March 9, 2018

Down on the Bayou:  A Closer Look at Project Brays

It’s by far the most significant flood control improvement for our area and has already brought us some measure of relief, with more to come.  It’s of central importance to our ongoing and future planning, because without adequate downstream capacity our other efforts aren’t going to make much of a difference.  Earlier this week members of the City Council, Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force and city staff went down to take a closer look, in person, at Project Brays.  Gary Zika, Federal Projects Manager for the Harris County Flood Control District, was our gracious host and tour guide.

Jumping right in with the $480 million question, what is Project Brays actually doing for us in Bellaire?  The basic answer is that when completed, it will have lowered the water surface level in a 100-year flood event by two feet.  But before you rush to consider that against your own experience in Harvey, keep in mind that the project was underway and some of that benefit already realized when Harvey hit.  If you didn’t flood in Harvey, you may have Project Brays to thank for that; HCFCD estimates 12,000 homes were saved by the work that had been done before the storm.  For those of you who did flood, the remaining work brings that much more protection and you can get an idea of how you’ll fare in future storms.  Mr. Zika emphasizes the importance of studying your specific elevation in determining your flood risk.

The risk reduction from bringing the Bayou back within its banks will also support lower flood insurance rates.  When the rate map (FIRM) is redrawn to take Project Brays into account, nearly all of Bellaire should be removed from the 100-year floodplain.

Project Brays Conditional Letter of Map Revision

However, Mr. Zika cautions that our premium savings will likely be short lived.  Driven by data from Harvey and other extreme rainfall events, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to redefine a 100-year storm (i.e., a storm that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year) as being more severe than presently defined.  In other words, Project Brays is expected to take us out of the current 100-year floodplain, but an NOAA reclassification of that floodplain would put us right back in it.  Still, even if that’s the ultimate outcome on paper, the real world, physical benefits to Bellaire of Project Brays are obvious and give us some renewed confidence in our protection against future floods.

$350 million of the $480 million project has been completed thus far.  Starting at the mouth of Brays Bayou and working back 21 miles upstream, the channel is being widened by 30%.  The segment closest to us, from Buffalo Speedway to South Rice, is now under construction.  The final segment, which will extend west of Fondren, will soon go out to bid.  The project also includes four storm water detention basins that collectively provide 10,000 acre-feet of temporary storage.  The one closest to us, Willow Waterhole, is in the final construction phase, which includes the control structure and inflow/outflow weirs.  Finally, there are 32 bridges along Brays Bayou that are being modified due to the channel widening and to reduce obstructions and improve the flow of storm water.  About half of that bridge work is now done.

As much as we’ve been talking about Project Brays and its incomparable importance to Bellaire, there’s just no substitute for seeing it for ourselves.  Mr. Zika’s very informative presentation brought all the maps and data to life, and will assist us in understanding and quantifying our future flood risk once the project is completed.  The City of Bellaire expresses our sincerest thanks to Mr. Zika and his team for accommodating us.