As southeast Texas embarks on the long slog toward Hurricane Harvey recovery, local officials told a panel of state lawmakers on Wednesday that there needs to be a collaborative, regional approach to flood control — and that anything less jeopardizes the state's growth and economic strength.
And they said they’re dependent on financial support from the state and federal government to complete key infrastructure projects, some of which have been delayed for years or even decades due to a lack of funding. Their local tax bases, they said, don’t generate enough money to pay for the projects alone.
The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.
The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven't yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.
Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects and then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.
Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created," Emmett said. "But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”
Emmett said Harris County’s plan will likely include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.
Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a check for $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)
Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects, similar to one the state's voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.
Russ Poppe, the chief of the Harris County Flood Control District, which for years has studied the feasibility of building a third dam, told the panel of lawmakers on Wednesday that it’s ready to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the project — as soon as it gets funding from Congress. Poppe said the district is also waiting on federal funding to propel four ongoing projects to widen Houston's bayous, many of which breached their borders and flooded entire neighborhoods amid Harvey's historic rainfall.
“Harvey was a stark reminder we have a lot of work yet to do,” he said.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, the San Antonio Republican who chairs the legislative committee, acknowledged the need for better flood plans — and flood maps.
He advocated on Wednesday for an overhaul of FEMA's flood maps, describing them as “antiquated” given how often the state has been hit with storms the agency considers rare.
“I think the calculus is off and a lot of it has to do with development,” he said. “You can have a whole lot less rainfall and create a whole lot more flooding now.”
Officials from the Texas Water Development Board reminded the panel that while they’re already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, the plan is not yet tied to any state funding for specific flood control projects. They do, however, have hundreds of millions of dollars in loan capacity to help finance them.
Bech Bruun, the chairman of the Water Development Board, said the statewide price tag for such improvements will be in the billions of dollars. The plan the agency is working up will offer “a very high-level view and assessment of what the [flood] risks are, what the needs are and ideally what the projects are — what they look like and cost.”
“We all need to work together to figure out needs,” he added.