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In Harvey's Wake

Texas GOP leaders pushing for high-dollar, long-delayed flood infrastructure projects

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other state leaders are eyeing a long-delayed reservoir project experts say would've saved thousands of Houston homes from flooding.

People walk along the Barker Reservoir Dam in Houston on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from the reservoir, aggravating flooding in neighborhoods below the dam.

In Harvey's Wake

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In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is calling for the construction of flood control infrastructure in the Houston area — things he said should have been built “decades and decades ago” — including a coastal barrier to protect the region from deadly storm surge.

“We need more levees. We need more reservoirs. We need a coastal barrier,” Patrick said late last week during an interview with Fox News Radio. “These are expensive items and we’re working with [U.S. Sens. John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz and our congressional delegation to … get this right. We’ve had three now major floods in three years — nothing at this level but major floods.”

The need is particularly pressing because of the state’s rapid population growth, Patrick added, noting that “a lot of that growth is around the Houston area.” And he said the billions in federal aid that Texas is poised to receive presents an opportunity for Texas "to really rebuild and do things that, quite frankly, should have been done decades and decades ago."

A Tea Party darling from Houston, Patrick often is considered the state’s most powerful politician.

His spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information, but Patrick’s comments in part appear to reference a long-stalled project that experts say could have saved thousands of Houston homes from flooding during Harvey.

For years, the Harris County Flood Control District has looked at constructing some kind of flood control project that would curb the flow of floodwaters from the fast-growing northwest suburbs into two federally-owned reservoirs — Addicks and Barker — that filled to the brim during Harvey and last year’s “Tax Day” flood.

An engineer with the flood control district told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica last year that the agency hasn’t officially proposed a plan and has no timeline for doing so, in large part because it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A Houston-area congressman also said in an interview that the Texas Legislature would have to fund it.

Those roadblocks appear to be eroding post-Harvey.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is seeking $320 million to build another reservoir that would take pressure off Addicks and Barker. That’s exciting, Bettencourt said, because the Austin Republican “can lift more than the average congressman” as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But last week during a meeting with officials in Katy, he described such a project as “long-term” and said he has discussed funding with Gov. Greg Abbott, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

"We need to look at long-term solutions from an infrastructure standpoint," he said.

None of it will be covered by the $15 billion short-term relief aid relief package Congress has approved for Texas, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will pay for any flood-control infrastructure projects in Texas. 

In the meantime, Abbott is championing a request from the state’s water planning agency to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expedite funding it will use to leverage low-interest loans to finance such projects. As it stands now, the Texas Water Development Board has more than half a billion dollars in loan capacity, which it says is enough to cover even a large endeavor.

The need for such a project is one point of agreement between elected officials and the environmental engineers and hydrologists who have criticized them for not imposing stricter development practices in Houston, which they claim has put more Houstonians in harm’s way during major rainstorms.

An additional reservoir “is absolutely a critical necessity” if the county wants to avoid another scenario like the Tax Day flood, Rice University scientist Phil Bedient said last year, long before Harvey battered the city.

“They have no choice,” he said. “If they don’t do that, we’re going to get another one of these, you know, maybe not in five years but ... within the next decade.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said he’d been recently briefed on the reservoir concept and thinks it’s a good idea, but also wonders what kind of development exists in the proposed locations and how that might complicate plans (The flood control district is considering a variety of locations).

Congress has generally been reticent to fund large-scale stormwater infrastructure projects in Houston. For years, the flood control district has been chipping away at projects to widen thousands of miles of bayous across the region so they can carry more rainwater into the Gulf of Mexico — an endeavor estimated to cost some $25 billion — but Congress has been unwilling to provide any extra funds to speed up the process.

At both the state and federal level, talk of protecting the Houston area from big storms has in recent years been dominated by the coastal barrier concept Patrick endorsed in last week's interview.

The project, estimated to cost $5.8 billion, would involve installing a series of high seawalls and gates along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula to protect populous areas like Clear Lake and the Houston Ship Channel from deadly storm surge during a worst-case scenario hurricane. State and local officials have said such a project would have to be funded at the federal level, and some congressional delegation members — namely Cornyn — have begun pushing for that.

But such a barrier wouldn’t protect against the immense rain-based flooding the Houston area has seen in recent years.

Post-Harvey, the state’s GOP leaders have been put in the awkward position of asking for a handout when they typically snub the idea of federal assistance. But Patrick wasn’t shy about that in last week’s interview.

When asked about President Trump’s deal with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling, a plan tied to Harvey aid, Patrick demurred but also praised the president as a great leader, reminding the host he had been Trump’s state campaign chairman.

“My focus right now is on Texans; I won’t get into politics,” Patrick said. “I don’t know what happened behind the scenes.”

“But you’re getting the money quickly?” the host asked.

“I want the money — we need the money,” Patrick replied.

Patrick Svitek and Neena Satija contributed reporting.

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