Study: ‘Third Reservoir’ Won’t Stop Flooding in Northwest Harris County
By Nick Powell, Houston Chronicle, May 10, 2019
A long-discussed idea for a third reservoir to prevent extreme Hurricane Harvey-level flooding in beleaguered neighborhoods along Cypress Creek might not be the flood mitigation panacea it was conceived as, according to a Rice University study.
After tens of thousands of homes flooded in the watersheds of Cypress Creek and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during Harvey in 2017, regional planners revived an idea originally conceived nearly 80 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a third reservoir to supplement the capacity of Addicks and Barker in the event of a major flood.
But the study by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center revealed the difficulties in attempting to eliminate flooding in the Cypress Creek watershed, which covers over 300 square miles in northwest Harris County and features over 250 miles of open streams.
The study also concluded that the remaining undeveloped land in the Cypress Creek area should be protected against development, specifically the Katy Prairie west of Houston, where vegetation and wetlands provide flood protection.
Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose northwest Harris County precinct includes areas likely to be affected by any future flood mitigation effort, believes that prairie land could be a significant component of a future reservoir.
Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.
The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium is holding a free public event, Tuesday, May 14, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at Rice University’s Bioscience Research Collaborative, 6500 Main Street, to present the findings from the Cypress Creek study as well as other recent research and reports.
Reducing Flooding on Buffalo Bayou
Corps Studying the Issue. Public Comments Due by May 31.
Last Public Meeting Tonight
May 9, 2019
The Corps of Engineers is studying ways of reducing flooding along Buffalo Bayou and its many tributaries, including upstream and downstream of Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston, as well as the federal dams themselves.
The Corps’ Galveston District has been conducting a series of public meetings explaining possible approaches to reducing flood risk and seeking public comment. The last public meeting is tonight, May 9, from 6 to 9 at the Cypress Ridge High School, 7900 N. Eldridge Parkway. But the public comment period doesn’t end until May 31.
And here is the email address for asking questions and sending in your comments and suggestions about what the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District (and Fort Bend County) should be doing about flooding. Note that this does not include what the City of Houston could or should do.
The three primary problems being addressed by the Corps are:
- Flooding downstream of the reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou
- Performance and risk issues related to flow around and over the uncontrolled spillways
- Flooding upstream of the reservoirs
The various suggested approaches are heavy on big engineering projects like flood tunnels, bypasses, new dams and reservoirs, increasing the storage capacity of the reservoirs, and “channel improvements” along Buffalo Bayou and other streams flowing into it.
But the alternatives also include floodproofing, better warning systems, signage, and public education; stormwater detention, and “property acquisition,” which could mean buyouts of flood-prone properties as well as preservation of forest and prairie, which help slow and absorb rainwater.
Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of stopping and slowing stormwater runoff before it floods our bayous and streams. This is modern floodplain management. That means more trees and greenspace, more wetlands and prairies, more detention in neighborhoods and shopping malls, more permeable surface. Focusing on collecting and conveying more stormwater faster—and destroying our natural landscape and drainage system in order to do it—only leads to more flooding. Dredging, deepening, and widening the bayou and other streams only leads to bank collapse, constant maintenance and repair, and more flooding. (See here and here and here.) It’s like building bigger freeways: it doesn’t work.
Another problem with hard structures: They don’t move. Nature does.
Preserving old stands of trees, natural swales, wetlands, oxbows, vegetated riparian areas, and meanders; building small weirs, sediment structures, wet gardens, and setback levees; lengthening streams, and accepting large woody debris in the channel are useful techniques. Using these practices to work with the natural motion of the river is more effective – and less expensive – in reducing flood damage and helping us realize benefits from the water.
They’ve Done It. For No Good Reason
Flood Control Destroys Forest on Buffalo Bayou
May 6, 2019
(Updated May 7, 2019, with clarification from Harris County Flood Control.)
They’ve done it. Last week the Harris County Flood Control District began knocking down towering sycamores and pines in one of the last remaining forested areas open to the public on Buffalo Bayou.
This tree-cutting is not new. The Flood Control District has been razing forest next to streams all over the county for decades, mainly to excavate floodwater detention basins. Slowing down, holding back rainwater runoff is a good idea. But trees do that. And more. Flood Control is damaging the environment, destroying the limited access we have to nature in the city, while doing little to reduce flooding. Possibly even making it worse.
Their private consultants don’t consider the benefits of trees when they spend millions of taxpayer dollars on flood studies and plans. And there are significant benefits, including flood protection.
Because Leaving Trees in Place is Not a “Project”
The problem is, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) points out (see pp. 7-9), leaving trees in place—nature-based flood risk reduction—is not considered a “project.” There is a political bias in favor of costly, large-scale structural approaches, despite the obvious advantages to small-scale, non-structural, green or natural approaches to flood management. (Although in this case, they seem to be doing the project because it’s “cheap and easy.”)
“Protection of a natural channel and adjacent river corridor, floodplain or wetland often does not meet the conventional concept of a ‘project,’” notes FEMA.
The District needs “projects” in order to look like it’s doing something, especially after county voters approved $2.5 billion in bonds for flood reduction “projects.” And contractors don’t make money from not doing or not designing “projects.”
Other factors preventing more enlightened, more effective flood management include the lack of multidisciplinary expertise, leading to a dependency on old, traditional, and familiar engineering approaches, points out FEMA.
Like spending millions repairing the channelized banks of the bayou in Terry Hershey Park where the straightened stream is attempting to restore its natural meanders. Allowing the bayou to recover its bends, thus lengthening itself, would increase its capacity naturally and for free. (p. 11)
Because That’s What They Always Planned to Do
The trees recently downed by Flood Control were on the south bank of upper Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, a semi-wild wooded area beloved by hikers and bikers. The 500-acre rolling linear park runs for some six miles on both sides of the bayou below Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston.
Spring on Buffalo Bayou with Jim
Another Visit to Document That Bend in the River
April 29, 2019
Photographer Jim Olive was back in town just in time to take some beautiful shots of a springtime morning on that bend in Buffalo Bayou. For almost five years now we’ve been meeting in Memorial Park and walking across the dewy grass, dodging bicyclists spinning round the paved Picnic Loop, to document the sun rising over the trees from the same high bank on the bayou.
It’s changed some over the years, with major floods taking down some of the trees and the high banks sloughing down, only to stabilize and regrow, as is the continuous pattern. But the bayou through here is remarkably stable in its directional path. Lined with ancient sandstone on its sides and bottom, the 18,000-year-old bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary further downstream has been following essentially the same route for at least a hundred years – based on the earliest topographic maps we have. And probably for a lot longer than that.
On this Friday morning the picnic grounds were still lightly littered with the colorful remains of cascarones, dyed Easter eggs filled with confetti and cracked over someone’s head.
On our way into and through the woods, we paused to consider the massive, decaying pine still somehow standing tall next to the dirt path, its headless corpse rising high into the blue sky.
The photographer went to work while the assistant, kicking aside a loose puffball mushroom, focused anxiously on glimpses of heavy machinery parked near ominous orange netting strung up behind the trees and vegetation on the edge of the country club golf course across the water. Ugly, foolish, and costly plans, with the potential to damage parkland as well as private property, are in the works for the banks there. We’ll have more about that eventually.
And then suddenly a huge flock of large gray-and-white hawk-like birds took the sky, circling and circling high, possibly disturbed by groundskeepers fertilizing and watering the golf course. Even Jim, a naturalist who knows everything, even in Latin, couldn’t identify them.
Click here to see the entire series documenting A Bend in the River.
Flooding, Buffalo Bayou, and Development
Experts’ Report: New Development Increasing Flooding
Storm Surge and Climate Action Plan
April 29, 2019
There are important meetings and events coming up focusing on flooding, Buffalo Bayou and its many tributaries, and local plans for addressing climate catastrophe.
In case you didn’t know, Buffalo Bayou is the main river flowing through the city of Houston. Beginning way out west in the Katy Prairie, the bayou flows for some fifty miles through suburbs, forested parks, including Barker dam and reservoir, past golf courses, high-rises, and downtown, becoming the Houston Ship Channel and emptying into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay.
In addition to numerous small creeks and streams, the bayou has thirteen major tributaries and at least five minor tributaries on the north, and two major and seven minor tributaries on the south. These include Greens, Halls, Hunting, White Oak, Bear Creek, South Mayde Creek, Willow Fork, and Williams Gully on the north, and Brays and Sims bayous on the south.
Buffalo Bayou, like most of our other main streams such as White Oak and Brays, is tidal through the city, meaning that at very high tides the flow can stop and even reverse. Buffalo Bayou is considered tidal to about 440 yards upstream or west of the Shepherd Bridge.
Corps of Engineers Public Meetings: Buffalo Bayou and Its Tributaries
So that’s one reason why, when we talk about flooding, drainage, and storm surge, we talk about Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries.
To that end, the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers is hosting a series of five public meetings in and around Houston in connection with a $6 million study of the causes of flooding along Buffalo Bayou. The study will also consider ways to reduce flood risks upstream and downstream of Barker and Addicks, the two federal dams west of the city, both of which drain into Buffalo Bayou.
Development Regulations Allowing More Flooding
The bottom line on drainage and detention regulations is that they are “allowing new development to increase downstream flooding.”
Researchers also recommended that new regulations and policies emphasize both green (nature-based) and gray (engineered hard structure) infrastructure to address flooding. They warned against “relying too much on expensive infrastructure projects.”
The Consortium is a collaboration of regional academic institutions with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning.
You can find the reports here.
Save the Date
The Consortium will host a symposium and social hour open to the public on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
The free symposium will feature brief presentations on the Consortium’s 2019 body of work by leading researchers and authors. A social Q&A session with authors, funders, and attendees will follow. Refreshments will be provided.
Details on the location to follow.
Storm Surge Protection Alternatives
Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia is holding a public meeting to learn about and discuss the alternatives proposed for protecting the Houston-Galveston region and the people and industries along the Houston Ship Channel and Buffalo Bayou from a massive tidal surge associated with sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms. That’s flooding coming up from the sea rather than down the bayou into the sea.
The US Army Corps of Engineers will provide an update on their planning process for coastal protection. Texas A&M Galveston will make a presentation of their proposed Ike Dike. And the SSPEED Center at Rice University will present their Galveston Bay Park Plan, a concept for building a bay barrier along the Houston Ship Channel with a mid-bay surge gate.
The meeting will be May 15, 2019, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at San Jacinto College, Central Campus, Slocomb Auditorium, 8060 Spencer Highway in Pasadena.
Come On Down to Earth Day
April 13, 2019
Come join Save Buffalo Bayou and a host of other environmental organizations for Houston’s Earth Day 2019. Organized by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in partnership with Green Mountain Energy and Discovery Green, the free event takes place in downtown Houston from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 14 (tomorrow!) at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney.
The event features exhibits on topics ranging from alternative energy to recycling, plus live music and a farmers’ market.
Among the many organizations participating in Houston’s Earth Day are Air Alliance Houston, the American Wind Energy Association, Artist Boat, Bayou City Waterkeeper, the Galveston Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club of Houston, Texas Campaign for the Environment, the Nature Conservancy of Texas, and many more.
World-Wide Earth Day
The Sunday downtown event isn’t the only Earth Day thing happening. Earth-honoring events are going on all over the region throughout the month of April, as well as around the world.
Houston has been celebrating Earth Day since the very first Earth Day in 1970 (see also here) when millions of people around the world took to the streets on April 22 to protest against the degradation of the environment. In July of that year, President Richard Nixon proposed and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, at a time when polluted urban rivers, including the Houston Ship Channel, were bursting into flame, Congress created the Clean Water Act.
Clean Water Act Threatened. Public Comment due by Monday, April 15, on Proposed Changes
Earth Day has special significance this year as the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers have proposed changes to the Clean Water Act. The proposed changes are generally supported by developer and farm organizations and opposed by environmental groups. A new definition of “waters of the United States” will limit federal protections for wetlands, ditches, and ephemeral tributaries of traditional navigable waters.
Monday, April 15, is the deadline for the public to comment on the proposed changes.
According to some estimates, the new definition of “waters of the United States” would eliminate federal protection for more than half the nation’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams that feed into and cleanse the nation’s drinking water, sustain fisheries and protect communities from flooding.
Let’s Keep Memorial Park Natural, Just as Ima Hogg Wanted
Opinion by Frank C. Smith Jr, The Houston Chronicle, March 27, 2019
Many of us remember the shocking impact of the years of droughts on our beloved Memorial Park. The record dry spell in 2011 killed more than half the trees in the 1,500-acre park on Buffalo Bayou. Scores of distraught Houstonians were moved to raise funds and plant new trees.
But now hundreds of trees, including towering pines and oaks, are being deliberately felled as part of a $200 to $300 million landscaping plan. Anyone walking in the park or even driving through can plainly see the bright plastic ribbons wrapped around the trunks of the legions of trees facing imminent doom on both sides of Memorial Drive.
Many more trees still unmarked are to be cut down on the west side of the park to make way for sports facilities, a relocated Memorial Drive and, in an unhappy irony, an ecologically damaging monoculture of pines to be planted in unnaturally regimented rows as a memorial to those who served in World War I.
As though this were not disturbing enough, the landscaping plan includes creating artificial streams and hardening them with wire, concrete rubble and “rock” of some sort.
The Beauty of Memorial Park
The unique beauty of Memorial Park and its distinctive benefit to Houstonians has been its forests and clear, sand-bottomed streams flowing through deep, winding ravines to Buffalo Bayou. This is part of Houston’s natural history, and this great public park offers our city residents the rare opportunity to experience the wonder of these living trees and streams.
I have been involved with Memorial Park for more than 50 years. Before she died in 1975, I promised my friend Ima Hogg that I would always be a guardian of the natural character of the park. Miss Ima’s family sold the land for the park, previously a World War I training camp, to the city at cost in 1924.
There are admirable aspects of the current master plan for the park — notably the Eastern Glades and the “naturalization” of what are now ball fields south of Memorial Drive, facilities that will be moved to the north. However, a previous plan from 2004, approved by City Council, was less intrusive and more respectful of the character of the park. It described the park as “Houston’s foremost natural wooded bayou park” and “a refuge from intense urbanization.”
Read the rest of this editorial in the Chronicle.
Beautiful Oaks Doomed on Memorial Park Golf Course?
Are Big Trees Part of Massive Tree Felling Project in Public Park?
March 21, 2019
Updated March 24 and 28, 2019
Updated April 3, 2019: The trees are to be saved. The Parks Department finally responded with an email Wednesday morning, April 3. “In response to your question, the fencing is to protect the trees and not cut them down,” wrote Estella Espinosa, communications manager for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
Strolling along Memorial Drive past the fence obscuring the secret remodel of the public golf course in Houston’s Memorial Park, we noticed these lovely old oaks tagged with ties and surrounded by plastic fencing. We were alarmed. Hundreds of other trees, including mature oaks and pines, are marked for felling with plastic ribbons all over the 1500-acre park, which has already lost innumerable trees as the $200-300 million Master Plan is bulldozed into place. But these trees were on the golf course. Could it be they were marked for preservation? Other trees already have been felled as part of the controversial $13.5 million “upgrade” of the popular course into a PGA Tour tournament-level course.
Waiting for An Answer
We’ve contacted the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit that raises funds and manages the park for the benefit of the people of Houston. We’ll have an answer soon, we hope.
Update: Representatives of the Conservancy have responded that the renovation of the golf course for PGA Tour tournaments is the responsibility of the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department and that we should ask HPARD about the trees. So we sent an email about the trees to HPARD Director Steve Wright late on Thursday, March 21, and we are waiting for a reply.
Update March 28: Still no word from the Houston Parks Department. Looking like the trees are doomed.
Developers Plan to Improve Memorial Park by Cutting a Lot of Trees, “Re-establishing” Streams
Business Group Requests Federal Permit for Dredging, Filling Wetlands, Hardening Tributaries to Buffalo Bayou
Public Comment Due by April 4, 2019
March 13, 2019
A Galleria-area development group has asked for a federal permit to fill wetlands and dredge and armor streams in Memorial Park in order to build two “earthen land bridges” over Memorial Drive. The project, part of a controversial $200-300 million landscaping plan for the public park, requires the felling of hundreds of trees, including mature pines, digging up and lining the streams with concrete rubble and wire baskets of “rocks,” covering Memorial Drive with concrete tunnels, and relocating playing fields and picnic areas.
The Harris County Improvement District 1, otherwise known as the Uptown Houston District is a local government corporation composed of property owners and developers and funded by special property tax levies. Its members are appointed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In 2013 the boundaries of the Uptown District, which is also governed by the Uptown Development Authority or Uptown Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ 16), though they have different boards, was expanded to include Memorial Park, a 1,500-acre semi-forested park on Buffalo Bayou in the center of Houston. The TIRZ uses local property taxes that would otherwise go to the City’s general fund.
The park, formerly the site of a World War I-era military training camp, is also a State Antiquities Landmark. (See also here.) Parts of a small constructed channel connecting the two originally natural though partially altered tributaries appear to be walled with stone possibly dating from that period. The two tributaries flow through deep wooded ravines lined with lovely dirt paths and empty in Buffalo Bayou.
“Rocks,” other than ancient sandstone, are not natural to Houston’s streams.
Public Comment Period Until April 4
The Improvement District last week filed an application for a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act. The Corps is seeking public comment on the permit application, including on whether a public hearing should be held. The public has until April 4 to comment. See below for how to comment.
Removing Trees on Buffalo Bayou Because It’s Cheap and Easy
A Stormwater Project with Little Benefit and A Lot of Uncounted Cost
February 26, 2019
A large number of trees will be cleared in one of the city’s last remaining public forests on Buffalo Bayou because it’s the “easiest and cheapest” stormwater project to do, city and county flood control officials explain.
The trees are being removed to dig out shallow basins on the bank of upper Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston, a rolling wooded area with paths used by hikers and bikers and wildlife. When the bayou overflows, the basins are meant to hold briefly a modest amount of water which then continues flowing downstream.
But the calculation of “cheapest and easiest” does not include future repair and maintenance costs where now there are none. A similar project on the once-forested opposite bank has required many millions of dollars in taxpayer funds for maintenance and repeat repairs to the bank in the decades since trees were cut.
Nor does this calculation include the additional flow into the bayou from the loss of trees and vegetation, which significantly slow and absorb rainfall and runoff. A study by the University of Arkansas reports that removing forest can increase runoff into streams by as much as four or five times. (p. 3)
It does not consider the financial value that the forest provides by cleansing the water and the air for free. Studies have shown that riparian vegetation is cheaper and more effective at cleansing our polluted water than even sewage treatment plants. A study of Houston’s urban forest by the US Department of Agriculture found that even including invasive trees, our modest tree cover captures carbon and other pollutants from the air worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Also not included: the value of the mental and physical health benefit that trees provide to Houstonians, who suffer from a deficit of nature, many of whom were traumatized by the flooding from Harvey. Since ancient times wise people have known that the experience of even a small piece of nature has health benefits. (See also here.)
Nature is the Best Engineer
Making room for the bayou to overflow is a good thing, as is a focus on detention or “slowing the flow.” Cutting down trees and removing vegetation next to the bayou is not.
“Engineers have a hard time understanding,” says Bob Freitag, director of the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research at the University of Washington and co-author of Floodplain Management, A New Approach for a New Era. “Trees aren’t in their model.
“We want trees,” says Freitag. “Trees do a lot of good things.”
There is a new field of engineering that understands and imitates the process of nature, melding engineering and biology and valuing ecosystem services, points out Freitag. “But those who do it are few and far between. It’s a pretty new field.”
No Reduction in Flooding
The planned detention basins next to the bayou channel do not even reduce flooding, despite a popular belief that they will. Officials confirm that the small basins will do nothing to reduce flooding downstream. “No, they’re not going to save people from flooding downstream,” said Matt Lopez, the Harris County Flood Control District’s Precinct 3 coordinator. “They’re not going to save folks from Harvey or any other storm.”