The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone

But What Causes Urban Flooding?

July 12, 2016

Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.

The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.

Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.

But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.

No Staff and No Budget

As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.

Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country

Read the rest of this post.

Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain.

Over one-third of houses reporting flooding on Memorial Day 2015 were outside any known flood hazard area. Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodways and floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain. Image from the Harris County Flood Control District report to the Spring 2016 conference of the Texas Association of Floodplain Managers.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou

A Bend in the River in July

July 11, 2016

Here is the latest photo from Jim Olive of that lovely bend in Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting through the seasons since the summer of 2014. This most recent photo was taken by Jim at around 8 a.m. on Friday, July 8, 2016, from the same high bluff in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the opposite bank. The record high flows from the reservoirs behind Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County had finally drained the last of the waters impounded from the record April 18 Tax Day rains, and the flow in the bayou had dropped to its base flow of around 100-200 cubic feet per second, as measured by the gauge at Piney Point.

To see all the photos of this same spot since 2014, go to A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou after the record high water from the spring rains had finally drained from Barker and Addicks dams upstream. Taken on July 8, 2016, by Jim Olive from the same high bank in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the right.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou after the record high water from the spring rains had finally drained from Barker and Addicks dams upstream. Taken on July 8, 2016, by Jim Olive from the same high bank in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the right.

Empty at Last. Almost.

Buffalo Bayou Reservoirs Finally Drain Last of Flood Waters

July 6, 2016

The last of the storm water from the April 18 Tax Day floods has passed finally  through the gates of Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County. (Almost, not quite. See comment below.) The reservoirs behind those 1940s-era earthen dams on Buffalo Bayou are normally empty in order to be ready to impound rainfall and runoff that would flood central Houston downstream.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, was forced to release water through the dams at a high rate of flow – between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and more — for nearly three months in order to empty the record-high reservoirs, as frequent rains kept adding to the water level.

Base flow in Buffalo Bayou, as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, is between 100 and 200 cfs. As of today the flow was still high – over 1,000 cfs.

The dams on Buffalo Bayou are classified “extremely high risk,” in large part due to the damage that would occur to the nation’s fourth most populous city if the dams were to fail. A $72 million construction project to repair seepage problems and build new conduits has been delayed due to the high water level in the reservoirs.

You can listen to what Richard Long, who manages the dams for the Corps, had to say about the situation this morning to Dave Fehling of Houston Public Matters. Long is the supervisory natural resources manager for the Corps’ Galveston District and has been working at the dams for 35 years.

And look for a report from us soon about the impact of the high waters on Buffalo Bayou. Richard Hyde, a geologist who lives in neighboring Bear Creek Village, reports that the herds of deer that roam the 25,000 acres of federally-owned wooded parkland in the reservoirs seem greatly reduced. And sadly, Buffy the Bison, rescued in April from the flooded small zoo in Bear Creek Park, died shortly thereafter.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Flying Down Buffalo Bayou

The Mother Bayou from Beginning to End

June 24, 2016

Buffalo Bayou near its source in Katy, Texas, formerly known as Cane Island. Image from drone video by Connor Winn, April 2016.

Buffalo Bayou near its source in Katy, Texas, a town formerly known as Cane Island. Image from drone video by Connor Winn, April 2016.

“Visualizing Nature, The Art and The Science” was the title of a class at Rice University taught this spring by photographer Geoff Winningham, professor of photography in the Art Department and holder of the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities, and by Adrian Lenardic, professor of geophysics and planetary science in the Department of Earth Science. One theme of the class was the visual and scientific aspects of Buffalo Bayou.

Connor Winn was a student in that class, and he made a lovely fourteen-minute video using a flying drone that follows our Mother Bayou from its quiet beginnings west of Houston. The film allows us to watch the bayou evolve from its source near Cane Island Branch, a creek, one of many feeding into the bayou, that runs through the town of Katy, which in the 1800s was known as Cane Island, named after the creek filled with cane. We see the bayou growing into the mighty ship channel and joining the San Jacinto River at Burnet Bay, part of Galveston Bay, near the San Jacinto Monument just upstream of Baytown.

Watch Connor Winn’s video of Buffalo Bayou.

Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?

Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control

June 15, 2016

By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.

Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

The river’s not natural because the river changes.

It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.

Trees fall into it.

It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!

It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!

It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.

All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)

And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.

Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.

A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work

All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.

A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.

Read the rest of this post.

 

Radio Talk about Natural Flood Control

Flooding on the Air

June 14, 2016

Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, and John Jacob, board chair of Galveston Baykeeper, wetlands expert, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program at Texas A&M, were on the radio today talking about bayous, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and natural solutions to flooding. The popular weekly Tuesday program, Eco-Ology, hosted by Pat Greer and H.C. Clark, aired from 3 to 4 p.m. on KPFT 90.1.

Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.

But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?

This is in fact the latest thinking in flood control worldwide. Room for the river to move. Even in the Netherlands they are tearing down their big gates and dikes, letting the water in while raising the land where people live and work. Even in Missouri.

A lot cheaper, more cost effective, and more beneficial overall.

Listen to the Eco-Ology program on KPFT 90.1.

Flooding on Buffalo Bayou, April 18, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive.

Flooding on Buffalo Bayou, April 18, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive.

 

Cottonwood Down

A Giant Falls

June 14, 2016

We have been watching this magnificent cottonwood on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park. Beginning in 2012 the Harris County Flood Control District realigned the banks and removed a lot of trees and stabilizing vegetation from the banks of the bayou between Sabine and Shepherd streets for its “natural stable channel design” improvements in the park.

Those “channel conveyance” alterations left many of the few remaining large trees on the weakened banks in a vulnerable state. In the Fall of 2015 part of this grand old tree broke apart.

And now, finally, sadly, the great tree has fallen. Others will go eventually.

Big trees fall into the bayou all the time. It’s part of the natural process, and fallen trees collect sediment for bank building, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and slow storm waters. But trees, whose massive roots help hold the bank together, are not supposed to fall in the water because in the name of progress we dug up and destroyed the structure of the surrounding banks, breaking up the intricate root systems of the vegetation that had been there for a very long time.

Still, we have had unusually high rainfall and stream flow in our bayous. The banks in many places are now lush with new green growth and wildflowers. For nearly two months we have had record high flows in Buffalo Bayou as the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to empty the flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams in western Harris County. We have reports of trees downed all along the bayou.

Watch this slideshow of the great cottonwood as it maintained its lonely vigil until the end.

  • Cottonwood breaks apart and part of it falls as Buffalo Bayou Park is under construction. Photo December 21, 2014.
  • Cottonwood downed in Buffalo Bayou Park on south bank west of Waugh by loss of banks and stabilizing vegetation "restored" by the Harris County Flood Control District. Several more mature trees were lost since this photo was taken Jan. 26, 2015, by Jim Olive.
  • Remaining cottonwood maintaining solo on south bank in April 2015.
  • Lone cottonwood still standing on south bank of Buffalo Bayou in November 2015 after parts of it were downed the previous winter.
  • Cottonwood still standing on March 4, 2016, having survived the Memorial Day and Halloween floods.
  • After a brave struggle, mighty cottonwood falls to April 2016 Tax Day rains and long, high flows from Buffalo Bayou dams. Photo on June 13, 2016

 

 

Then And Now

The View From the Bridge

June 13, 2016

Okay, it was a trick question. We asked our readers to identify the location of Geoff Winningham’s lovely black-and-white photo of Buffalo Bayou taken in 1998. And we asked for a photo of the same view now.

Shoulda been easy. The photo was published in Winningham’s beautiful photographic study of the bayou, Along Forgotten River, which traces our Mother Bayou from its source in the Katy Prairie to its end in Galveston Bay. And the photo was identified, of course.

Except that somehow the identification in the book was wrong, says Winningham. He went out and checked himself last week. The photo was taken looking upstream from the Waugh Bridge, not the Montrose Bridge. Still, the view doesn’t look much the same. The river seems to bend differently now, after the “channel conveyance improvements” by the Harris County Flood Control District starting in 2010. Not so many trees either. Here’s the way it looks now. Still lovely.

View of Buffalo Bayou looking upstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo by Anonymous, June 13, 2016

View of Buffalo Bayou looking upstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo by Anonymous, June 13, 2016

And here is the way it looked in 1998.

Somewhere on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Geoff Winningham prior to 2001.

Buffalo Bayou from the Waugh Bridge. Photo by Geoff Winningham, 1998.

Anonymous photographer wins a Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker, which everyone should have. Get yours by donating to Save Buffalo Bayou, and help us promote responsible flood control that works with nature rather than against it.

From The Sky Above: Barker Dam and Reservoir

June 7, 2016

Houston photographer Jim Olive took this photo of Barker Dam and Reservoir in west Houston on Sunday, June 5, at around 11:30 a.m.

The dam gates had just been opened, and water from recent rains was pouring from the reservoir’s temporary lake into Buffalo Bayou, which flows through Barker Reservoir through the center of Houston and into Galveston Bay. Water impounded from several creeks behind nearby Addicks Dam also flows into Buffalo Bayou below Barker Dam. The dams were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6. Photo by Jim Olive.

Record rains that fell on west Houston and elsewhere on April 18 filled the two flood control reservoirs with unprecedented amounts of water. Rains since then have slowed releases from the normally empty basins, which contain large, forested parks and recreational facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, closes the dam gates during a rain, and rain adds more water to the reservoirs, which must be emptied as quickly as possible in order to create room to hold back future stormwater. Maximum capacity, the volume beyond which water will begin to spill around the ends of the dams, is 199,643 acre-feet for Addicks and 209,600 acre-feet for Barker. Addicks Reservoir is just to the north of Barker on the northern side of Interstate 10.

The combined peak pool behind the two reservoirs was more than 206,000 acre-feet around April 22, with Addicks reaching some 122,000 acre-feet or a little more than two-thirds of maximum capacity. Despite record high extended releases from the dams for the last seven weeks, the two reservoirs have been drained by less than half, standing at a combined volume of 114,210 acre-feet on Tuesday early afternoon.

Please Don’t Kill the Snakes

They Have a Job To Do

June 3, 2016

Wet weather and high waters in Buffalo Bayou and other streams have brought more snakes into Houston area yards.

Serpents slither but really they’ve been getting a bum rap since that report about an alleged role in losing paradise.

A reader recently sent in a photo of a couple of snakes in his neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou. His dog had cornered a snake in his yard, he said. The snake coiled, tensed and opened his mouth. Thinking to protect his dog, the man speared the snake with a heavy bar. A few minutes earlier, a neighbor had also encountered and killed a snake on his property. Hence, the photo of two dead snakes.

Two snakes recently killed in a residential neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou were not venomous.

Two snakes recently killed in a residential neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou were not venomous.

It turns out, however, that neither of these snakes was venomous.

The snake with its mouth open is probably an Eastern Hognose snake, according to our expert naturalists. “Harmless but puts on quite a show,” wrote environmentalist Bruce Bodson in an email. “The other one appears to be a Blotched Water Snake, also harmless but will bite in self defense.”

Beneficial Role of Snakes

“Snakes are generally beneficial, in that they eat plenty of rats mice and roaches,” writes naturalist/geologist Tom Helm. “They have always been around the bayous, but with the last two years of wet weather they are becoming more abundant, mainly because their prey animals are becoming more abundant. Please don’t kill the snakes, they have a job to do!”

More about water snakes here. More about Eastern Hognose here.

Learn about Texas snakes.

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