A long and winding river still ahead for Panther Island

🕐 5 min read

Fort Worth and Tarrant County leadership gathered Jan. 20 in the boardroom of the Tarrant Regional Water District to celebrate the Panther Island/Central City Flood Project finally receiving the federal funding they think will make it happen. 

The long-awaited $403 million in federal funding will go toward carrying the $1.16 billion project through phase 4 of 5 on its way to completion. Still to come are the planning and construction of the bypass channel. 

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker celebrated the longtime project, which began as an idea floated by fellow press conference attendee Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. Granger was mayor of Fort Worth from 1991-1995. 

“I can’t think of a better ‘go time’ moment than this one right here for our amazing city,” Parker said. 

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The actual timeline for the next phase of the project is less ‘go time’ and more hurry up and wait. Col. Jonathan S. Stover with the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers, Fort Worth District said the construction of the bypass could take up to and beyond six years to complete, two years past its initially projected end date.

Col. Stover estimated it would take a year to hire a contractor, another year to finish the design and four more years to complete the construction of the bypass channel. 

A part of the $403 million will be put to use completing the valley storage plan. The corps will excavate the land to create a place for continued water storage; the goal is to slow down water before it moves into the bypass channel. 

The valley storage project includes the planned Gateway Park area on the east side of Fort Worth. Once the site is fully excavated, it will be turned over to the city of Fort Worth, where the water storage area will be considered an amenity of the park. 

Possible roadblocks

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This infusion of funds from the federal government won’t fund the entirety of the flood protection project. Construction of flood gates, a stormwater pump station and a flood management dam remain unfunded by federal dollars. Col. Stover explained the corps will have to use the federal money already received before getting additional funds to finally complete the project. 

Those additional funds will most likely come when the corps has completed the bypass channel and requested funds from the corps civil works appropriation process, according to Matt Oliver, director of communications for the Panther Island/Central City Flood Control Project. 

“Unless it’s a supplemental fund like this [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] we’re not going to go ask for funds we can’t spend this year,” Oliver said. 

The corps typically funds its projects through Title I of the annual Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act. Such appropriations have ranged from $4.72 billion in 2013 to $7.65 billion in 2020. But the corps also can receive supplemental funding through other appropriations bills. For example in 2018, Congress allocated $18 billion in supplemental funding to address flood damage from Hurricane Harvey.

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was key to funding this round of civil works projects. Two pieces of legislation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, gave the corps $22.81 billion in supplemental funding. That’s about four times as the $6 billion earmarked as supplemental funding in 2021. In 2020, there was no supplemental funding.

Barring another infusion of supplemental funding, the Central City Flood Control project will have to compete with other projects for a much smaller pool of money, putting it back in the same position it has been in since Congress originally approved $526 million for the project in 2016. 

“We’re going to do everything we can with $403 million. Then we’re going to get to a point to go through that normal process of saying to the corps, ‘We can do XYZ, it’s going to cost us $72 million,’” Oliver said. 

Locally, the project is fully funded from a bond election in 2018 that provided $250 million and the Tax Increment Financing fund, which to date has provided over $200 million to the project. 

Longtime observers of the Tarrant Regional Water District and members of the Water District Accountability Project also raised concerns outside of funding. 

Water District Board President Leah King said the nearly completed environmental remediation of over 20 properties has cleared the way for construction of the bypass channel to begin on the corps’ timeline.

“Environmental remediation is a significant piece that had to happen to make all of this ready,” King said. “You hear the team at the district often say, ‘We have to remain shovel ready. We have to stay in front of the corps,’ so that has always been the focus.”

Members want to ensure environmental remediation is completed on the long-closed Riverside Wastewater Treatment Plant located in Gateway Park. That environmental remediation project was the responsibility of the city of Fort Worth, according to Oliver. 

Members of the project are also asking for accountability and transparency as the project transitions into a new phase. Other members of the group are doubtful, after 16 years of observation, that the project will move forward at a faster pace. 

“I don’t have any faith in this project,” Layla Caraway, member of the Water District Accountability Project, said. 

Mayor Parker and King addressed long-held frustrations from residents who have waited years for Panther Island to progress, acknowledging the project is over 18 years in the making. 

Parker took up the responsibility of facilitating the development of areas around the forthcoming bypass channel to increase the economic value of the Panther Island project. She said the city is ready to go into the preparation phase of creating a development plan but will take cues from the corps on when it can begin work on developing the area. 

She added that will include educating Fort Worth residents about the overall vision for Panther Island and answering questions about what the project will mean for individual families and neighborhoods. 

“There is a very exciting economic development piece to unlock and double the size of downtown Fort Worth, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” Parker said. 

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. 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.

This article was originally published by Fort Worth Report.

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