HOUSTON — For decades, Houston’s Brays Bayou has presented a vexing flood threat that sucks up money and spits out water.
It’s a fairly simple challenge to the engineers who design fixes that keep the area from flooding under torrential downpours. But it’s a complicated, political mess to agencies that seek the millions of dollars needed to ensure that the 700,000 people who live in the watershed will escape the devastation of something like Hurricane Harvey.
A review of federal funding records, county project plans, and aged earmarks from Congress finds that the effort to fix the bayou has floundered for over a decade despite the promises of politicians and state-of-the-art websites with maps showing how great things will be when the project is finished.
“What it’s come down to with the Brays Bayou project is money and priorities, and who is jerking whose chain,” said John Jacob, a professor of watershed science at Texas A&M University.
The cost, design, and construction of the Brays project is handled through a tangle of money flows that works as follows: Money for the project is approved by Congress, along with funding for hundreds of other projects; Harris County, through the county Flood Control District, designs and performs the work; it is then presented to the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers for approval, which then reviews the work and invoices; once the corps of engineers approve the work, the invoices are submitted for reimbursement, which goes back to the county.
The roundabout funding structure aimed at preventing billions of dollars in flooding losses — and just as much in federal insurance claims — has gone on over 20 years.
Between 2009 and 2016, the feds paid $140 million out of an appropriated $150 million to the county for work on Brays, according to numbers provided by the Corp of Engineers.
County audit reports show reimbursements of $116.8 million, indicating differing accounting between the two bodies and making actual spending numbers difficult to determine.
By accounts of both agencies, spending dips during calmer storm seasons; the county showed no receipt of Brays reimbursements in 2012 and 2013 while the feds reported $10 million spent.
It’s another symptom of the labyrinth funding scheme to fix the bayou, as officials in charge of handling the project lament the lack of funding.
“We’ve made progress constructing components of these federal projects,” Russ Poppe executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, said during a press conference on Monday. “But the problem is…in order for us to get those done in a certain amount of time we need funding. So we’re advocating for federal funding up front that will allow us to accelerate these projects…”
It’s not the first time such promises of acceleration have been made. In April 2016, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner vowed to expedite the Brays project that is seven years behind schedule. He said U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) was all over it and if not, Turner would “personally bulldog this thing through.”
“The project is essential to reduce the devastation and suffering the people of Houston and Harris County have experienced in recent years,” Culberson told his House colleagues at hearing for the amendment. “We are simply expediting the funding that has already been appropriated, already been authorized, and already set aside for this project…”
In January of this year, the city agreed to secure a $43 million loan for the Brays project on behalf of the flood control district from the Texas Water Development Board.
Water board spokeswoman Kim Leggett said in an email that the loan application from the city will be reviewed by the board next month — which means that 18 months after promises were made to accelerate the project, money remains scarce.
Going on two decades, the Brays project has endured routine contract overruns and been the subject of millions of dollars spent on reports and assessments, yet it remains a work in progress.
“Clearly, no one wanted to prioritize this,” said Bill King, runner-up in the 2015 Houston mayor’s race. “The county has to put up money to be matched by the feds and there are always issues. That project has been constantly delayed because of starts and stops, and I would say both the feds and the county flood control district share the blame for never finishing it.”
The flood control district has worked almost non-stop on Brays since the late 90s. But money, long promised, isn’t always there.
“In a project this long, there are faster and slower periods,” said Steve Fitzgerald, chief engineer for the Flood Control District. Projections for completion are always contingent on money available, he said.
Brays has been the subject of publicly-funded remedies since the 30s after a series of floods engulfed the region.
The more recent projects include a plan that launched in 1994, with funding approved by Congress in 1996.
In 2008, work was on track to be completed in 2014. But when the project remained unfinished, the completion date was moved to 2021, which is where it stands today.
“By 2000, we had an agreement in place and it was amended in 2010 to add some detention,” said Nicholas Laskowski, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers’ Galveston district. “We now have a cost of $400 million and that is to be completed in 2021.”
He said that funding for any federal project is highly competitive. “We have to battle it out and with limited funds, these compete with others around the nation.”
Fitzgerald, the flood control district engineer, added that any completion date is an estimate, again going back to the money that has been so difficult to get.
Onlookers and critics have speculated that overdevelopment is responsible for the headline flooding brought about by Harvey while others contend homeowners reluctant to uproot from flood-prone areas have made Brays a prime disaster area in the state that has had 86 federally-declared disasters since 1953 — the top in the U.S.
If Brays funding had been expedited, the completed project in 2014 would have given residents a 100-year level of protection from floods, enough to shield many — but not all — of the flooding victims of last month.
There have been numerous chances for extra money to be thrown at the Brays project, but none as simple as the old-fashioned horse-trading called earmarking. The practice allowed federal lawmakers to attach funding for pet projects to unrelated bills, a practice that was banned in 2011.
When they were allowed, though, earmarks got a number of projects off the ground in Houston.
Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison received $2 million for an offshore wind energy facility, $3.2 million for a study of materials for an academic science group she founded in Houston, and $2 million for the study of a Houston-Galveston commuter rail.
Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat from Houston, scored $1.6 million for HoustonWorks USA, a job training and placement center.
But in the last three years earmarks were allowed, nothing was allocated to the Brays project while other flooding prevention was addressed around the state.
In 2009, Sen. John Cornyn, who calls Houston home, brought in $13 million for work on a Texas floodway located in Dallas.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican from Fort Worth, brought home $29 million in earmarks between 2009 and 2010 for work related to flood control and other projects around the Trinity River basin.
Huge amounts of federal dollars are spent on water issues, including flood control. One federal report estimates that the Corp-related flood projects saved the public $67 billion between 2007 and 2016.
Harris County has spent between $180,000 and $200,000 since 2013 on lobbying Congress on issues that included flood protection.
Phil Bedient spent six years in the late 90s and early 2000s on the Brays Bayou federal project committee. He saw the opportunity to make some progress on fixing it come and go.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Bedient, an engineering professor and flooding authority at the University of Houston. “There are lots of things they could have done earlier but they needed to get really serious and they didn’t.”
Flooding in the bayou has been going on for 60 years, he said, “and you just can’t solve this problem without a huge infusion of money.”
Some of that cash was supposed to materialize “and if it had, there would have been a lot fewer homes flooded, hundreds rather than thousands.”
“And now we get to wait until 2021, so we’ve got to hold our breath for four more years and pray it doesn’t happen again,” Bedient said. “And it probably will.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].