HOUSTON, TEXAS – Flooding & Drainage Design – August 28, 2017

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This topic contains 1 reply, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Jamie Chen 2 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #150809

    J. Robert Wainner
    Participant

    HOUSTON, TEXASFlooding & Drainage Design Hurricane Harvey

    I would like to read thoughts and opinions of any LAs here on LAND 8 about the FLOODING and DRAINAGE design issues in the Houston, Texas area.

    I realize that for CITIES……have either City Civil Engineers, sometimes Private Civil Engineering Firms as well as the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers who are responsible for the drainage design and solutions…..but, as Landscape Architects, we too get involved with drainage design & solutions…..at least for specific SITES.

    I have personally designed (6) major (large) multi-family properties in the Houston, Texas area.  And, in all 6 cases……my Drainage Design Plans were directly dependent upon the Civil Engineer’s Grading Plans.  I can recall that, IMO, those Civil Engineers just did NOT raise the Finish Floor Grades high enough.  I was lucky to be able to get 1% drainage on lawn areas…..and I always try to get at least 2% on lawn areas.  In addition, a vast majority of the SOILS in the Houston area are CLAY…..so, water has little opportunity to percolate down into the soil….so, the drainage has no place to go except sideways!

    I know it’s pretty much impossible to plan for every major Hurricane or flooding event…..especially one as MAJOR as Hurricane Harvey, which turned into a nearly 50 inch rain event.  But, WHY, did the City of Houston NOT plan back, say, 15 years ago for FUTURE flooding???  Between 2013 and 2014, Houston was the 10th fastest growing city in the Nation; That alone, would tell me, NEW developments would definitely have a NEGATIVE impact on the drainage problems that already existed in the Houston area.

    I realize, to some degree, the Landscape Architecture profession has its’ hands tied on overall drainage issues and solutions…….but, WE should have a voice.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the Millions of people in Houston and all along the Texas coast who are having to cope with the terrible rain, wind and flooding events caused by Hurricane Harvey.

    Any thoughts, suggestions, ideas?

    #150824

    Jamie Chen
    Participant

    In 2016 Houston’s local newspaper was already reporting the consequences of the decimation of Houston’s wetlands. 

    http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Houston-s-development-boom-and-reduction-of-8403838.php

    By the time it became necessary for a developer to hire civil engineers, it is too late in the process. They should NEVER have touched that land. Not bought it, parceled it, filed it at whatever city/county departments. They chose to funnel human lives onto dangerous ground. They chose to speculate on low land. That’s blood money. 

    Nobody had the political will to say to developers AND ignorant civilian homebuyers that this was hazardous ground, unfit for human habitation. 

    Houston itself HAS NO ZONING. When it is allowed to build anything anywhere, people WILL. And then as a consequence, the lives of people who don’t know any better, who spent who knows how much of their lives working for wages to pay for it all… it’s gone. 

    That’s what happened and that’s how it is. Until the states on the Gulf take a good hard look at themselves and actively save lives by telling speculators/developers NO, not on THIS ground, this will continue to happen. 

    #150823

    Andrew Garulay, RLA
    Participant

    I think we might need to talk to architects about widening doorways so that some landscape architects can fit their heads through them. There is 50″ of rain. You can design drainage all you want, but even the rivers can’t drain fast enough. You can’t drain to a place that is already filled with water that is higher than what you are draining.

    I am not a Civil Engineer worshipper, but in what world do landscape architects have more drainage education and knowledge than civil engineers?

    I don’t know if Civil Engineers failed in Houston or not, but do you really believe that if the drainage design had been turned over to Landscape Architects it would have been better?

    REALLY!

    #150822

    J. Robert Wainner
    Participant

    I think “Jamie” made some very good points with her comments!

    Houston is famous for NOT having Zoning Laws.  So, Developers will literally build anything anywhere.  Unreal.  So, that group, IMO, is partially to blame here.

    And, I know that Civil Engineers are bound by the same code of ethics that “Licensed Landscape Architects” are….to always “protect the safety, health and welfare of the public”.  

    Just to repeat myself…..it just seems to me….that the City of Houston Leaders (politicians) and City Civil Engineers & Planners…..dropped the ball.  Other cities in Texas, like San Antonio, re-designed the “Riverwalk” project (that was once just a river that ran thru the center of the City)…and turned it into not only a tourist attraction for the City of San Antonio…but, also, a method of “flood management”.

    And, I realize that planning for a 50 inch rain event is not really “feasible”…..but, City Leaders who KNOW the city…..KNOW the areas that are most likely to flood…..every time it rains.  So, when you have a Hurricane heading in your direction……if you KNOW your City’s Drainage System will be a serious “issue” for the citizens……I think, those City Leaders should take the situation very seriously and take ACTION.

    You would “think”….that after all that has taken place with the 50 inch rain and major flooding in the Houston area……that The City Of Houston would FINALLY begin to take serious measures to control development in the City…..re-evaluate the City’s Drainage System…..and start passing effective Zoning Laws.  

    Like the saying goes……It’s OK to make mistakes, just try to NOT make the SAME mistake twice. WHEN will HOUSTON learn?  How many more Billions of dollars in property losses and how many more deaths caused by Floods will it take before action is taken for the FUTURE of the citizens of Houston?

    #150821

    Andrew Garulay, RLA
    Participant

    Most communities have a Comprehensive Plan that is developed as a big picture of how to shape the community in many ways including physically. That sets the stage for all of the many boards and departments to focus on. Each board and department does their thing, …. each smaller box has to fit in the bigger box. There are a lot of constraints and limitations added on to each smaller box.

    You can’t blame a developer for building in an area that is presented as a place to develop. You can’t blame an engineer that has to design his drainage to the budget of the developer who hired him/her and the minimum standards set forth by the city/county/state.

    These things are often not as simple as they look.

    The biggest problems usually arise from the Comprehensive Plan itself if the community is sensitive to “over regulation”, or if there are high co$ts for things that are invisible to much of the community. Politicians don’t like to be seen  spending billions to on dams when no flood disasters  happened in decades vs. being on TV cutting a ribbon at a new community center and skate park.

    This, and the fact that Houston (and Phoenix) is the poster child for urban sprawl may be a result of politicians not wanting to “burden the economy” with regulation. I live in Massachusetts where there is a strong tendency to over regulate, but I also have lived in Idaho where it was the opposite. I did some projects in a county where there was no zoning and no building code – believe me, you don’t want to buy a house there. You have to strike a balance and that balance is going to be different in every community.

    Bob, you have never given me the impression that you were for over regulation. Everything is a trade off. Houston may want to allow development of low lands so there is cheaper housing available and someone wants to accept the risk to have low cost housing. Other communities are called snobs because they regulate the cost of housing upward, but the community is safer. You can’t have it both ways. You can only strike a balance that matches the attitude of the community.

    #150820

    J. Robert Wainner
    Participant

    I think we all understand that our cities and communities DO need some “regulation & zoning”…just has to happen.  

    As an LA who has designed a very “wide variety” of project types (not just residential projects), I have had to deal with DRAINAGE issues on a large scale hundreds of times….as large as 70 acre properties…and provided “Site Grading Plans” on over 500 projects.  But, I have learned that the Developers, CEs & Architects take the lead with these projects.  However, the City Leaders (politicians) SHOULD be ensuring that the overall City Drainage Master Plan takes into account, FUTURE growth. I’m not sure WHY any City allows residential or commercial developments to occur near rivers, lakes, creeks….especially, when “history” has shown that those areas have flooded in the past.

    I’m all for every community having low income housing…..but, that still doesn’t justify building those housing communities in flood plains.  Every family should believe that the home they purchase was built in a “safe” location.

    It just appears to ME, that the city leaders of Houston don’t want to turn down any “tax revenues” they’ll receive from developments…..so, this is a city that is just way to lax with creating regulations to prevent over-building that would have a “negative” impact on the existing drainage system.

    So, I really don’t believe just upgrading the “Drainage Master Plan” to meet today’s needs will work. The City (and surrounding communities) will need to legislate some zoning and measures that prevent building in low lying areas along with over-building.  

    I agree, there needs to be a “balance” of zoning and regulations in every city….but, bottom line is to keep the citizens safe.

    #150819

    Andrew Garulay, RLA
    Participant

    You are making my point. It is much more to do with the opportunities developers have to exploit holes in regulations than it is to do with those hired by them to do their design work whether they are landscape architects, civil engineers, or something else.

    The development business is, whether we like it or not, very sensitive to controlling costs. It is competitive. They will almost always go to the minimum standards of design and exploit whatever ways they can in going through the regulating bodies. You seldom see trees planted 20′ apart on a commercial project if the minimum requirement is 30′. You won’t see a drainage design for a 50 year event if the standard is a 25 year event.

    It is flat out the city regulations that drive everything and it is the community that either lacks participation in the comprehensive planning, or is anti-regulation, or has tasked incompetent people to set those regulations, or has incompetent or agenda driven people overseeing the implementation of those regulations on the regulatory boards or in the field. 

    #150818

    J. Robert Wainner
    Participant

    Yes, Andrew……I think you and I are in total agreement with this “Drainage” problem in Houston, Texas.

    What’s really sad….is that, I think this will just continue to occur in the FUTURE.  I seriously doubt that The City Of Houston will make the necessary changes to the Drainage Master Plan and limit growth in the Houston area.  

    I also believe that the Mayor of Houston made a mistake….by not recommending that people (who have the financial means) to evacuate the City far to the North.  I think there have been 18,000 water rescues.

    I just believe that EVERY U.S. City that is vulnerable to Hurricanes really should be planning for these events.  I realize, that planning for a 500 yr. rain – flood event (like they’re calling this one) is really not very practical to plan for….but, it’s just obvious to me, that The City Of Houston just isn’t doing enough.  

    Right now, out in the Atlantic is Hurricane IRMA…..and it appears that it very well could make landfall in the U.S.  Hopefully not….we’ll see.  Then, we’ll have to see IF the area that is hit has handled their “Drainage” issues better than Houston?

    #150817

    J. Robert Wainner
    Participant

    Continuing with this story……..Sept. 1, 2017.

    Today, the news reported that the Houston Army Corp of Engineers were going to OPEN the flood gates of a major reservoir……which, will cause already flooded neighborhoods to flood……once again. And, the water had been receding to the point where many of these homeowners were on their way back to check on damage to their homes.  VERY unhappy home owners.

    WHY……can the Civil Engineers working for the Army Corp of Engineers get the “calculations” right?  I researched the salary range for CE’s who work for the Army Corp of Engineers…….the Management positions pay $120k to over $145k annually.

    I would THINK…..that those “reservoirs” are kept low enough…..in anticipation of yet another Hurricane that could hit the Houston area during this Hurricane season…as we are only half way thru this years’ Hurricane season.  But, I realize, that water is used to provide drinking water, irrigation water, etc for area homes and businesses…so, there has to be a “balance”.

    The news stated…..100,000 Houston area homes were flooded out.  Unbelievable.

    #150816

    Dave McCorquodale
    Participant

    …and then there’s this little gem:

    https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/09/05/engineers-warned-of-flooding-risk-to-houston-area-in-1996-report.html

    Our collective attention span, coupled with our acceptance of mediocre politicians, is to blame for a significant amount of the flooding in Houston. 

    Sadly, we still seem to prefer politics over science…

    #150815

    landscapeplanner
    Participant

    I AM A LAND PLANNER IN HOUSTON AND I HAVE DESIGNED SUBDIVISIONS AND MASTER PLANNED COMMUNITIES IN HOUSTON FOR FIVE YEARS.

    WE HAD OVER FIFTY INCHES OF RAIN!!!!!!!WE ARE STILL FIGURING OUT A TON OF THINGS LIKE HOW TO GET TO WORK IN THE MORNING!!!!

    I ALSO HAD TO EVACUATE MY APARTMENT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AT 2 AM BECAUSE TWO RESERVOIRS (BOTH OF WHICH WERE DESIGNED DECADES BEFORE I WAS BORN) DECIDED TO BE RELEASED BEHIND MY APARTMENT OF 5 YEARS.  AND YES, I DESIGN DRAINAGE EASEMENTS TOO AS PART OF MY JOB.  DID I PLAN THIS? HELL NO.

    I HAD 6 DAYS WITH NO POWER, AND NOW THE LOCAL STREET IN FRONT OF MY APARTMENT IS A MAJOR THOROUGHFARE. I HAVE TO WALK HOME WHICH IS THREE MILES AWAY BECAUSE THE ROADS ARE THAT SCREWED UP. IT WILL TAKE WEEKS TO REPAIR.  THERE IS A LIKELYHOOD OF MOSQUITO INFESTION AND A LOT OF WATERBORNE AND AIRBORNE ILLNESS COMING UP NEXT THAT WE HAVE TO PUT WITH.

    SO BEFORE ANY OF YOU JERKS POINT THE FINGER SHOW SOME GODDAM SYMPATHY AND CONCERN FOR YOUR OWN BRETHERN.BECAUSE IT COULD EASILY HAPPENED TO ANY OF YOU!!

    ON TOP OF WORK I AM ALSO JUGGLING A CERTIFICATION IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT (PMP) AND I WAS ABLE TO ATTEND BOTH ONLINE CLASSES LAST WEEK AND STAY ON TOP OF HOMEWORK.  IT HAS BEEN VERY HARDTO DEAL WITH WORK, STUDY, AND NOW A HURRICANE RECOVERY.

    SHAME ON ALL OF YOU ESPECIALLY THE COCKY OP.  I LOST ALL RESPECT FOR YOU YEARS AGO NOW YOU ARE JUST A GODDAM CANTERKOUS PAIN  IN THE ASS!!!!

    #150814

    Dave McCorquodale
    Participant

    Thanks for the all caps, really helps convey that this thread makes you mad.  Here’s a thought– don’t read the thread, or move on and ignore it if it bothers you.  But you being out of your apartment really doesn’t matter to the discussion at hand.  Again, if it’s a little too close to home for you right now, don’t have the discussion.  

    But suggesting that everyone who was affected should be made physically and emotionally whole before it’s appropriate to ask questions about why it happened is ridiculous.  And yep…I don’t fault you for doing what you need to do to make a living, but sprawling subdivisions in the region are MOST DEFINITELY TO BLAME AS WELL FOR FLOODING!  (Sorry, I see the allure of the all caps thing, now).  

    And quit whining about the traffic in front of your apartment and your terrible commute.  It’s Houston.  You should have figured that out 5 years ago…

    #150813

    landscapeplanner
    Participant

    Communities today have far more strict detention requirements.  They are designed outside of 500 year floodplains, if not more.  Most of the flooding is occurring in areas within the center of the city in older neighborhoods that are within the 100 year floodplain much of which was designed from the 1950s to the 1980s. The simple solution would be condemning vast tracks of land in the city center and retrofitting the rest with infrastructure including underground detention and cisterns  This is not economically feasible.  It is highly likely that people displaced by this last weeks flood will move out even farther into the outlying suburbs along the Grand Parkway and beyond, making the problems worse.  Tens of thousands of people (myself included) will likely leave entirely before the City even considers moving its development code into zoning.  There is not a history of zoning in place, but there is a likelihood of density and height restrictions on permitted uses. 

    Is that better?

    #150812

    Dave McCorquodale
    Participant

    Sorry for acting like a jerk.  I appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective.  I don’t agree with some of the conclusions, but you’re not beating us over the head for raising the issue.  

    I didn’t flood–I live 60 miles or so north of downtown.  But many clients (who live around the I-10 & BW8 area, did.  They flooded within 4-5 years of building 1.5 million dollar houses.  It all sucks, for sure.  

    Full disclosure–I’m a politician.  Local city council.  And it makes me get a little crazy in city council meetings every time I hear a new development “needs no detention, because of proximity to Lake Conroe.”  I understand county regulations, along with the phrase “minimum requirements” enough to know that it’s just not enough.  We have to address things differently.  

    Again, my response to your post is embarrassing.  Shouldn’t have said it, period.  I apologize to you.  Thank you for not taking my same approach to the discussion.

    Dave

    #150811

    landscapeplanner
    Participant

    Thank you for saying that. 

    I do want to emphasize a few other things unique to Houston and its metro area.

    1. Streets are designed here to flood.  I never understood this (but I’m a Chicago native where streets are meant to be plowed).  Maybe it’s part of the history of this town that goes back to the 19th century. 

    2. The region is flat as a pancake coupled with clay soil, which creates a lot of standing water.

    3.  Houston should have never been built where it is located.  It was centered around an oil well near nothing, grew up after a hurricane leveled Galveston, and exploded with the advent of air conditioning.  Even without the air pollution, there is just an untold number of allergens, many of them undocumented, that wreak havoc on native Houstonians.  You would think that after a few decades the locals would have a better resistance or else why would anyone settle in this part of the state. 

    4. Remember, Houston (and Texas) provided steady employment to hundreds of thousands of people when many of your own home states were struggling during the recession!  That’s why I’m here because there wasn’t much else for a planner with only a bachelors living up north.  We are still the oil and gas capital for better or worse.  I wouldn’t pick this location for anything, but then again the oil and gas companies aren’t moving anything soon, so here we are.  Steady employment.  I also saw my annual compensation double in 5 years and I made the cut into management as a non-engineer in an engineering firm.  I couldn’t do that even in a healthy time for a much more desirable city. 

    Elected and appointed officials guide the vision for their communities.  Whether it is north of you or down along the coast, I’ve never had an impression of any true progressive community implementing any NEW development pattern.  We are conservative in every sense of the word, and that means conventional subdivision design.  It will be business as usual.  There will still be long lines of petitioners asking for deed restrictions and variances at every plan commission in every community.  Heads of flood management district will point the fingers at us developers.  We point the fingers back at them.  And both parties will chuck the climate change variable.  New office parks get built, which bring in more jobs, which brings in more demand for single-family homes, which sprawl out further and further from the city core, making matters worse. 

    I don’t think there is a solution.  I’m just offering a forecast from experiencing it first hand.  I don’t have regrets for the work I did.  It’s efficient.  It meets market demands and the sites drain well after major storm events.  It doesn’t violate the health safety or general welfare of the site. 

    I see a tiny silver lining (in land use law of all things).  Recently, flooded homeowners filed a class action lawsuit (likely an inverse condemnation) against the Army Corps of Engineers created by the flooding of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs (which has made national headlines).   An inverse condemnation is a taking (in this case flooding by a drainage district or public agency) but fails to provide just compensation to the private owner under the 5th Amendment.  Due to the enormity of the impacts and property loss,  I wouldn’t be surprised if this takings case goes all the way to the Supreme Court.  For land planning that could set any number of precedents from just compensation to enabling acts for flood control districts.  Just my two cents. 

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