The new rate hike on water and sewer bills passed by City Council last week may alleviate some of the city’s chronic sewage problems, but it probably will not be the kind of solution to resolve the long-term flooding problems of residents in the Memorial area.
Last September, hundreds of residents from Memorial’s more affluent subdivisions jammed a neighborhood elementary school cafeteria to tell Mayor Bob Lanier what was wrong with the city’s sanitary and storm sewer systems in areas along Buffalo Bayou. Armed with pictures and slide shows, residents of Frostwood, Rummel Creek, Tanglewood and Broad Oaks subdivisions pointed to local flooding problems they say have been steadily on the increase over the last three years, ruining some of the city’s priciest residential real estate.
Four months later, with rising frustrations at an overflow of multifamily development along Dairy Ashford and a lack of drainage solutions, residents of a number of communities along Buffalo Bayou have banded together to ask the city to halt development in the area altogether until the cumulative effect of construction upon the city’s drainage systems can be measured.
The fact that the land in West Houston, much less the rest of the city, is prone to flooding is nothing new. As early as 1935, local newspapers chastised the city for not moving toward a comprehensive plan to alleviate the city’s flooding problems in the western edges of the county.
To understand why flood control has been and still is such a problem in the western edges of Harris County takes a bit of history. As Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, explains it, flood control measures on Buffalo Bayou could have and should have happened with the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District in 1937. At the time, Houston had already suffered through at least four major floods with widespread damage.
But before the full range of flood control measures could be implemented, environmental concerns stepped into the picture. The Bayou Preservation League, supported by then-Congressman George Bush, rallied and won the right to halt improvements on the city’s bayou system. At the time when the improvements on Buffalo Bayou were halted in 1968, the bayou channel, which drains the largest portion of Harris County through its tributaries, had already been enlarged from Shepherd Drive downstream to downtown and from the Sam Houston Parkway out to Barker and Addicks reservoirs.
That left a 19-mile stretch in the middle that has acted as a type of natural flooding bottleneck. Storey refers to the patchwork improvements on Buffalo Bayou as “a natural channel with unnatural flow under storm conditions.” Undeveloped parts of the channel continue to act as a choke as water moves downstream, discharged from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs west of Highway 6 and flowing toward downtown and into the San Jacinto River.
Even now, as high-priced development in Houston continues along the banks of an unimproved Buffalo Bayou, the flood plain continues to expand, and heavy erosion is eating away at the soil. And that flow of water has no intention of stopping.
Homeowners in areas like Tanglewood, who are spending thousands of dollars to buttress their properties, are likely to be lending more erosion to their neighbors.
As late as November of last year, Mayor Lanier sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, asking if the Buffalo Bayou Improvement Project could be reinstated. Col. John P. Basilotto’s response was that a re-evaluation of the feasibility report, completed in 1988, “could not be economically justified for federal participation.”
What is also likely to be compounding flooding problems in Memorial and other areas of the city, says Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Gary Stobb, is also the city’s own drainage system. Every storm sewer in the city, including the ones created to drain Dairy Ashford in 1972, has been based upon the design designated by the Fugate curve.
The Fugate curve, created by the city’s chief engineer in 1926, designates the type and extent of storm sewer channels that the city will require to drain each city thoroughfare. It allows the city to spend less on storm sewers in areas where the city anticipates less development, thus, saving the city dollars on infrastructure.
That system of storm sewer development means that at some time around 1972, a city engineer sat down and calculated what he assumed to be the full potential development of each section of Dairy Ashford. Using the Fugate curve, the engineer would have predicted what type and how wide a potential sewer system would be, allowing for certain amounts of street flooding that would eventually drain into lateral and outfall sewers and finally into a primary drainage channel. In the case of Dairy Ashford, that would be Buffalo Bayou.
Which would be fine, says Stobb, if one could assume that the engineer had the foresight to calculate correctly the right level of ultimate development for each section of a city road; and if one could assume the Fugate curve was an accurate gauge.
“I’m not so sure it is,” says Stobb.
Even if all storm sewer systems along Buffalo Bayou were ideal, adds Storey, they still might not meet the needs of the Memorial area. Larger storm water outfall channels would only feed an overtaxed Buffalo Bayou channel.
The fact that a widening area of homes in some of Memorial’s neighborhoods are flooding at levels more heavily and more frequently than Fugate’s proposed three-year flood levels is an indisputable fact. What is causing those problems, however, is a matter of opinion.
For some neighborhoods, like Broad Oaks, simple street and ditch repairs have resolved many of the area’s flooding problems. As County Commissioner Steve Radack is apt to point out, former Mayor Kathy Whitmire’s administration severely undercut the funding necessary for the maintenance of the city’s infrastructure.
But Richard Scott, director of the city’s Capital Projects Department, admits it wasn’t excessive grass clippings that caused problems like the citywide flooding of last March 4. An overflow in portions of the city’s bayou system left entire stretches of the Katy Freeway submerged.
Since that day, the city’s entire storm sewer department has been recreated with heavy increases in the maintenance from the city’s general revenue fund. And $44 million approved in the city’s bond election has been set aside for a five-year capital improvement plan of the city’s wastewater and sewer system.
Part of the capital improvement bonds, says Scott, will be used to provide the city with a master drainage plan. “It will identify what the needs and problems are, help us prioritize projects in a better manner and help us coordinate more with the Harris County Flood Control District,” Scott says.
He believes that five years and $44 million will be inadequate to handle the city’s storm sewer needs. And, like Storey, Scott knows that an improved storm sewer system will do little good if it flows into an unimproved bayou.
The eventual cost of buying the right-of-way to improve Buffalo Bayou in an environmentally pleasing way, says Scott, would likely plunge the cost-benefit ratio on the project, disqualifying it for federal funding.
So, in essence, taxpayers are eventually going to feel the tug-of-war between Houston’s pro-development and pro-environmental movements in the pricetag of projects like the improvements to Buffalo Bayou.
“There are no easy answers,” says Scott. “You can’t always have both.”
In the case of the proposed Ashford Lakes luxury apartments, many of the residents in the subdivisions that surround the proposed Ashford Lakes luxury apartment project live in an area that is designated below the flood plain. They admit their houses are going to be prone to flood but also theorize that additional development to the area will only exacerbate their flooding problem.
Developer John Garibaldi of JMG Management insists that the upscale Ashford Lakes, which has still not received final approval from the city, is not the source of the local subdivisions’ problems.
“All I can say is that this apartment complex is going to have no impact on the flood plain,” Garibaldi says of the proposed site located on the west side of Dairy Ashford, south of Buffalo Bayou. “The answer to these people’s flooding problems is not me not building the project.”
Radack is personally opposed to the Ashford Lakes project, although he says he cannot say no to a project that meets all the policies and law requirements by the City of Houston and the federal flood insurance program.
“Just because that’s my personal opinion doesn’t mean that I have the right to control development,” says Radack.
That was the statement made by many of the city and county officials at a meeting earlier this year to protest the Ashford Lakes project. As long as a development meets the city requirements, officials have their hands tied.
And those requirements for development, says Stobb, can be as minimal as a three-year flood plain. “What developer is going to spend the money to develop a project with a 10-year (flood) curve if that city doesn’t ask for it?” says Stobb.
As Gary Rapp, president of the Westchester Homeowners Association, has studied the maze of city and country jurisdictions over flood control, he says the question of who is responsible for what problem in flood control is rarely delineated. The Harris County Flood Control District can monitor it, but they have no jurisdiction over it. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers can build and monitor it, but they don’t have any enforcement rights. The City of Houston often has jurisdiction over it.
Even the city’s own documents have stated that clear-cut lines of responsibility between the city and county have never been drawn. Joining the federal flood insurance program, says Rapp, should have resolved some of those problems. Meanwhile, the average depth of Buffalo Bayou continues to rise.
“Really, the overall problem is the absence of a truly foresightful organized flood plain management plan,” Rapp says. “When the city joined the FEMA program in 1985, a more defined and rigid flood management system should have been used for development. Frankly, just looking at the way new development gets evaluated by the program, relatively little is being coordinated in view of the cumulative impact. It’s a somewhat fragmented system.”
Rapp says it may take, as Stobb has suggested, legal remedies to reach an ultimate end to citywide flooding. The homeowners groups, which formed a non-profit corporation called the West Houston Civic Action Committee Inc., has hired an independent hydrologist to study the cumulative effects of development on the city’s drainage system.
If the study proves that cumulative development has enlarged the flood plain, the group plans to sue the city to follow its own flood plain management regulations, those that are required as a member of FEMA.
“Our ultimate end is to stimulate legislation,” says Rapp. “People can get pretty emotional, but I think most people are fairly rational, and while a lot of them may not understand all the technical complexities, they do want to know that things are changing for the better.”