What Flood Planning Can Learn From Water Planning

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Mike Reedy

Water Resource Engineer

Now that the Texas Water Development Board has designated 15 flood planning regions, the process of developing a state flood mitigation plan is moving further ahead, and the makeup of regional planning groups should take shape this summer.

The flood planning effort outlined in Senate Bill 8, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2019, represents a new, essential and ambitious undertaking for the state. But the framework looks familiar: It follows the structure of the state water plan, a successful model that over the past two decades has enabled Texas to integrate the disparate needs of our sprawling state into a long-range plan through detailed data analysis, collaboration and innovative thinking.

We’re now in the fifth round of water planning — with revised plans due for 2021. That two decades-plus of experience has taught valuable lessons that can be applied to flood planning.

Origins of Texas State Water Planning

Extreme drought in 1995-96 prompted the Legislature to adopt a more comprehensive, statewide water planning process. It involves 16 Regional Water Planning Groups that bring together multiple entities to project water demands for municipal, industrial, irrigation, steam-electric power generation, mining and livestock uses and then develop plans for meeting those needs. Those regional plans, which are updated every five years, make up the state blueprint that guides how Texas allocates and uses its water.

Since the first round of planning in 1998, Freese and Nichols has played an integral role in helping formulate the state-sponsored regional water plans, serving as a consultant or subconsultant for regions as diverse as the Panhandle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston, El Paso and Southeast Texas.

Insights from State Water Planning

Here are some best practices that the water planning process can share with the flood planning process that is scheduled to finalize the Texas’ statewide flood plan by 2024:

Cooperation is crucial.

The statewide water planning process has illuminated the vast range of needs across the state and shown how stakeholders within a region can balance sometimes-competing interests and how regions can work together to help and learn from each other.

While the flood planning regions look different because they’re based on river basin watersheds, SB 8 recognizes how interconnected all the interested parties are. As a result, the law builds collaboration into the process. For instance, local governments seeking state funding for flood mitigation projects in the lead-up to the regional planning must show their improvements are coordinated with neighboring cities, water districts and other partners and don’t harm others upstream or downstream. This will yield better outcomes and help avoid conflicts.

Streamline data collection to improve analysis.

Regional water planning is focused on providing water to meet projected demands. Regional flood planning will be focused on identifying and reducing flood risk. The most important first step is identifying the flood risk across the state.

The TWDB is investing in Base Level Engineering (BLE) data to support the planning effort. BLE is planning-level information based on LIDAR and simplified hydrology and hydraulics to identify flood risk areas. This effort will provide all planning regions with a uniform dataset that can be used in the development of regional flood plans.

Develop a standard process that works across multiple planning groups.

Texas is a diverse state with a variety of flood risks. Even though the flood risks and solutions may look different across the state, a common framework can help drive regional planning groups towards the best solution for their basin.

Each regional planning group must assess current conditions, existing flood hazards and exposure, consequences of the flood risks, and potential structural and nonstructural solutions to reduce the flood risk. By using a uniform approach within an integrated planning framework, the regional flood planning process will ensure Texans will be safer from floods in the future.

Embrace new ideas to serve the long term.

A key outcome from the water planning process has been the increased emphasis on conservation as a water supply strategy. What types of similar strategies could result from the flood planning process?

Perhaps we will see higher standards that are coordinated on a regional basis that lead to better floodplain management within Texas communities. Maybe there will be opportunities to collaborate on that regional project that has always just seemed a little out of reach for a single community to take on. While we don’t know what those new ideas will be, we are confident there will be a wide variety of beneficial outcomes that make Texas safer from flooding.

Make public involvement easy.

The Regional Water Planning Groups hold public meetings to receive input and updates and take formal actions. The Regional Flood Planning Groups will, too. The TWDB makes meeting notices and agendas, presentation materials and video available on their website.

Even though the work of water and flood planning can be highly technical, presentations for public meetings should present the relevant material in clear, concise fashion understandable by non-specialists. Public input is essential, both for information gathering and to build support and acceptance for new practices or significant expenditures.

By emphasizing the need to conserve water and secure supplies for the future, the water planning process has helped Texas to prepare for growth and weather extremes. Flood planning can serve Texas residents in the same way by coordinating response, showing what works best and underscoring the value of more-resilient practices and investment in infrastructure and planning.

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Mike Reedy, P.E., is a Water Resource Group Manager in Houston