Much of this story is prompted by the Sunday July 24, 2016, story in the Houston Chronicle by Kim McGuire, Houston’s development boom and reduction of wetlands leave region flood prone, that discusses the increased impermeable ground cover and its effects on flooding.  But there were another couple of stories that need comments as well: one from Houston Public Media, Mayor Turner Heads To DC with a Plan for Lake Houston Flooding; and one from the Community Impact Newspaper Developers Flock West Lake Houston Parkway.

We were quoted in the Chronicle article:

In May, a group of Memorial-area residents sued the city of Houston and one of its local redevelopment authorities, alleging they allowed commercial development without requiring sufficient storm-water mitigation.

The group, Residents Against Flooding, cited the 2007 widening of Bunker Hill Road north of Interstate 10 and the elevation of nearby commercial properties, among other projects, alleging they funneled water into surrounding neighborhoods. The residents’ group claims the defendants promised to build five detention ponds to alleviate flooding but delivered only one.

“Obviously, it would have helped with the flooding situation, but it wouldn’t have solved our problem,” said Ed Browne, one of the group’s leaders.

Browne said inadequate drainage and poorly functioning detention ponds are among the reasons Memorial-area neighborhoods are experiencing flooding for the first time. (ed: Actually, it wasn’t our first flood, but it definitely won’t be our last unless the City works to fix it.)

“In our area, it’s pretty clear what’s going on,” he said. “The other thing that’s clear is this is a citywide problem.”  

This highlighted comment is what this post is about.

Several years ago, I was contacted by three City of Houston Public Works & Engineering (PW&E) employees who had heard of our fight and thought that we might be able to shine a light on poor engineering practices that they felt were rampant.  We spoke for a while before one showed me a 200-acre development being built along the virgin shores of Lake Houston with no mitigation for stormwater runoff.  When I asked for a copy of the development plans, my request was refused because the appearance of a copy would point to its PW&E originator.  That’s understandable. More disconcerting though, I was told that this lack of enforcement was a regular occurrence.  However, that was before the implementation of Google Earth history, so now these discrepancies can be checked.

The on-line version of the Chronicle article referenced above used Google Earth to create a movie illustrating development versus time in various regions of Houston.  It’s well worth viewing, but it doesn’t show that a lot of this new development doesn’t have detention basins and some has been elevated by adding fill dirt.  While I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, and actual evidence of wrongdoing would require more extensive research, an afternoon zooming in and out netted a few interesting photos:

Lake Houston # 1

This is a Google Earth image of Lake Houston in January 2010 showing heavy forests.

Lake Houston # 2

This is the same area as of April, 2016. Note the apparent lack of detention basins.

Lake Houston # 3

This is a tract of land that had no development on it in April, 2006. Notice the density of the adjacent subdivision, which doesn’t seem to have any detention basin.


Lake Houston # 4

By July, 2015, a subdivision had replaced the forests and there is no sign of the sizable detention basin that should have been required.

I’m picking on Lake Houston because Mayor Turner, his Flood Czar, and several Council Members visited Washington, D. C., to lobby for dredging Lake Houston in order to fix area flooding – estimated costs are between $2B and $10B.  Why?  Lake Houston is situated northeast of the intersection of 59N and Beltway 8.   Water from that area will flow southeast, thus completely missing most of the City of Houston neighborhoods that have flooded multiple times.  Why not ask for money to fix all of Houston? Greenspoint? Brays Bayou? the Buffalo Bayou reservoirs? West Houston?

Could it be because big money is asking for help?  From the Community Impact Newspaper article mentioned before,  “Friendswood Development Co.—the original Kingwood developer—is constructing 1,300 homes in new Kingwood development Royal Brook. The community sits on 510 acres north of the intersection of Mills Branch Drive and West Lake Houston Parkway with prices ranging from $300,000 to more than $600,000. It is the last piece of land slated for single-family homes in Kingwood, FDC officials said.”

Picking a median price of $450,000, that represents $585M in property value from only one developer, but the article cites a PASA study that says almost 10 times that number of homes will be built in the area by 2025, increasing total property valuations into the $5B range.

For a city facing financial woes, the tax revenues look mighty appealing, not to mention the need to address Kingwood flooding problems and possible Houston water shortages should we have another drought.  And isn’t now the best time to ask for federal dollars to fix our flooding issues?  Yes, all these things are true, but, and it’s an important one, all of Houston is facing a flooding crisis that fixing Lake Houston doesn’t address, no matter how worthy the reasons.  Asking for billions in scarce federal dollars will likely limit money available to fix these other needs, which doesn’t seem fair, especially since Houston’s poor policies seem to have caused the problems at Lake Houston, too.