Questions linger on disaster relief funds
How, where money will be spent and who will be in charge of projects await answers
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.
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.
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.
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.