $25 million in revenue for every penny increase. A $0.10 tax will create $250 million in revenue for HCFCD. This increase in revenue must be designated for new and expanded flood protection facilities, as well as increased maintenance of HCFCD’s existing systems.
    2. The City of Houston also has a dedicated source of funding for drainage, the controversial monthly drainage fee or “rain tax”. A recent court ruling may have undone the charter amendment to designate 11.8 cents of the city’s property tax rate to drainage and roadway improvements. However the drainage fee did not require a charter amendment and was passed by city council under its constitutional authority. The citizens of Houston supported the passage because they want something done about poor drainage and flooding. The City does have a serious budget problem but siphoning money out of the drainage fund is unacceptable. If the City is not going to use all of the drainage fee revenue for drainage, then it should repeal the drainage fee ordinance.
    3. The loss of lives in the flood was tragic and unnecessary. We can create better safety and warning features at locations that are known to flood when high intensity events occur. In some cases this may only mean relocating depth indicators and making them more visible. Some may require automated warning lights and maybe gates that are activated when water levels reach a certain depth in the underpass. This issue can be addressed and must be as the loss of one life is one too many.
    4. Local government agencies should combine resources and create a TV and internet public awareness initiative to educate Houstonians, especially drivers, on how to deal with heavy rain events. “Turn around, don’t drown” is a catchy phrase, but showing citizens what it means with regular public safety announcements could save lives and help others avoid costly loss of property, their cars.
    5. We also need to demand a more streamlined and expedited process in the design, review, approval and implementation of major drainage improvements. The labyrinth of local, state and federal review steps for needed improvements is a protracted and an expensive nightmare for our local agencies who are charged with protecting us. These impediments delay much needed projects and in the meantime many of our neighbors suffer, some repeatedly like our families and friends in Meyerland and Greenspoint to name a few.
    6. Our elected leaders, at all levels must explore new ways to leverage various resources. For example, combining drainage funding with park funding to create open spaces that are available 99% of the time to park lovers, but also fulfill much needed flood control measures during high intensity events. HCFCD has begun several initiatives that will achieve this goal, but much, much more can be done.
    7. And, as noted earlier wetland mitigation can play a role in the solution. When you mention “wetlands” most people envision grassy coastal marshes or hardwood bottoms like Caddo Lake. But the great majority of the Houston area’s wetlands that must be “mitigated” are isolated little pockets, not near a stream and that serve no material contribution in the prevention of flooding. Nevertheless the permitting process for mitigating wetlands is both very time consuming and expensive. Streamlining the wetland mitigation permit process and allowing those mitigation expenditures to be combined with drainage and flood control expenditures would be a much more efficient and effective means of achieving the “no net loss of wetlands” goal of the Clean Water Act.

Flooding is also a critical economic development issue. Not only does it result in loss of property but it is a huge negative to our economy and productivity. It is too easy to look at a loss of a vehicle to flooding as an insurance claim or more cynically as “a new car sold”. But when it is the only way to get to work and someone loses their job because they suddenly have no means to get there it can be devastating, even if their home or apartment is high and dry.

Our elected leaders, with the encouragement and support from the public should take action, so “Remember the Tax Day Flood” is the last call to action needed. One thing is for certain, it will rain again.

David Hightower is President of The Energy Corridor Management District and a past Chairman of the West Houston Association. He has been involved in the planning, design and development of municipal infrastructure in the Houston metropolitan region for over 40 years.