Forgotten Waterways: Why Some Channels Go Unmaintained

The Bens Branch tributary in Kingwood is known for its forested, shallow waters, scenic trails, low-water crossings – and its tendency to overflow during rainstorms.

For months, residents and business owners braced for the worst as limbs and debris slowly choked the flow of stormwater along a portion of the waterway near Woodland Hills Drive. The clog had become so severe that the Harris County Flood Control District volunteered to clear the privately owned channel – only to spend the next 18 months hashing out a maintenance agreement.

“One of the things that we had been trying to do was get into that portion of Bens Branch and do a de-snag,” said Beth Walters, the HCFCD communications manager. “But we didn’t have the property rights.”

A New Process

The channel is one of the many properties that staff with HCFCD’s Channel Rehabilitation and Maintenance Responsibility Program have addressed since Hurricane Harvey. The team of engineers and specialists identifies and tries to assign responsibility for the county’s unmaintained waterways, whether by working with property owners or by adopting qualified channels.

“What we’re trying to do is quit the finger pointing and provide good drainage for people in Harris County,” said Carl Woodward, who leads the program. “We’re trying to come to a point where everyone understands who maintains what.”

But in a county with multiple owners for each channel, the task has proven difficult, especially in Kingwood. Annexed by the City of Houston in 1996, the north Harris County enclave features 32 miles of open channels owned by a mix of public and private entities.

Although many of Kingwood’s waterways defaulted to the city, others went to trail associations and homeowners associations. Some of those channels, built decades ago by defunct municipal utility districts, now lack regular maintenance.

As a result, establishing ownership isn’t as easy as checking the deed. In some cases, deeds list non-existent municipal utility districts as owners. In other cases, the channel owners never claimed the property.

Even when channel owners are known, securing the right to maintain a property can take more than a year, especially when multiple owners are involved, said Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood on Houston City Council.

“Everyone, including myself, wants this to happen overnight,” he said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

“We have the strongest property rights of any state within the United States, so we can’t just go in and start remediating these open ditches. We have to work with these different entities to get permission to actually send equipment into the open channels and ditches to do the remediation — and that has been a challenge.”

Walking the Ditches

The problem came to a head in February 2018 when Kingwood residents, led by Barbara Hilburn, the president of the Kingwood Lakes Community Association, banded together to find answers.

After Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 240 homes in her community and left one resident dead, Hilburn began exploring the local waterways and speaking with both city and county officials. During those conversations, a common refrain emerged.

“The city claimed the channel wasn’t theirs; the county claimed it wasn’t theirs,” said Hilburn. “It wasn’t owned by anybody, and it was draining through our subdivision.”

Tired of being passed from one agency to the next, Hilburn took matters into her own hands.

“I thought people on both sides seemed to be very nice people,” she said. “So I said, ‘What if I put everyone in the same room so we could have an open discussion?’ There was no hostility. It was purely to ask questions and get responses.”

Hilburn invited the surrounding homeowners associations to share their concerns with local and state officials, including Matt Zeve, the HCFCD deputy director, and Martin.

“At the end of that presentation, Matt Zeve said he’d have someone out in Kingwood the next day, and you know what? He did,” said Hilburn. “He had two groups of people walking every creek and channel in Kingwood.”

Using the findings from the field inspections, the district developed the Kingwood Area Drainage Assessment, which identified the channel owners and the condition of every channel in Kingwood. District officials believe the assessment will pave the way for additional projects and partnerships throughout the area.

Coming Together

Hilburn’s meeting marked the beginning of a closer relationship and a new agreement between the city and county.

Now, plans are in the works for the county and city to swap channels, which will allow the city to focus on enclosed systems and the county to focus on open channels. Woodward said the agreement will help settle a few lingering maintenance responsibility disputes and improve efficiency for both entities.

“We’ve been working outside of our expertise,” said Woodward. “The district doesn’t maintain storm sewer systems. We don’t have the equipment. We don’t have the certifications to send people into an enclosed system.”

The district has similar agreements in the works with other organizations across the county. For example, district officials are evaluating channels built by the Texas Department of Transportation to see if those channels meet its adoption criteria.

The city also continues to seek partnerships inside and outside the county to ensure all channels receive proper maintenance.

“This has to be a regional, multicounty approach,” said Martin. “Not just Harris County, but Harris County working with Montgomery County, Montgomery County working with Waller County. Because if we don’t work together, we’re going to continue to have flood water sent our way.”

Looking Forward

To pave the way for additional flood control projects in Kingwood, the flood control district will release the findings of the Kingwood Drainage Analysis this spring. The nine-month study will look at the capacity of 32.3 miles of open channels in the Kingwood area, regardless of property ownership. The comprehensive look at area drainage will help the district identify weak spots in the drainage system.

In the meantime, residents look forward to a day when flooding is no longer an issue in Harris County.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have work to do,” said Hilburn. “When are there going to be maintenance schedules? When are there going to be capital improvement schedules? Those answers we just don’t have yet.”

Kingwood Channels

Number of Channels                             22
Total Length (feet)                   168,000
Maintained by the district  with Drainage Easement/Fee (feet)                     107,500
 Maintained by the district with no  Drainage Easement/Fee (feet)                       1,000
Lake Totals (feet)                     12,000
Private (feet)                     13,500
City of Houston Fee/Easement (feet)                     31,000
Maintained by HOA (feet)                       3,000