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Maintenance for flood control projects to face delays as Harris County agency deals with a smaller budget

Regular maintenance is critical for flood mitigation projects to work as they’re supposed to. But the Harris County Flood Control District’s maintenance budget isn’t keeping pace with its growing portfolio of projects.

In this Aug. 29, 2017 photo, water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods from floodwaters brought on by Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston. Harris County commissioners have voted to ask the federal government for a $17 million grant to purchase 104 homes at the highest risk of flooding. The decision came even as more than 1,000 residents have called the Flood Control District in recent days to request buyouts of their Hurricane Harvey flood-damaged homes.
In this Aug. 29, 2017 photo, water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods from floodwaters brought on by Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston.

What concerns do you have about flooding in your neighborhood? Email me: kwatkins@houstonpublicmedia.org

This story is part four of a four-part series on the 2023 fiscal year for Harris County.

The Harris County Flood Control District was set to receive $137 million under a budget proposed by Democratic county officials. Instead, the district ended up with tens of millions less, after Republican commissioners boycotted budget meetings last year and a lower tax rate went into effect.

The biggest consequence of flood control's reduced budget will be deferred maintenance of flood control projects, adding to an already existing backlog, according to Flood Control Director Tina Petersen.

"In recent years, there’s been progress towards addressing that backlog. But more investment is needed, not less," Petersen said at a Commissioners Court meeting in September. "Failure to address these types of maintenance issues that we're seeing in our channels can put critical infrastructure at risk."

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For years, the Harris County Flood Control District's operating budget has stayed right around $120 million. In the past, about half would go to maintenance and the other half to capital projects, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos.

"We were doing a pittance," Ramos said. "We weren’t building anything; we were maintaining very little."

But that changed after Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017.

"Everybody realizes flood controls asleep at that helm; we need to do a lot more," Ramos said. "Flood control had very little debt. Because they hadn’t done a bond in years."

So in 2018, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to fund more than 200 projects to reduce flood risk.

With the bond funding going towards new capital projects, Ramos said flood control's operating budget now goes almost entirely to maintenance. But even still he said it's not keeping up with the increasing number of projects being built.

"We’re building hundreds of millions of dollars, soon to be billions of dollars of new infrastructure, and we’re not increasing the amount it costs to maintain this stuff," Ramos said. "So basically, what that means is the second that we do something, it’s going to deteriorate."

He likened it to buying a new house and spending all your money on the mortgage. "And you have no money to pay for the AC or fix the roof or do any of the basic stuff," Ramos said.

For this fiscal year, Ramos proposed that Flood Control's operations & maintenance budget go up to $137 million to account for inflation and to contribute money to reserves. The budget that passed is $23 million less than that, and at $114 million, it's even less than flood control has been getting in recent years, according to numbers provided by the budget office.

Though deferred maintenance will be the biggest consequence of the lower budget, Flood Control Director Tina Petersen also told Commissioners Court that the district will have to cut back on hiring more staff that would have helped with implementing the bond projects, which could lead to delays.

The bond projects have also faced their own series of funding issues, after the Texas General Land Office awarded the county significantly less than anticipated in federal funds.

During a Commissioners Court meeting about the budget in October, Harris County residents spoke about continued issues with flooding in their neighborhoods and warned against reducing the budget.

"We flood even during a heavy rain and I just really don't understand how this could continue," said Doris Brown, the founder of the Northeast Action Collective. "It's a step backwards that will have dangerous consequences to all of us."

North and east Harris County have long been shortchanged on flood control spending, according to previous reporting by Houston Public Media. Much of the area falls within the Greens Bayou watershed, which is dense with households and floods regularly.

Jim Blackburn, the co-director of Rice's SSPEED Center which studies flooding in the region, said maintenance in particular is a common concern he hears from residents in Northeast Harris County, both at the city and county level.

"Maintenance is huge," said Blackburn. "if maintenance is not performed correctly and evenly, and in an orderly manner over time, what your computer models what your floodplain studies tell you should be the case will not be the case."

Blackburn said common maintenance issues include debris or vegetation obstructing ditches or erosion leading to debris falling into channels and diminishing their capacity.

The budget office said major maintenance projects including things like erosion repair, sediment removal, and conveyance improvements will need to be pushed off to future years due to the lower-than-anticipated budget. Vegetation management will also be reduced.

Daniel Ramos, from the budget office, said he thinks the county needs to have a bigger conversation about how much we're willing to spend on maintenance going forward.

"If we’re not willing to pay to maintain the infrastructure, why are we building it?" he said.