For more than three years, Fort Worth’s top stormwater officials have worked to update city policies in the hopes of helping residents who live in areas at higher risk of flooding.
Despite these proposed changes to floodplain and stormwater regulations, city officials and residents remain divided over how Fort Worth should address increased flooding, especially when it comes as a result of rapid housing and commercial development.
“City staff is trying by including property owners in their discussions of ordinances. I appreciate that,” said Mary Kelleher, a Tarrant Regional Water District board member and longtime advocate for stricter development regulations. “They listen to our experiences, but do nothing in writing to make changes, and that’s the way it’s been since 2015.”
What comes next for flood policy updates in Fort Worth?
- November 2022: Stormwater department debuts policy updates, holds two public meetings
- December 2022: City staff plan to add more “city flood risk areas” to Fort Worth website
- January 2023: City Council expected to vote on new flood, stormwater updates
- Early 2023: Stormwater management department will convene new stakeholder group focused on impact of development on flooding
- Mid-2023: Stakeholder group expected to develop recommendations for zoning, engineering standards
The latest updates would require developers in “city flood risk areas” – areas where the city has detailed maps of flood risk – to show they comply with stormwater regulations regardless of the size of their development. Previously, developers building on properties less than one acre were not required to conduct a stormwater review.
Most reports of flooding in Fort Worth come from parts of town that are not included on the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s floodplain maps, according to Clair Davis, the city’s floodplain administrator.
“We’ve got more flood insurance policies and claims outside of the FEMA floodplains,” Davis said during a Nov. 14 public meeting focused on the proposals. “Frequently, we’re finding that the flood risk from these non-FEMA floodplains is too extensive to mitigate through capital projects in an easy kind of way.”
As a result, the city began evaluating ways to communicate with residents about flood risks in their neighborhood that are not visible on federal floodplain maps. In 2018, stormwater staff began consulting with a wide variety of developers, residents, engineering firms and insurance companies, Davis said.
Now, city staff plan to add more maps of city flood risk areas and “potential high water areas” – areas where the city has less detailed flood maps – to Fort Worth’s website and OneAddress system, which allows residents to access a variety of information by entering their address. The city already sends annual letters to residents living in FEMA floodplain zones or city flood risk areas, according to the Nov. 14 presentation.
City Council members are expected to vote on the new development standards in January, said Linda Sterne, spokesperson for the stormwater management department.
The update will likely have a small impact. Between May 2021 and May 2022, the change affected 12 commercial and 20 residential building permits, according to the Nov. 14 presentation. That translates to 0.2% of about 19,000 permits issued during that period.
The city has also committed to creating an advisory group composed of developers and residents to evaluate the cumulative impact of development on flood risk around Fort Worth.
Stormwater staff commissioned two case studies verifying that development increases the amount of concrete and impervious surfaces and decreases flood storage along natural streams, Davis said. The new stakeholder group will convene early next year, he added.
“It is not going to be a cookie-cutter solution that’s one solution that fits all parts of town,” Davis said. “We’re going to have to look more in detail at different parts of town that can respond in different ways. But the stakeholders can be the ones that help inform us how to do that.”
That advisory group will work with staff to develop recommendations to update the city’s engineering standards or zoning classifications by mid-2023, he said. Staff will seek group members who have experience in drainage engineering or are familiar with drainage challenges and flooding, Sterne added.
Kelleher, the Tarrant Regional Water District board member, has served on the city’s floodplain management plan advisory group since 2015.
In the seven-plus years since, she hasn’t seen changes to development regulations that she believes will lead to less flooding in her east Fort Worth neighborhood, John. T White. Members of the neighborhood association have repeatedly spoken out on the impact of housing developments on severe flooding.
The problems have only grown worse and more advisory groups will likely not make a difference, Kelleher said.
“I think it’s a joke and a waste of time,” Kelleher said. “They already know. Those reports from the consultants are very clear that there are issues, and we want action. We just don’t want talk.”
The city needs more inspectors who are trained to spot drainage or stormwater infrastructure problems, Kelleher said. Fort Worth must also make updates to its stormwater management ordinances, which have been substantially unchanged since 2010, she said.
State and federal regulation changes have driven updates to Fort Worth’s floodplain ordinances and stormwater criteria, along with lessons learned from actual development, Sterne said. The last stormwater manual update was September 2015, with another previous update in August 2012.
Kelleher suspects that some of the city’s recent movement on stormwater policies comes from outside pressure. She and a neighbor, Dawn Dean, have been in close contact with Environmental Protection Agency officials for the past several months about their concerns with development in east Fort Worth.
EPA involvement has not spurred action from the stormwater management department, Sterne said. The department has been diligently working toward policy enhancements for more than three years, she added.
“These efforts are now coming to a conclusion after much hard work,” Sterne said. “So the ordinance changes have been in the works for a very long time. It just takes time to engage with appropriate stakeholders, and do the proper studies, to guide changes, etc.”
Regardless of what’s driving the city toward policy changes, Kelleher is eternally optimistic that the process could result in substantial flooding reductions in areas like east Fort Worth.
“The vision of the city of Fort Worth is that Fort Worth will be the most livable and best managed city in the country,” Kelleher said. “Never should local governments compromise the American dream of having a home or property owner to increase tax revenue through permitting development that already failing infrastructure can’t support. That’s just horrible.”
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