Even if the federal government had constructed projects proposed in a $278 million Clear Creek flood control plan, it’s not certain it would have made a difference in the epic flood that Hurricane Harvey inflicted on Galveston and Harris counties.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked on a flood control plan for Clear Creek since the 1960s, but it remains an unfunded intention.
A 2012 corps report found the project’s benefits did not exceed the projected costs and anticipated that Congress would not fund the $278 million Clear Creek Flood Control Plan.
Congress did not fund it in 2013, and while no one connected to the plan said it is dead in the water, no one has said it’s coming off the shelf.
The project is an authorized federal project awaiting funding, corps spokesman Randy Cephus said.
And no one has said it would have made a difference in the late August floods in northern Galveston County.
Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County, but in the 72 or so hours that followed, it dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding thousands of homes.
Clear Creek flooded Friendswood and League City, forcing currents of water through about 11,000 homes in those two cities.
The creek reached historic levels and was more than 10 feet over its banks at the Interstate 45 crossing by about 5 a.m. Aug. 27, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
The creek was running at almost 16 feet where it crosses the interstate; flood stage is about 6 feet, according to the district’s flood warning system.
But flooding got worse the night of Aug. 28, residents said. Peggy Zahler, who lives in Clear Creek Village in League City, had a few inches of water in her house in the early morning of Aug. 27, but by midnight Aug. 28, floodwater had risen from knee deep to 5 feet in some parts of her home, she said.
Her house is 19 feet above the creek’s channel, she said.
Environmental concerns about the proposed corps plan popped up over the years. Part of the plan was to dredge the creek, making it wider and putting what was dredged up on the banks. That upset environmentalists, League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said.
But those concerns, which erupted in 1997 didn’t stop the plan, although it did cause a setback. A lack of funding stopped any further action in 2013.
Clear Creek runs through a developed urban area with 17 cities at least partially in its watershed, including Houston, Pasadena, Pearland, Friendswood, Webster and League City, according to the corps.
Flooding in 1973, 1976, twice in 1979, 1989, 1994, 2001, 2006 and 2009 caused extensive property damage in these cities.
The Clear Creek flood control project would have enlarged the channel and eased bends along 15.3 miles of the creek.
It also would have imposed more stringent regulations restricting development in the 100-year floodplain in this fast-growing area that depends on new houses for major tax revenue.
The corps’ plan also added a second outlet channel with a gated structure between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay. That part happened.
“Dredging and construction of the second outlet channel was completed in July 1997, and the outlet and gated structure were transferred in March 1998 to Harris County Flood Control District for operation and maintenance,” the corps report said.
When completed, the entire project would reduce flooding in residential and commercial developments with minimal harm to the existing habitat along Clear Creek, the report said.
The total cost of the plan was projected to be $278 million, but the finished project would result in about $21 million in annual benefits, the report said.
“The population at risk is estimated to be 15,000 with a risk depth of 4 feet,” the 2012 report said. “The project would protect an estimated $530 million worth of land and improvements.”
The population has exploded in northern Galveston County since that report, and the developments on the coastal plain continue to rise.
The corps can’t say whether projects envisioned in the plan would have prevented or lessened the catastrophic floods.
“Since the project was not in place in time for Hurricane Harvey, we cannot speculate on if it would or would not have made a difference,” Cephus said.
If Congress had funded the plan in 2013, and if work had started on time, the Corps of Engineers would have completed the project in 2023, the report said.