Potential new flood plain elevations that have been mentioned are preliminary, and no decisions have been made, the engineer gathering data for a new FEMA flood plain map of Brown County said Tuesday.
“Nothing is carved into stone in this process,” Wes Birdwell, water resource planning director for Halff Associates of Austin, told directors of the Brown County Water Improvement District No. 1.
Birdwell also made presentations to the Brown County Commissioners Court on Monday and the Brownwood City Council on Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile, local officials are arranging a meeting in the near future with FEMA officials at its regional headquarters in Denton to discuss the remapping process and the community’s concerns.
“We’re going to FEMA to find out what can be done in Brown County,” water district General Manager Dennis Spinks told the board. “Flood plain change has a high impact for Brownwood and Brown County.”
Spinks praised the leadership of County Judge Ray West on the issue, and said local officials have the ear of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office.
In the discussion at Tuesday’s board meeting that included water district directors, Spinks, district legal counsel Bill Bell and two engineers from Freese and Nichols, Birdwell indicated that the county is not necessarily facing a change to a higher flood plain level, now or in the future. He also said FEMA is willing to work with county officials to establish a level that’s based on appropriate data and agreeable to local officials, and apologized if previous presentations led to different conclusions.
Birdwell said due to funding limitations, FEMA cannot commission new studies, so Halff was been awarded a contract to gather existing data for the development of new maps in Brown County. During initial meetings with City of Brownwood, Brown County and water district officials, a level of 1,443 feet above sea level was mentioned. That figure, based on what Birdwell said are more conservative Army Corps of Engineers data, is eight feet above the current flood plain of 1,435. On Tuesday, Birdwell said the a level of 1,441 appears in two other studies, including one by Freese and Nichols when the dam was reinforced in 1979. But even that is not necessarily definitive.
“It’s not a real number,” Birdwell said. “There’s nothing magic about 1,441. It’s shown up in two studies we’ve found. Right now, 1,435 is the number and it will continue to be the number until the new map is adopted. It could still be the number… Whatever level is used is up to the communities and FEMA. It’s not been my experience that FEMA is not going to force a community to adopt something it doesn’t agree with.”
At the same time, Freese and Nichols hydrology engineer Kelly Dillard said FEMA will want to see data that supports the community’s preference for any different level. That could require a locally commissioned new study, or perhaps modifications at the lake dam that would help control flood waters.
That opened a brief discussion about the feasibility of adding flood gates. Such gates were part of the original design of the dam and were probably a factor in setting the easement level at 10 feet above spillway — the level which is also the current flood plain.
“You would be more in a position to balance floods,” Birdwell said. “Apparently flood gates were part of the equation when the dam was built. Is that something the district wants to do? That’s a big question.”
Such a project could cost several million dollars, engineers estimated.
“Gates on the spillway would not only help the flood plain elevation around the lake, but it would help the flood plain elevation in the city, too,” Spinks said. “The question is, it is going to be cost effective to build?”
“It might be worth looking at what can be done to work with FEMA on this,” Freese and Nichols vice president Mike Morrison told the board.
Local officials have said a new, higher flood plain level would discourage development around Lake Brownwood and in much of Brownwood. A report prepared by Freese and Nichols for the district showed that raising the level six feet would add 3,200 acres of land to the flood plain immediately around the lake, the majority of it being at the shallow north end around the Pecan Bayou. But significant acreage would also involve some prime development areas around the shoreline.
Birdwell said the flood plain levels in the county and within the city aren’t the same, although they are interconnected.
Time is not yet a problem in the discussions, Birdwell added, as the county is about one year into what — at its fastest pace — is a three-year process. Many remapping projects take considerably longer, he said.
Dillard generally supported Birdwell’s comments, and echoed his statement that the purpose of the map process is to make the area safer and less prone to flood damage.
“FEMA is going to try to work with you to get something you can adopt,” Dillard told the board. But she also emphasized the importance of finding a level supported by technical data. She added that the purpose of the Freese and Nichols 1979 study mentioned by Birdwell was not to establish a flood plain.
“You don’t have a technical basis for coming up with a (flood plain) level,” Dillard said. “There really isn’t any technical data. I think you might benefit from some additional study. If you’re worried about limiting development by adopting a higher flood plain, you’ll be in even worse shape by not having federally-backed loans.
“You guys have time to do a study, to get some numbers. If you don’t want to use 1,441, FEMA will want to know the basis (of a different level).”
Morrison said a study to develop some specific data relevant to the flood plain and mapping project could cost $40,000 to $50,000, depending on the extent of data requested, and it might take 180 days to complete.
The water district has easements for flood water storage to a level 10 feet above Lake Brownwood’s spillway of 1,425 feet, and that 1,435 mark is the current flood plain level in the county for the National Flood Insurance Program. Construction within the flood plain requires flood mitigation design in order to obtain flood insurance, which is required for federally-insured loans within flood plains. Local officials contend that since the highest level Lake Brownwood has ever reached since it was built almost 80 years ago has been about 1,432, the 1,435 level is historically significant for setting a level.
Birdwell said the next steps in the process will involve the community’s response, then a conference with FEMA and the drawing of preliminary maps that could take 12 to 18 months. An appeals period would follow.
Birdwell said the local involvement has been a positive part of the process.
“I’ve come to appreciate the working relationship that exists with the district, the city and the county,” Birdwell said. “Lake Brownwood has been a tremendous boost for Central Texas, but with that comes responsibility.”
He said Texas annually ranks first in the nation in flood losses and repetitive flood losses, with Louisiana and Florida coming in second or third depending on hurricane damage.
“Without the National Flood Insurance Program, there is no flood insurance,” Birdwell said.