Fort Worth

Fort Worth’s flooding problem costs $1 billion, but the fix isn’t Panther Island

When storms hit Tuesday night, the Fort Worth Fire Department was busy.

From Hulen Street and West Freeway to Fairmount Avenue and South Main Street, Fort Worth residents were calling about rising waters. In a three-hour stretch, firefighters responded to 45 weather-related calls, highlighting the city’s most pressing water problem: flash flooding.

Long before floods devastated neighborhoods and killed four last fall, the city placed a $1 billion price tag on fixing its backlog of stormwater projects. Even addressing the biggest project in each of the eight council districts would top $170 million, the city said in 2017.

The cost rivals the $1.17 billion being spent to create Panther Island, which will protect the city from a historic flood along the Trinity River, but may have little affect on urban flash flooding. Residents might wonder if that’s the best place to spend money when frequent downpours continually swamp vehicles and threaten homes across Fort Worth.

It’s complicated, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Trinity River project is partially federally funded and addresses outdated levees. The Fort Worth stormwater system is almost entirely supported by the fees on your water bill and protects against flooding created by rapid development.

The fees amount to $10 million to $12 million a year. (The city issued $150 million in bonds to address stormwater issues between 2007 and 2012.)

“We want long-term solutions to this long-term problem,” said Micheal Matos, a candidate for City Council District 7, a large district that includes older neighborhoods like Arlington Heights and the fast growing Alliance corridor. Matos has made flooding a campaign focus.

The city’s aging drainage pipes inside Loop 820 (a third of them are more than 50 years old) can’t handle the rush of runoff that comes with heavier downpours and more concrete. The cost to bring the system up to date is more than $1 billion, according to the city’s estimate.

“I just don’t think that’s practical,” said councilman Dennis Shingleton, the District 7 incumbent.

In District 8, where far east Fort Worth residents blamed two home developers for flooding last fall, incumbent Councilwoman Gyna Bivens has proposed that fines against developers should include more citizen input and less city staff opinion. One of her challengers, Tammy Pierce, said in a candidate questionnaire from the Star-Telegram that zoning changes and incentive packages should be withheld from developers until it’s clear that they have properly accounted for stormwater.

In the District 7 neighborhood of Arlington Heights, the city has proposed voluntary buyouts of flood prone homes and replacing them with green space designed to catch stormwater. That $7.5 million project would include about $500,000 from a federal grant.

Shingleton and his challenger David Hawthorne have said the buyout plan is one of many options the city can use to tackle flooding. No homes were reported flooded Wednesday, a sign the city is moving in the right direction to handle similar rainfall, Shingleton said.

“It’s really difficult when you get these cloud bursts of 2 or 3 inches of ran in an hour. That’ll cause flooding anywhere,” Shingleton said.

Matos disagreed, saying the approach has been reactive instead of proactive. He said the Panther Island project has distracted from flash-flooding problem.

“We need a real solution to this real problem,” he said, adding that more money should be devoted to stormwater projects. “We can’t piecemeal this together. It has to be systematic.”

The Panther Island project will replace levees the Army Corps of Engineers says are obsolete and pull about 2,400 acres out of the flood plain for what the Corps calls a “standard project flood,” which is the most severe flood considered possible for a region. This is a more traditional flood, such as when a river runs over its banks.

To accomplish this, the Corps will cut a 1.5-mile long channel in the Trinity River north of downtown. The channel allows the two forks of the river to meet ahead of a large bend where floodwaters tend to backup.

Tarrant Regional Water District voters approved a $250 million bond package last May for flood control and drainage work related to the project. Though the ballot question didn’t specifically mention Panther Island or the Trinity River project, the money will be devoted to infrastructure on the yet-to-be created island.

So far about $324 million in local tax dollars have been spent on the project, according to the Trinity River Vision Authority’s 2019 first quarter financial report. Of that a little more than $4 million has gone toward stormwater drainage. The bulk, about $88.4 million, has been spent to buy property in the path of the planned channel.

Meanwhile, the city’s stormwater management program is funded through user fees, between $2.70 and $10.80 per month for homeowners and more for commercial property owners. Those fees are set in the annual budget and officials haven’t said if they plan to raise them in 2020 or devote other money toward flash flooding.

The city is prioritizing flash-flood prone areas that pose the most dangerous risk to drivers, said Cindy Vasquez, a city spokeswoman. Those include Keller Haslet Road near the intersection with Alta Vista and Loving Avenue just south of NW 31st Street. Smaller projects in the works include the 5200 block of Nolan Street, the 4900 block of Miller Avenue and the 5100 block of Shackleford Street.

In the meantime, the city has turned to improving its flood warning system. A $250,000 grant helped Fort Worth build a real-time map available online that shows conditions at more than 30 low-water crossings. Also, FEMA provided $700,000 to update flood maps. These are vital waring tools, Vasquez said, especially in areas “of flood risks that cannot realistically be mitigated for the foreseeable future due to resource limitations.”

Fort Worth isn’t the only Tarrant County city that has had its share of flooding issues.

Arlington has $16.76 million in its 2019 stormwater budget with $12.89 million approved for the design and construction of flood mitigation and erosion projects, said city spokeswoman Susan Schrock.

The city has also set aside $3.5 million for voluntary buyouts with 11 properties identified. Arlington had $1 million in the 2018 budget that was used to purchase three properties that flooded last year.

“We probably have a 20-year program ahead of us,” said Mindy Carmichael, public works and transportation director, during an April 9 City Council meeting.

In the last decade, Arlington has spent $88.5 million dealing with 536 flood-prone structures, including 171 buyouts.

To chip away at the backlog of flood mitigation projects, City Manager Trey Yelverton said it takes a long-term commitment from the City Council and residents voting in favor of bond proposals.

“Between bond funds, federal funds and stormwater drainage funds, we’ve really ramped our capabilities over the last number of years to make a meaningful impact,” Yelverton said.

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