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Photos From Above: See How Much Of Houston’s Efforts Go Toward Dealing With Water

It’s not only the bayous, lakes and dams, but the many facilities that handle drinking water and wastewater.

As Houston continues to grow and prepare for future flooding events, water projects play a crucial role in its development. And just how much of the city’s efforts go toward dealing with water — from treatment plants to stormwater infrastructure — became clear when we were given a bird’s eye view of Houston on a recent helicopter tour.

Most evident from up high was the city’s many bayous, not just the sections people cross every day, but also the segments that meander through neighborhoods and behind homes. Dotting the city were huge water treatment facilities, most notably the billion-dollar expansion of the Northeast Water Purification Plant. We also viewed the dam along Lake Houston, the city’s main water source.

Lake Houston Dam

The helicopter tour was sponsored by Infrastructure Week, a consortium of private businesses, professional organizations and public policy groups. Our tour guide was Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock.

“Whether it’s drinking water, whether it’s wastewater, whether it’s stormwater, all of it is important to day-to-day life in Houston,” said Haddock. “And so we have water treatment plants all over the city, we have wastewater treatment plants all over the city and then we have stormwater infrastructure all over the city. And the goal is to make sure we maximize all of them and they all work with each other.”

But sometimes it’s a challenge to keep it all flowing smoothly, and not just because of the risk of flooding.

“It tends to be the extremes,” said Haddock. “On a day-to-day basis operating a water plant and a wastewater treatment plant and the stormwater is great. But when we have an extreme rain event or back in 2011 when we had a drought, it’s those extremes that tax our infrastructure and tax our ability to respond. You see that every day in a small scale on our transportation grid when we have rush hour. But it’s much more amplified when we have a storm or a drought on our water infrastructure.”

City of Houston water treatment facility

Houston has been taxed by many rain events in recent years and Haddock said the city is still in recovery mode after Harvey’s floods engulfed much of Houston in August 2017. She said there are thousands of people who still haven’t gotten back into permanent housing.

“We are relying on the federal government to come through, through both FEMA and HUD, to help with the recovery, and not just repair as it was but to actually make it more resilient, to improve it to rebuild what needs to be built as we recover from Harvey,” Haddock said.

Another challenge for Houston is new development patterns, with smaller homes being replaced by larger townhomes that take up most of the lot. Haddock said the minimum-sized water pipes installed by the city generally accommodate the additional density when it comes to drinking water and wastewater. But the biggest problem is moving stormwater.

“So the challenge is how do we not have that runoff exacerbate problems with the neighbors,” said Haddock. “That’s the hardest for us to keep up with because this redevelopment is happening faster than we have the funding to rebuild the roads and the storm drainage.”

Last November, Houston voters approved a proposition that creates a dedicated pay-as-you go fund for drainage and street improvements.

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Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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