Major flood preparedness project gets bipartisan support in Houston

Two lawmakers from the area want the Army Corps of Engineers to assess a possible flood tunnel faster.

By Sarah Asch & Michael MarksJune 27, 2024 11:10 am, ,

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is under pressure to complete a study of Houston’s underground tunnel system after years of delays.

The assessment could help prevent the kind of catastrophic flooding the city experienced in 2017 during Hurricane Harvey.

The pressure comes from two Houston-area political rivals – Rep. Wesley Hunt, a Republican, and Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Democrat. Jeremy Wallace, state political reporter for the Houston Chronicle’s Austin Bureau, spoke to the Texas Standard about the bipartisan effort. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Well, what’s the holdup? Why is this taking so long?

Jeremy Wallace: Well, it depends on who you ask. But one of the frustrations that the members of Congress have told me is that they have a sense that the Army Corps has been dragging their feet a little bit because they have concerns about the price of this.

You know, what they’re talking about – this flood diversion tunnel – it’s similar to what people in San Antonio and in Austin have seen built in those areas, but much longer and much wider. You’re talking about something that could be 40 miles long, price tag up to $12 billion. And so the Army Corps has been looking at other alternatives, too, and trying to put those out there.

But in the community, there’s a lot of support for this idea of having this diversion tunnel, because it would get a lot of water out to the shipping channel much faster. And so I think for people who dealt with Hurricane Harvey, who still have the scars of the damage that was done, that underground tunnel looks like a much bigger and bolder solution.

So that’s why the members of Congress are telling the Army Corps of Engineers, “no, you need to really do that. Look at this project more carefully because it has community support.”

Well, I imagine a lot of people didn’t know there was a tunnel system under Houston. Can you describe what it looks like and how it contributes to flooding?

Well, what they want to build is something similar to what San Antonio has at the San Antonio River and what Austin has in Waller Creek.

And so there are these tunnels that basically take water that would normally just be sitting there in the flood pools. And so what these tunnels would do, would get that water out about 150ft underground and more water flowing more quickly to the shipping channel.

Now, look, we are a long way from them being built. It’s six years in the works just to get the study to a completion. So actual construction of this means a lot more hurricane seasons with a lot more people looking out their window, wondering if this is going to be a redo of Harvey.

Well, now that we have a bipartisan effort to get this done with Fletcher, a Democrat, and Hunt, a Republican, what are they doing to push this project along?

What an interesting combination these two are, right? You know, Wesley Hunt ran against Lizzie Fletcher in 2020 trying to unseat her. Their campaign got a little rough, but they have been able to move past that.

What they’re working on is this Water Resources Development Act, where they’ve got language in there to tell the Army Corps of Engineers to get moving on this project. And a lot of it has to do with redistricting as well.

Lizzie Fletcher really worked on this issue since she got into Congress in 2018, right after Harvey. She became an expert on all this stuff. And so she knows this in and out. And Wesley Hunt, when redistricting came along, they put the Addicks and Barker dams and reservoir in his district.

And so you can see how they make a good team if they could get over the political fights they’ve had in the past. And it’s clear from my conversations with both of them, they have just completely forgotten about that fight, and they’re just moving on and trying to get this project done because it’s so important for the Houston community.

And there is no timeline at this point, correct?

Yeah, we’re talking years out for the actual project.

But the study, if this legislation gets adopted by Congress… Which it just got through a committee this week. It looked pretty good. If this thing gets through Congress, it would require the Army Corps to finish this study next year, let us know what it looks like. Then we can start building this thing.

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