Lake Houston residents have cause for celebration upon hearing the news that State Rep. Dan Huberty has successfully convinced House Appropriations Chairman Dr. John Zerwas to accept a $30 million amendment to Senate Bill 500.
The $30 million would fund the ongoing dredging projects in Lake Houston, specifically to dredge the sand bar at the junction of the San Jacinto West Fork and Lake Houston.
The Texas Senate passed the omnibus appropriations bill known as SB500 March 13. When the bill moved to the Texas House for review, Huberty added the amendment. Specifically, the $30 million will be dedicated to the Texas Water Development Board to provide a grant to Harris County to purchase and operate the equipment to remove the accumulated sand and silt deposits at the river-lake confluence, work that was not covered in the original dredge scope.
Nearly a year ago, Lake Houston residents were shocked to learn that the dredge project would only encompass a 2.1 mile area and would not include the mouth bar. The fight to add the mouth bar to the dredge project has continued ever since.
Although two dredge operations started in September and October 2018, the confluence dredge was out of scope of the original FEMA project since the FEMA project’s sole purpose is to restore the river to pre-Harvey levels.
The entire new dredge project is estimated to be $50 million, requiring not only Huberty’s proposed $30 million, but $20 million from other entities. Arguments regarding the confluence dredge have been ongoing since early 2018. Several parties, including FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state, Harris County and the City of Houston are all involved.
Most of the arguments have been about how much of the sediment at the mouth bar was actually deposited as a direct result of Harvey. FEMA is supposed to kick in some funding, but the agency takes its orders from the Stafford Act, which states that FEMA can only remove sediment deposited as a result of Harvey. It is still unclear whether FEMA will contribute to the mouth bar dredge. Arguments continue.
The central issue is that despite bathymetric studies and core samples, no one seems to be able to definitively determine how much sediment was due to Harvey. Some estimates attribute as much as one-third of the sediment to the devastating hurricane that hit the Lake Houston area hard in August 2017.
Theoretically, Harris County should pay for at least 20% (or $10 million) of this additional confluence dredge. The $2.5 billion Harris County flood bond approved by voters in August 2018 indeed included $10 million in matching funds for dredging of both forks of the San Jacinto and Lake Houston. Harris County committed to partnering with the state, the City of Houston and the Coastal Water Authority to complete the dredging to reduce flood risks.
Kingwood had a huge voter turnout for the bond and voted in favor of the bond, mainly due to the intent to prioritize bond money based on a “worst first” criterion, a fact that is reiterated on newly elected County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s own Harris County Flood Control District website; high priority will be given to projects with “the most bang for flood control buck.”
However, Hidalgo is a new judge, having defeated incumbent Judge Ed Emmett, who was instrumental in structuring and “selling” the bond to voters. With slippery bond wording like “potential partnership” and Hidalgo herself muddying the waters by suggesting reprioritization of funds away from Kingwood, it is also now unclear whether Harris County will actually contribute the funds as promised to voters for the mouth bar project.
Huberty’s $30 million proposal bypasses all the bureaucracy and gets the ball rolling. Because it calls for purchase of the dredge equipment, the Lake Houston area would be able to actually use it whenever it is needed. USACE all along has emphasized maintenance dredging to prevent a re-accumulation of sediment.
Regarding dredging, bureaucracy is clearly a factor as bickering over which sediment removals are in which project scope and arguments over who does what and when continue.
The clock is ticking. The current FEMA dredge project will be completed in April, and if the additional dredge can be finalized while the dredge equipment is still in place, taxpayers could save nearly $20 million – the cost of re-mobilization if the equipment were to be removed and then reinstated. Lake Houston residents know all too well that it took nearly four months for the original dredge projects to be fully mobilized. The cost of remobilization amounts to about 25% of the total project cost.
What happens now? The Texas Senate must approve Huberty’s change, then the bill is destined for Governor Greg Abbott’s desk. For Lake Houston residents, signing the bill cannot come fast enough. The Lake Houston area dodged a bullet in the 2018 hurricane season with a relatively mild weather system, yet residents are still very nervous even with relatively small rains. It is a vicious cycle. Rains are small, but the mouth bar sediment deposited by Harvey creates backwater in the river, which forces the city to release water ahead of storms to avoid flooding.
At nearly 600 days post-Harvey, residents grow tired of endless studies and can almost be heard chanting “dredge, baby, dredge.” This sentiment is echoed by Dianne Lansden, chair of the Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative: “If this appropriation actually comes to fruition, it could get the ball rolling quickly on the dredging of the mouth bar between Royal Shores and Atascocita Point that has the very real potential to exacerbate flooding in the Lake Houston area. The red tape that is involved with trying to get FEMA to fund this mouth bar dredging has dragged on long enough. Hurricane season will begin soon!”
Will the City of Houston save taxpayers millions in dredging fees? A lot needs to happen in April for that to be possible – core sample results, grants, permits and a public comment period. As each day passes, and the process remains mired in red tape, it appears the city will have to pull off a miracle for this to happen.