Let's Talk about Flooding in Houston

When I moved back to the Houston Area in 2014 I was quickly reminded that Houston, Harris County and the surrounding counties flood. Not a little flood, but major drastic floods. And why do they flood? Simple answer, greed.

Humans have been on this planet for thousands of years. Some even believe for millions of years. However long humans have been on this planet, it has been long enough that they should understand the basics of ecosystems, geology, and how water works.

European settlers in the Americas and Australia did not respect the land and as consequence they have caused great harm to the lands they migrated to. Why did this happen? They did not observe, respect, and retain how the local indigenous people treated the land. Instead they brought with them practices that worked for them in Europe. And many instances there was nothing wrong with that, except in many areas where the ecology, geography, climate and topology was drastically different from what they knew and experienced in Europe.

Houston History of Flooding

And for Houston, the early settlers completely disregarded the land. They disregarded the heavy clay loamy soil. They disregarded the behavior of the creeks and bayous. They just was disrespectful to the land.

Allen brothers founded Houston in 1836, they established the town at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak bayous. Shortly thereafter, every structure in the new settlement flooded. Early settlers documented that after heavy rains, their wagon trips west through the prairie involved days of walking through knee-deep water. -- Harris County Flood Control District

Instead of respecting the natural flow of water in what is now Harris county, and the pivotal role the prairie played in flooding they did the worst thing; they drained the swamp.

The new settlers didn't like this natural flooding because it wasn't conducive to building towns or farming the land. So, they set out to "drain" the land, and to clear it of much of its natural habitat for agriculture or timber for construction. However, there is a big difference between drainage and flooding. The settlers wanted to "drain" the land, which meant they wanted to make the water go away. They did it without any purpose, other than to make the water go away in a reasonable time and to make the channels flow downhill. As the channels got deeper, they also got wider. The early residents didn't plan with any particular rainfall amount in mind. -- Harris County Flood Control District

The key words from the paragraph above are "didn't plan". They just wanted to "drain the land" and this wild wild west culture exists to this day. Developers have "purchased" local and state government leaders through their lobbying efforts. They have sown seeds of discord and convinced local citizens that zoning laws are bad. So with no to low city and county planning; with much of the development occurring in unincorporated areas. County development has occurred with "no or piss poor planning" - just profit oriented. 

Hurricane Harvey

Check out this video of flooding that occurred in Cypress, TX, a non-incorporated suburb to the NW of Houston in Harris county. You'll see the video goes over woods surrounding the creek to a very old settlement called Hot Wells that is basically kissing the creek. It then pans over a very new subdivision, Alder Trails by Taylor Morrison, and then over to Riata West, an older development.

Video by: Danny Garza owner of Accurate Garage Door Services
What is a travesty with Alder Trails, as you see, many of the new homes that are still in the process of being built and some that people recently purchased and moved into flooded. Why? Well if you look at the Hot Wells neighborhood, Alder Trails is at the same exact elevation. The builder did not build the homes up out of the flood plain so that when the streets flooded the homes didn't flood.

Thus, Alder Trails is at the same elevation as Hot Wells and Riata West. The sloughs/man made tributaries behind Alder Trails (to the north and west) were not widened to accommodate all of the homes Taylor Morrison built. 
Nor were the K-147-00-00 and K-167-00-00 channels deepened. And because that did not happen, when Cypress Creek went over its banks there were stormwater sheetflows (water that crosses overland) to reach Horsepen Creek. 

Ordinarily Cypress Creek flows into the Cypress Creek Watershed, which flows to Lake Houston in the north east portion of Harris County. But during Hurricane Harvey, when Cypress Creek went over its banks south of US 290 it flowed southwest toward the Addicks Reservoir which flows to the Buffalo Bayou, which flows SW to Trinity Bay and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. So, Cypress Creek took the path of least resistance to get to Horsepen Creek, which took it through Hot Wells, Alder Trails, Riata West, and Barker Lake communities to Barker Cypress Road and directly south to Horsepen Creek, which flowed over its banks to Addicks Reservoir some ten miles away.
A major flood occurs somewhere in Harris County about every two years. Most of the flooding is in areas developed prior to the current understanding of flood potential and prior to regulations restricting construction in flood-prone areas. 
-- Harris County Flood Control District
Despite what the Flood Control district stated above that regulations are in place to prevent building in flood plains, there is copious building in flood plains all around Houston. The urban sprawl is so bad now that there is little to no farm land left in NW Harris county and developers are gobbling up land in Waller county, a poor rural, mostly white county.

The Video

The cleared land in the video posted above, is the Master Planned Community (MPC) Towne Lake. As you can see there is street flooding there, but the elevated land is not flooded. Not one home was flooded in Towne Lake. As a matter of fact, this community of boaters, dispatched their boats to rescue people from the communities I listed above that flooded, before the national guard was able to get out and help. Sadly, many people in those flooded communities, blamed Towne Lake and its non-existent dam for flooding their homes. 

It wasn't Towne Lake and the dam that never was, it was the lack of political will from local leaders and the MUD & Flood control districts to practice good will towards the citizens and prevent development in floodplains and also ensure there was excellent urban planning that included stellar water management. Because, as the Flood Control District mentioned, flooding is Houston's natural disaster. It will always flood here. And better water management, preventing over development, leaving wild spaces wild - not just for the flow of water but for habitat preservation, will ensure that when the skies open up, and they will, that lives and property are spared.

You will notice that during Hurricane Harvey and every other major flood that occurs in Houston there is a focus on the human toll. There is barely a mention on the toll to wildlife, especially wildlife that is squeezed into smaller and smaller territories with no escape to high ground. The majority of wild spaces in Houston are areas that are intended to flood to preserve human habitation. Wildlife have no place to go. And when they do enter into places with lots of humans, the first thing a Texan does is pick up their gun. 

Let's Talk

So, what are your thoughts on flooding in Houston? In particular, flooding in Cypress, which frankly hasn't been given much thought or planning, especially the notorious flooding Cypress Creek. This article focuses on flooding south of US 290 along Cypress Creek. If you do a web search, most of the reporting is on the flooding that occurred north of US 290 with barely no mention to south of US 290. 

It took the massive training Hurricane Harvey for leaders to start focusing on Cypress Creek. It was easy to ignore Cypress Creek in the past because the flooding occurred in a mostly rural part of Harris County. But that isn't the case any more, due to urban sprawl NW Harris county is now suburban. And there are more people living in unincorporated Cypress than in some small cities across the US.

I want to hear your views about this topic. Leave a comment below or tweet me

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