It’s going to cost significantly more than anticipated to fix Fort Worth’s flooding problems, the city has learned in the decade since it started charging residents and businesses a monthly fee to address issues caused by aging infrastructure and development.
In December 2005, when the city staff was recommending that the council create a storm-water utility and implement a management fee to pay for work, the staffers determined that it would take about $500 million to catch up on a backlog of projects to keep several areas of Fort Worth above water in heavy rains.
But, Greg Simmons, manager of the city’s stormwater management program, now says, “What we’ve learned in the time since then, is the $500 million backlog is really a lot bigger” and that the figure only represents the most critical projects. All told, fixing the city’s storm-water problems could top $1 billion, he said.
Looking at fixing the single-worst flooding issue in each of the eight council districts alone adds up to as much as $170 million, Simmons said.
Flooding in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, which has gone on for years, has received a good deal of attention recently. In the past few months, several residents addressed council members during the public comment portion of council meetings, showing brief videos and pictures of the streams of rapid waters near homes and down streets. And the damage in their wake.
The residents told the council they have patiently waited their turn for help on the issue.
“We west Arlington Heights property owners believe that we’re perfectly within our rights to expect to have a working underground stormwater infrastructure, even if it is expensive,” said Teri Kramer, who lives on Pershing Avenue. “It’s a terrible precedent to say it’s too expensive. That’s what scares me the most.”
Putting a Band-Aid on the Arlington Heights problem would run $25 million to $35 million, and to fully fix it by tunneling an extensive pipeline system to carry the water to the Trinity River as much as $80 million, Simmons said.
“If we [spent $25 million to $35 million] we would have spent more money than we’ve ever spent to solve a single flooding issue in the city of Fort Worth and there would still be a significant flooding risk,” Simmons recently told the council.
And many other locations in the city have similar problems, but most of the serious problems are in the central city, or within Loop 820, where Simmons said the drainage system is below current standards.
In addition to Arlington Heights, those include the Near Southside, near west side, Lebow Channel on the north side, Berry and McCart and Berry and Hemphill, and 8000 and 9000 blocks of Trinity Boulevard.
“There are also more than 250 streets in Fort Worth that are vulnerable to hazardous road overtopping,” Simmons said in an email response.
In December, the council took two actions on flooding issues, including authorizing the staff to apply this month for a $5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to help buy 14 homes mostly on Western and Carleton avenues in Arlington Heights. The homeowners have asked the city to buy their property because of continued flooding. The buyouts would only be done voluntarily.
Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Shingleton, whose district includes Arlington Heights, said he sees the frustration of the neighborhood residents but also the desperation of the homeowners who are continually flooded. He said it’s the right thing to do to apply for the money, see how much the city might get and make a policy choice from there.
“It’s a challenge both ways,” Shingleton said.
Should the city receive the FEMA grant it would be the second time. In 2012, FEMA money was used to buy 14 lots on Hardy Street just north of Dewey Street in north Fort Worth to build a bridge over Lebow Channel as part of the greater Lebow Channel flood mitigation project, according to the city.
But while that project has had considerable dollars already spent on it, fixing the flooding issues there would take an additional $40 million to $50 million, Simmons said. As funding is available, work to further reduce the flood plain width along the channel to protect hundreds of at-risk properties would take 10 to 20 years, he said.
The council also authorized spending $1.3 million in the next two years with Halff Associates civil engineering consultants to inventory and map the city’s channel system that’s supposed to help with flooding. The city has largely completed a inventory of underground pipe - size, location and condition - that makeup the city’s underground stormwater infrastructure.
Now, detailed information on more than 360 miles of channels that are a part of the drainage system is not readily available to the people who need to know it, including maintenance personnel, engineers working on drainage improvement projects and the staff and private developers working on projects, according to a city report.
Simmons said the storm-water management program has made significant improvements, most noticeably a shift from reacting to floods when they happen to being proactive and preventing them. The utility has also started updating its master plan.
At the start of the storm-water program, 167 areas in the city with “critical” drainage problems were identified. Of those, 88 have been addressed with the funding, but 79 areas remain and those are “a lot of these really big ones,” Simmons said.
The city has more than 900 miles of pipes to carry storm water and engineered channels that are now part of a programmed maintenance operation to keep the existing system performing its function. Now, the city plans and prioritizes flood projects, he said.
“We have a solid and growing understanding of the level of flood risk throughout the city, the relative priorities for correcting flooding problems and basic alternatives for correcting them,” Simmons said in an email. “Prior to the storm-water management fee, the city had very little engineering data on the type, magnitude and causes of the flooding problems and little to no resources to assess and effectively plan flood mitigation projects.”
In fiscal 2007, the first year the storm-water fee was collected, it brought in $10.2 million to put toward flooding issues and operating the storm-water utility. The fee had gone up annually until fiscal 2012. Since then, the fee has stayed at $5.40 per 2,600 square feet of nonimpervious surface. The fee is now raising $38.1 million.
From that revenue, $18.1 million is spent operating the storm-water utility, of which $7.5 million is spent on maintenance and repair. An additional $10.6 million of the total revenue is set aside to pay for capital projects, and $8.2 million of that is spent on fixing drainage issues.
The storm-water utility has issued $150 million in debt for projects and pays $9.4 million annually in debt payment.
Moreover, the city does a better job of reviewing private development plans to make sure they don’t create new flooding problems or aggravate existing ones, and the city has installed high-water warning systems in 58 places to warn motorists to flooding hazards, Simmons said.
“Maintaining the drainage system, as with any infrastructure system, is never-ending,” Simmons said.
In Arlington Heights, if the city receives the $5 million grant, it would have to kick in nearly $1.7 million as part of the program. The city plans to turn the lots into green space with parklike amenities. Under the FEMA grant program, homes can never be rebuilt on the lots.
The lots would be graded to provide detention areas as flood protection for adjacent homes, the city said. Some residents fear that tear-downs will diminish property values and quality of life.
While residents in Arlington Heights agree that the flooding needs addressing, they don’t agree on how the city is approaching it. Despite being sympathetic to those residents whose properties flood, some feel there are other methods to tear down decades-old homes that give Arlington Heights its character.
The Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association board sent a letter the city calling tear-downs “the most destructive option” that “do nothing to address the root of the problem, which is inadequately-sized storm water pipes and poorly regulated upstream and downstream development.”
Instead, the board is recommending the city look into elevating flood-prone homes, or even moving them, said John Morris, an Arlington Heights resident.
“Why not look at the other options?” Morris said. He said most of the Arlington Heights homes are on pier and beam foundations and elevating them a foot “is enough to get them out of harm’s way. Let’s look at a Plan B. We’re an asset of Fort Worth.”
Shingleton said elevating the houses is not a bad plan but is neither attractive nor practical for a residential neighborhood. Tunneling pipes to the Trinity River is “tremendously expensive,” and other areas of the city that need flood mitigation “would have to suffer. It’s not practical.”