Could Underground Tunnels Solve Houston’s Flooding Woes?

The massive tunnels would cost billions to build.

Downtown Houston during Hurricane Harvey (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)

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The answer to Houston’s flooding woes may lie far below its notorious sprawl, officials believe. The Harris County Flood Control District “is exploring the possibility” of building several enormous, underground tunnels to whisk flood waters away from the region’s bayous and into the Houston Ship Channel, the Houston Chronicle reports.

From the paper:

The project — one of the most ambitious and costly proposals in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — could dramatically reduce the flood risk for thousands living along the bayous. The full project, which promises to cost billions of dollars and take several years to complete, would allow major Houston-area waterways to contain a “100-year storm” within their banks, said Matt Zeve, director of operations at the district.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” Zeve told the paper. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

One long-time strategy employed by the district is a buy-out program, which pays homeowners with properties “hopelessly deep” in the floodplain to move. The program allows the district to “restore the land to a state that can actually help prevent future flooding — by modifying the terrain, for example, or by building parks,” Mark Dent wrote for Next City last month. In the roughly four months after Hurricane Harvey, the district received a total of 841 applications — a staggering uptick, since it’s received about 3,700 applications total since the mid-1980s.

But that kind of gradual reshaping apparently doesn’t have the same urgent appeal as a large capital project, especially because 40 percent of Harvey flood victims didn’t have insurance (because their homes weren’t located in Houston’s supposed flood plain).

The tunnels’ first step will include a feasibility study, since construction would necessitate sending machines 100 to 200 feet underground, according to the Chronicle. The study will be discussed by the Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

The paper reports that funding sources for the tunnels have yet to be solidified, but the district hopes to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Texas.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: urban planninghoustonflooding

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