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The study has the potential to move the Houston region’s outdated flood management practices into the modern era.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.

Harris County Watersheds. Image courtesy of the Harris County Flood Control District.

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.

Read the rest of this post.

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.

Read the rest of this post.

Proposed changes to City of Houston floodplain ordinance known as Chapter 19. Image COH.

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?

Listen to this 19-minute radio discussion on 90.1

 

 

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.

A house that flooded during Harvey in a neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Landrum Wise, Sept. 2017

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

Photo by Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle staff

 

Flood patterns

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

Read this letter in the Houston Chronicle.

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.

A 2015 image of the proposal by the Harris County Flood Control District for the Katy-Hockley reservoir, known as Plan 5, below Cypress Creek. Like most of the rivers and streams west of Houston, Cypress Creek flows east towards the bay. Image courtesy of HCFCD.

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.”

Harris County Flood Control District 2012 proposal for detention basins on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park.

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.

Vegetation Survey

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.

Geologist Tom Helm explains sandstone and sediment in Buffalo Bayou. 1.21.18

 

Read the rest of this post.

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.

Register here or contact Lisa Brenskelle at gcs.lrc@gmail.com for more information.

Bruce Bodson, president and executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.

Looking at the Big Picture of Flow

Corps of Engineers to Study Everything from Rooftops to Creeks in Houston Region

Jan. 22, 2018

 

Great news! The US Army Corps of Engineers is doing a very smart and important thing. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, the Galveston District office of the Corps is studying the whole system of drainage and flooding in the Houston region: where raindrops fall, how they move across rooftops and pavement and land, through drain pipes and into our bayous and streams, and ultimately into Galveston Bay.

The project is called the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment. Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for Programs and Project Management in the Corps’ Galveston District, told the Chronicle‘s Mihir Zaveri that the unprecedented study would also analyze how development has impacted flooding and where “chokepoints” are in the city’s drainage system.

Russo suggested that the study would look at measures that individuals could take to reduce the time it takes for rain to run into our drainage systems. Slowing down the flow of rain runoff into streams is crucial to reducing flooding. The faster stormwater flows into a stream, the higher that stream will flood. Houston is behind other major cities that have shifted focus to managing flooding in place — stopping raindrops where they fall rather than after rain runoff floods a stream.

There are 22 identified watersheds in the Houston region. Buffalo Bayou is the main river running through the city of Houston, with most other bayous and streams in the county flowing into it. Buffalo Bayou becomes the Houston Ship Channel and empties into Galveston Bay. In fact, Buffalo Bayou and many of the other watersheds in the region are part of the larger San Jacinto River watershed.

A watershed is the area of land that ultimately drains into a particular water body. Houston has many creeks and ravines that have been covered up and even filled and flattened for development.

Russo told the Chronicle that the study would cost at least $3 million and take approximately three years to complete. It requires congressional approval.

Read about this in the Houston Chronicle.

Harris County Watersheds. Image courtesy of the Harris County Flood Control District.

 

Out on the Bayou on a Chilly Saturday Morning

Winter Photo of that Bend in the River by Jim Olive

Jan. 14, 2018

We had to wait a while for a sunrise that wasn’t foggy. Finally the skies cleared, and just after dawn we headed through the woods of Memorial Park for our winter shot of that bend in the bayou that we have been documenting since the summer of 2014.

It was cold! Barely above freezing. Fortunately Jim had brought some extra gloves for his assistant, who carried the tripod through the trees down the winding dirt path carpeted with dried sycamore leaves, carefully eyeing the leaning but stalwart trunk of the headless giant loblolly pine that had died in the drought of 2011. Several summers ago on this path we had encountered a giant rat snake curled up in the remains of a 100-year-old concrete pipe from the days of Camp Logan, the World War I military training camp that occupied the park before it was a park. No need to worry about snakes in the cold, pointed out Jim, as we stepped over a decaying log. Not that a harmless rat snake is anything to worry about. Jim, an expert naturalist, commented that the big snake was likely curled up asleep deep inside the shelter of the pipe.

The landscape was much changed. It was winter, for one thing, so there was more visibility through the leafless trees and vegetation. Also there were fewer trees and vegetation, so much having slid and fallen into the bayou with the sloughing of the banks during and after Harvey. The bayou, flowing at about 600 cubic feet per second, was much closer to the path, the flooding river having washed down the banks while at the same time piling new sediment on top of them.

We could hardly locate our regular spot, the bank was so changed. Our landmarks were gone. We walked back and forth looking for the angle, though we had taken a photo in October for our fall shot. To make things more difficult, the rising winter sun was shining directly into our eyes and into Jim’s camera. Jim was discouraged. Should we could come back later? But we waited, sheltering behind some yaupon branches. And eventually the sun hit the opposite bank, and Jim got his shot.

Winter photo by Jim Olive on Jan 13, 2018. Flow was about 600 cubic feet per second. Temperature was a chilly 34 degrees shortly after sunrise about 7:30 a.m. The banks were much changed after the floodwaters of Harvey, with lots of slumping, fallen trees and missing vegetation. We could hardly find our spot. Note the buildup of sediment on the opposite bank.

See the entire series of A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.

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