Flooding in Liberty County is nothing new. With a mostly-flat topography and “black gumbo” soil that is exceptional for water retention, owning a pair of rubber boots has become synonymous with rural life in the county.
However, six back-to-back flood events between 2015-2017, followed by a record 50 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, have drenched the spirits of even the most hardy Liberty County residents who now are begging county leadership for help.
Liberty County commissioners and County Judge Jay Knight are considering the possibility of developing a drainage plan that could help the county obtain grant money to go toward drainage projects.
“We have the opportunity right now to get a county-wide drainage plan done. We have received a notice of intent for grant funds through the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the General Land Office (GLO),” said Knight. “We are looking at about a $2 million grant to get the plan done. What I would like to see is a county-wide drainage plan and then let the people decide what to do with it.”
The plan would identify areas where drainage projects would have the greatest impact, but it would also prevent any drainage problems created by developers in the future. Once the plan is in place, developers who choose to build in an area where the drainage plan is in place would be responsible for building according to the plan.
Knight said it is better for Liberty County to move on the plan now rather than wait until developments are in place.
“If you get on top of this now and make some kind of resolution to accept it or not, it will cost a whole hell of a lot less now than it will in 20 years. Right now, the properties are not developed. We can get this plan in place now. Later on, the costs will be astronomical,” he said. “My main point is it doesn’t cost anything to the county to get the drainage plan. The plan is a 75-25 match but there is a way to get funds from GLO to make up the county’s 25 percent match, so it would be no cost at all to the county.”
Knight explained that rights-of-way and easements will be more expensive once homes, businesses and projects are built.
A drainage plan will not be an immediate fix for Liberty County as there are more projects than available grant funds. One project, pinpointed in a study last year, is a railroad trestle bridge blamed for backing up water in the Daisetta area, according to Knight.
“The trestles are only 30 feet long and the study came back saying they need to be 120 feet long. The cost for that to be mitigated is $193 million. Plus, we would have to get permission from the railroad to impede their traffic while the work was being done, and that’s nearly impossible,” the county judge said.
Liberty County simply doesn’t have enough money to fund a major repair like the trestle bridge project without grants. Last year’s county budget was $43 million; next year is projected to be $46 million. Of that amount, roughly 50 percent is tied up with judicial costs.
“That’s from the time a person is arrested to the time they are sentenced, and includes probation and counseling,” Knight said. “It eats up a lot of our budget.”
Another 22 percent goes toward the county’s four road and bridge precincts, each of which roughly serves 20,000 residents. The remaining 28 percent of the budget goes toward maintenance, salaries, healthcare and benefits, among other expenses.
“Our budget is not designed as a road construction budget. It’s a road maintenance budget. That’s why bonds for road use are so important and why we actively go after every grant we can get,” Knight said.
With so little local funding available, Knight said one possibility residents might consider is establishing a number of drainage districts. There are already four water control and improvement districts in Liberty County, which were formed through an election by residents in the district after gaining approval from the state legislature, and four drainage districts.
“Some of these were formed 100 years ago to get water off farmers’ crops,” he said. “Creating another drainage district would mean another taxing entity, but the tax could be as low as $0.03 per $100 valuation.”
Without good drainage, nothing can live, Knight said, and water must go somewhere during floods. The county simply wants it unimpeded as it makes its way south to the bay. Another possibility that could ease flooding is the creation of detention ponds.
“We could have detention ponds that are nice attractions to the communities,” he said.
On July 24, county officials, including Knight, Pct. 1 Commissioner Bruce Karbowski and Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur, were asked to meet with residents from the two precincts. The residents packed the Hardin Community Center where they were given the opportunity to express their grievances and view maps of the county’s waterways.
Some residents complained that the county isn’t doing enough to clean out the ditches. One resident of Pct. 1 explained that her property on CR 1820 flooded three times last year due to a drainage ditch that was filled in by a neighbor.
Commissioner Karbowski explained that his hands are tied in such a situation because laws prevent him from entering the property without the owner’s permission.
“There used to be a drain through there. The neighbor half a mile away decided that he didn’t want the ditch running through his property, so he filled it in. We don’t have any legal right to tell him he can’t fill it in. Now the ditch just dead-ends, so it backs up,” he said.
One option that may help, he said, is if the General Land Office purchases easements.
“The GLO has granted us $3.8 million approximately that will be split between Reese Bayou and Pct. 1. This project has been in the works for the past year. What the GLO does is go in and buy easements, and after they finish them, the county can go in and maintain the drainage ditches,” he said. “Folks, this has never been done around here. People just assume that if there is a drainage ditch that we have the legal right to clean it out, and that’s just not right.”
A resident of Snake River, an area in north Liberty County prone to flooding, complained to Commissioner Arthur that his road has been so damaged by flooding that he can drive no faster than 10 miles per hour or risk damaging his vehicle.
“I am a volunteer firefighter. I have to get to the station every day. I drive in my personal vehicle and other people are waiting on me because I have to do 10 miles per hour down that road or I am busting a tire,” he said.
Another meeting is being planned for the Hardin area in the coming weeks. According to Knight, he hopes to have more information at that time about a $100 million grant for flood mitigation from TDEM and GLO.
“They wanted us to take the money for housing projects, but I said no. We need it for a drainage plan. What we need to do is work from the south to the north until we get some of the county’s problems resolved,” Knight said.
Bluebonnet News will announce details of the next drainage meeting once the time, date and location are set.
Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org