Ques­tions linger on dis­as­ter re­lief funds

How, where money will be spent and who will be in charge of projects await an­swers

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Nick Pow­ell

The heavy lift­ing of find­ing fed­eral money to pay for a litany of dis­as­ter re­cov­ery projects in Texas was largely com­pleted back in Fe­bru­ary when Congress passed the Bi­par­ti­san Bud­get Act, se­cur­ing $15 bil­lion of U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers fund­ing for con­struc­tion in high pri­or­ity ar­eas im­pacted by flood­ing.

But a day af­ter $5 bil­lion of that money has been di­rectly al­lo­cated to the Army Corps of En­gi­neers for key flood mit­i­ga­tion and in­fra­struc­ture projects, there are still ques­tions as to how and where that money will be spent, and which agen­cies or lo­cal govern­ment en­ti­ties will be charged with stew­ard­ing the funds.

“I be­lieve that the money will come to the Corps and for some of the projects where we part­ner with Har­ris County Flood Con­trol (Dis­trict), there’s a cou­ple (projects) that they take the lead on, we will re­im­burse them for their ex­penses — that’s un­der a nor­mal process,” said Sharon Tir­pak, deputy chief of project man­age­ment for the Galve­ston Dis­trict of the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers.

“What I don’t know is how th­ese monies will be doled out — whether the money will come to us and then we will give (non­fed­eral spon­sors) the money or re­im­burse for ex­penses,” Tir­pak

said. “I don’t have that an­swer.”

The Army Corps of En­gi­neers has said that, where ap­pro­pri­ate, the fund­ing an­nounced Thurs­day will be made avail­able to el­i­gi­ble non-fed­eral spon­sors that have the ca­pac­ity to com­plete the projects.

The Wa­ter Re­sources Re­form and De­vel­op­ment Act of 2014 gave lee­way to the Army Corps of En­gi­neers to es­tab­lish a pi­lot pro­gram to eval­u­ate the cost-ef­fec­tive­ness of al­low­ing non-fed­eral en­ti­ties to carry out fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies and the con­struc­tion of projects for flood-risk man­age­ment, hur­ri­cane and storm dam­age re­duc­tion, ecosys­tem restora­tion, and coastal har­bor and chan­nel and in­land har­bor nav­i­ga­tion.

Bayou projects

Since 1996, the Har­ris County Flood Con­trol Dis­trict is one of those lo­cal en­ti­ties that has worked closely with the Army Corps of En­gi­neers on de­vel­op­ing in­fra­struc­ture projects on Brays Bayou, Hunt­ing Bayou, and White Oak Bayou — three projects that are slated to re­ceive $75 mil­lion, $65 mil­lion and $45 mil­lion, re­spec­tively, of the $5 bil­lion al­lo­cated to the Army Corps of En­gi­neers.

The Brays Bayou project con­sists of around 21 miles of chan­nel im­prove­ments, 11,400 acrefeet of stormwa­ter de­ten­tion vol­ume and 30 bridge re­place­ments or mod­i­fi­ca­tions; the Hunt­ing Bayou project calls for around 4 miles of chan­nel im­prove­ments, 1,000 acre-feet of stormwa­ter de­ten­tion vol­ume, and 17 bridge re­place­ments or mod­i­fi­ca­tions; and White Oak Bayou con­sists of over 15 miles of chan­nel im­prove­ments and al­most 3,000 acre-feet of stormwa­ter de­ten­tion vol­ume.

The Har­ris County Flood Con­trol Dis­trict will likely take the lead role in the plan­ning, de­sign and con­struc­tion of flood-dam­age re­duc­tion projects with the Army Corps of En­gi­neers pro­vid­ing over­sight. The lo­cal spon­sor, in this case the flood con­trol dis­trict, pays all costs of fed­eral ap­pro­pri­a­tions and is re­im­bursed for the fed­eral share if they sat­isfy the proper con­di­tions.

Russ Poppe, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Har­ris County Flood Con­trol Dis­trict, noted in a state­ment that the tim­ing of the re­lease of fund­ing and other de­tails still needed to be ad­dressed, but none­the­less hailed the in­flux of fed­eral money as “very pos­i­tive news.”

“This se­cured fund­ing will al­low us to com­plete th­ese projects in a much shorter time frame — as com­pared to the un­cer­tainty of an­nual ap­pro­pri­a­tions — and will re­duce flood risks for thou­sands of Har­ris County res­i­dents,” Poppe said.

Coastal lev­ees

For the big-ticket item in the $5 bil­lion pack­age — $3.9 bil­lion for the Sabine Pass-to-Galve­ston Bay Coastal Storm Risk Man­age­ment and Ecosys­tem Restora­tion — Tir­pak said the Army Corps of En­gi­neers will al­lo­cate that money to lo­cal con­trac­tors to help carry out the de­sign and con­struc­tion on a se­ries of up­grades and im­prove­ments to 30 miles of coastal lev­ees in Port Arthur and Freeport, and the con­struc­tion of nearly 27 miles of coastal lev­ees in south­ern Or­ange County.

“The (Sabine Pass to Galve­ston Bay) study is done, the money that we’re go­ing to get from the (fed­eral) Bi­par­ti­san Bud­get Act, that will al­low us to go into the de­sign phase and then go into con­struc­tion,” Tir­pak said.

Not ‘Ike Dike so­lu­tion’

The Sabine Pass to Galve­ston Bay project has a long his­tory, ini­tially con­ceived in 2004 as a way to shore up ag­ing levee sys­tems along the coast­line. The Army Corps of En­gi­neers was in the midst of study­ing the project when Hur­ri­cane Ike hit in 2008, dev­as­tat­ing parts of the Texas coast and halt­ing the study in­def­i­nitely.

The Texas Gen­eral Land Of­fice signed on to spon­sor a new study of the project in 2013, and by the end of 2017 the Corps had nar­rowed the scope of the project to Freeport, Port Arthur, and Or­ange County.

In a state­ment, U.S. Rep. John Cul­ber­son hailed the al­lo­ca­tion as “an im­por­tant step in de­vel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive coastal spine to pro­tect the Texas coast,” but Tir­pak made clear to draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the levee project and the long-awaited “Ike Dike” study.

“If you look at the en­tire Texas coast, that’s a por­tion of the coast that we have an­swered the ques­tions on, ‘How do you pro­tect that up­per south­east Texas coast?’ ” Tir­pak said. “So, if you look at it com­pre­hen­sively, that’s tak­ing care of that por­tion, but it does not in­clude what ev­ery­one con­sid­ers the coastal spine or the Ike Dike so­lu­tion.”

Study­ing the spine

The Army Corps of En­gi­neers has not yet ap­proved a de­sign for the Ike Dike, but it did al­lo­cate $1.9 mil­lion for the con­tin­ued study of a coastal spine bar­rier as part of its $5 bil­lion pack­age.

Tir­pak said a draft report of that study and an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact state­ment would be re­leased by the end of Septem­ber, fol­lowed by a se­ries of pub­lic meet­ings, likely be­gin­ning in Novem­ber. Sev­eral meet­ings are be­ing planned for the Hous­ton-Galve­ston area, one in League City, one in Galve­ston, and one in Win­nie, with other meet­ings planned far­ther down the Texas coast.

The final Ike Dike study is ex­pected to be com­pleted by the spring of 2021.

Other projects re­ceiv­ing fund­ing from the Army Corps of En­gi­neers in­clude $295 mil­lion for the Clear Creek wa­ter­shed project will re­ceive to per­form an eco­nom­ics up­date, de­sign and con­struct con­veyance and in-creek de­ten­tion ar­eas to hold and store wa­ter and cre­ate a sys­tem to re­duce flood dam­ages in the up­per por­tion of the Clear Creek wa­ter­shed.

The Clear Creek project was set up as a 65/35 fed­eral/lo­cal share project be­tween the Army Corps of En­gi­neers and the Har­ris County Flood Con­trol Dis­trict, with the Army Corps tak­ing the lead on de­sign and con­struc­tion.

An­other $1.4 mil­lion is go­ing toward the on­go­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and con­struc­tion of the Ad­dicks & Barker Dam Safety Project, a project funded pri­mar­ily by the Army Corps of En­gi­neers.

As­sess­ing city is­sues

A sig­nif­i­cantly smaller por­tion of money will fund sev­eral stud­ies and as­sess­ments to ad­dress flood­ing con­cerns in the Hous­ton area on Buf­falo Bayou and its trib­u­taries, and the Bra­zos River.

Buf­falo Bayou and Trib­u­taries Re­siliency Study is re­ceiv­ing $6 mil­lion to in­ves­ti­gate and iden­tify al­ter­na­tives to stop flood­ing in and around the dams dur­ing ma­jor storm events.

The Bra­zos River Ero­sion Study is re­ceiv­ing $3 mil­lion to in­ves­ti­gate flood risk man­age­ment mea­sures to re­duce or mit­i­gate ero­sion losses along the Bra­zos River near the city of Richmond.

The Hous­ton Re­gional Wa­ter­shed As­sess­ment is also re­ceiv­ing $3 mil­lion to as­sess the in­ter­ac­tion of the 22 pri­mary wa­ter­sheds in Har­ris County dur­ing flood events, and iden­tify po­ten­tial mea­sures to im­prove op­er­a­tions of ex­ist­ing reser­voir dams, con­veyance chan­nels and de­ten­tion basins.

Th­ese stud­ies are typ­i­cally done in close part­ner­ship with the lo­cal spon­sor, like the Har­ris County Flood Con­trol Dis­trict in Har­ris County, and there are pub­lic re­views of the plan be­fore it is fi­nal­ized.

Jon Shap­ley / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

A flooded Brays Bayou roars along Law­nale Street in Au­gust 2017 af­ter heavy rains from the rem­nants of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. Re­pair of storm dam­age con­tin­ues across the re­gion.

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