West U Flood System Complete, Controversial Restrictor Removed

January 30, 2014

The controversial “restrictor” in Poor Farm Ditch has been removed by the city of West University Place, under an agreement approved by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

This item first appeared on the Harris County Commissioner’s Court agenda on January 7. Our publisher agreed to delay publication until after the restrictor was removed.

West U’s removal of the restrictor on Thursday was allowed under an interlocal agreement signed Wednesday by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“The agreement will dramatically improve drainage in West University Place,” said West U City Manager Michael Ross.

Under that agreement, West U paid $834,925 — in a check hand-delivered on January 13 — to the Harris County Flood Control District for 9.1 acre-feet of stormwater detention. In late December, the West University Place City Council authorized Ross to sign the agreement.

The agreement provides “complete mitigation” for the $8 million flood control project at Bellaire Boulevard and Poor Farm Ditch that was completed in 2010. Work on the project began right after Tropical Storm Allison did $5.5 billion in damage to the Houston region in June, 2001.

The agreement brings to an end a long-standing controversy that resulted from a strange mix of engineering and politics.

Because the Harris County Flood Control District had determined that West U needed a total of 13.5 acre-feet of flood detention when the Poor Farm Ditch project was finished, the “restrictor” at the ditch was installed. In May 2011, West U purchased 4.4 acre feet of detention capacity from the district. Still, the HCFCD required the restrictor to be put in place, at least until the city acquired more land to hold stormwater runoff.

The “restrictor” had prevented stormwater in West U from completely draining into the Poor Farm Ditch, resulting in flooding in the streets along the ditch and around the College Street neighborhood

Recently, the flood district determined that it had an additional 9.1 acre-feet of detention capacity available, because that capacity had not been allocated to any other project. The district agreed to sell that capacity to West U at a cost of $91,750 per acre foot, for a total of $834,925.

Under the agreement, the HCFCD agreed to allow “the city to remove, at its sole expense, the existing restrictor” to Poor Farm Ditch. The agreement also provided that the flood district had to approve and supervise the restrictor removal.

West U and the flood district acted quickly to remove the restrictor from the ditch.

The removal of the restrictor had strained relations between former West U Mayor Bob Kelly and Precinct 3 Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. The issue was further complicated by concerns from some residents of Braeswood Place about whether West U’s stormwater would end up in their neighborhood.

Kelly had urged local residents who were upset about flooding in West U to contact Radack.

That led Radack to suggest that he could redraw his Precinct 3 boundaries to exclude West U.

The political squabbling was settled, in large part, due to the efforts of West U Mayor Bob Fry, who began working quietly and behind the scenes to assuage any hard feelings with Radack.

“He gets the lion’s share of the credit — along with the city councils since 2001, who have made this (flooding in West U) their number one priority,” Ross said. “They have done everything possible to make this happen.”

Ross also credited Commissioner Radack, and several Harris County officials — Art Storey, director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department,and Mike Talbot, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District — for helping West U resolve the issue.

“We owe tremendous thanks to Commissioner Radack, and to Art Storey and Mike Talbot,” Ross said.

“Patience, professionalism and persistence paid off,” Ross said.

Just two years ago, in January, 2012, West U streets were flooded by a deluge that saw 5 inches of rain fall on the city in about three hours.

Two West U residents were seen kayaking in front of city hall that morning, and local TV crews took videos of children playing in the flooded streets. West U firefighters had to rescue three motorists who were stranded in their vehicles by the sudden flood. Although no injuries were reported, many residents complained about storm damage to their cars and SUVs.

West U has historically been the site of frequent flooding. The city’s history shows that the problem was so severe that residents banded together and incorporated as a city, as a way to deal with flooding.

Flooding in the entire Houston area has been such a longstanding  problem that the Harris County Flood Control District was created by the 1937 Texas Legislature. Serious flooding in 1929 and 1935 forced local political officials to seek the district, which has the authority to begin projects to mitigate flood damages.

Tropical Storm Allison highlighted Houston’s need for flood control projects. Allison dropped more than 35 inches of rain in the Houston area and caused more than $5.5 billion in damages. The storm killed 41 people.

Allison also ramped up the flood district’s efforts to improve drainage in the low-lying, flat and sea-level Houston region. The Tropical Storm Allison Recovery Project, a joint effort by the district and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cost $32 million.

West U’s Poor Farm Ditch improvements were part of that recovery effort. The three-year, $8 million drainage improvement project at Poor Farm Ditch was a joint effort by West U and the cities of Houston and Southside Place. Metro funds were used to build the project.

Ross stressed that the new agreement will have “no impact” on neighborhoods near West U.

“This purpose of this detention is to maintain no impact downstream. The restrictor was necessary because we didn’t have the proper detention capacity. We now have the 13.5 acre feet that will mitigate any impact,” Ross said.

Ross said that “street ponding” in West U will continue to occur after “extreme storm events.”

“The streets were rebuilt to detain water in an extreme event storm. All of that was designed to hold water so it doesn’t get into homes,” Ross explained. “This will not eliminate street ponding. And cars will flood every time there is a storm of sufficient duration and intensity, if they are in the street.”

The Harris County Flood Control District maintains an excellent web-site that explains many of the technical terms used in flood control. An acre-foot of water is one foot of water spread across one acre. For information about flood safety, and a video that explains storm detention, visit this link at the district’s web-site: www.hcfcd.org/stormwater