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Rebuilding an Underfunded Community in Houston

Rebuilding an Underfunded Community in Houston

High and fast water rising in Bayou River with downtown Houston in background under cloud blue sky. Heavy rains from Harvey Tropical Hurricane storm caused many flooded areas in greater Houston area.

By Luke Carothers

In Fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and Louisiana to devastating effect.  The storm, and the catastrophic flooding that followed, had lasting effects on the city of Houston and its surrounding communities.  Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston’s infrastructure, especially in the underfunded communities that surround the city’s downtown.  One of the areas hit hardest by the storm was the Harris County Municipal Utility District 148 (HC MUD 148), which is located 13 miles from downtown Houston.

One firm is helping HC MUD 148 restore the infrastructure lost by the storm and prepare for future weather events.  Pape-Dawson  has been working with HC MUD 148 since the Fall of 2017 to help get the community back on its feet, serving as the district engineer.  Part of the Pape-Dawson team working in this regard are Sergio Handel who is himself the District Engineer for HC MUD 148, and Michael Preiss, head of Pape-Dawson’s Houston office.   

Most recently, Pape-Dawson, a Texas-based civil engineering firm, designed and constructed an expansion of the district’s wastewater treatment facility.  This project has significant implications in terms of wastewater infrastructure for the district by increasing sewage treatment capacity from 0.55 millions of gallons per day (MDG) to 0.95 MGD over two phases.  Sergio Handel, who is the Senior Project Manager for the new wastewater facility, notes that this project is particularly challenging because it replaces an existing facility, which gives it a very limited footprint.

The first design challenge of the project was increasing sewage treatment capacity while not expanding past the existing footprint.  The previous facility featured circular concrete plants, and one of the earlier ideas was to add another.  While this would have kept the project within the size requirement, it was not adequate in terms of increasing sewage treatment capacity.  As such, Pape-Dawson’s engineers opted for a modular design that would maximize both space and capacity.  This new modular design included rectangular tanks rather than circular ones, which are a more efficient use of space.  Handel points out that this more efficient use of space means the tanks can have more volume and capacity.

The decision to use a modular design was also influenced by the time constraints of the existing plant, which was nearing its capacity.  To compound this, a new housing development was nearing completion within the district, adding stress to the existing facility.  A modular design meant that the new facility could be completed on a shorter timeline.

The modular design process for the new facility required several intensive processes to ensure it was optimal for the goal of increasing sewage treatment capacity.  Precise calculations determined the size of the treatment basins, hydraulic profiles, and treatment components.  This process also necessitated that Pape-Dawson’s team work with equipment manufacturers to optimize performance and coordinate with geotechnical, structural, and electrical subconsultants.

Another aspect of this new wastewater facility for HC MUD 148 is an updated influent lift station.  Handel says the reasoning behind this update is two-fold.  The station’s capacity had to be increased, so new, larger pumps were installed. However, because this station had a particular problem with rags, these new pumps were also chopper pumps, which, as the name would suggest, chop all incoming debris into small enough pieces that they will not clog the station.

While the goals of this project are certainly clearly defined and necessary, it can still be difficult to fund such a project, particularly in the case of a historically underfunded district such as HC MUD 148.  To fund such projects HC MUD 148 typically relies on grants, which can be a difficult and time consuming process.  However, Preiss notes that in addition to providing engineering services on the project, Pape-Dawson is actively involved in helping the district apply for and receive funding through grants; he also believes that the potential slowing down of work that results can be offset through expertise in the application process and careful planning.

As Houston continues to rebuild their infrastructure in the years following Hurricane Harvey, it is also evident that these communities are looking forward to the next major weather event.  By working closely with underfunded communities, firms can make a serious impact on the quality of life for the people living there.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.