In the 1940s, the Houston region’s reservoir system was built to protect the city from flooding and handle its needs. However, changes to the reservoir and rapid development rendered the system completely inadequate 50 years later. In June 1996, engineers working for Harris County filed a report officially designating the reservoir system out-of-date. Thankfully, they offered a solution.
The engineers proposed a $400 million alteration: build a massive, underground conduit that would include up to 8 channels, each 12 feet by 12 feet. That’s an additional area of 1,152 square feet for water to drain out of Houston neighborhoods and into the Houston Ship Channel. The engineers’ reasoning was sound—if a major flood struck Houston, the Addicks and Barker reservoirs wouldn’t be able to handle the additional load. This would leave huge parts of west Houston destroyed.
If the $400 million price tag was too much, the engineers offered alternatives:
- Dig the Addicks and Barker reservoirs deeper
- Buy out properties at risk for flooding
- Regulate development to control housing growth
The reason the conduit was proposed, however, was not only due to its benefits. In 1996, the Katy Freeway (the part of I-10 running toward the Houston Ship Channel from west Houston) was under construction. Installing the conduit under I-10 before it was built would have been the easiest and most affordable chance to complete a project of this magnitude.
However, none of the suggestions had an effect. Government officials ignored the report entirely. As a result, thousands of homes all over Houston are facing vast amounts of damage—some of them looking at flooded homes to remain so for weeks.
Homes Were Built Inside of Reservoirs
After severe flooding in 1929 and 1935, the Amy Corps of Engineers built two massive reservoirs in Houston ranchland: the Addicks and the Barker reservoirs. These reservoirs were intended to hold water and release it into the Buffalo Bayou during times of severe flooding. Otherwise, the reservoir land would remain dry—making it available to turn into parks, fields, and golf courses.
Instead, housing developers began building homes in the reservoir and on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou—areas where the Corps knew there would be severe flooding if a big enough storm came along. The reservoir system was caught between two major problems: if the reservoir drained itself too quickly, it would flood the Buffalo Bayou homes. If it drained too slowly, it would increase the risk of flooding for homes built in the reservoirs.
And in the event of a storm like Harvey, everyone’s homes would be flooded.
Today, infrastructure officials from that era have recognized the enormity of their mistake. Arthur Storey was the flood control director for Harris County in 1996—and he has said he is both “angry” and “embarrassed” about his unwillingness to fight harder for the conduit plan. “I was not smart enough, bold enough to fight the system, the politics, and stop it.”