The bill: SB 2431
Filed by: Paul Bettencourt, District 7 (Houston)
What it would do: The Texas Legislature created the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) in 1937, in response to two catastrophic floods that hit Houston in 1929 and 1935. The Lege charged the district, which is governed by the Harris County Commissioners Court, with the “control, storing, preservation, and distribution of the storm and flood waters of the rivers and streams in Harris County”—no easy feat in a pancake-flat region with 2,500 miles of waterways.
But what the Legislature gives, it can take away. Last Friday, Senator Bettencourt, who represents a section of northwest Harris County stretching from the Woodlands south to Houston’s wealthy Memorial neighborhood, introduced a bill that would rename the HCFCD the Gulf Coast Resiliency District and place it under the control of a five-member board appointed by Governor Abbott. Bettencourt told Texas Monthly that he’s lost faith in the Harris County Commissioners Court, which is led by Democratic county judge Lina Hidalgo, whose party holds a four-to-one majority.
Bettencourt was particularly aggrieved by the Democratic commissioners’ decision in 2022 to adopt a new “prioritization framework” for flood control projects—such as bayou modifications and retention basins—that gives greater weight to the number of residents benefited by a project. The commissioners believed that the old framework favored neighborhoods with high property values over more populous parts of the city that have traditionally been underserved by the county. “There are some areas that haven’t seen a project in a very long time, that would never see a project were it not for these equity guidelines,” Hidalgo told Fox 26 News in 2019, shortly after the new framework was proposed. (Hidalgo did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
Critics contend that the new framework has delayed much-needed flood control projects, in a misguided pursuit of fairness. “Rising water has no equity to it,” Bettencourt said. “The idea that somehow you can put some type of social justice scale into what is inherently an engineering function is the wrong approach.”
Houston officials, needless to say, are pushing back against Bettencourt’s bill. “A state takeover of the HCFCD would be a massive overreach that Harris County residents don’t need,” commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a written statement. “We would never tell West Texans how to manage oil wells, so it doesn’t make sense to have board members from other parts of the state taking control of coastal flood mitigation.” Kenneth Williams, who chairs the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, said that “local control is crucial to effective flood control management, as it allows for a more nuanced understanding of the unique needs and challenges of the local Harris County community.”
No one claims the HCFCD is perfect—in 2017, after Hurricane Harvey exposed decades of inadequate flood prevention efforts, the Houston Chronicle editorial board called on the state to create a regional flood control district that would encompass Harris and surrounding counties. “Instead of dividing these disaster-prevention efforts into provincial fiefdoms, we need a single authority with the power to levy taxes that will take charge of all our area’s drainage issues,” the board wrote.
Bettencourt said that he sees SB 2431 as the first step toward creating a regional district. But that’s not what his bill does. Instead, it replaces local elected officials with unelected bureaucrats appointed by the governor.
And our current governor has been no friend to Harris County. During Harvey, Abbott urged Houston residents to “strongly consider” evacuating the city, complicating Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to avoid the deadly traffic jams that accompanied Hurricane Rita in 2005. In the wake of the hurricane, Abbott refused to call a special legislative session, which could have tapped the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for disaster relief. After publicly feuding with the mayor, Abbott eventually handed Turner a check for $50 million—a fraction of what the city needed—in exchange for Turner’s pledge not to raise taxes to pay for the cleanup.
The rest of the Republican-controlled state government has been no better. In 2021, the General Land Office, then headed by George P. Bush, attempted to deny Harris County any of the state’s $4.3 billion in federally approved Harvey relief funds. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation later determined that the GLO “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” in stiffing Harris County, one of the most diverse regions of the country. After coming under bipartisan criticism, the GLO eventually awarded Harris County $750 million—money that is just starting to arrive, nearly six years after the hurricane.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that local officials don’t trust the state to protect the county from future hurricanes and floods. The attitude of Abbott and his ilk toward the Houston area appears to mirror that of King Louis XV, who is said to have remarked, in reference to a coming misfortune, “après moi, le déluge” (after me, the flood). If Bettencourt’s bill passes, Houstonians had better hope that flood doesn’t come on Abbott’s watch.
Does the bill have a chance of passing? Probably not. After all, it’s much easier for Abbott and other Republicans in Austin to criticize Harris County’s approach to flood management than to take up the responsibility themselves. Even Bettencourt acknowledged that the bill may take “multiple sessions” to pass.