While the North Texas region grows, flooding risks in Fort Worth grow along with it. Today, flooding officials are grappling with aging infrastructure while trying to manage the impact of new growth.
Resolving existing flooding issues will require years of work and billions of dollars, experts on the issue said at a “Candid Conversation” event hosted Oct. 18 by the Fort Worth Report. Preventing additional flooding issues will require innovative planning and lots of money, experts agreed.
“We’re trying to overcome 50 to 100 years of the wrong approach,” Tom Galbreath, chairman and principal at landscape architecture and engineering firm Dunaway, said.
Haley Samsel, who covers the environment for the Report, moderated the panel. Discussion focused on how public and private partners can reduce existing flooding issues and prevent future floods exacerbated by the amount of concrete associated with rapid development.
Panelists covered the technical aspects of the city’s flooding issues, explaining the roles of various government agencies. The city of Fort Worth, represented by assistant stormwater management director Jennifer Dyke, focuses on managing flooding related to stormwater, creeks and smaller waterways. The Tarrant Regional Water District, represented by chief water resources officer Rachel Ickert, focuses on managing a segment Trinity River and it’s floodway.
The city is typically responsible for meeting with residents who have issues with flooding on their property or in their neighborhood. Usually, city staff explain why eliminating flooding completely isn’t feasible, but offer fixes including minor drainage improvements and increasing awareness of the danger of driving on flooded roads, Dyke said.
The audience included residents who have grappled with their own flooding issues and several submitted questions for the panelists, including asking how they can learn more about their personal flood risk.
The city sends out mailers to residents who live in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood zone, Dyke said. The city also has a flood risk viewer on its website where residents can view the flood risk on their property, she said. The city is still adding data to that map, but it will ultimately inform residents about potential flooding issues attributable to smaller streams and channels outside of the FEMA flood risk area.
“We have this information. We want people to be aware of it,” Dyke said.
Galbreath, a landscape architect who manages engineers, said it can be difficult for the average resident to understand how flooding works and what it takes to guard against it. The flooding issues we see now are attributable to older developments for which developers lacked the technology to predict how their projects would impact flooding, he said.
“(Now) we have more insight, we have more information and now we’re starting to see a lot of the problems,” Galbreath said.
The city is tasked with trying to mitigate some of these older flooding issues and guard against new development that could worsen the problem. Dyke highlighted the city’s plan to increase the stormwater utility fee by 15% and use the additional funds to invest more in stormwater management in three areas: McCart Avenue/Berry Street; the Linwood neighborhood; and neighborhoods around Texas Christian University and the Fort Worth Zoo.
Officials are battling aging infrastructure in many areas of Fort Worth as well as rapid development upstream that put stress on the system, panelists said.
The city’s flooding mitigation needs are also evolving because of “weird weather,” which Nick Fang, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, used as a euphemism for climate change. It’s becoming more normal to experience long periods of drought followed by a sudden downpour of rain, such as the storm in August 2022 that flooded Fort Worth streets and homes, he said.
The city also is working to address the cumulative impact of development in Fort Worth by commissioning studies and convening groups to determine whether or not the city should change drainage regulations, Dyke said.
The state of Texas is also emphasizing regional planning through its first state flood plan, which will bring together regional plans from around the state.
Fourteen flood reduction projects in Tarrant County will be eligible for millions in state infrastructure funds once the Texas Water Development Board approves the state plan in September 2024. Ickert helped develop the Trinity River basin plan.
“If there is a flood mitigation project, and somebody wants that funding, it needs to be in the regional and state plan,” Ickert said.
Dyke hopes the new state fund, along with more money from the stormwater utility fee, will allow the city to begin tackling large infrastructure projects in areas such as Linwood. Efforts to prevent the Trinity River from flooding the entire city turned Linwood into a “bathtub,” Galbreath said.
It’s going to take millions of dollars and years to plan and construct improvements in Linwood and other flood-prone areas of the city, Dyke said. The city is looking to improve conditions there in the meantime.
Guarding the central city against flooding from the Trinity River is the water district’s job, Ickert said. They are the local sponsor of the Central City flood control project, the $1.16 billion federal project also known as Panther Island. As development continues upstream, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will dig a bypass channel to prevent flooding downstream.
The project also includes a valley storage component in Gateway Park, a natural area that can accommodate excessive water and keep it away from areas where residents work and live.
A comprehensive and regional approach will transition flood planning from a focus on short-term solutions to longer-term protection. Fang is working with the North Central Texas Council of Governments to develop a long-range plan to prevent flooding that results from unmanaged growth and development.
The five-year effort will produce maps and modeling data to help local governments implement regulations on transportation, stormwater and infrastructure expansion.
“Step off of the mode of being reactive and step into the mode of being proactive,” Fang said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the role of the Tarrant Regional Water District’s role in flood control.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.