Image: The always dapper Dewey Jones spoke to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Jones is a community activist who genuinely cares about Montgomery County and holds strong opinions about almost everything.
Conroe, July 13 – Self-proclaimed “old-timer” Dewey Jones, who’s actually not very old at all, lamented to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, about how terrible flood control and flood planning has been in Montgomery County at least since the early 1980s. Jones let the cat loose, however, in his comments which revealed that the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) has been well aware of its duty “to provide flood control” for many decades but has simply chosen to ignore fulfilling that duty.
Jones is a longtime businessman who lives in The Woodlands, is one of the original members of the Woodlands Country Club, and is a renowned amateur golf player. Jones was one of the founders of the Woodlands Chamber of Commerce and worked closely with the developer of The Woodlands to bring more commercial development to south Montgomery County. he’s a community activist who genuinely cares about Montgomery County and holds strong opinions about almost everything.
As Jones described the situation, “back in the late 70s and early 80s, we went through a lot of flooding…County Commissioner Carol Sheldon, the only woman who served on this Court, selected a task force, including me, to figure out how to get funds for the SJRA so they’d have funds to do a study and determine what needs to be done.” Jones explained that Montgomery County is like a “bathtub filled to the brim of water. Most people they say they just want to move the water to the front of the tub, but that doesn’t do anything.”
The task force worked with local legislators Rodney Tow (D-Conroe) and Jimmie Edwards (D-Conroe) to get authority to fund flood control through a one cent Countywide sales tax, subject to approval in a voter referendum. The referendum lost spectacularly by a 2 to 1 vote against the new tax, according to Jones.
Jones’ comments about efforts to get the SJRA to do its statutory duty to provide flood control reveal how well known SJRA’s dereliction of its duty was as long as 40 years ago. SJRA now has unrestricted cash (not required for any allocation to protect the Authority’s bond investors) of $32,822,465, according to SJRA’s latest audited financial statement, which would be more than sufficient to provide the flood control necessary for Montgomery County.
The SJRA and its General Manager, Jace Houston, finally seem serious about taking the first steps “to provide flood control” in the watershed of the San Jacinto River, which includes all of Montgomery County, as well as the other areas of SJRA’s jurisdiction. SJRA has had a statutory duty in its enabling act “to provide flood control” since the Texas Legislature established the Authority in 1937.
As always, however, the citizens must remain vigilant and stay on top of the government officials who work for them. These steps may save County taxpayers a large fortune, because aggressive spending Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal has appeared poised to spend many tens of millions of dollars on flood control projects, even though SJRA clearly has had the statutory jurisdiction – and duty – to do so.
This newspaper previously reported that SJRA issued an internal email to its employees on March 22, 2018, that the Authority would begin to work to fulfill its statutory responsibility “to provide flood control,” a duty which SJRA has had since 1937. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, State Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), former State Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) who is the Republican nominees for that position in the 2018 General Election, State Representative Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), and numerous citizens of Montgomery County and Harris County who suffered from flooding during Tropical Storm Harvey and other rainfall episodes have sharply criticized SJRA for not meeting its statutory mission.
Creighton added, “I’m excited about these changes at SJRA and we shouldn’t let up.”The SJRA clearly has the financial resources to provide flood control, particularly from the millions of dollars it has accumulated from the sale of surface water to local municipalities, utility companies, and private developments. Since SJRA had not previously stepped forward to meet its statutory duty “to provide flood control,” the freespending Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and the Commissioners Court had begun serious considerations to assess Montgomery County citizens tax dollars to provide the flood control which is clearly under the responsibility of SJRA, not the County government.
Governor Abbott appointed three reform-minded new Board members to the SJRA earlier this year, two from the Kingwood area and Charlie Parada from the Lake Conroe area.
SJRA formally announced its “new leadership role” in a press release issued April 2, which follows in its entirety:
“On Thursday, March 15th, Governor Greg Abbott challenged the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) to identify how it could be part of a regional, flood management solution and how a funding mechanism could be developed to support that effort. In response to the Governor’s charge, the Board of Directors and leadership team of the SJRA have decided to create a new flood management division and begin implementing flood mitigation activities, a role that is outside the norm for river authorities in Texas.“River authorities are authorized by the legislature to take on a long list of activities to meet the particular needs within their watershed, which may include flood management activities. Since river authorities typically do not have the power to levy taxes, such activities must be funded by contracts with customers. River authorities have not traditionally taken on flood management responsibilities because of the practical difficulties of contracting with the public at large to fund those activities. By contrast, local flood management agencies in Texas (such as flood control districts), are typically tax-funded and organized to protect the property and lives of the citizens within their taxing jurisdiction.“SJRA’s leadership team is determined to identify new funding strategies so that real solutions can be developed and implemented. General Manager, Jace Houston, commented, ‘I am very excited to announce this new undertaking! With the support of the Governor’s office and funding partnerships with federal, state, and local entities, I believe together we can implement regional solutions while minimizing the impact on local taxpayers.’“Mr. Houston noted the history associated with the challenge of regional flood management, ‘The Harris County Flood Control District has been the only agency in our region with the power and funding to tackle flooding on a comprehensive, regional level, but it only covers Harris County. This has left a tremendous gap in implementing real solutions. The last attempt to fill this gap was in the mid-1980s when voters rejected an effort to create a Montgomery County Flood Control District. This time we hope to leverage federal funds and other partnerships to minimize any impact on local taxpayers; but if there is no will on the part of the public or our local, state, and federal partners to support and fund these activities, then they won’t happen.’“Governor Abbott expressed support for SJRA’s initiative in response to his challenge. ‘It has been a trying time for these communities as they work through the unprecedented destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey. We need all local, state, and federal partners to work together and create bold, creative solutions. I appreciate the SJRA’s willingness to be part of the solution, and I look forward to our continued partnership in making Texas more resilient to future flood events.’“The SJRA Board of Directors and staff look forward to taking on a leadership role and partnering with the HCFCD to deliver effective solutions and create real benefits for the region.”
“There are a lot of flood mitigation strategies, if you look in the handbook on flood mitigation [Houston was probably referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Mitigation Handbook for Public Facilities],” Houston said. “You have to figure out which methods work the best in your basin. Some time has to be spent to study strategies and figure out which will work. I understand that there are a lot of people who just want to implement strategies right now, but we’re people in the business of providing solutions and we don’t want to see public funds squandered.”
Houston explained that SJRA and HCFCD will begin with a regional study the covers the entire Upper San Jacinto Basin (see map at the top of this article.) “We were going to apply for a grant from the Texas Water Development Board, but the Governor’s Office said we can fund this study with FEMA hazard mitigation funds. The Governor has offered to provide approximately 75% of the funds for the study, or about $2 million, so the full scope of the study will be $2.6 million.”
The SJRA General Manager said that he and his engineering team are studying the proposed scope of the study, which will include flood mitigation, flood warning, and a dredging component as well. “We want to determine where we can dredge with the most beneficial impact,” Houston said. “We will examine the full menu of options including detention reservoirs, control reserves, channelization, buyouts, and other methods of flood mitigation, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and figure out how best we can utilize available funds. Between SJRA and HCFCD, we have the legal authority to get this sort of project done. After we complete the study, we’ll have to determine how we can fund the projects.”