August 25, 2022

Flood Mitigation Progress Five Years Out From Harvey

Five years after nearly 30% of our homes were flooded in Hurricane Harvey, residents displaced and lives upended, Bellaire is back and better than ever.  We’ve rebuilt our neighborhoods and our community, and have seen our property values rise as post-storm construction activity has only accelerated the ongoing trend of newer homes replacing the old.  Aggregate appraisals across the City have surpassed pre-Harvey levels.

But looking forward, are we any better protected from flooding now than we were then?  With the completion of the $480 million Project Brays we are, and over the past few years we’ve laid the foundation and positioned ourselves for more regional improvements to come, to further reduce our flood risk.  Starting, we have good reason to be optimistic, with the expansion of Cypress Ditch immediately to our south, the primary conveyance channel into which most of Bellaire directly drains.

Our flooding problem is obviously bigger than just Bellaire.  Since floodwaters do not respect jurisdictional boundaries and in fact much of the water we’re forced to deal with is coming in from the outside, we must look beyond our borders and work with others in our region on mutually beneficial solutions.  This aspect of flood mitigation is the most ambitious and will have the greatest impact in extreme storm events; it’s also the most expensive and will require outside funding and partnerships to achieve.

That’s where the Bellaire Master Drainage Concept Plan comes in.  The Plan itself is a partnership project among the City, Harris County Flood Control District and TxDOT, each of which participated not only in its funding but in devising its scope and direction, setting the stage for continued collaboration.  It lays out a high-level conceptual framework for potential projects and future decision making, demonstrating clearly the need to upgrade our north/south drainage systems as well as the external systems we’re dependent on.  Critically, the Plan helps to define the partnerships and offsetting detention that will likely be required in constructing these types of projects, and it provides the data and analysis necessary for us to be competitive in pursuing significant external funding opportunities.

In evaluating the various improvement alternatives they’d come up with, the planning team was guided by feedback from our citizen Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force, City Council and other stakeholders.  Primarily that the Plan should:  (1) prioritize Southdale and other hardest-hit areas of Bellaire, with a focus on Cypress Ditch; (2) be scalable, with immediate benefits achieved in each phase in addition to contributing to long-term, systemwide improvements; and (3) not require the acquisition of private lands.  Starting from the concepts presented in the Plan, we would then develop actual projects to be funded and constructed in phases, with an emphasis on lowering costs and optimizing outcomes.

A potential project that’s likely achievable in a Phase 1, given present funding opportunities, is to increase the capacity of Cypress Ditch from 610 to the Bayou, which includes the segment adjacent to Southdale.  The Harris County Commissioners Court last year unanimously reaffirmed its commitment and directed the Flood Control District to proceed with a $30 million partnership project to expand the conveyance capacity of Cypress Ditch (project CI-038), utilizing federal CDBG-MIT grant funding.  Securing the County’s assistance and delivering on this project is definitely at the top of our list for Phase 1.  While Project Brays significantly lowers water surface elevations during major storms that affect the entire watershed, this and other improvements recommended in the Plan will also help with more localized heavy rainfall.

At the same time, we’re also talking with TxDOT about including in Phase 1 a project to extend from Glenmont down to Cedar the 10’ x 8’ box culvert we started in partnership with them back in 2017, in connection with the reconstruction of the 610/59 interchange.  That first segment, which ends at the southern limits of the interchange project, was always intended to be just the beginning, to be followed by additional segments in the future, working our way further south toward the Bayou.  This is needed to handle the sheet flow that often backs up into the neighborhood west of the freeway and along First St., impacting a large area.

With the preliminary conceptual planning behind us, our focus is now on positioning ourselves for implementation.  No doubt we’re talking real money here, but that has been the intent all along with the Master Drainage Concept Plan—to think big and to come up with boldly ambitious, yet still achievable projects to bring meaningful flood relief to Bellaire and the surrounding area.  Earlier this year, through a series of workshop discussions the City Council further refined our objectives and priorities, to be realized through clear and actionable direction to city staff so that we can be prepared to act quickly when outside funding opportunities present themselves.

In that regard, our next step in moving the Plan forward will be to engage a technical advisor, hopefully in the next month or so, to take ownership of the process, develop design parameters and project scopes, facilitate ongoing discussions with partner entities, seek funding, and generally advance our regional infrastructure program.  The City’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would set aside $3 million of our federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which combined with existing bond proceeds of $6.6 million left over from our 2016 bond program, and potentially another $6 million of authorized but unissued bond funding, adds up to more than $15 million of seed money to work with.  That demonstrates both how serious we are in our commitment to flood mitigation, and our readiness and ability to fund our local share of Phase 1 projects as soon as possible.

So, five years out from Harvey, we’ve made good progress in accomplishing a lot of the necessary planning and are eager to start on implementation and bringing these impactful regional improvements to fruition.  It’s the logical next step in the evolution of our flood mitigation strategy, building on all the local street and drainage work we’ve done over the past couple of decades.  We must not overlook, however, the need to resume that local work, driven both by internal drainage deficiencies and deteriorating roadway conditions.  Having paused in recent years with the conclusion of our 2016 bond program, local streets and drainage is something we’ll have to get back on top of fairly soon if we don’t want to fall further behind on that front.