Houston residents could get some extra help when it comes to cleaning their open ditches. The city is proposing what's called the "Roadside Ditch Re-establishment Program," which would reverse a decades-old city policy in which adjacent property owners are responsible for maintaining the ditches.
Houston Public Works presented the program to the city’s Transportation, Technology, and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday. While the city council was considering the city's annual budget in June, Mayor Sylvester Turner decided he wanted to place the responsibility back on the city.
"It reverses a policy that was not working well for the city," Turner said during a June city council meeting. "It puts the onus back on the city to engage in a pro-maintenance policy and the dollars will benefit wherever there are open ditches in the city."
An ordinance adopting the proposal is expected to be on the city council’s agenda in the next few weeks.
Low-income residents have been struggling to keep up with the responsibility for years, leaving ditches clogged, which ultimately leads to neighborhood flooding. Many community members and advocacy groups like the Northeast Action Collective have been demanding better drainage. According to the city, about 80% of open ditches are in Northeast Houston and the mayor's “complete communities,” which refers to a planning concept to provide resources in historically underserved neighborhoods.
The proposed Roadside Ditch Re-establishment Program is a five-year proactive plan to ensure ditches are draining properly, with priority given to Northeast Houston and complete communities. The city would be responsible for regrading, clearing and grubbing, flow line establishment, culvert flushing and repair, and removal of heavy debris/obstruction.
Prior to 2001, council districts would select which neighborhoods and locations needed work. When the responsibility was subsequently transferred to the property owners, the 311 help line was created, which is the current method that is used to report problems in neighborhoods.
"Just to clarify for everyone, we have always done the maintenance of our ditches in terms of making sure there is a flow line, flushing out the culverts, it's always been a part of our practice – however, it has been responding to 311 calls," said Veronica Davis, director of transportation and drainage for Houston Public Works. "But this program, we will continue to do our same practice, just a different name so that it is clear for everyone what it looks like and then also clarifying what is the responsibility of the abutting property owner, and what is the responsibility of the city."
Starting this year, the city would inspect 1,500 miles of roadside ditches in the priority areas. While inspections are being done for those areas, the city would still respond to 311 requests. It would cost the city $40 million, a one-time payment that has already been approved, to acquire equipment and contracts for fiscal year 2024.
As the city would doing its part to maintain the ditches under the proposal, property owners would be required to mow overgrown vegetation, pick up small litter/light debris, and to not install items that are not permitted. The city said it has about 2,500 miles of roadside ditches to maintain through the city.
"It will be unrealistic to think that the city can take care of these things at the frequency that we should do it," said Johana Clark, senior assistant director of Storm Water Maintenance.
District A city council member Amy Peck has a small section in her district that's a complete community and she said she's concerned that the rest of her district would be neglected.
"I just want to make sure that District A doesn’t get left out of this," she said. "There’s a lot of ditch issues in the rest of District A. It has been such a priority for us that we had to establish two ditch maintenance programs because it is such an issue – and to see that so much of this is just going to other areas of the city when this is clearly an issue in District A – I just want to make sure that it’s being addressed in District A as well."
Houston Public Works is working on a color-coded dashboard and map to allow communities to see the condition of their ditches, which would be labeled as poor, moderate or in good condition. It would allow the city to prioritize which ditches need the most attention.
"Transparency is a very key element of our commitment to be sure that we have transparency with the districts and with the community," Clark said.
City council member Tarsha Jackson said the program would provide relief to her constituents in Northeast Houston who have been fighting to get a program like this.
"For the residents in District B, this has been a long time waiting for myself," she said. “I’ve been advocating for this since Hurricane Ike (in 2008), so this is a huge win for the residents."
Huey German-Wilson is the president of Super Neighborhood 48, which includes Trinity Gardens/Houston Gardens. She said the new policy would be a big step for her community.
"We’ve been waiting 40 years for this type of campaign even before ditch maintenance, when it was still being done by the city," she said. "We weren’t seeing quite the level of care we needed and then afterwards, of course, we weren’t seeing the level of care we needed."
German-Wilson said even though the city would prioritize Northeast Houston and the complete communities, she's concerned that the next administration might have a different vision.
"What is the real plan for ditch maintenance in the event that the next administration doesn't want to keep complete communities?" she asked. "We're hoping that they do, but you know, the likelihood of a new mayor picking up the current mayor’s model and moving with it may not exist."