Houston Has to Get Out of the Floodplains. Now.
Important commentary about how we should be using potential bond proceeds from the Aug. 25 election to get out of the way of flooding and let our natural drainage system — our bayous and streams — work the way they are supposed to. From Dr. John Jacob, board member of Bayou City Waterkeeper and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.
Commentary by Dr. John Jacob, the Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2018
Houston has in place a natural flood detention and conveyance system that could handle another Harvey, sitting right here in plain sight.
Our bayous, creeks and streams, and their associated floodplains, have carved out, over millennia, a very robust and capacious system. This legacy system did not fail during Harvey. We failed, over the years, because we put so many people in harm’s way.
In fact, more than 40 percent of all FEMA-designated floodplains in Harris County have been developed to one degree or another, with more than 500,000 homes and apartments in these hazardous zones. Few floodplains within Beltway 8 are undeveloped.
Where we saw boat rescues, where we saw four to six feet of water and more in homes, these were houses deep in harm’s way that should not have been there.
This legacy floodplain system was given to us free of charge. All we had to do was to protect it, to keep homes and commerce out of the low-lying valleys. Now here we are after Harvey, trying to reduce the size of the floodplains, trying to keep water out of the floodplains, because people and their homes are in the way now. Many great and beloved neighborhoods have sprung up in the floodplains. People don’t want to leave. And so they stay, hoping Harvey, Tax Day and Memorial Day floods are just an anomaly.
Reminder: Buffalo Bayou Watershed Flood Bond Meeting July 30
Also Barker Reservoir Meeting on Aug. 1
July 23, 2018
The Harris County Flood Control District and members of county commissioners’ court continue to hold meetings around the county to present proposals for projects attempting to reduce the hazard of flooding.
The meeting about projects proposed in the Buffalo Bayou watershed will be held on Monday, July 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive in Houston. A meeting to present projects proposed for the Barker Reservoir watershed is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy. Buffalo Bayou flows from its headwaters near Katy into and through Barker Dam.
The projects are to be funded with the proceeds of a $2.5 billion bond issue should the voters approve on August 25. The bonds would be issued over a period of ten to fifteen years, according to the flood control district, and repaid through a property tax increase of no more than two-three cents per $100 of home valuation. Homeowners with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional taxes, according to the district.
Most of the projects proposed are projects that had long been planned. For instance, a controversial project to remove forest and excavate basins to capture and temporarily hold overflow on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park is listed with a $10 million cost estimate. The project in its initial stages would allegedly create 60-100 acre-feet of temporary storage alongside the bayou. The linear detention, siphoning flow out of the bayou, is planned to compensate for eventual additional City of Houston drainage into the bayou from neighborhood streets.
Barker and Addicks dams both drain into Buffalo Bayou, and overflow from Cypress Creek on the rapidly developing Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County also drains into the overburdened Addicks Reservoir, adding to the pressure of runoff into Addicks and the bayou.
Other than the Hershey Park detention project, some $21 million is slated for a new detention basin north of John Paul’s Landing on Upper Langham Creek, which drains into Addicks.
However, most of the projects listed for these watersheds mainly focus on repairing channels and improving conveyance – making more stormwater flow faster into and through the reservoirs. This has the potential to cause more problems and more flooding. Modern practice elsewhere is to focus on slowing the flow, making room for the river with wider floodplains. We would hope for more money to be spent on land aquisition, buyouts in floodplains, preservation of undeveloped land, forest, wetlands, prairies, and riparian vegetaton; creation of green space, restoring meanders, and programs to encourage slowing of rain runoff beginning with individuals and neighborhoods.
There are also funds proposed to be used in collaboration with Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Addicks and Barker, to evaluate the effectiveness and operation of those 70-year-old dams.
A complete list of projects can be found on the flood control district’s website. The website also offers a way to make comments about the projects.
The meetings are not set up for the public to engage officials or voice opinions. They are informative only – with numerous stations staffed by flood control personnel to explain projects. However, paper and pencils are provided for citizens to write comments.
Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow
Summer Down on the Bayou
July 17, 2018
In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.
Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.
Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.
Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.
Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.
Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.
Removing Fallen Trees More Damaging Long Term
Post-Harvey debris removal along Buffalo Bayou almost complete
By Tracy Maness, Houston Chronicle, Memorial Examiner, July 12, 2018
Since last fall, HCFCD has cleared large downed trees along nearly 25 miles of the bayou from Highway 6 to Interstate 45, according to Facilities Maintenance Department Manager John Watson. However, an official from nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou said the work will ultimately lead to more flooding and erosion of the bayou downstream.
Watson said while the flood control district typically allows trees to remain where they fall, contractors were hired following the hurricane to go in to remove the many downed trees using barges and swamp buggies, which are like large excavators on pontoons, in order to keep the flow of the waterway moving.
“Our normal operation involves just cutting and leaving trees in place, but with an event the size of Harvey and the damage that was done from Harvey, we really couldn’t just leave the downed trees there. We had to go and physically get into the channel and remove them,” Watson said.
Save Buffalo Bayou Executive Director Susan Chadwick said the nonprofit organization was started in 2014 “to oppose a plan by HCFCD to raze the forest, dredge and reroute over a mile of one of the last forested, publicly accessible stretches of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park through the middle of the city.”
Chadwick said Save Buffalo Bayou educates community members and leaders about how natural and manmade drainage systems work and what is ineffective to prevent flooding.
She said large debris removal projects and other efforts to speed up water flow along Buffalo Bayou are not effective long term.
“The focus on speeding up the flow leads to a cascade of poor decisions, policies and practice: removing all the woody debris in the stream, for instance, dredging, straightening, shortening and enlarging channels,” Chadwick said. “These extremely costly methods are unsustainable.”
She said because Buffalo Bayou is a natural body of water, it will always evolve and correct itself when repairs or changes are made.
“A river is a dynamic living system. It adjusts itself to the width and depth necessary to become stable. An artificially deepened stream, for instance, will fill itself with silt and sediment again. The banks of an artificially widened stream will collapse. Streams flow the way they do because of the underlying geology. Rivers have a memory. They will do what they want and need to do,” Chadwick said.
Buffalo Bayou Flood Bond Meeting
New Meetings Scheduled
June 28, 2018
Updated July 23, 2018
The Harris County Flood Control District has scheduled new meetings, including a meeting on Buffalo Bayou for July 30, to explain the proposed projects to be funded with to be funded with $2.5 billion in proceeds from the bond election to be held Aug. 25.
Officials with the Harris County Flood Control District are holding public meetings in each of the county’s 23 watersheds to receive public input about proposed flood mitigation and protection projects.
The meeting on projects related to Buffalo Bayou will be held on July 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive, Houston 77079.
County officials have recently held meetings on projects near Addicks Reservoir, which drains into Buffalo Bayou, and Cypress Creek, which overflows and drains into Addicks during floods. Politicians and others are proposing a new dam somewhere on Cypress Creek to deal with flooding there, although a new dam would be a federal responsibility, not a local project.
Stormwater draining into Addicks Reservoir is an acute problem as the too much runoff during Harvey forced federal authorities to open the floodgates during the storm, flooding thousands of homes and killing three people along Buffalo Bayou. The stormwater capacity of Barker Reservoir, which also drains into Buffalo Bayou, is also a problem. Among other issues, residential subdivisions were developed within the known flood pool behind the dam and many homes were flooded during Harvey.
A meeting on Barker Reservoir projects is scheduled for August 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High School, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy 77450.
The location for the July 10 meeting about projects related to the San Jacinto River has been changed. The new location is Kingwood Park High School, 4015 Woodland Hills Drive in Kingwood, 77339, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Also upcoming is a meeting on projects related to Little Cypress Creek. That meeting is scheduled for July 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center, 8440 Greenhouse Road in Cypress, 77433.
These meetings have been declared to be special meetings of Harris County Commissioners Court so that members of Commissioners Court may attend and participate.
The purpose of each meeting is to describe some of the projects proposed for the anticipated 2018 flood bond election and to solicit residents’ input on which projects should be included.
For a comprehensive description of the types of projects the county intends to fund, as well as further information about meetings, a map of projects, and how to comment, visit the flood control district’s webpage.
Meetings are also listed on Save Buffalo Bayou’s Calendar of Events.
Are Costly Flood Basins Proposed Where Natural Basins Already Exist on Buffalo Bayou?
Swales Holding Overflow May Be Natural Remnants of Bayou’s Original Meanders
Numerous Large Trees Cut Along Bayou Banks
June 19, 2018
Went for a stroll in the late morning heat a week ago Saturday along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston. Started out on the pedestrian bridge at Eldridge Parkway and walked mostly but not always in the shade downstream. This is the area where the Harris County Flood Control District plans to remove trees and build the first of three linear detention basins at the edge of the stream to hold overflow from it.
The surprising find was that a significant amount of natural floodwater detention in the form of deep swales or depressions and levees already exists in this wooded area alongside the bayou.
Disturbingly, we also found that numerous large trees, sycamores and oaks, on both sides of the bayou recently had been pointlessly cut down, likely by Flood Control employees or by contractors clearing woody debris from the channel. Flood Control pays maintenance contractors by the weight of the wood they collect. Trees on the banks are important for protecting against erosion and cooling the stream, as well as absorbing water, among other important functions.
The Natural Path of the Bayou
The swales and depressions, filled with trees and bushes, may correspond to the original path of the bayou, once a meandering wooded stream through this 6.2-mile long linear park. In the late 1940s, in conjunction with construction of the two federal dams, Addicks and Barker, immediately upstream, the US Army Corps of Engineers razed the forest and dug a straight, artificial channel for the bayou, a costly, environmentally-destructive practice long ago abandoned because it increases flooding, among other problems.
The Bat Trip
Happy Hour with Bats
June 13, 2018
Float with geologist, river guide, and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm on a relaxing sunset trip to watch the hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from under the Waugh Bridge on Buffalo Bayou to catch their evening meal while evading the high-flying avian predators hoping to make a meal of them. The Bat Paddle is one of Helm’s most popular float trips. Meet about an hour before sunset for an easy paddle upstream from downtown to the bridge. Park the canoes on the beach and enjoy some locally brewed beverages. Enjoy the Houston skyline in the moonlight. Trip lasts for three hours. All skill levels welcome. Cost is $50 per person. For more information, contact Tom Helm.
New Community Meetings on Flood Projects To Be Financed by Bond Election
June 11, 2018
Updated June 13
The Harris County Flood Control District and Harris County Commissioners’ Court have added several new community meetings for residents to discuss flood management projects and the upcoming bond election with county and flood control representatives. County commissioners have scheduled a county-wide vote Aug. 25, 2018, on issuing $2.5 billion bonds to finance projects. The bonds would be repaid out of property taxes.
Meetings have now been scheduled for Addicks Reservoir (June 21), Carpenters Bayou (June 14), Cypress Creek (June 15), Greens Bayou (June 16), and White Oak Bayou (June 12). Meetings have recently been held for Armand and Sims bayous.
June 13 Update: Meetings now scheduled also for Clear Creek (July 17), Halls Bayou (June 20), Hunting Bayou (June 23), San Jacinto River (July 10), and Spring Creek (June 27).
Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Floating Past the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and Memorial Park
June 4, 2018
Watch this slide show of recent photos taken during a float trip on May 28, 2018, to document Buffalo Bayou after maintenance contractors working for the Harris County Flood Control District had been through removing Large Woody Debris and cutting trees.
And this slideshow documents some of the trees cut by the maintenance contractors.
Flood Control’s Destructive Bayou Maintenance Will Lead to More Erosion, More Maintenance
Practices Fall Behind Standards Elsewhere
June 3, 2018
For months we have been receiving complaints about the damage the Harris County Flood Control District is doing to Buffalo Bayou.
Citizens have been sending us video and photographs of contract workers dredging, banging, mucking, bulldozing, slamming and damming the channel and banks; dragging, cutting, and removing large trees, live trees, trees fallen against the banks, trees fallen in the woods.
And now we have reports that they’ve done the same to Cypress Creek in northern Harris County.
The “maintenance” they have done – virtually clearing out the channel and banks — will lead to greater erosion and instability, more sediment and more flooding. And more costly maintenance.
Harvey and the flooding that followed left a huge amount of woody and other sorts of debris in our bayous, our natural drainage system. Buffalo Bayou, our main river, flows from its source in the Katy Prairie for some 75 miles east through the center of Houston, becoming the Houston Ship Channel and emptying into Galveston Bay. For much of that route, the 18,000-year-old bayou remains one of the few relatively natural streams in the city. It accumulated a lot of debris, logjams and snags during Harvey, as did Cypress Creek.
The Importance of Fallen Trees
There are trees along Buffalo Bayou, great tall trees in places, and they sometimes fall into it. Trees have been doing this on rivers for over a hundred million years. Trees, before and after they fall, are a crucial part of the river’s natural system. Overhanging trees shade the water, regulating the temperature. Their extensive roots, together with the roots of riparian plants, anchor the bank, protecting the bank from washing out. When trees fall into the channel, they continue to provide stability to the stream and its banks, trapping sediment, fortifying against and deflecting heavy flows, helping the channel to maintain a healthy width and depth and to form riffles and pools, helping the stream to restore itself more quickly after a flood, and providing food and habitat for the diversity of creatures large and small that sustain the bayou’s ecosystem.