Houston Flood Prevention Engineer: County Faces Multibillion-Dollar Shortfall For Long-Term Solution
Developments are full of glitz and glamour, but in Houston, the real heroes often go unnoticed. Every development must be engineered to keep heavy rains from exacerbating the city's dire flooding issues. IDS Engineering’s Tim Buscha recently won Texas Agricultural Engineer Of The Year for doing just that.
As a leader in the fight against Houston flooding, Buscha ensures new development does not put us further under water, but he believes Harris County needs billions more dollars to implement real change.
“Drainage is an important aspect of all development in the Houston area. We’re at the bottom of a hill, so how we manage our drainage in new developments is very important,” Buscha said.
Images of last year's Tax Day floods are still fresh in Houstonians' minds. Citywide flooding has shut down much of the Houston MSA three times in the past year, even flooding out the symposium to discuss the flooding issue.
Flooding is actually fairly rare in Houston. Since 1989, approximately 23,000 of the 1.5 million houses in Harris County, about 1.5%, have flooded from rainfall (not including coastal surge). Fewer than 60 of the 9,500 days in that time period experienced high water — just 0.6% of the time.
Still, flooding is a terrible thing experienced by thousands across the region. Every year, drivers lose their lives and families lose their homes. Buscha is busy working to find solutions. Since the mid-1980s Houston has made drastic improvements in flood control thanks to a shift in thinking. Larger drainage inlets, sheet flow design and a focus on conveyance have helped dramatically. Still, the problem persists.
“These are big issues,” said Buscha, who has spent most of his career in water resource management. For 11 years Buscha worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2003 he joined IDS Engineering, taking over the firm's drainage group. Since 2014 Buscha has been president of IDS. “The solution isn’t as simple as changing the flood control criteria.”
The problem at the heart of Houston flooding issues is funding. Harris County Flood Control has a budget of about $60M for maintenance and $60M for capital improvement. That is not even enough to maintain the status quo, Buscha said — a program to manage flooding long term would cost about $200M/year in capital improvements alone.
“If you want this big solution, where every channel is at 25-year flood levels, that is substantially more than $200M. That number could be $10B to $15B. How do we come up with a mechanism for that? Where will that revenue come from? That’s the biggest issue,” Buscha said.
Flood Control's primary funding is coming from the tax it assesses. Buscha questions whether the tax rate needs to be changed. Ultimately, he thinks the cost of any significant improvement will likely be decided by voters.
Buscha said Rebuild Houston is the best opportunity for the city.
“It’s the only true funding mechanism to make those improvements over time.”
The Rebuild Houston business model emphasizes pay‐as‐you‐go funding, leveraging dollars from multiple entities. No new debt is incurred and cash payments means there is no interest accrued on new projects. As a result, the city gets twice the product for the same dollars. As old debt is paid off from ad valorem taxes, funds become available for future projects.
“With a new public works director and flood czar, hopefully, we can speed up the implementation of Rebuild Houston dollars. We need to leverage dollars by combining funding to put projects on the ground.”
From designing new developments to retrofitting older ones, Buscha has spent his days exhausting every solution to flooding. While he has made plenty of headway, he is the first to admit it is impossible to design a system for every possible outcome. Even if the development is impervious, the runoff still has to be conveyed through larger infrastructure systems, systems that have been habitually underfunded and underdeveloped.
"Flood Control is doing its best to maintain, but they don’t have the funding to make it wider. Flood control is not out widening big channels."