Cutting and Scraping, Pounding Sheet Pile: Update on Bank Work at Bayou Bend
And a Word About the Bank “Stabilization” Plans in Memorial Park
Aug. 26, 2021
We’ve been meaning to update you on the “restoration” work on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens. (Although perhaps more significant are the still-developing plans for the banks in Memorial Park. See below.)
The bank below Bayou Bend is a section of the bayou upstream of the Shepherd Bridge at the end of Westscott Street. Now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it’s the former home of philanthropist and art collector Ima Hogg, who also donated the 15.5 acres that are now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north bank opposite the gardens.
The Bayou Bend bank project involves cutting trees, stripping, grading, and pounding sheet pile and concrete into the bank. It was designed by the engineering firm Stantec, which has also been hired to develop the controversial bank scraping and “stabilization” project in a little-known forested section of Memorial Park west of Loop 610 called the Old Archery Range.
While parts of the bank at Bayou Bend now undergoing repairs previously have been reinforced with riprap, the natural bank along Memorial Park further upstream is perhaps the last publicly-accessible stretch where one can observe layers of our geologic history and witness the dynamic natural functioning of the living river, which is increasingly being smothered by concrete, metal, and bulldozers.
Losing Land Versus Signing It Away
The Memorial Park project is being proposed because the park is “losing land,” according to Shellye Arnold, chief executive officer of the Memorial Park Conservancy. But ironically, the plan proposed so far would slice through meanders, reroute the bayou, and cut off public access to public land, effectively signing over public property to private owners, including commercial interests. Note that this park project is sponsored in part by the Uptown Development Authority (TIRZ 16), an unelected board of mostly large, local property owners and developers which diverts for its own interests property taxes (public money) that would otherwise go into the city’s general fund.
Asked recently how people would have access to the public land that would be cut off by rerouting the bayou, Randy Odinet, vice president for of capital projects with the Memorial Park Conservancy, responded, “That’s a good question.” But he also pointed out that the analysis and plans for the Old Archery Range were still in development, delayed in part by heavy rains. We’ll have more of an update on that soon.
Here are some photos of the work at Bayou Bend.
Another Big Tree Falls After Bank “Repairs”
Flood Control Recently Spent $10 Million, Scraped Healthy Bank for No Reason
Aug. 26, 2021
Almost a year ago we told you about the Harris County Flood Control District scraping and bulldozing healthy, green banks of the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park near downtown Houston.
At the time we predicted that trees would likely fall due to the loss of supporting vegetation.
And now a big elm has fallen on the bank scraped by the district.
It’s not the first tree to go as a result of the district’s work on the banks of the park since 2010. Numerous trees have collapsed in the stretch from Shepherd Drive to Sabine. There’s also the trees deliberately cut in the park by contractors working for Flood Control. Watch this slideshow of the evolution of the park showing the numerous trees removed by the district in the last decade.
The bulldozing of the bank last year was part of a $9.7 million “repair” project that narrowed the channel, lined it with concrete riprap, and basically turned our scenic river into an ugly drainage ditch.
A Waste of Federal Funds and Natural Resources
The nearly $10 million in federal funds were supposed to be used to “reshape and protect eroded streambanks.” But these areas, particularly upstream of Waugh, were not eroded. The bank shape was fine. The bayou, according to its natural plan, had planted tall goldenrod and horseweed, young willows and cottonwoods along its banks.
The Flood Control District cut it all down and left bare dirt. It wasn’t a “repair” project. It was a landscaping project.
Now, almost a year later, here’s what some of those multi-million dollar banks look like. So will they keep scraping the banks after the bayou plants them again with the deep-rooted wild stuff that’s needed to hold the banks together?
Public Outreach Meeting on Flood Planning Aug. 31
Regional Flood Planners Want to Know about Your Flood Experience, Current Risk
Aug. 24, 2021
The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group, which includes the entire watershed of the Houston metropolitan area all the way from Walker County to Galveston and more, is having a public engagement meeting on Aug. 31 at 6:30 p.m.
The virtual meeting will describe the tools and programs being developed to encourage members of the public to contribute information about their flooding experiences and current risks.
Members of the public can register to make comments. You can also submit written comments before or after the meeting.
The meeting will be online and will be translated into Spanish. Here is the public notice with information about how to join the meeting.
And here is a flyer about the meeting which includes a QR code to scan for easy registration.
Flood Plans, Studies, Committees Need Organization
Fundamental Recommendation: Create a Regional Coordinating Body
How We Are Doing and What We Should Do: Hold Water Where It Falls
Aug. 17, 2021
A major flood study by the US Army Corps of Engineers has concluded that our metropolitan region needs a coordinating body “across all levels of government,” including highway, railroad, and utility agencies, to “set priorities” and plan for flood protection. (pp. 75-76)
The report documents that the Harris County Flood Control District continues its environmentally destructive, outdated, and counterproductive policy of stripping and straightening local streams, which increases flooding. (pp. 57-59) These “channel rectification” and widening projects include 15 miles of Clear Creek and 15 miles of White Oak Bayou upstream of Loop 610 North.
The report is not the first call for an overall organizing body to address flooding. The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium made the same recommendation in 2018, as the federal report notes. (p. 75)
Hold Water Where It Falls
The lengthy draft report, called the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment, recommends an emphasis on communicating flood risk, equitable distribution of flood protection, and a greater reliance on green and nature-based features, including pervious surfaces, and small-scale individual and neighborhood efforts to “reduce risk to downstream communities and broaden awareness of shared responsibility.” (p. 77)
The basic thrust of its recommended individual and neighborhood actions is to “hold water where it falls before it enters the bayous.” (Like we’ve been saying: Slow the Flow! Here are some basic tips and resources.)
The long-awaited draft federal report is some 250-pages long and highly technical. Released in mid-June, the main report initially seemed like nothing but a regurgitation of stuff everybody already knew.
However, in addition to the 80-page main report there are three appendices addressing existing flood risk management, climate change, and protection of cultural resources. And in sum the draft is a good summary of existing programs and makes some worthwhile observations and recommendations.
The final report is due Oct. 5. A representative of the Corps said there have been no comments on the draft report. The purpose of the study changed significantly since it was first proposed in 2015. Initially described as an analysis of “where raindrops fall and how they flow across our roofs, yards, parking lots and streets, through our drainage systems and waterways and into Galveston Bay,” that focus apparently changed, in part because the Harris County Flood Control District was doing its own study called MAAPNext, or the Modeling, Assessment and Awareness Project.
The Region, The Problem, the Studies
As defined by the Corps, the metropolitan Houston watershed region is the San Jacinto-Galveston Bay watershed, which is also the focus of the recently established San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group (Region 6) as defined by the Texas Water Development Board and similar to the Central Region as defined by the Texas General Land Office for its ongoing River Basin Flood Study.
Read the rest of this post. Includes a list of studies, plans, public committees working on flooding.
Some Interesting Things We’ve Been Reading
Breakthrough in Turtle Genetics Sends 27 Stolen Alligator Snapping Turtles Back to their Home Rivers in Texas
Aug. 16, 2021, Turtle Survival Alliance
- Twenty-seven Alligator Snapping Turtles seized from illegal trafficking returned to the wild in Texas.
• Turtle Survival Alliance and Tangled Bank Conservation collaborated on an innovative genetic map to guide wild repatriation.
• Genetic database will serve as a tool for state and federal agencies to determine turtle origin.
• Turtles will be monitored post-release to record movements, quantify survival, and qualify release efficacy.
TEXAS— Along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) last week announced the release of 27 Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) into waters of East Texas. This release represents a return to the wild for the turtles five years after their seizure from illegal traffickers and exemplifies a public-private partnership to re-wild animals with the use of innovative genetic mapping and DNA technology.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Completes 22 years of Work Restoring Curves to the Florida River They Destroyed 80 Years Ago
Aug. 15, 2021, Revitalization
The Kissimmee River once meandered for 103 miles through central Florida. Its floodplain, reaching up to 3 miles wide, was inundated for long periods by heavy seasonal rains.
Native wetland plants, wading birds and fish thrived there. Then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed it.
On July 29, 2021 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District (USACE) hosted a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the completion of the construction for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project. The Kissimmee River Restoration Project restores more than 40 square miles of the river floodplain ecosystem, 20,000 acres of wetlands, and 44 miles of the historic river channel.
Now, after 22 years of work, they have repaired much of the structural damage they inflicted. It’s a good example of the dynamic stated in the 2020 book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity: “80% of the revitalizing, resilience-enhancing work done by urban planners and civil engineers in the 21st century will undo 80% of the work done by their predecessors in the 20th century.”
Native Seed Study Laying Roots for a More Sustainable Tomorrow
Press Release from the Harris County Flood Control District, August 2021
The Harris County Flood Control District is sowing seeds for a more sustainable tomorrow. The Flood Control District is partnering with Texas Native Seed (TNS) on a new project that studies native grasses in an effort to develop a genetically improved seed mix. This study will benefit future Flood Control District site stabilization, as well as green infrastructure projects throughout the region.
Native grass seeding on Flood Control District projects has been a long-sought-after goal. However, identifying a commercially available and locally adaptable species suitable for the region has been challenging. Recently, the Flood Control District in conjunction with TNS, part of Texas A&M Kingsville, broke ground in April of 2021. TNS has a proven track record of producing seed varieties adapted for various parts of the state. Uniquely, instead of randomly seeding test plots with existing seed varieties, they will be starting with known species native to the region to produce a seed mix more inclined to thrive in the local environment.
Trashy Ditch or Urban Oasis? Buffalo Bayou Paddle Offers New Perspective
By Emily Foxhall, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 14, 2021
A spotted sandpiper flies across the water. A great egret stands on the river’s edge. Sycamore trees offer shade. According to one member of that day’s paddling group, there are three species of gar, three species of catfish and a whole host of birds.
“So many people don’t even know about it,” said Steve Green, a former river guide who left his sailboat in Clear Lake to paddle along. “Those that do really enjoy it.”
Photographer Fighting State Over Copyright Theft
Business School Claims Stealing Property is Good
Aug. 1, 2021
Internationally-known professional photographer Jim Olive is a native Texan, a longtime devoted environmentalist, generous contributor to many environmental causes, and a founding member of Save Buffalo Bayou, now on the advisory board.
He is also the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation. Jim is a rare native species.
Now he is trying to raise money to appeal a very important property rights case to the United States Supreme Court. Ironically, it’s a business school on the other side, claiming they have the right to take private property without compensation.
Recently the University of Houston Bauer College of Business, in an ugly teachable moment, won a case in the Texas Supreme Court, claiming that they can just take and use without any compensation or even any credit the copyrighted work of a photographer (among other copyrighted property).
Jim’s legal team had won in state district court. Three years ago State District Court Judge Caroline E. Baker held that the Texas Constitution prohibits governmental agencies from taking private property without adequate compensation.
But the school appealed and the state court of appeals reversed that decision. And in June the state supreme court agreed that the State of Texas and its institutions have “sovereign immunity.” They can’t be sued. The university can use Jim’s copyrighted materials for three years without paying a dime in compensation.
The University of Houston could have paid Jim a fair market price for using his work. Instead they decided to steal it and generate a lot of bad publicity for themselves.
Jim is appealing this decision to the United States Supreme Court. It’s an important case. But the appeal costs money. Jim is trying to raise at least $20,000 to pay for it. He already has some $125,000 in legal costs.
Here is how you can donate to this important cause.
Not the First Time
As Jim writes on his GoFundMe Page, “Over the past 20 years, there have been dozens of so-called ‘sovereign immunity’ cases brought against Texas state institutions. They’ve involved not only the theft of copyright, but also of patents and trademarks. It’s time we put an end to this wrongdoing.”
Down on the Bayou in Summertime
Documenting the Changes on that Bend in the River
July 5, 2021
The silver threads suspended across our path glistened in the early morning sun. We apologized for smashing through the delicate traps the spiders had worked on during the night, weaving the nearly invisible sticky webs from one side of the narrow trail to the other.
It was just after sunrise on a hot summer morning, though technically we had a couple of days to go before the official start of summer. Our devoted photographer Jim Olive was finally back in town, and we were walking down a dirt path between tall pines and thick stands of cherry laurel, yaupon and young American beautyberry, headed towards that bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting since the spring of 2014. (See the entire series here.)
Apparently we were the first large creatures on this unofficial trail through Memorial Park’s bayou woods this morning. These public woods are technically closed by the private Memorial Park Conservancy, with ever increasing wire and wooden fencing and piles of cut branches blocking the entrances from the parking lots off the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive. But the popular, long-established path was obviously well used and even maintained by anonymous volunteers. It’s true, however, that hiking or running along the edge of the high bank is destabilizing. It’s best to keep to the interior of the woods.
We reached our spot on the high bank. Jim set up his tripod and waited for just the right light. The assistant wandered off, as usual.
The cicadas sang in the trees, a rattling rising and falling. Beneath the towering sycamores, oaks, cottonwoods, elm, and pine, the woods were populated with blossoming dewberries, elderberries, mulberry, as well as the aforementioned beautyberry.
We heard excited young female voices. We walked downstream towards the nearby sandy creek and found two fit young women using the rope swing suspended from the trees above the stream to cross from one bank to the other. Usually the water is clear and the flow low enough simply to step and jump across. The creek is one of the main tributaries draining and flowing from the center of Memorial Park into the bayou. (See this 1955 topographic map of Buffalo Bayou flowing between Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club.)
Here is another lovely photo Jim took, in addition to the above photo of the bend. This is looking upstream at the River Oaks Country Club golf course, in recent years stripped of trees, graded, and reinforced with sheet pile and concrete in three areas, much to the detriment of the bayou and the public.
Regional Flood Planning Meeting July 8 to Select New Members
Planners Developing Interactive Flood Map to Gather Info from Public
Also: Bayou Bank Destruction/Repair Underway at Bayou Bend
And Public Parks Board Holds Public Meeting. Public Attends.
July 1, 2021
The executive committee of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group has completed interviews with over a dozen candidates for two new voting positions. At the end of its executive session on June 25, outgoing Chair Russ Poppe announced that the committee had voted to recommend Rachel Powers for the Environmental Interests position and Neil Gaynor for the new Upper Watershed position.
Rachel Powers has been the executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition for eight years. Prior to that she was a senior environmental planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council for five years and before that a community services coordinator for the Harris County Flood Control District. She also worked for the Hermann Park Conservancy and the Mercer Botanic Garden.
If approved she will be taking the seat of Sarah Bernhardt, a landscape architect and urban planner specializing in coastal and environmental planning, recently the chief executive officer of the Bayou Preservation Association, who has resigned to move to Alaska.
Neil Gaynor is a geologist, president of the Montgomery County Utility District 6, board member of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association in The Woodlands, and a member of the community’s One Water Task Force, focused on regional drainage issues.
New Chair and Voting Member Sought
Having resigned as executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District effective July 2, Poppe has also resigned as the chair and flood control district representative to the San Jacinto planning group effective July 2, according to Fatima Berrios, assistant project manager in the Harris County Engineering Department. Until the next chair is selected, Vice Chair Alia Vinson will act as interim chair. The county is sending out a solicitation notice for any interested parties to submit their application for the “Flood District” voting member position.
Engage in Flood Planning
At the July 8 meeting the regional flood planning group will also consider proposals developed for the technical committee by the engineering firm Freese and Nichols to solicit flooding information from the public. The firm has developed an interactive flood map as well as a survey and a webpage to upload data. The information would go towards developing the regional flood plan by January 2023, which will in turn be incorporated into the state’s first flood plan.
The San Jacinto group is one of fifteen regional groups established by the Texas Water Development Board in 2020 to develop a state plan to manage flood risk.
Trees, Vegetation, Bank Removed at Bayou Bend on Buffalo Bayou
The Museum of Fine Arts has begun its long-planned, controversial and costly project to rebuild the high bank of Buffalo Bayou below the historic Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.
Here is a recent photo and a video taken on June 21 at high flow, over 2,000 cubic feet per second, as the Corps of Engineers was continuing to release stormwater into the bayou from the federal flood control dams in west Houston.
Watch the short video here.
Bigger Bank Project Slated for Historic Woods of Memorial Park
The bank project was designed by Stantec, which is also designing a controversial bank stabilization project in the little-known Old Archery Range of Memorial Park that would cut through meanders and scrape and grade the ancient high banks and nearly half the property. This small wooded section of the park off Woodway west of Loop 610 is the site of a public boat ramp as well as historic remnants of an old brick factory, a farmhouse, and Boy Scout camp. Filled with wildlife, it is the site of at least two ancient sandstone crossings used by indigenous people, settlers, and bison to ford the bayou (Dutchman’s Crossing going west and Indian Crossing going south).
It is also one of the only remaining areas where the public can observe the geologic history of our city as revealed in the banks of the bayou, as well as witness the natural process of a living river, even as it responds dynamically to the changes caused by urban development.
Related: When Making Mistakes Is Profitable
The museum’s bank work downstream is taking place below the former home and garden of philanthropist and conservationist Ima Hogg, accessible to the public through the public parking lot in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary at the end of Westscott Street. Hogg also donated the 15.5 acres for the bird sanctuary. In 1924 her family sold to the city at cost the nearly 1500 acres that is now Memorial Park, and Hogg, with the help of our founding board president Frank C. Smith Jr, Terry Hershey and others, continued to protect it until her death in 1975.
Brief Public Parks Board Meeting, No Questions Answered Yet
We managed to attend the very brief meeting of the public Houston Parks Board, which is different from the private parks board foundation, though they are basically the same people. The meeting took place virtually (it was real but online) on June 22 and lasted about 25 minutes. Unfortunately we were not admitted to the meeting until about 10 minutes after it started.
In any case the meeting was significant because the public parks board has only recently begun posting notices about its meetings, required by the Open Meetings Act, online on the website of the private foundation.
Interestingly, though the next meeting of the public board is scheduled for Sept. 28, according to a spokesperson for the private foundation, this meeting is not now posted on the foundation’s Events calendar, though later events are posted. Possibly because the parks board is required legally only to post a notice a minimum of seventy-two hours before the meeting, as noted in an email to us by City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes. So why give the public more notice?
We do appreciate the work the parks board is doing to create more public access to our bayous. We don’t think the parks board should destroy our bayou in order to do it. And we think the public and private parks boards should be separate, as they are in most major cities, including Texas, with the public board representing a diversity of communities, instead of real estate, developer, and financial interests.
We had some questions for the public parks board at the June 22 meeting. These included:
Where can we find the bylaws for the parks board?
Who are the elected officers?
Where are the minutes?
Will the parks board have regularly scheduled meetings?
What are the plans for a Bayou Greenway on Buffalo Bayou? Has the Parks Board considered alternate routes, like asking for a dedicated lane on Memorial Drive? Using the powerline right of way through the forest?
Equity is an important issue today. What is the parks board’s plan for more equitable representation on the board from diverse neighborhoods and communities around the city?
Barron Wallace, who is the chairman of both the public and private board, asked someone to respond by email to the questions posed by us and others. So far we have not had any response.
Parks, Flooding: Update on Past and Upcoming Meetings
Corps of Engineers Releases Long-Awaited Regional Watershed Assessment
June 19, 2021
The wonderful thing about this virtual world is that you can go to meetings anywhere, anytime, stay cool and collected, and save time and gas.
And we have plenty of meetings of regional and local councils and committees to attend, plus a new federal watershed report to read.
Parks Board Public Meeting June 22
After some prodding, the Houston Parks Board has graciously revealed the time and date of its next public meeting, which is Tuesday, June 22. They’ve even announced it on the Intertubes! Previously a board spokesperson claimed that notices for its rare public meetings were posted on the bulletin board outside City Hall as required by law. The catch was you sorta had to know there was an upcoming meeting to go downtown to try to find the notice. We never saw one posted.
We and many others think the Houston Parks Board (along with the private conservancies that run some of our major public parks) should be more accountable, more transparent, and more representative of the public, which is why we are telling you about this. Also, they’ve done some damaging things to Buffalo Bayou.
Apparently the board also posted a notice online for the last meeting, which was Sept. 22, 2020. But even though we receive regular emails from the very nice people on the parks board staff, we missed the notice about this, which was quietly posted on the Houston Parks Board website on Sept. 18, 2020.
No idea what happened at that meeting because there don’t seem to be any minutes available to the public, which would seem to be contrary to the Open Meetings Act.
This is all very confusing because there are two Houston parks boards, a public local government corporation, which is subject to the Open Meetings Act (see also here), and a private Houston Parks Board foundation, which is not.
The public face of the parks board is the private foundation, which hires the staff and runs the website and major projects, like Bayou Greenways. All twenty appointed members of the public parks board, nominated by the mayor and approved by city council, are also on the private foundation board, which has an additional fifteen members.
The public Houston Parks Board meets virtually on June 22 at 10 a.m. Here is information about how to register for the meeting and make comments. Note that you must register before noon on Monday, June 21.
Note that the Uptown Development Authority, which is now co-managing and providing funding for development of Memorial Park along with the private Memorial Park Conservancy, is also a local government corporation. The authority has regular meetings open to public comment. Notices and agendas are posted on the Uptown website. The meetings, which are now both virtual and in-person, are scheduled for the fourth Wednesday of the month at 3:30 p.m., though the last meeting was on the third Wednesday.
Planning for Flooding
Here are some of the upcoming meetings and events:
San Jacinto Region, June 23 and 25
The executive committee of the recently formed San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group will meet virtually Wednesday, June 23, at 9 a.m. to vote on two new voting members of the group. These two positions represent the Upper Watershed and Environmental Interests.
There are fifteen regional flood planning groups in the state of Texas. They are charged by the Texas Water Development Board with developing regional plans to reduce flood risk. The draft plans are to be delivered to the state board by Aug. 1, 2022.
At the full meeting of the group on June 10, Chair Russ Poppe announced that there were twelve applications for the two positions, out of which the committee selected five candidates.
The group, which represents Region 6, may now have to find another member and new chair since Russ Poppe resigned as executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District effective July 2.
Read the rest of this post to find out about other flood planning meetings and reports.