Texas cities need to think carefully about floodplain development

Liam Verses

Texas is booming. The Lone Star state grew nearly 11 percent in just six years. As development continues to spread from concentrated city centers out towards the country, land at risk for flooding becomes prime real estate for developers. Now we’re paying the price for it — literally.

From 1985 to 2017, the Harris County Flood Control District spent $342 million to purchase just 3,100 properties. Hurricane Harvey damaged an estimated 69,000 properties in Harris County, a far greater number than officials could have ever imagined. County buyouts will purchase a mere fraction of the homes damaged. Of the 12,337 total damaged structures in Brays Bayou, just 56 had been bought out by Nov. 2. The financial cost is just too high. Compound a slow bureaucracy with limited funds and homeowners are forced to look elsewhere for help.

Ten percent of Austin — including nearly 2,000 buildings — lies in a floodplain. Austin bought out a few hundred homes in a flood-prone area of Onion Creek, costing a staggering $140 million that included money from the federal government. Buyouts are good for one-offs, like events matching the Memorial Day floods, but they’re fiscally unsustainable, especially when flood events are happening with great frequency and ferocity.

Plan II freshman Ashka Dighe’s house in Houston took on 4 to 5 feet of water after Harvey. Dighe’s house is near the Addicks Reservoir in a neighborhood she believes was advertised as “a no flood zone.”

“We weren’t expecting it to get this bad,” Dighe said. “Everything that was on the first floor (was) waterlogged. Every single wall had to be torn down.”

Her story is a common one. Many families living upstream from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs didn’t know that their homes lie in an area where flood pools form if the water gets high enough. Critics argue that developers had full knowledge that they were placing residents in harm’s way.

While Travis County goes above and beyond federal standards, some Texas counties fail to adhere to the barest of floodplain regulations. The National Flood Insurance Program sets standards considered a loose framework to build upon. In Texas, however, around 300 cities and counties as of 2015 didn’t even use NFIP standards, meaning they do not have floodplain regulations enforced.

Houston Public Works assured me in a statement that new construction in the floodplain abides by city code, including additional provisions to keep structures safe from floods, such as storage mitigation, no adverse impact and no rise certification. A Houston Office of Emergency Management official said the city’s Hazard Mitigation Action Plan goes through revisions and identifies projects to reduce hazards, like mitigating flooding at the Texas Medical Center. But we’re not getting to the core of the problem: over-development.

Even with all of these projects, flooding seems to have gotten worse in intensity. Texas has a buyout problem, an engineering problem and a flooding problem. All three will only get worse if we don’t consider scaling back future development in floodplains and approaching floodplains in a more cautious manner. It’s only a matter of time before the next Allison, Ike, or Harvey — before the next spring rains pour down across the state. The Texas government must work with developers to balance regulations. We’ve been through too much to continue our reckless conquest of unsuitable land.

Verses is a Plan II and environmental engineering freshman from San Antonio.