Why Good Leadership Is Needed On Flood Control

Dear Neighbor:

As is the case throughout our region, flood control is the one need that supersedes all others in West U.  Flooded homes need no electronic sentries, flooded cars need no new streets, and displaced residents benefit little from parks and hiking trails. West U needs a Mayor who: (a) has a plan for addressing the deteriorating state of Poor Farm Ditch that both improves our flood mitigation and protects residents’ quality of life, and (b) is laser-focused on that as their highest priority in the coming term.

Here are some essential facts:

  1. Poor Farm Ditch is critical for West U’s flood control. The single, open ditch PFD System is the sole drainage conduit for approximately 361 acres and more than 1,000 homes in West U.
*Diagram taken from Drainage Report prepared for the City in January 2021. The borders may change slightly with ATLAS-14 and drainage model revisions, but the diagram remains a good rough depiction of the areas of West U that are wholly dependent upon the portion of PFD that lies between Bissonnet and Bellaire for their drainage and flood protection.
  1. Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) owns the ditch, either as a right-of-way or through drainage easements that include part of Southside Place (SSP).
  2. For 19 years, both West U and the District have known that PFD was failing, primarily due to the improper construction of encroachments by SSP residents into the drainage easements and the HCFCD’s general lack of maintenance. 
  3. For over half of those 19 years, 10 of the last 12, Susan Sample has been either the Mayor or the Mayor Pro Tem of West U.    

Now, look closely at the maps above and see where your home is, because THIS is Poor Farm Ditch NOW*Photos taken from November 2022 report of Visual Inspection of PFD conducted by West U City Staff.

Poor Farm Ditch between Pittsburgh and Carnegie, looking southward.
Poor Farm Ditch at Carnegie, looking southward.
Condition of the western (SSP) side of the ditch at a location between Carnegie and Cason, again looking southward.  The wooden fencing and other structures shown are typical (although not necessarily the most egregious) of the encroachments built on the SSP bank of the ditch.

What is Susan Sample’s “plan” for dealing with this?

The Mayor can unilaterally place an item on the Council’s agenda, so the presence of an item (or lack thereof) speaks volumes. During the first 17 months of Susan Sample’s current term in office, the Council had no public meetings in which the PFD was a listed item on the published agenda.Not a single one.

In 2018, the HCFCD proposed a 90% complete design for the ditch south of University. This design does not address the SSP encroachments, but it would move the center line of the ditch eastward (i.e., toward West U), and remove the green screen on the West U side. For obvious reasons, this plan was soundly rejected by West U residents.

On November 14, 2022, at the very first Council meeting on PFD, ignoring the strenuous objections of many West U residents who were present, Susan Sample signed a Letter of Support committing West U to back the previously rejected 2018 design, abandoning any effort to achieve something better. Subsequently, she has openly opposed having City Engineers study the southern portion of the ditch to provide design alternatives, including at this past Monday’s Council meeting.

The HCFCD, which had previously inferred that the project could be wholly paid for with state and federal funding, has since backtracked and is now asking that West U contribute $150,000+ toward completing the remaining 10% of the design as well as at least $5.1 million toward the actual construction. No further action of any kind with respect to this critical drainage issue has taken place. Consequently, as of today, more than five months later, we are without a 100% complete design, without a plan for funding it, and without any substantive action to address either the deteriorating condition of the ditch or its known causes.

Based upon her campaign’s messaging, the entirety of Susan Sample’s plan for the future would seem to be “more of the same.” Unfortunately, that approach is not a plan and is, in fact, how we got here in the first place.

After two terms on Council, some research and a lot of thought and consultation with residents and subject matter experts, here is my plan:

  1. Pull out of the existing Letter of Support. The Letter surrenders West U’s negotiating leverage, commits West U to a design its residents don’t want at the cost of important amenities, and has thus far gained West U absolutely nothing in return.
  2. Have our City Engineers perform a survey of and provide alternatives for the renovation/replacement of Poor Farm Ditch that are both hydraulically viable and maintain the existing center line. As of March 27, the Council has, very belatedly, approved a study of viable alternatives with respect to PFD north of University.  However, the survey and study need to include the whole ditch and need to present alternatives that will adequately address residents’ justified concerns about flooding, privacy, and green space.
  3. Negotiate specific benefits for West U residents in exchange for West U’s agreement to participate in funding the project. Such benefits should include:
    • Fixing the Whole Ditch. A two-phase project to restore the entire ditch to full function, with phase 1 addressing the portion south of University and phase 2 focused on the northern stretch from University to Bissonnet;
    • Preserving Residents’ Amenities. For phase 1, a new PFD design that would maintain the existing center line and preserve or improve the existing green screen for West U residents. This is absolutely essential, since any resolution will be one that residents along the ditch will likely live with for the next 50+ years;
    • Creating a permanent access agreement for the entire ditch.  This would allow West U and SSP to undertake minor routine maintenance, monitor the function of the ditch, and prevent degradation; and
    • Addressing the SSP encroachments. Per Texas House Bill 3782, HCFCD has full statutory authority to do this at no cost to either itself or West U.  A full discussion of the HCFCD Encroachments Removal Program can be found on their website.
  4. Create ongoing collaboration with the other regional cities in HCFCD’s service area (Houston, SSP, Bellaire, Memorial Villages, Missouri City, Sugar Land), as well as regional actors (H-GAC, Houston-Galveston Subsidence District, etc.) to:
    • Share information, avoid unnecessary competition among regional municipalities for state and federal grant money for flood mitigation projects (which currently allows state and federal actors to play them off against one another) and adopt a more regional, holistic approach;
    • Use combined leverage to jointly pressure HCFCD to fulfill its maintenance obligations; 
    • Jointly lobby state and federal agencies for increased funding to HCFCD to repair/maintain drainage systems; and
    • Partner with HCFCD and the County to explore additional funding options, both public and private.

As your Mayor, I promise that the protection of your lives and property will always be my first and highest priority, and I ask for your vote so that I can make that happen.

Your Neighbor,
John P. Barnes