High Bank on Bayou Damaged by Bike Riders
Fools Dug Up Vegetation and Drove Boards Into Top of Bluff
But Boy Scouts Do More Good Deeds, Plant Vegetation
March 7, 2018
Riding a bike along the edge of a cliff above a river is bad enough. Even walking on top of a high bank can be damaging. But the high banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Memorial Park are already stressed and attempting to recover from the overbank flooding that came with Harvey last summer. Large sections of the bank slid away, taking down trees and vegetation. With time, however, the vegetation will grow back, the downed trees will collect sediment, and the banks will rebuild.
Now that recovery will be much more difficult. In the past weeks, off-road cyclists built a bike jump and wooden ramp right at the very edge of the bank near the main tributary draining the center of the park. This is very near the Bend in the River that Save Buffalo Bayou and photographer Jim Olive have been documenting through the seasons for the past four years.
The culprits apparently removed vegetation, dug holes, and drove large boards into ground. And then, of course, they’ve been pounding the edge of the bank with their bikes. They also dug up dirt to mound it into a jump further down the bank.
Representatives of the Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association (GHORBA) condemned the construction.
“We would never approve this type of activity,” said C.J. Bernard, trails director for the biking association, in an email. “For anything we do at GHORBA related to trail development and maintenance, we follow the IMBA Sustainable Trails guidelines which highly emphasizes ways to identify potential erosion concerns and provides ways to eliminate and/or minimize.” (IMBA is the International Mountain Bicycling Association.)
“Most likely it is from a mountain biker that isn’t associated with GHORBA, as our trail stewards must approve features before they are built and this one, to my knowledge, was not,” wrote Christy Jones, president of GHORBA, in an email.
The dirt paths through the woods along Buffalo Bayou south of the Picnic Loop in Memorial Park are unofficial trails. However, they are much used by walkers and runners. Other trails in the park are officially open to bike riders as well as others. The neighboring Arboretum, however, does not allow bikers on its paths.
A representative of the Memorial Park Conservancy said the structure would be removed. “We are very grateful that you alerted us to this and will assess and remove the structure ASAP,” wrote Cara Rudelson, chief operating officer of the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit organization running the public park. “We always have our eyes out for unauthorized use of the unofficial trails!”
Boy Scouts Plant Riparian Rebar on Bank of Buffalo Bayou
In the meantime, some more positive news: members of Boy Scout Troop 55 are doing good deeds again. This time, under the leadership of Boy Scout Austen Furse, who developed the plan for his Eagle Scout project, they planted 200 buckets of native eastern gamagrass on the upper banks of the ugly stormwater outfall, formerly a nature trail, also known as the Woodway Boat Launch, in the Old Archery Range of Memorial Park west of Loop 610. This happened Saturday morning, March 3.
Eastern gamagrass is an herbaceous stabilizer plant, described as “riparian rebar” and a “big, green leafy cousin of corn.” Though slow to establish, once established, eastern gamagrass can grow to six feet or more and has “extremely good root stability,” according to Your Remarkable Riparian, a field guide to riparian plants found in Texas.
Take note, property owners contemplating ugly and damaging concrete riprap for bayou banks.
Let’s hope the young gamagrass doesn’t get mowed down.
Austen is planning to photograph the site every week or two to document the results, says his mother, Anne Furse.
Wild violets and chives and weird mushrooms
Must Be Spring on Buffalo Bayou
Feb. 28, 2018
Went for a walk with a visiting friend on the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park recently. Aside from the barren ruin of the landscaping from the Harvey flooding, it’s jarring to have summertime weather with empty, leafless trees and vegetation. But there in the bank along the walkway some tiny violets had sprung out of the sand. And if there were violets, there were going to be wild chives. And there were! Growing everywhere. Couldn’t help grazing and munching on the tender little onions.
Later on a stroll through the Old Archery Range — that part of Memorial Park just west of Loop 610 at Woodway — we saw what at first looked like fields of orange flowers poking up through the leaves. Upon closer inspection the flowers turned out to be mushrooms, odd column-like things poking out of an egg-like sac.
There are some delicious mushrooms growing in Memorial Park and along Buffalo Bayou, including the armillaria tabescens (or ringless honey mushroom) and the beautiful white oyster mushroom. But this wasn’t one of them. The strange fungus was definitely not edible. Our nature advisors Tom Helm and Bruce Bodson identified it as an octopus stinkhorn or “devil’s fingers.” Definitely not edible. And definitely did not smell edible. Especially after sitting forgotten in a plastic bag in a purse for a few days.
Shocker: Save Buffalo Bayou and Corps of Engineers Agree About Something
Big Goal: Managing Raindrops Where They Fall
Feb. 20, 2018
In order to fix our very bad flooding problems, we need to understand what they are.
A wide-ranging study, proposed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, would look at 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. It would analyze where the problems are and help us agree on the best solutions.
The cooperative project, first proposed to the city and county in 2015, now appears to be moving forward.
Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers, reports that federal funding for the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment is in place. The district expects to receive word from headquarters in Washington, D.C. within several weeks.
The Feb. 9 passage of the federal budget also provided funds for the long-awaited study of improvements to the troubled Addicks and Barker dam and reservoir system on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. Engineers were forced to open the floodgates of the aging, earthen dams in August when an unprecedented amount of rain runoff from Harvey threatened to overwhelm the dams. Three people died and thousands of homes and businesses were flooded.
Russo says the two studies would complement each other.
What’s To Like
The study has the potential to move the Houston region’s outdated flood management practices into the modern era. Flooding begins on the land. The focus of flood risk reduction elsewhere – including even Fort Worth – is on managing flooding in place, stopping stormwaters before they flood rivers and streams. That means slowing the flow. It means educating people about rain runoff and helping them be stewards of their own watershed. It means swales and rain gardens instead of lawns, more trees, vegetation, and green spaces instead of impervious surface, opening up ravines and streams filled for development, buying out properties and widening the floodplains of our streams, and more.
Houston and Harris County leaders continue to emphasize bigger drainage pipes and channelizing, widening, and deepening our bayous and streams to “improve” conveyance and flush more water downstream as fast as possible. Scientific experts widely agree that this approach, costly to the taxpayers as well as the environment, causes more flooding and erosion.
Russo, in a recent telephone interview, spoke passionately about a “comprehensive approach,” a “range of ideas,” “a suite of solutions” and “actions at various levels,” including cisterns, porous concrete, green buildings, the possibility of redesigning golf courses on Buffalo Bayou for detention, water features for detaining floodwaters, “managing all this water as far upstream as we can … before it gets to the bayous.” He pointed out that “a tiny bit of improvement across the whole drainage network could equal another reservoir.” He spoke of bringing together different planning bodies, community groups, the city and county flood control, bayou coalitions, landscape architects, hydrologists, and engineers, of using Housing and Urban Development grants and other federal funds as well as tax breaks for green infrastructure and assistance to homeowners and others to make changes to their homes and property.
Buffalo Bayou is the main river flowing through the city of Houston, the center of some 22 interconnected watershed systems, most of which drain into it. The bayou itself is part of the larger San Jacinto River watershed.
The Harris County Flood Control District has signed a Letter of Intent to be the non-federal partner in the project, sharing twenty-five percent of the cost.
The goal is to have “everybody singing off the same sheet of music,” said Russo.
“If we don’t do this, all the problems we have are only going to get worse.”
Personnel and Policies Change
The Corps of Engineers is not widely admired, particularly here after the disaster caused by the unprecedented opening of the floodgates of the federal dams on Buffalo Bayou during Harvey. The Corps has a reputation for ruining rivers, arrogantly ignoring natural systems, destroying the environment, and building projects that fail. “The Corps is going to come up with engineering solutions,” commented a skeptical acquaintance working on flooding issues. Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose Precinct 3 includes the dams, complained in a recent interview of the impact of a decade of foreign wars on the ability of the Corps to address domestic issues.
Living in a Special Flood Hazard Area
Public Comment through March 5 on proposed changes to City floodplain regulations
And the Flood Czar’s Committee makes a Final Report
Feb. 19, 2018
The public has until March 5 to comment on proposed changes to Chapter 19, the section of the city code that regulates building in floodplains defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These are the so-called 100-year and 500-year flood hazard areas that few people seem to understand, including members of the Houston City Council who met last Monday to hear about the proposed changes.
Actually there was a lot city council members didn’t seem to understand, including who was on the Flood Czar’s Drainage and Redevelopment Committee, how long they had been meeting, and what they were talking about. The Flood Czar himself, Steve Costello, officially known as the Chief Resilience Officer, addressed members of the Transportation, Technology, and Infrastructure committee and the Regulation and Neighborhood Affairs committee. Remarkably, Costello appears untarnished by the Houston Chronicle report that he and his engineering company helped develop plans for subdivisions behind the reservoir of Barker dam that they had to know would flood.
The city’s director of Public Works and Engineering also addressed the council members and made a presentation about the proposed changes. Carol Ellinger Haddock was appointed as director last month after serving as acting director since July 2017. The previous director had served about two months. Other administrative positions remain unfilled.
City council members angrily objected to the brief period for public comment on the changes proposed by Haddock. The draft changes already had been reviewed for comment by developers and builders. The public comment period, initially set to end on Feb. 19, has been extended to March 5.
SBB On the Radio
Understanding Flooding and Our Bayous
Hot News: Save Buffalo Bayou and Corps of Engineers Agree About Something
Feb. 6, 2018
Save Buffalo Bayou was on KPFT’s Open Journal on Monday evening. We had a lively discussion with hosts Duane Bradley and Sherri McGinty, who asked a lot of good questions about what Save Buffalo Bayou is doing now and how we are working to focus flood mitigation efforts on stopping stormwater before it enters our streams. Flooding begins on the land. Digging up and widening our bayous is outdated, costly, and only causes more flooding. Amazing development: Save Buffalo Bayou supports a Corps of Engineers project to study our regional Houston watershed, beginning with where raindrops fall and how we can slow them down to reduce our flooding. The faster the runoff from our homes, businesses, streets, parking lots and sidewalks, the higher peak flow in our natural drainage systems. Slow the flow. Citizens need to support this and contact their representatives. The project needs funding and the Corps by law cannot lobby. So who’s going to lobby?
Buyouts: Best Practices for the Best Flood Response
Experts Gather in Houston for Public Discussion, Tuesday, Feb. 6
Feb. 5, 2018
Interested in how buying out hopelessly flood-prone buildings can help with our flooding problem?
Experts on this issue from across the country will be gathering in Houston tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 6, for a public discussion titled “Buyout Best Practices in the Wake of Harvey.”
The free public program is sponsored by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The conference is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. at the BioScience Research Collaborative, 6500 Main Street in Houston. Though free, registration is required. Register here.
According to a statement from the nonprofit Consortium, “there is a broader opportunity for buyouts to be a part of a comprehensive multi-purpose strategy for assuring more resilient and livable neighborhoods, through coordination with flood control infrastructure, parks, and housing.”
The discussion topics will include:
- How to work with (and around) federal requirements
- How to coordinate with different agencies
- How to utilize buyouts as part of an overall neighborhood strategy
- How to address housing issues
- How to build community support
Experts on the panel are:
- Dave Canaan, Mecklenburg County
- Tom Chapman, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
- Molly O’Toole, PE, Molly O’Toole & Associates, LTD.
- Gavin Smith, UNC-Chapel Hill
- Rachel Wider, New York State Homes and Community Renewal
Letter to the Editor: Corps Study of Rainfall and Drainage is Necessary
To Fix Our Problem We Need to Understand What It Is
Letter to the Editor published in the Houston Chronicle, Feb. 1, 2018
Regarding “Enough flood studies!” (Page A12, Jan. 26), John Moody, chairman of the West Houston Association, wrote a letter complaining about a Corps of Engineers proposal to study flooding in the region.
It should be noted that the third reservoir in the Corps’ original 1940 plan was on White Oak Bayou, not Cypress Creek, as described by Moody. That nearly 80-year-old plan included a levee running next to Cypress Creek. A great deal has changed in 80 years.
The Corps’ proposal to study the overall pattern of rainfall and drainage in the region is an excellent and necessary project if we are to understand our problem, prioritize our solutions and get the most flood reduction benefit for our tax dollars. The study will analyze the impact of impervious surfaces – such as roofs, roads and driveways – and the usefulness of widespread individual actions to hold back and soak in rainwater. The Corps conducted such a study in New Orleans after Katrina.
The idea, proposed by the West Houston Association, of channelizing Buffalo Bayou to accommodate a massive, pre-development flow of 15,000 cubic feet per second is an absurd pipe dream. A flow above 4,100 cfs already floods property on the bayou. The executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, has pointed out that merely purchasing the right-of-way on the banks would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of digging out the channel, mitigating the environmental damage to the waterway, and then continuously repairing the banks and dredging the sediment that will naturally fill in the artificially deepened river. Oh, then there’s the damage that would be caused by the massive flooding downstream from such a fast, powerful flow.
Focusing on bigger channels, faster flows and big engineering projects is outdated and counterproductive. Modern flood risk management emphasizes slowing the flow, spreading out and soaking in rainwater before it floods a stream – and staying out of the way.
The West Houston Association wants to develop more of west Houston, including the land surrounding Cypress Creek. That means adding more runoff to Cypress Creek and to our reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou. It means moving people into harm’s way.
Susan Chadwick, executive director, Save Buffalo Bayou
County Commissioners to Vote on Removing Forest for Detention on Buffalo Bayou
Also Voting on New Development at the Same Time
(Updated with What We Said to Commissioners.)
Jan. 29, 2018
Harris County commissioners will vote Tuesday on a controversial contract for the removal of public forest and excavation of ponds that will divert a modest amount of flow from upper Buffalo Bayou when it floods.
Commissioners will at the same time consider approving hundreds of acres of new residential and commercial development on land draining into Buffalo Bayou through Addicks Reservoir, one of two overburdened federal dams on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. An excess of stormwater flowing into Addicks as well as Barker Dam from Harvey in late August of 2017 forced the Corps of Engineers to open the floodgates on the two dams for the first time during a storm, causing massive additional flooding and deaths downstream on Buffalo Bayou.
The area of development on both sides of the Grand Parkway (Highway 99) is near the general location of a proposed $300-400 million Third Reservoir that county and city officials have been advocating to reduce flow into Addicks Reservoir and Cypress Creek during storms. Thousands of acres of fields and farmland in the vicinity of Cypress Creek have already been platted for development.
Save Buffalo Bayou advocates detaining stormwater before it enters a stream as well as the preservation and restoration of urban forests, prairies, and wetlands.
The detention basin project in Terry Hershey Park below the dams is part of a controversial plan that residents and conservationists have been fighting since around 2012. The plan was resurrected after Harvey caused major flooding of homes and businesses along the bayou both below and above the federal dams. Some property owners near the park blame the trees for flooding their homes.
Terry Hershey Park is located along 500 acres of land owned by the Harris County Flood Control District between Highway 6 and Beltway 8. As part of a now generally abandoned approach to flood management, this stretch was stripped and straightened by the Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s as part of the dam project. Trees and vegetation have since grown back.
The detention project initially would create two to three basins capable of holding some sixty acre-feet of flood water on the south side of Buffalo Bayou between Wilcrest and Eldridge, said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. More detention basins are envisioned. The original plan created some 280 acre-feet of detention.
For context, the maximum capacity of the flood pools of Addicks and Barker reservoirs on government-owned land (not flooding development behind the reservoirs) is 213,124 acre-feet.
Regarding new development in unincorporated areas that ultimately would drain into Buffalo Bayou, Black also explained that “in accordance with Harris County regulations, all development must prove no impact to the receiving channel and this would be no different.”
Removing Sediment is Expensive
In addition to the $632,499 contract with RG Miller Engineering to design the initial detention basin plan, county commissioners are also likely to approve a $13 million contract to excavate the basins along Buffalo Bayou in this 6.2 mile stretch as well as remove sediment and make repairs in several miles of channelized streams flowing through developed land into Addicks Reservoir, which is north of Interstate 10.
The initial survey of vegetation in Terry Hershey Park, a preliminary step to removing it, was begun in 2013. A new vegetation survey began in the fall of 2017. RG Miller engineers are expected to analyze the results of the vegetation survey as well as design the plan to remove the vegetation and excavate the detention ponds.
Black said that the district is expecting to present the results of all these plans to the public between March and May.
The Harris County Flood Control District is legally responsible under its 1937 founding charter for the “conservation of forests,” among other things.
Trees and vegetation, including leaf litter, provide significant rainwater absorption and detention, as well as erosion control, among other vital ecological services such as cleansing the water.
Something Weird About Detention Basins
Oddly, it seems that detention basins in Houston are considered impermeable surface, apparently because they are designed with hard clay bottoms. This seems weird. The water should soak into the ground. So, if you build a detention basin, then do you have to build more detention to compensate for the impermeable surface of the detention you created? We’ll get to the bottom of this eventually.
Date and Time and Place
Harris County Commissioners Court begins at 9 a.m. at 1001 Preston Street, Suite 934, in downtown Houston.
Magic Fish and Failed Erosion Control
On Buffalo Bayou
Jan. 28, 2018
We paddled down Buffalo Bayou recently to see what we could see. It’s been a hard winter, and the worst flood in history, so it wasn’t glamorous. We did encounter a couple of fish, a lot of trash and mussel shells still, some fallen trees and wayward telephone poles, and numerous examples of expensive landscaping and erosion control projects gone wrong.
Note to property owners, public and private: we have slumping on Buffalo Bayou. Banks will slide down and away, especially if you remove trees and vegetation, landscape, irrigate, and build too close to the bank. Not much to be done about slumping, which is vertical erosion. Try to convince your neighbor not to armor their banks with concrete, rubble, or sheet metal, which will only make things worse for you and everyone else.
We put in at muddy Woodway in Memorial Park for a trip all the way past the park, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, and Buffalo Bayou Park, taking out below the Sabine Bridge. It wasn’t easy getting our canoes there. Some cursed coincidence (cold weather?) had caused all kinds of vehicles to break down at the last minute.
Where Does All That Sediment Come From?
There was still a large amount of sediment piled up high on the banks. Rivers naturally deposit sediment on the banks and floodplain. It’s why floodplains are so fertile. (And why in ancient times people wisely moved out of the way of floods.) But people have been asking where all this sandy sediment comes from. Some of it washes out from landscaping and construction sites and other areas that have been disturbed. But erosion is a natural evolutionary process. Here is geologist Tom Helm, who was leading our expedition, explaining the origin of sand and the different kinds of sandstone in Buffalo Bayou.
Stewardship of Water
Bruce Bodson Speaks
Jan. 26, 2018
“Stewardship of Water” is the topic of an online talk by environmental attorney Bruce Bodson, president and executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou. The web discussion will take place Sunday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. This event is part of a monthly webinar series titled Sunday Evening Conversations on Creation hosted by Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston.