• Smart Infrastructure
  • Smart Technology
  • Smart Water
  • Flooding
  • Hurricane Harvey

Houston, We Have a Flooding Problem

Jared Feuer
Feb 24, 2023

Guidehouse Insights Sustainability

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Texas, dumping over 50 inches of rain on the city and leaving around one million people displaced, including myself. Houston needs improvements in its infrastructure to protect against future floods; however, effective long-term solutions face financial and political barriers. “Smart pond” technologies offer one potential short-term and relatively inexpensive solution while the city investigates a longer-term solution to protect its population.

Climate Change Plus Poor Planning Is a Recipe for Disaster

Houston has a pair of colossal reservoirs, the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, which capture a combined 510 million cubic meters of water. When the reservoirs were constructed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was aware that they could swell to the levels reached in Harvey but decided not to purchase more of the surrounding land to prevent development. When Harvey hit, the hurricane unloaded enough rain to fill both reservoirs for the first time in their history. The operators of the reservoirs had never experienced such an event, and because they waited too long to divert the water downstream, the homes upstream of the reservoirs flooded. To make matters worse, the operators eventually released the rainwater, leading to thousands of downstream homes (like mine) flooding. In total, poor planning resulted in the flooding of about 25,000 homes and businesses on either side of the reservoirs.

Long-Term Solutions Take Time to Implement

Houston is currently exploring several options to mitigate future flooding such as installing a third reservoir, deepening the existing reservoirs, and constructing an underground network of stormwater tunnels that would carry water to the Houston Ship Channel. Unfortunately, the first option is not viable because a third dam would have to be constructed in an area that could displace people, the second option would not be enough to prevent such a catastrophe from reoccurring, and the third would cost an estimated $30 billion, an unsettling price tag for taxpayers and the government. While the third option would solve the problem, the project still requires a third-phase study that will take around 3 years to complete. If it is approved, it would take another 10 to 15 years to construct. At the rate that climate change is intensifying, it is possible that Houston will experience another hurricane before a stormwater tunnel can be built or a different long-term solution implemented.

Smart Pond Technology Offers a Short-Term Solution

In the meantime, Houston could explore solutions that use smart technologies to provide greater protection in the short term. One such approach is a system of stormwater ponds that use so-called smart pond technology. Developed by OptiRTC and currently in use near Port Tampa Bay in Florida, the technology receives data from National Weather Service forecasts, “calculates how much water the pond is expected to catch, and empties that amount ahead of an expected rain event without any human interaction.” If no rain is forecast, “the pond will hold an optimal level of water for water quality treatment purposes.” The system costs between $200,000 and $300,000 per retrofit, making it more appealing for government spending approval.

This short-term solution could reduce future complications influenced by the poor planning that intensified the impacts of Harvey. If Houston chooses to invest in smart pond technology, the equipped ponds could be positioned in proximity to Buffalo Bayou so that they have an outlet leading to Port Houston. The technology could be paired with IoT solutions with edge-to-cloud capabilities that allow for more real-time, data-driven decisions that could provide insights for planning. In addition, Houston could develop a strategy to store the excess water for use in times of drought.

Ultimately, smart technology does not replace the need for adequate infrastructure spending, but it can provide greater adaptability in the face of increasingly urgent climate challenges. Check out Guidehouse Insights’ Smart City Tracker and Smart Water Systems for Smart Cities reports for more information about strategies and technologies to help combat flooding.