ODESSA, Texas (Nexstar) – Whenever rainwater floods the streets in and around Odessa, we like to ask people what they see.
They have expressed the same sentiment a number of times: shock, awe, concern, and sometimes indifference. There is no doubt that heavy rainfall in a short period of time will certainly contribute to flooding. The impact on the neighborhoods may vary. But it leads to the question: is there a drainage problem in Odessa?
Here are some transcribed interview excerpts (included in the broadcast report above):
“I cut across. I know it’s illegal but hey, I had to get my car out of here, so…”
“There’s nothing about this that’s been normal.”
“Sometimes, you’ll see boats…”
“A mattress floated down the street!”
“I mean, we had a dumpster in the middle of the road.”
“I’ve seen cars float down the river on Tom Green.”
“It’s the city’s job to use tax money for this not to happen.”
“Come out and practice your trout fishing whenever we get this rain.”
“We were talking about how Odessa and Midland ain’t got no good drain systems. So, they need to start working on them drain systems.”
“I’m not a civil engineer but we should have some civil engineers come out and solve that problem.”
Thomas Kerry is the Director of Utilities in Odessa. I spoke to Kerry to see if there was a solution for the flooding.
“It impacts lives, it certainly does. It impacts these peoples lives,” Kerry said. “Drainage is extremely important. It has to happen, or flooding will happen… We recognize the issue and we’re concerned about it.”
The Public Works and Utilities Department is made up of five divisions: engineering, geo-intelligence, solid waste, street, and traffic engineering.
It’s quite clear: Odessa lies in a floodplain. Kerry says the city is mainly flat, with an incredibly slight slope that is about 100 feet from the Northwest corner of Odessa to the Southeast corner of the city. That slope allows for floodwater to drain through that direction.
“In areas that don’t have a lot of slope, water has to build up a little bit to achieve velocity so it will flow out more quickly. So, if the intensity is high, water can’t get out as quickly as the water coming down. It builds up and floods,” Kerry said.
That water passes down through something called a “draw.” A draw is a form of terrain where two ridges are parallel and have low-lying land in between. Kerry says a draw acts as a natural drainage path which the city relies on.
“Our streets are one of our major drainage paths. We use them because they are available,” Kerry said.
There is the Monahans draw, which runs south of the city. Then, there is the Muskingum draw, which runs down the center of Odessa. Those natural draws define the city’s terrain and are considered a critical part of Odessa’s drainage system.
“A good drainage way will go ahead and move the water out, so it won’t stay for days,” Kerry said.
He says those natural pathways are critical to get water down south to the reservoirs, where water can be impounded for consumption.
Playas also surround and pocket the city’s terrain. Playas are low-lying areas of the basin floor that form naturally and collect water. That means heavy rains that happen over a period of several days are likely to turn those playas into shallow bodies of water. Kerry says water naturally wants to drain to the lowest point of the basin floor.
Recent flooding by Highway 80 in Odessa is the result of drainage coming from the watershed north of the area. Water also drains south toward and into the Odessa County Club.
“We put in things like detention and retention basins that kind of hold water back a little bit,” Kerry said. “You can’t cut off the whole watershed from draining through here – it just does.”
While the water can accumulate after periods of heavy rain, over time, that water is expected to flow, spread, and dissipate. There are significant variables that can and will influence how that water runs off and whether it accumulates: ground cover absorption, volume of water, and the intensity of the rain.
Kerry says, the first problem city engineers are faced with is historical development from after World War II.
“Developers put housing along these areas and it wasn’t a good idea,” Kerry said.
He says homes built in those drainage areas, like in the Muskingum draw, were created before the city became dense with homes. The issue was not as significant as it is now because Odessa was not as dense with neighborhoods. Because of the development, Kerry says that has encroached on the natural drainage pathways. The water will flow out, but it will create flooding as it does.
Kerry said a dam could be built north of the city. But it would have to be incredibly large. It would be a significant engineering challenge with incredible expense, too. For the homes built in these natural drainage pathways, they face little chance of remedy. If there is a solution, Kerry says it would not be easy to come by.
For example, the intersection of Dixie and 42nd Street often floods. We have spoken to Odessans who casually call the intersection, “Lake Dixie.”
“To elevate that roadway, it’s not that it can’t be done, but it would be quite difficult and quite expensive,” Kerry said. “The properties around it are built based on the roadway that’s already there… You would probably have to reconstruct that roadway, blocks in both directions.
If engineers were to stop the volume of water draining south, or if they were to channel the water out even faster, it could lead to erosion downstream. Because of how flat Odessa is, the storm drain system, the culverts, and the piping that do exist, are not as effective as the method of open channel drainage.
“You have to keep (the pipes) at enough grade, where they flow fast enough that debris doesn’t settle in the pipe,” Kerry said. “You would need everything to go over the top of them if you built them.”
The big focus is on future development. Building out further around Odessa creates another challenge for developers and the city. When building, Kerry says the focus is to prevent additional impact on homeowners in those natural flood areas.
“You have to worry about how that water gets channelized and how it ends up at the river,” Kerry said. “For the existing conditions, again they’re a greater challenge. We would love to be able to solve them, and solve them fairly easily, that would always help, but they’re not easy solutions.”
The city of Odessa is tasked with maintaining those natural drainage pathways and stream channels. That means keeping it clear of debris, like tree limbs, tires and trash, so they don’t flow down stream. Kerry says code enforcement also checks on properties where a danger may lie. But maintenance is a major effort because of the size of Odessa. Perhaps another significant challenge is staying staffed. Kerry says there are fifteen vacancies right now in the streets division from before the pandemic, and that hiring can be hard to come by because of the demand for labor in oilfields.