July 18, 2019
Tony Buzbee Statement on Flood Prevention for Residents Against Flooding There is no quick fix for solving Houston’s street and drainage issues. There are a range of independent and interconnected variables that have been considered and should be implemented as noted herein. Additionally, the following is an assessment of Houston’s street and drainage program and my suggested remedies. I will note that I am not an expert on the situation, but I have at my consult a number of flooding and drainage experts that I have spoken to in preparing the following statement.

With respect to street infrastructure, we need to improve our planning around density, mobility, population growth, traffic, safety and availability as well as capacity. Houston Public Works (HPW) would benefit from evaluating how to improve project cycle times and design efficiencies, thus eliminating operational bottlenecks. The goal is being able to deliver street and drainage project dollars more efficiently. Pre-engineering
is a very effective planning tool that HPW should better leverage by establishing a specialized team or effort that would identify, focus on and look for major traffic or mobility issues, structural issues like industrial roads, structural flooding, areas of intense economic activity, areas experiencing extreme gridlock and major employment/activity centers. Throughout the city, there are major industrial areas experiencing recurring road failure. The concern is overlays (which are temporary) get industrial roads “pushed down the list” as opposed to addressing the underlying structural issues through road replacement or other alternatives.

With respect to drainage infrastructure we need to assess the overall effectiveness of the drainage network including storm sewer capacity, overall network capacity, effectiveness of moving water over a reasonable period of time including assessing the effectiveness of roadway right of way as a conveyance mechanism. We need to evaluate our detention policy and compliance standards especially in industrial, high density and growth corridors including effectively developing policies that deliver more and better sub-regional detention. We need to improve the level of cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“COE”) and HCFCD prioritizing joint drainage projects that provide immediate relief in targeted areas including Buffalo, White Oak, Brays, Sims and Hunting bayous and major watersheds.

Neighborhood drainage issues are usually the result of regional challenges which cannot be adequately addressed with localized solutions. Regional solutions (which are expensive and often more costly than the assets they are designed to protect) are needed to solve structural flooding. Regional drainage issues require the joint efforts of the COE and HCFCD. HCFCD currently funds $60 million in annual CIP projects against an estimated need of over $200 million per year. Houston needs to ensure that HCFCD is
accountable for delivering consistent drainage service that maximizes wholesale capacity including focusing on defining regional solutions in cooperation with HCFCD including implementing drainage solutions that cross jurisdictional boundaries, participating in HCFCD projects and improving HCFCD facilities. Houston should insist on receiving equivalent value for its share of HCFCD’s ad valorem tax levy.

Open channel ditch drainage is the primary method to convey storm drainage. Within the City of Houston many of the open channel tributaries were converted to closed conduit systems with limited capacity years ago. The undersized arteries are not capable of handling the current 100-year design rainfall. The combination of population growth increased residential and commercial development and the limited capacity of the primary arteries within the City of Houston cannot be overstated. The arteries need to double or triple water conveyance capacity to handle expected storm drainage, but most arteries are in severely restricted right-of-way corridors. The amount of detention required to improve the overall conveyance system is between 0.5 and 0.75 acre-feet per acre, or the equivalent of between 10% and 15% of the land in an urbanized area.

The following are my team’s specific suggestions for improving Houston’s streets and drainage

  1. HPW requires meaningful and substantial oversight. Oversight would include clearly defining what success looks like by developing an over-riding objective for Houston’s streets and drainage program including an agreed upon set of metrics to measure actual and expected performance.
  2. HPW administers the CIP program under a 1983 executive order which was developed for a bond funding model. Houston’s street and drainage program is a sustainable funding source. Further, design standards and technology have dramatically changed since 1983. Oversight would include driving operational change at HPW that comports with the sustainable funding characteristics of
    Houston’s streets and drainage program.
  3. Advancements in technology and methodology need to be better integrated with current traffic management and drainage infrastructure. Ensure that existing asset management systems make the best utilization of repair, rehabilitation and replacement tools and they are being properly integrated with needs assessment and benefit/cost methodology.
  4. The city-wide drainage assessment is approximately 20 years old. We need to ensure that it meets current drainage needs (e.g., is the current right of way conveyance policy serving the expected
    demand/need and are the current detention policy and compliance standards sufficient?). As part of an equivalent value analysis, everything should be evaluated including the feasibility of assuming responsibility for the HCFCD infrastructure and revenue stream within the municipal boundaries.
  5. The Rebuild Houston process manual establishes a benefit/cost methodology. As noted herein, the resulting CIP candidate projects evidence that there are specific deficiencies in the “worst- first” analysis. We need to ensure that the pre-engineering process is actually delivering candidate projects directly as a result of an appropriate cost/benefit analysis. Additionally, HPW should reevaluate (i) the identification of need areas, (ii) how candidate projects are vetted and (iii) annual CIP cycle times and related timelines.
  6. Develop specific PCR standards and a more effective prioritization and allocation of funding tool that (i) can ascertain the impact additional overlay and panel replacement would have on PCR outcomes, (ii) enhance mechanical and data set tools that improve the efficacy of the PCR and the overall effectiveness of our drainage system network and (iii) ensure that the street and drainage repair and maintenance programs have the proper methodology.
  7. Correct the public’s misconception about the critical importance of properly maintaining our street and drainage infrastructure. Despite the level of complaints involving a lack of coordinated major road repair, HPW underspends on repair and maintenance (15% versus the annual maintenance cap of 25%). Design standards and design expectations must also be properly aligned with actual design life.
  8. We need to better utilize and leverage available technology to i) enhance the public education about complexity and interconnectedness of regional drainage systems, ii) improve our early warning capacity, iii) better inform public about flood prone areas and iv) ensure public is aware of available information of flood prone areas. The focus of modern technology has shifted in part to encompass predictive analytics. In other words, how can we use existing data to help us understand what might happen in the future? The tools to do this exist, we have just not taken advantage of them. The data exists as well, but the challenge is connecting the underlying dots. Advancements in technology and data collection provide better insight into the on-the-ground activity, street repair accountability, project planning and budgeting, and emergency/contingency management. At the same time, the cost of these solutions is decreasing rapidly. The City of Houston has not effectively capitalized on these advancements and cost savings.
  9. Geospatial analysis measures the elevation changes in Harris County using laser-based technology known as LIDAR and stream flows within particular channels, watersheds and basins. It can also show the impact of development activity within a specific environment. The mapping technology is very sophisticated and can give builders and planners an accurate understanding of how specific projects will affect the land they build on and the resulting upstream and downstream impact. The National Weather Service has developed a high-resolution, real-time hydrologic forecasting model that will predict flows at 2.7 million points along U.S waterways, including almost 900 in Harris County.
  10. There is a lot of technology that is not connected or user friendly. There is a real and substantial need to find ways to leverage that technology so that homeowners, potential buyers, investors, financing sources, etc. can better utilize the data to make informed decisions, develop better early warning and flood detection technology, become better informed about flood prone areas, and be more educated about simple steps you can take to reduce the loss of valuables in a flood.
  11. Develop a database of residents that have used the 311 app to better communicate and inform and educate residents about flooding issues. As an example, the US Geological Service is rolling out a new predictive technology that tracks weather and alerts various regions and waterways to potential flooding situations. Another example is research suggests more education would substantially reduce property damage and the loss of valuables. We need to do a better job of providing tools that highlight flood prone areas, clearly outline the 22 primary watersheds in the Houston region, allow potential homebuyers to better understand the risk of flooding in those areas.
  12. A comprehensive technology strategy would provide a current-state assessment of technology tools in use, a competitive assessment of potential tools to use, a business case for the gradual upgrade and implementation of modern solutions and an ongoing civic engagement campaign to correct misconceptions and involve the public in technology development.
  13. Between HPW, 311, OEM, HPD, and HFD the City of Houston has several siloed data sets and independent technology tools. Coupled with outside agencies, such as Harris County, USWS, DHS and the USGS, there are multiple data standards and reporting methods. We need to standardize data management throughout the region in order to develop accurate, effective technology tools. The City of Houston already has an open data administrative procedure to allow for the
    collaboration and publication of relevant datasets. The City of Houston also has an open data portal that can streamline the publication of these datasets.
  14. An ongoing civic engagement campaign. Develop an effective, coordinated civic engagement campaign that would public service announcements as well as well-publicized and marketed hackathons dealing with flooding, drainage, CIPs, and emergency management, open challenges to the technology community and partnering with local non-profits to communicate these complex issues to technical subject matter experts. In addition to engaging Houstonians on this matter, utilize the opportunity to source new ideas that are unencumbered by existing constraints.