Issue 4 Volume 1, November 2009  
Harris County Flood Control Projects

Natural disasters occur throughout the United States, with flooding being the number one threat to Harris County. The county is generally flat, has impermeable clay soils, and is prone to severe rainfall, which leads to flooding. The Harris County Flood Control District spends millions of dollars each year building projects that reduce flooding risks and damages. These projects include widening and deepening bayous and their tributaries; excavating large, regional stormwater detention basins that hold millions of gallons of stormwater; implementing voluntary home-buyout programs to move families who live deep in the floodplain and whose homes repeatedly flood; and maintaining more than 2,500 miles of channel in the county – basically the distance from Los Angeles to New York.

The Flood Control District’s largest projects are taking place on Brays, Sims and White Oak bayous.

The $483 million Project Brays is the largest undertaking ever by the Flood Control District in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers and consists of widening 21 miles of Brays Bayou, excavating four massive stormwater detention basins, and replacing or modifying 32 bridges. To date, eight miles have been widened and two detention basins along Brays Bayou near Old Westheimer Road and Beltway 8 have been completed. A basin near the bayou and Eldridge Road, the largest in Harris County, is about 65 percent complete. A basin in Westbury near Willow Waterhole Bayou is about 40 percent complete.

When finished, the combined capacity of the four basins will be equal to seven Reliant Astrodomes of stormwater storage. That is water that would otherwise overflow from Brays Bayou and cause substantial flooding. Overall, Project Brays is about 40 percent complete and is expected to reduce the size of the 100-year floodplain so that an estimated 30,000 homes and businesses will no longer be in it.

The $379 million Sims Bayou Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project consists of widening and deepening 19 miles of Sims Bayou and replacing or modifying 21 bridges. Led by the Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the Flood Control District, this project is supplemented by three stormwater detention basins built using local funds. To date, 14 miles of Sims Bayou have been widened and deepened, and four miles are currently under construction. Sixteen bridges have been replaced or modified as well. The project is about 85 percent complete. It is expected to free 35,000 homes and 2,000 businesses from the 100-year floodplain.

The Flood Control District has spent approximately $75 million reducing flood risks along White Oak Bayou by widening and deepening the bayou from Cole Creek (near Tidwell Road) to Beltway 8 and excavating 10 stormwater detention basins totaling roughly 1 billion gallons of stormwater storage. The district is building the Jersey Village Channel, which will allow roughly 30 percent of the water in White Oak Bayou to flow around the flood-prone city of Jersey Village during times of heavy rain. There are plans to further excavate several basins and to continue widening and deepening White Oak Bayou from Beltway 8 upstream to F.M. 1960. The county is trying to qualify many of these projects built with local funds as federal projects in order to leverage costs.

Through its Voluntary Home Buyout Program, the Flood Control District has bought approximately 2,500 homes which were deep in the floodplain and repeatedly flooded. After helping homeowners move to higher ground, the district demolished the flood-prone homes along major bayous and streams throughout Harris County. Today, the land remains vacant and functions as a natural floodplain.

Projects of the Flood Control District have spared thousands of homes from flooding during times of heavy rain throughout the years. Most recently, the district estimates that approximately 1,700 homes were spared from inundation on April 27-28, 2009, because of projects in the Brays Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Cypress Creek, Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River watersheds.

The Flood Control District also has ongoing capital projects taking place along Halls, Hunting, Greens and Armand bayous and on Goose and Spring creeks.


New Program for Non-emergency Transportation Service Set to Save Harris County Taxpayers Money

Emergency calls come in every day to the 911 call system in Houston requiring a quick response. There are, however, a disproportionate number of calls for ambulance dispatch where the “emergency” turns out to be a set of surgical stitches that needs removing or a child’s croupy cough or a prescription that has run out on needed medication.

In a time of shrinking tax revenues and limited community resources, unnecessary requests for emergency services mean squandered tax dollars and potential slower response times for true emergencies.

Since 2007, the Harris County Healthcare Alliance (HCHA) has been working with community agencies and stakeholders to identify types of non-emergency calls to the 911 system and implement a centralized community nurse triage operation in Houston/Harris County. A call diversion pilot program was initiated in June 2008 called the 911 TeleHealth Nurse Triage Program, administered by HCHA and the Houston Fire Department.

Evaluation of the program determined that a major reason that people are calling 911 is because they lack transportation to any type of medical care – emergency or not.

The HCHA approached Harris County RIDES in late 2008 to jointly develop and implement a pilot transportation program to provide such services for residents going through the 911 Tele-Health Triage program. RIDES, a program of the Transit Services Division of the Harris County Community Services Department, has a successful history of providing niche alternative transportation throughout Harris County. Through a RIDES’ taxi vendor, Yellow Cab, patients who qualify with a non-emergency situation will be provided the option of a no-cost, one-way trip to the appropriate level of care.

Service started November 2, and RIDES expects to provide approximately 135 non-emergency trips a month during the one-year pilot.

The savings to taxpayers are not insignificant. Each emergency dispatch costs approximately $1750. Further, by lessening the diversion of emergency vehicles and services for non-emergencies, those resources are freed to respond to true 911 emergencies.

With success, the pilot may provide a model for other areas of the country plagued by the problem of overworked 911 systems by diverting non-emergency calls and providing alternative transportation solutions.

Repurposing the “Eighth Wonder of the World”

What shall be done with the Astrodome?

Like an aging Hollywood starlet, the Harris County Domed Stadium (yep, that’s its real name) sits abandoned and nearly forgotten, hoping only for another chance to recapture its former allure. And thanks to folks inside and outside Harris County government, she may get her chance to do just that.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court have said repeatedly that they want to revitalize the old stadium and reserve it for a public use of some type. There had been talk of converting it into a hotel, but there has been no progress on that proposal for many months. In the meantime, though, other ideas have moved to the forefront.

One of the most recent proposals, a study of which was approved by Commissioners Court in June, is to convert part of the 44-year-old stadium into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Institute, which could also include a planetarium and/or museum. Emmett and Commissioner El Franco Lee have said that one of the advantages of the idea is that it would also leave room in the Dome for other potential projects, including use as a venue for many of the unique cultural, ethnic, and community festivals county residents enjoy. In addition, supporters of using the stadium as a movie, video, and music production studio have said they are willing to work with those proposing the STEM Institute.

In short, nothing has yet been decided for the future of Harris County’s “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But it seems clear that progress is now being made to convert it into a public, multipurpose facility of which Harris County residents can again be proud.